Fret Repair - Fret Leveling
Learn How to Avoid a Fret Job By Leveling Your Frets
Redressing or Fret Leveling is the quickest an most effective method of repairing frets on the guitar. What this means is that all the frets will be brought down to the level of the fret that has the greatest wear.
This fret repair method works the best for frets that are moderately worn. Also if you replace just a few of the bottom frets you will want to redress the entire fretboard to bring everything back to a level condition.
Even new or complete re-fretting jobs need to go through the leveling process.
Analyze the frets and where all the worn spots are. Take special notice of the most severely worn spots. If you have frets with a medium high to high profile you can take down about 1/3 of the fret height without any problem.
You should measure the amount of fret wear with a vernier caliper and assess if the fret will have to be milled down more than 33%. If a fret will have to be milled down more that to a .030" height, you probably will have to replace that fret.
Tools Needed For This Repair:
Start by taking the strings completely off the guitar and store them.
Set the guitar neck in your neck cradle fixture. See our article on how to make your own Neck Cradle. You will want to securely support the neck of your guitar with this cradle.
Also place a pad beneath the body of the guitar or a soft carpet remnant or a soft small rug.
We will now need to remove the guitar nut. Take a very fine fret saw and make a straight cut between the nut and fingerboard, carefully down to the bottom of the nut. Be sure to take it easy as you approach the bottom of the neck and go very slow.
Now make a small block of wood (3/4" x 3/4" x 3") and place it against the nut and resting on the fingerboard and give it a gentle tap with a Plastic Tipped Hammer. The nut should come loose very easily.
Protect the finish of the guitar by placing 2" wide blue painters tape next to the fingerboard on the guitar top. Also craft either some cardboard or thin polystyrene to fit around the fingerboard and protect the entire top of the guitar. This protection can be used for many repair operations for the guitar. A variation can include a cutout area at the bridge for bridge repair operations.
Sight down the fretboard and look for any extremely high frets. If you find one or more you will have to work on these separately with a Fret File. Check your work often as you file with the Fret Rocker. Check our Fret Tools Article to see how to make a Fret Rocker.
Take the Mill Bastard File and place on the fingerboard and make long straight cuts on the fret surface. Make sure to apply even pressure on the file. Go very slowly first to make sure you don't slam into a high fret. If you beveled the fret leveling mill file you should minimize this problem.
Continue to work the ENTIRE fretboard frets down in very small increments, checking your work after every few strokes. Since the frets are very soft, you will take off material very quickly so don't push down too hard.
When all frets are at least touched along their entire length you are almost finished with the fret repair process. The easy way to tell this is to inspect every fret and each of them should show a shiny area on the top from the filing process.
Some frets could be cut down quite a bit. Now look at the frets that were worn the worst. If you still see slight indentations on these frets, continue with your leveling, just a few strokes at a time until all traces of the indentations are no longer visible.
Clean away all the fret shavings and make absolutely sure there are none beneath the body of the instrument as these can really mess up a great finish.
Now we have to round all the tops of the frets to get the crown back. If you skip this step - as I have seen in many botched repair jobs, you will not get clear tones off a flat-topped fret. Get a nice smooth crowned fret for the superior tone production.
File across the full length of the fret and again inspect often as you go. You should file the frets until there is just a very little sliver of flatness left - then just make a few more strokes to complete the process.
Make sure the fret is evenly crowned for it's entire length. When you use the fret file be sure to take it slow as well, because of the softness of the frets, they cut the frets very quickly, especially if the fret file is new and is not clogged
Do this with all the frets.
Now check all the frets with your Fret Rocker Tool. This tool should span 3 frets and you rock the tool constantly at each new location. If you find a high fret, knock it down and check it often with the fret rocker.
After you have checked all the frets it is time for the fret finishing process.
Finished Fret Job
Your are progressing very well on this fret repair job and the frets are looking pretty good by now. But we have to smoothen and polish the frets for the finishing touch.
Take some grit #220 wet/dry sandpaper. Check here for sources. It is also known as silicone carbide sandpaper. Rip a 1/4 sheet of it and fold it in half. Sand each fret on all areas of the crown. To get the bottom of the crown, where it meets the fretboard, try to dig your fingernail into the sandpaper and guide it along the fret.
Now sand the length of the fingerboard with the #220 sandpaper, including over all the frets. This will tear up quite a bit of sandpaper, but it really buffs the fingerboard and frets.
Once you have finished all sanding with #220 grit wet/dry silicone carbide sandpaper take some #600 and do the same sanding operations.
Next buff the frets with #0000 steel wool. Now you will see the frets get more shine and they will become very smooth. The wood of the fingerboard will buff up nicely too.
Clean up the nut with very sharp chisels and sandpaper to clean all glue and imperfections. Try not to take too much material off the nut as this will affect the fitting of the nut to the channel.
Apply a couple of drops of Titebond glue to the edge of the nut that abuts the fingerboard and press into place. Hold the nut in place with a couple of strips of masking tape. When dry...
Apply some Fingerboard Conditioner, string up your guitar and your Redressing Fret Repair Job is now complete.