Fret Dressing

This article explains how to perform a basic fret dressing – it has been taken from, pretty much in its entirety. I will edit it soon-ish and make it into more of a process but this man really knows his onions:


For me this is the process of doing a “basic” fret dressing:

1)  As Nathan rightly said check for loose frets and when you find them invite them out on a date…  Just kidding… If I find a loose fret or more I typically will at that point wick super thin CA under each fret (until I see it appear on the other side of the fret from the application side) and then clamp with the Stew-Mac Jaws tool and hit it with accelerator.  I’m careful to avoid any runs or drips with the CA (stuff is evil I tell ya…) and I set myself up so that I am spraying the accelerator in the direction of already glued frets so as to not contaminate the next application site and fret for CA.  Once every thing is firmly glued in place I move to step two.

2)  I have precision leveling beams that I made and flossed/burnished on a calibrated surface plate so I know that my beams are at least level to .0005″ or so.  I mark the top of the frets with magic marker ink also taking care to not get it on bindings, etc.  Then I manipulate the truss rod to either get the neck level OR… address areas that need extra attention.  This last statement is intended to introduce the idea that I’m not just shooting for level but instead looking to correct any bad tendencies of the frets and neck in question that can be addressed in a fret dress without needing to do the board too and a refret.  So with the truss rod I may not be seeking a level neck at this point but I might want introduce relief, reduce relief, and even change the neck angle to a small degree to possibly belay the need for a neck reset.

One can most certainly do a simple fret dress without going further as I am describing above so don’t let this scare you.

3)  Once the tops of the frets are marked and the neck is level I hit the frets with the beam with the 220 side sandpaper and see where it’s registering.  This process may be repeated a few times until I am seeing contact where I want it.

4)  What I am looking to do is have the leveling beam in contact with all fret tops from frets one through 12.  Often, more often than not, because of body humps, ski ramps, what ever… I may have to stop short here and use a short beam with masking tape over one end to concentrate on the frets after the 12th and on the extension.  Until these frets are out of the way you may not even be able to touch frets 6 though 12.  This part can be tedious too in so much as the extensions are often problematic as discussed in the ski ramp thread.  So I might have to reduce a lot of height in the extension area before I can concentrate on frets 1 through 12.  Know your player too so that you understand what kind of fret height minimum they require.

5)  Once the extension area frets are reduced to below the level of the 12th I can now use the longer beam on frets 1 through 12.  My beam has 220 on one side and 120 on the other side.  If a lot of material needs to be removed to remove say divots, etc. I use the 120 side.

6)  What I want to see is the ink removed from all frets 1 though 12 AND with the sorter beam the ink evenly removed from 13 to the end of the extension.  Or in other words if all frets are freshly inked after using the long beam on 1 through 12 I want to see the ink gone on 1 through 12 but still present on 13 to the end of the extension.  This is “fall-away.”

7)  At this point everything is level, fall-away has been milled into the frets, the ski ramp or body hump although it still exists in the board no longer exists in the fret tops (some guitars will need the board addressed and a refret).

8)  Now I crown and usually won’t remark with magic marker ink in that it can gum up my beams and files.  Once I have recrowned the frets I repeat the process with the beams and the 220 side and see if I have consistent and complete contact with all frets.  A few swipes of the leveling beam may be required but no worries I plan on a final crown too.

9)  This is also where one can mill in more relief where you want it simply by manipulating the headstock up or down and supporting the neck as needed for what you wanna do.  You can also reduce too much relief with the same process.  And of course a final crown once again to any frets that were hit by the beams in milling in relief.

10)  We have a fret buffer that David Collins invented that makes super quick work of polishing frets but the old school method that I use when I don’t have access to the buffer is as follows.

a)  I fold and tear my sand paper into 1/6th sheets.  With one 1/6th sheet I fold it twice so that there are four layers and then fold that in half too.  This semi-rigid mass of sand paper is held vertically much like that old playing card in the spokes on your bike tire (Schwinn not Harley…) thing.  The idea is to go back and forth a bunch of times sanding the sides and tops of the frets and this gets the board too.

b)  I start with 220 and sand the frets as described above.  I typically have to refold the paper because this process tears up the paper big time at least 3 – 4 times to do the entire neck.

c)  After 220 I move to 320, 400, 600 and then unless the client is pretty picky I then use 0000 steel wool.  I might hit them on the buffer too, conventional buffer not the fret buffer.

Prior to sanding the scratches off the frets is when I do the ends shaping them as I do and this is also when I may use a single edged razor blade as a scraper to freshen up the board, scrape off dried CA, and just generally provide a new, fresh playing surface.

Jack if you have access to a surface plate picking up some 1 X 3″ aluminum bar stock and you can easily make your own leveling beams.  You can also purchase them from Stew-mac but they are pricey.  You will also need a crowning file, sand paper, magic marker, and single edged razor blades as well.

This does not have to be difficult at all and I think that even a novice if properly guided can do a pretty good basic fret dress – certainly much better than what I see coming from the f*ctories….  Just keep the goal in mind which is to have the frets as seen by the strings be very, very level, decently crowned, fixed firmly in place, and the things that have been limiting the guitar’s ability to be properly set-up addressed such as that pesky ski-ramp.

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