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My Second And Third Fret Levels Were Successes!

Mind Riot

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My thread about my first fret leveling is on this forum, just down a ways. I also started a thread about it on Harmony Central:


That one turned out great, but there was also some points brought up that made me more aware of how different methods can be needed for different necks. What I did for that first job worked for that job, but if a neck behaved differently it might end up not working so well.

Specifically, it was brought to my attention that even with a factory, single radius fretboard the frets don't always follow the radius of the board exactly. So using a radius block like I did may result in removing too much material from certain frets or areas of the board if you're working on a neck where the frets don't follow the radius just right.

So I started looking into getting some different tools for leveling. I had used the radius blocks with sandpaper on them for my first job. Now I wanted to look into getting some flat levelers. These can be used for leveling smaller strips or areas of the fretboard at a time, which allows you to level accurately even if the board's radus isn't perfect all the way up. This can often result in removing less overall material from the frets (which is always a goal), and is perhaps a more elegant solution. I went on a scavenger hunt and found a length of rectangular steel tubing that was perfectly flat on one of it's surfaces for about 10 1/2 inches (flat to within .0015" over the whole surface, anyway). I then cut some pieces from the same piece of steel, attached sandpaper to my perfectly flat piece, and rubbed the other ones on that surface until they too were flat. This took some elbow grease, I must say. Removing even a few thousands from a piece of steel by hand is nothing to sneeze at.

So now I had one 10 1/2" length of flat steel surface, one 4 1/2" length, and one 3" length. And once my new nut for my new blond Squier '51 came in, I didn't have to wait for anything else.

Now, unfortunately I didn't have access to a digital camera when I did the blond '51 on Tuesday night. But a friend of mine who is just starting out playing has a little black Squier strat that came with one of those starter packs. The frets needed some lovin', so I did them tonight and took some pics. The method was the same for the blond '51 two nights ago, although that one went much smoother (read on for details).

The first time I did a fret job I went out to my fathers shop several miles away out in the country to do it. It worked fine, but taking the guitar from the warm, stable interior climate of my apartment out into the cold shop (even though I had the heater running) messed with the neck a bit, and I almost messed up the frets before I caught it and readjusted the truss rod. I also learned from that experience that clamping the guitar was not necessary, and I decided to do both of these jobs in my home. My 4x12 cab with a towel over it served nicely as a makeshift workbench.

So for the '51 that's not pictured, I removed the nut, taped up the board, and straightened the neck and colored the fret tops. On the Strat, I wasn't replacing the nut at this time and I also didn't have a spare set of strings. The strings that were on there were very new anyway, as I had replaced them and did a setup for my friend not too long ago. So in the case of the Strat, I taped over the nut to protect it and slackened the strings and pulled them to the sides of the neck so they'd be out of the way. Then I taped up the board, colored the frets, and set up my paper stack for neck support like last time.


Of course, I checked the neck for straightness all over with my straightedge and a .0015" feeler gauge.


I had left the sandpaper on my levelers after I did the '51 two nights ago. This gold Fre-Cut stuff lasts quite well, even on metal. This is my 10 1/2" and 4 1/2" levelers; I didn't get out my 3" for this shot because I didn't think I'd need it. In fact, on the Strat I ended up using all three of them.


On this particular neck, the frets followed the radius pretty well (9.5", if you're wondering). So I didn't want to try to shape a compound radius into the fret tops like I might if the frets flattened out significantly toward the upper register. So I leveled using strokes that stayed parallel to the center line of the neck, so as to preserve the cylindrical radius.


Here's where things really go in two different directions. On the '51, the frets needed next to no leveling at all. I just kissed the tops of the frets with the long 10 1/2" leveler after blending in one high area with the 4 1/2" one. In fact, to my surprise, there was so little material removed on the frets of the '51 that no recrowning was necessary! I couldn't even recrown them if I tried, the flats left on the fret tops by the leveler were so narrow because so little material had been removed that my crowning file couldn't get them any thinner. On that '51, things just came together nicely at the factory that day.

The little black Squier Strat I just did was another story. This one had a few problems that made it a bit more work.

First of all, the first two frets were higher than the group of frets above them, which threw off my straightedge until I leveled them down a bit. Took me a minute to figure it out. But the bigger problem was a rather troublesome, annoying rising tongue at the end of the board. For those unfamiliar with the term, it's a condition where the last few frets are higher than the ones before them, either from wood swelling, a bad glue joint where the fretboard meets the neck there, frets that aren't seated properly, or just having some frets that simply sit a bit higher at that spot. They seemed to be seated fine on this guitar, and I'm simply not at this point equipped to deal with any of the other factors that can cause a rising tongue, so I just had to level them out. This took some more removal of material than the rest of the board, leaving them with a wider flat than the other areas.

The frets on this Strat were wide (.108") but not hugely tall (a fairly standard .047" on average height), so the flats in this pic (aside from the last four or five frets where the rising tongue occured) might make it appear as though there was a lot of material removed. In fact, aside from the tongue, the overall average fret height on this guitar only decreased by .007" after all the leveling and recrowning was done. (The blond '51, having been such a stupidly easy fret job, only lost .003" in average fret height after leveling).


After the frets were leveled (which I checked all over the board with the straightedge and feeler gauge), I added a bit of fallaway to the upper register. On both the blond '51 and this Strat, the fallaway almost seemed to already be there, it really didn't take much.

Once this was done, I recolored the tops of the frets, busted out my diamond crowning file, and went to town.

It felt good to use it on the Strat. After I did the '51 and it didn't need any recrowning, I kind of felt like a rube sitting there with this $80 file in my hand that didn't even need to be used.

Even though I had to lower the last four or five frets more than the others, they still had enough height to be able to crown them without any trouble. (I measured them after I was done, and they are about .035", which is pretty low, but not unmanagable).


Once the recrowning was done, I took some 400 and 600 grit sandpaper to the frets to remove some scratches, then polished with 0000 steel wool and Brasso metal polish. I then removed all the tape and wiped off the guitar to get rid of sanding dust and steel wool shavings.

I then retightened the strings and tuned up, and did some action adjustments. I set her up at 5/64" on the low E (measured at the 12th fret), and 1 /16" on the high E, with the rest of the strings following the radius of the board.


She plays smooth and clean, and doesn't look half bad either. I hope my friend will be pleased, but she's just starting out and probably can't really tell the difference yet. I did it more for me, so I could learn and get some more experience.

As I said before, the methods used were pretty much the same on the '51 I did the other night, except it needed much less work in general than the Strat. But since I didn't get any pics of that job, I thought I'd just throw the '51 on the "workbench" and snap a couple, so at least everybody can see the new nut, shiny happy pretty frets, and nice low action setup.

Here she is, setup the same way as the Strat with 5/64" on the low E, 1/16" on the high E, and the rest following the radius. This one's stock except for the new nut and the GFS top loader bridge.



Both of these guitars turned out great, and they both play smooth and easy. I think I actually like using the flat steel levelers more than the radius blocks. They're a bit more subtle approach, give me more control over where material is being removed, and seem to do a great job.

I need more guitars to work on, I think I'm getting hooked. But my Schecter doesn't need any work done, it had great fret work from the factory. I might do my bass next, but after that I think I'll have to start trolling some more of my friends looking for someone who has a guitar in need of some fret lovin'. :D

Edited by Mind Riot
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