Tools for Fretting Guitars

by Matt Gerrard
Fretwork needs to be precise because of the small spaces involved.

Fretwork needs to be precise because of the small spaces involved.

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Installing the frets on a guitar neck is a complex procedure. In order for the guitar to be playable all over the neck without buzzing or "choking" the frets must all be perfectly level, and free of any bumps or divots. A set of specialist tools are needed to fret a guitar neck.

Fret Cutters and End Files

Fret cutters resemble a pair of molar grips, with very sharp tips. They're used for snipping off the excess fret wire that protrudes from the edges of the neck once the fret has been tapped into the slot with a rubber mallet. With the fret cut down so it's flush with the edge of the neck, the ends are then rounded off with a narrow file called a fret-end dressing file. The thin, square files are textured on only one edge, which prevents the other edges of the file from scratching the neck.

Files

Besides a dressing file, two other types of fret files are used for grinding and balancing the surfaces of the frets. The first is a leveling file, which has a straight, flat grinding surface mounted to a wooden block. It resembles a sanding block and is used for gently filing multiple frets at once on a flat surface to ensure they are all the same height. The second is a crowning file, which resembles a standard woodworking file, except that the abrasive surfaces are all on a narrow notch that runs along the side of the blade. The notch is placed over the fret and slid back and forth to create a smooth surface, removing any tooling marks. Once again, the other surfaces of the fret are not textured, to avoid scratching the neck.

Dressing Stick

A dressing stick is used for the final fine polish to remove all the tiny scratches and abrasive surfaces left on the frets by the other tools. A dressing stick consists of a pen-like stylus with a strip of fine sandpaper looped around the whole body. The nib is drawn over the frets to lightly sand them down. The strip of sandpaper can be rotated as it becomes worn.

Gauges and Levels

Fine and precise measuring tools are essential when working on guitar frets, and you'll find that luthiers and repair technicians tend to use different techniques. Some use automotive feeler gauges to measure fret heights, others use a steel ruler, placed along several frets at a time to ensure they are of uniform height. Specially designed triangular fretting gauges are popular. The three sides of this gauge are each a different length, and each side is used for checking the levels of two, three or four frets at once. This allows the technician to work down the neck of the guitar in groups of frets.

References

  • "Fretwork -- Step By Step"; Erick Coleman; 1994

About the Author

Matt Gerrard began writing in 2002, initially contributing articles about college student culture to "The Gateway" magazine, many of which were republished on the now-defunct Plinth blog. Since then, Gerrard has worked as a technician for musicians, educators, chemists and engineers. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in music technology from DeMontfort University.

Photo Credits

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