A DIY fret level and nut change on a budget (56k - not even once)

Discussion in 'Luthiery, Modifications & Customizations' started by Thrashman, Apr 14, 2014.

  1. Thrashman

    Thrashman Got Groove?

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    So, I felt the need/urge to do some more advanced tech work on my LTD TE-212 that is my current workhorse of choice, namely changing the stock nut for a new one (GraphTech TUSQ XL) and leveling the frets.

    I would like to start out by saying that the methods and tools used are perhaps not ideal, but what worked FOR ME. I'm a uni student on a budget which means I can't really get the best/more expensive tools that you "need" to do this kind of work with near perfect results, but I feel like I know enough to make most things work. It's all about the amount of care and time you put into it.
    Though, they work and all of the tools cost me like $50 (half of which went to the fret crowning file that cost me $25), so if you wish to go ahead with this/similar methods, you're not gonna break your wallet or upset the wife. :metal:

    Let's begin:

    The tools: Here's a picture of my tools of choice: Masking tape, a steel ruler, some needle files (triangular, square and thin/flat), feeler gauges, 1200 & 2000-grit wet sanding paper, a fret crowning file and a block of aluminum oxide (commonly used for sharpening knives/other tools), a pencil marker and some coffee. (Missing in this picture is an exacto-knife(?), but it's not a must.)
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    Disclaimer: Aluminium oxide blocks are generally VERY soft and will wear VERY fast, so you're probably not gonna get more than one fret job out of one the size I used before it's going to start shaping itself after the radius of the frets. This can work to your advantage, but I would not recommend anyone to use that 'feature'.

    Next up: I removed the strings and tightened the tuners (might as well when you're at it) and used my knife to make fine cuts in the clear coat around the edges of the nut to avoid cracks or other unpleasant things. As you can see, this cheap plastic/corian nut broke into two pieces when extracting it from the groove it sat in. Horrible, I can't imagine how deteriorating this is to the guitar's tone.
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    I proceeded by cleaning out the groove from glue residue, as well as flattening it a little as it wasn't completely flat. I used the square needle file for this.
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    Test fitting the new GraphTech TUSQ XL nut - it looks great already, doesn't it?
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    Here's a picture of the nut from the side. As you can see, the nut is too tall and too wide from the factory, so we'll have to sand/file it down a bit before it's good to go. To make it shorter I used the aluminium block and some of the 1200 grit sanding paper, but the width is easier to fix once the nut is installed. More on that later.
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    Before I went about leveling the frets I decided to show you this very common issue - the height adjustening screws for the bridge saddles are too tall and are protruding from the saddles. If you're not careful, theese might cut your hand when you play (or just be generally unpleasant), so I removed the saddles and ground the screws down on my block of aluminum-oxide.
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    Messy, time-consuming work. All worth it in the end.
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    Fretboard and neck pickup masked off in preparation for some fret leveling - quite important if you don't want that maple fretboard to become dirty or miscoloured from the metal shavings.
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    Neck removed, here I'm marking the top of the frets - this isn't really necessary if you know what you're doing, but it can help you by showing what frets need more attention.
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    Leveling the frets. Tricky and disastrous should you do it wrong, but a job well done will yield amazing results. I gently sanded the frets without putting any extra weight on the block until most of the pencil markings were gone, re-marked the frets and redid it with a more gentle approach.
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    A close-up demonstrating my technique during the process. I hold the block diagonally to get a wider and more even surface.
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    Note: you might have noticed that I have the block wrapped in some sand paper - this is because the picture was taken after I was done and to prevent any marks on the frets.

    Recrowning the frets after the sanding process - this is also an important step as the frets are going to be flat after the previous process, which would throw the intonation off and cause all kinds of problems.
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    Crowning done - sanding with 1200 grit and 2000 grit paper to get rid of some of the tooling marks as well as polishing them to a high gloss. (The last stages involve wet sanding with the 2000 grit paper)
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    Wet sanding process. I'm sanding each fret individually instead off doing all of them at once to get an even surface.
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    A fairly messy process. Took me a while to get this off. using gloves next time.
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    Leveling done - time to start shaping the fret ends with a small triangular needle file that has one corner/edge ground down to prevent any damage to the fretboard. This will make the frets feel smooth to your hand when gliding up and down the neck.
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    Taking care of some protruding fret tangs that were not taken care off before leaving the factory - just to give the guitar that little extra smoothness to it.
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    Note: Picture taken for demonstration purposes - frets are not leveled/done here.

    Shaping the neck heel a bit (because I'm OCD like that) because there were some very minor wood splinters/chips sticking out from the drilling of the neck bolt holes.. This will give a marginally better/tighter fit which will improve the resonance and tone of the guitar substantially.
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    Note: It did. The neck resonates like nothing I've ever felt before. TONE!!

    All done and put together!
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    Verdict?
    Well, I was surprised by the softness of the block I used for leveling the frets, so I went ahead with extra caution and attention to the work as it progressed. But as I said earlier, the block quickly begins to mold itself after the radius of the frets which can be a good thing CAN YOU KEEP THE BLOCK PARALLEL AT ALL TIMES.

    This thing is a tone monster now, the GraphTech nut is fantastic and improved the tone substantially, and my budget fret leveling work enables me to get the action down to 1mm without any choking or excessive buzz. (0.5mm possible but you start sacrificing some ton/sustain here. Yikes!)

    All in all it was worth it. At the end of the month I'm going to invest in a straight edge and more sand paper and try that method aswell. Expecting great results.

    I hope this helped some of you, if you've got any questions regarding anything don't hesitate to ask me..

    Cheers,
    - Chris
     
    Alejandro Moreno, 9Lives and cjms1997 like this.
  2. Valennic

    Valennic Many Fingers

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    Good job man, looks great :yesway:

    Welcome to the club :lol:, it's an addicting process. Once you've done it to one, you'll soon set your sights on any within reach.
     
  3. mustache79

    mustache79 I like to play

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    I use leveling beams and self adhesive pressure sensitive sandpaper for leveling. Crowning, it looks like you have the stew mac crowing files, as I use the same ones. I wish I had bought the diamond files as the cheaper one way files take forever to crown with, but ultimately get the job done. I also color my frets to mark progress. Some say it's not necessary, but I really love the fret rockers for spot checking frets. STEWMAC.COM : Fret Rocker
     

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