Real life got in the way for a few weeks and I didn’t get the uninterrupted time I needed to do the fretwork until a bit later. I knew this would take at least 3 hours and I didn’t want to get into it and have to stop… but at last I had time.
So, what needs doing? – three problems:
1) Rough fret ends.
2) A couple of high frets.
3) Top two nut slots a touch high.
Only the first thing badly needed doing, the others could have been left if I was short of money and needed to pay someone else to do the work. That is why it is nice to have the skills and tools to do all the work yourself, it’s just having the time needed to do the job as the materials cost is tiny.
I like to do a “map” of the fretboard high/low spots first just so I see what I am looking at and get an idea of the amount of work. Here it is:
Fret 19 was the worst and fret 18 was also high so it would be a bit chancy just shaving the individual frets down, it is easy to end up playing whack-a-mole chasing the high spot between frets. It’s more efficient and safer to do the whole lot with a levelling beam and get everything dead level and consistent. I was going to have to polish the frets anyway as fixing the sharp ends and doing a slight fretboard edge roundover would involve sanding and polishing the end part of the frets, may as well run the beam over the lot and do a complete job.
First task was to sort out the rough fret ends by filing them smooth. The little Stewart McDonald fret end dressing file is the best one I have found as it is small, precise and a fine cut. There is one safe side that is rounded with no teeth and this rides against the fretboard to avoid digging in and damaging it.
Unfortunately the numpties at Fender had decided to part-lacquer some of the rosewood edge of the fingerboard (and not do a very good job) so my little file safe edge started to flake this lacquer off, but only at the headstock end where it had ended up much too thick. This looked terrible!1
After a bit of experimenting with using a single-sided razor blade as a scraper I found that this excess lacquer came off quite easily leaving a nice smooth rosewood finish underneath and I only had to part-scrape the first 5 frets on either side anyway. I had placed masking tape along the line between maple and rosewood to make sure that I didn’t touch the neck, so this made a nice line to scrape up to2.
Having solved the lacquer drama I carried on with my little file taking all the rough fret ends off. This is pretty quick and you can immediately feel the massive difference it makes. The ends had already been part-filed at the factory when doing the bevel, so it didn’t need a lot of work, just the sharp edges softened.
Next step was to smooth the filed ends with various grits of sandpaper to make them really nice. I also wanted to do a slight round-over of the fretboard edge as it was really a dead right-angle, so felt a bit uncomfortable under the fingers. There is not much information on-line about ways to do this with an already fretted neck and I wasn’t that happy with my previous test attempts on various scrap necks3.
Fortunately, I had recently seen a Crimson Guitars video on YouTube which demonstrated a technique that I had never seen before to do a combined fret-end polish and slight fretboard edge bevel. I wanted to keep the round-over mild so I skipped the levelling beam step (and the filing part that I’d already done) and went straight to the 240 then 320 grit tightly-rolled sandpaper cylinders (3:45 onward in the video) and then the higher grit papers and fret erasers to do the polish. This worked great and gave a really nice result with a lot less chance of going wrong than the other methods I had looked at and tried. Tick V.G. to Crimson.
Next up, the fret level. As I said earlier, I could have got away without this as it wasn’t buzzing, but the fret end finishing had left the ends of each fret really shiny and it looked odd with the rest of the fret quite dull. I’d have wanted to do a full fret polish anyway to make them all look nice, so may as well level first.
First step is to get the neck dead straight and flat by adjusting the truss rod with a notched straight-edge on the fretboard. This was really easy on this neck, it went flat as soon as the truss rod was backed off – always a good start. I re-checked with the fret rocker with the neck flat to see if any of the high frets had changed in any way; nope, exactly the same.
Next the tops of each fret were marked with a black sharpy so the effect of the beam could be seen. I usually use 320 grit paper on the beam as it cuts quite slowly so is quite forgiving. This levelling went pretty quickly – most of the frets were level anyway so the beam just kissed the tops. I had to do a bit more work on the two high frets to get them level, but still not too bad4.
Then I re-marked the fret tops with a sharpy and crowned with a 300 grit diamond crowning file – also very quick as most frets hadn’t got a flat top so only needed a few strokes of the file.
The next bit is the very tedious process of polishing each fret by working up through the grits of sandpaper from 400 to 25005. I tried a new method and started out doing each fret individually using a metal fret protector as I have seen some people do, but this was so fiddly and annoying that I quickly gave up and went back to my normal method of taping up the whole fretboard with masking tape so I could use a foam pad with the sandpaper round it and run it along the whole fretboard in one go. Much quicker!
Once I had finished the polish I took off the tape and cleaned the fretboard with naptha6 to get any dirt or sandpaper dust off and then finally applied a conditioner to the rosewood. I have started using Howard “Feed-n-Wax”, an American product that I saw recommended by one of the Luthiers on YouTube.
I really like it as it very slightly darkens the wood and leaves a nice smooth slick finish7.
This fretboard was quite light in appearance before I conditioned it, it actually looked a lot like the new Pau Ferro fretboards that Standard P-Basses are made with post the CITES regulations. I think it looks nicer slightly darker, so I was pleased with the effect.
The final step was to sort out the high nut slots on the D and G string.
Now; I always find it quite nerve-wracking cutting the nut slots. It is very easy to over-cut the depth and write the nut off 8, so I am always very careful. I used my 65thou and 48thou nut files to deepen the slots slightly and I stopped as soon as a 22thou feeler gauge was a sliding fit.
That was enough to play comfortably, but still a conservative clearance, so no danger of the dreaded 1st fret buzz9.
And that was it – job done. Put the bass back together, set it up again and it’s ready to go. I dropped the action down to 5/6410 (E) to 4/6411 (G) while I was at it and the fretwork handled that no problem12.
I’ve got some new strings ready to go on when I get round to it and I’ll tweak the intonation then and go back over the setup to get it just right.
- I have no idea why this lacquer was there – I can only think it is to hide the fact that the fret ends are not very well finished!
- Fender must have masked here too as the lacquer didn’t extend beyond it.
- When using sandpaper or scraping with a blade it is easy to end up with a “scalloped” look in-between the frets – this doesn’t look great.
- Around 6 thou off when the rest took 1-2 thou – i.e. not much.
- I sometimes carry on with micromesh to 12000 grit and then use metal polish – that creates a ridiculous mirror finish!
- e.g. Lighter Fuel
- However, don’t go mad – only a small amount is needed and wipe it off thoroughly after a minute or so – sparing is good!
- You can bodge-fill with bone dust and superglue, but that isn’t great. Realistically, over-cutting needs either a shim under the nut or a completely new nut.
- Fender say 20thou, but it’s so easy to over-cut that I keep a couple of thou in reserve.
- I left the relief at 12thou, but I had it at 10thou to start with and it was fine there too.