The Ron Kirn Fret Levelling Guide

The Ron Kirn Fret Levelling Guide – From TDPRI

This is the Fret Levelling Guide according to Ron Kirn – taken unabridged from TDPRI in case those photos ever disappear from FLickr. Learn from a master:

I keep getting asked how to level frets, or does a compound radius come into play etc… so let’s do it….. I know It’s been done before, but there are many welcomed newcomers to Paul’s party, and since this is the single best “mod” you can do to improve your tele, or any guitar for that matter. it bears repeating.The first thing you need is a leveling tool. There are a multitude of things you can use, but one common feature they MUST have is a precision flat surface to use against the frets.

A couple of months ago I was discussing the use of a piece of scrap Corian, generally available free from many solid surface fabricators. They throw away dumpster loads of scrap every week… so ask….

You can buy a tool specifically designed, for fret leveling. but the are nothing more than an aluminum square tube with one edge milled flat and at 50 bux, that’s a bit pricey.

A couple of months ago, a friend that is in the solid surface counter top fabrication business asked what I though of a piece of Granite, or manufactured “stone”, I told him to send me a hunk and I’d give it a shot…. this stuff is the bomb….

The weight is correct so that you apply NO down force, ya just scrub away…

DSC_0005-3[1]here is a shot of a piece about 2 inches wide X 16 inches long…

To this I, using 3M 77 spray adhesive, attach a piece of 180 grit sand paper… this is from a roll or industrial stuff, you can buy it off the “bay” for about 10 bux… one roll will do every guitar within a 1 mile radius of your house…

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DSC_0008[1]and that makes one fine fret leveling tool…

The reality is, if you are going to do it, you may as well do it right…. To do so you will have to buy a few tools… the bar above is 25 bux, and no I’m not associated with it in any way other than I told the guy sure , you can mention that I like it…The other tool you are gonna have to buy, because it cannot be made in a home shop is a fret crowning file….

The Crowning file is made so that when you slip it does minimal damage….. Note the smooth rounded nose and the polished edges that protect the fingerboard…
DSC_0027[1]Stew Mac also caries one, at a bit higher price….

Ok… lets level the boogers……

First I mark each fret with a marker, that makes it easier to see what the leveling tool is touching…

Here are the highly specialized tool for doing so,

DSC_0015-2[1]The little fret protector is also available from Stew Mac for about 10 bux for a set of 6 if I recall…. Well worth it…..

Once the frets are marked…. I loosen the truss rod, and re tighten it until I just begin to feel resistance…. Then I take the leveling tool and place it on the frets and give it a slight shove…. It will remove the marker from the “high” frets… check it, and if the frets are “scrubbed” on both ends… tighten the truss rod… and re scrub…. Repeat ( you should re mark) those frets scrubbed) until the fret leveling tool is “scrubbing pretty consistently up and down the neck… YOU WILL SEE some are not touched at all, whereas others are. What we are doing here is adjusting the truss rod to get the neck as level as possible before we actually begin work.

If the scrubbing reveals a high spot in the center of the neck, say around the 9th fret… and loosing the truss rod does not “relieve” that high spot.. the neck has a natural back bend in it and unless you have a double acting truss rod, it will take a professional to correct it… DO NOT try to level it.

This is similar to what you will be looking for…

DSC_0019[1]Now you are ready to level ‘em…

Now place the tool on the frets and begin sliding it back and forth, gently rolling from side to side to ensure that the entire surface of all the frets have an opportunity to feel the rascal scrubbing the high points down..
DSC_0016-2[1]here you see the frets are just about there, but the 15th and 16th and the ends of the 17th thru 21st aren’t quite leveled yet…

DSC_0020-1[1]This is not surprising…there is always a bitch or two somewhere. When there is you MUST grind all the other frets down to the level of the lowest fret…

You will also notice the “shavings” accumulating on the fingerboard, you should see some at each fret…. I use an oval-circular sliding motion moving the tool about 2 – 4 inches back and forth, changing direction, i.e. clockwise, then counter clockwise… continuing until you see each and every fret has been ground to some degree.

Here you can see the 15th fret is just now being “touched” that is not enough. The 16th is low on the treble side all the way over to beyond the G 3rd position, and the 17th is low on the very edge of the treble side, all must be corrected…

DSC_0023-1[1]Here they are almost done…. Only a few more scrubs…. OH at this point ALL the other frets are have been ground, but they must all be ground down to this one last POS… hard headed fink it is…

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I might point out; this neck is one from one of the very high end aftermarket neck/body suppliers. I only mention that to reinforce the point I have made often that each and every neck made has to have this done to achieve optimum playability. And NO…. I’m not gonna identify who made the neck; this is just typical of any manufacturer’s frets.Also, if you prefer Stevie Ray’s action of 1/8th inch, none of this is necessary; the angle created by pressing the string down to the fret and as it rises back to the bridge, there is an acute angle severe enough to clear all but the worst fret height anomalies.

OK so now the little boogers are all level relative to each other… ya get yer fret crowning file…and crown ‘em…

DSC_0026[1]If you’re crazy like me, or really very good, you can do this without a fingerboard protector…. I use ‘em, but since I’m right handed, and there is no way to hold the tools in my right hand and the camera in my left…. Ya get these screwy photos….

So you take the crowning file and crown….

DSC_0028[1]You file each fret until you see the “scratch” marks the leveling tool just left faintly disappear….

Of course, do each an every fret…. And I may mention, there used to be some lame “fret leveling” tool available on eBay for a few bux that was for the most part a block of some junk and a piece of sand paper… NO… Stop… don’t even think about it…. While yeah… the ad DID say it would crown the frets… remember, the Pres said no one making less than 250K a year would pay any increased taxes either…

So do this… get ya a fret crowning file… if ya think it’s too darn expensive, well You’re right, but whatcha gonna do…. And you will be doing a lot more guitars over the years so take the plunge … do it right….

So now, the frets are effectively crowned, and you COULD go play ‘er now… but let’s finish the job….At this point I take a scrap of at least 320 grit paper and sand each fret until the matte appearance is completely consistent along the top of all the frets…

DSC_0030[1]Now to do this you must protect the fingerboard, the fingerboard protecting tool is the way I do it, others will mask off each fret with painter’s tape, and either way is fine… no preference, except there is no pealing tape off the board with the protector

Once this is done the guitar is complete… some may say how ‘bout the polish… well it’s really not necessary, because the “scratches” the sandpaper leaves run lateral to the string, it will only encounter the tops of the ridges the sandpaper leave as you bend the string across them resulting in a very smoothe action, bend the string a time or two and the action will burnish the fret anyway……. But… I polish them anyway…

If you want to polish too, use the protector or tape, take a Dremel with a polishing wheel and a bit of compound, Cleaner car wax is perfect… and buzz each an every one… then wax the whole board, unless it’s Rosewood or Ebony, string ‘er up and revel in the feel of what you have just done….

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