How to: Level frets without a neck jig!

Discussion in 'The Workbench' started by Silence2-38554, May 6, 2015.

  1. Silence2-38554

    Silence2-38554 Mobius Guitars

    Likes Received:
    Sep 30, 2010
    Oakland, CA
    It took me a while to piece together all of these steps for a good DIY fret level, so here's a quick tutorial I just threw together for a friend. I'll be posting a video about this some time in the next couple months:

    Fret level

    Things you’ll need:

    -NOT a file. Way too abrasive!
    -Notched straight edge
    -Fret rocker
    -Crowning file
    -Chap Stick
    -16” level (I like the Stew Mac one)
    -Adhesive backed 320 grit sandpaper
    -A good Sharpie
    -A roll of blue painter’s tape
    -X-acto knife
    -0000 steel wool
    -Micro-Mesh pack, grits 1500 - 12000
    -Metal polish

    For the notched straight edge, I just get a plexiglass drafting T-square, take the T off & cut the notches for the frets with a dremel. Costs about $12.

    Remove truss rod adjustment nut & lube up the base / threads with chap stick
    Adjust the truss rod with tension on the strings ‘till the notched straight edge is measuring the board as flat as possible.
    Once flat, start with the fret rocker, checking every fret up & down the length of each string. As you find high spots, mark them with the Sharpie. Once done, you will see a sort of “grid” of high spots.
    Remove the strings.
    Relieve tension on the truss rod. Assuming you don’t have a neck jig, you want to mimic the flat-ness of the neck as closely as possible to when there was string tension on it. Use the notched straight edge to once again get the board as flat as possible.
    Tape that board up! Yup, get the blue painter’s tape & start taping off all of the board’s wood. Once you get into the higher frets, you’s have to cut the strips in half with the X-acto knife & over-lap them.
    Take the Sharpie & mark where all the fret’s high spots are with little arrows on the tape.
    Now that you have arrows pointing to the high spots, cover the entire top of each fret with Sharpie. Black frets!
    Sandpaper time! Get your strip of 320 grit sandpaper stuck to one of the narrower edges of your rectangular straight edge, making sure it is adhered totally flat, with no high spots from debris caught under the paper or anything.
    Start sanding slowly, lengthwise up & down the neck. Let the weight of the straightedge itself do the work, no need to push down any harder. What you’re looking for is for the Sharpie to disappear off of at least the crown of each fret on the board. Ideally, the board won’t be too warped & this won’t take much work at all. All those arrows you drew on the tape earlier to reference high spots? Those are to help keep track of what you’re doing. If you’ve been sanding for a while & a fret you marked as high hasn’t been toughed, something’s wrong. They’re mostly there to help you make sense of the sanding progress as everything levels out.
    Once every fret top has been touched, it’s time to re-crown the frets that needed a lot of leveling. RE-Sharpie all the frets. Now, take your crowning file (Medium or Wide crown, depending on the installed frets). Run the file back & forth over the fret in a motion that goes with the radius of the board. You don’t want to take all the Sharpie off, just go ‘till there’s a black stripe left on the top.
    Now it’s time to finish crowning. Take a piece of that 320 grit sandpaper & wrap it around your fingertip. Run it up & down the board with fairly light pressure ‘till the remaining black Sharpie stripe disappears & the fret’s crown looks uniform.
    Steel wool time! I have done levels without this step, but they almost always come out better if you do it. Run a pad of 0000 steel wool up & down the frets ‘till any remaining Sharpie around the base of the frets is removed & the dull-ness of the 320 grit is gone.
    Micro-Mesh time! Start with the 1500 grit, going up & down the fretboard ‘till everything looks uniform. Continue on up each step ‘till you’re done with the 12000.
    Time for polish! It took me a long time to be sold on this final step but it really does make a huge difference, both in appearance and playability. I like Wizard’s Metal polish, but any hardware store metal polish will work, just so long as it turns black as you work with it. Rub this into each fret. When you’re done, buff it off of each fret individually with a microfiber cloth. Ting! You should have a bunch of little mirrors at this point!
    Finally, remove that tape! If you have any need to clean/condition your fretboard, now’s the time to do it.
    String the guitar up with your favorite strings to your favorite tuning. With the guitar sitting in your lap in the playing position, tighten the truss rod & keep checking the board with your straight edge. The board’s flatness will actually vary depending on if the guitar is on it’s back, side or front, so it makes sense to do this final adjustment in the playing position.
    Once flat, adjust the string saddle radius & action.
    ALL DONE!!!
  2. AxeHappy

    AxeHappy Regular

    Likes Received:
    Mar 25, 2010
    This isn't quite how I do it, but it is probably a better method anyways. Haha.

    Great tutorial.
  3. spilla

    spilla Regular

    Likes Received:
    Dec 8, 2009

    Might want to make that text more user friendly. Nice tut though!

    EDIT: Also, i just leveled one of my guitars frets a few days ago. Rushed the polishing step (only used 0000 steel wool and didnt use my my sanding sticks or micro mesh. Frets are level and there is no longer any buzz but a few frets are ruff when bending. So ill have to revist these steps shortly. So peoples, polish those frets properly!
    Emperoff, Konfyouzd and Adieu like this.
  4. The Hiryuu

    The Hiryuu Dot dot dot.

    Likes Received:
    Oct 31, 2004
    Here-ish, MA
    Micro-mesh after the steel wool, eh? Pardon the necrobump. I was hunting for tips on crowning with a regular file (I ain't gots the budgets for fancy crowning files, and I'd like to be able to do things right the "hard" way before taking "shortcuts" anyway.)
  5. TonyFlyingSquirrel

    TonyFlyingSquirrel Cherokee Warrior

    Likes Received:
    May 4, 2006
    Auburn, Washington
    I use a lil bit o Mirror Glaze #26 at the Micro Mesh stage, helps polish them up nicely.
  6. mmj

    mmj Member

    Likes Received:
    Sep 8, 2014
    new york
    some really good inexpensive things regarding this topic i picked up 23 items around 500 bux but individually really cheap here a few things i got for this luthier neck flattening, dressing,crowning work

    Guitartechs Guitar Neck Relief Curvature Gauge Luthier Project Tool | eBay

    Guitartechs Fret Dressing Crowning File Set 3 Luthier Tool Kit Guitar | eBay

    Guitartechs Nut Slotting Starter Kit 2 Tools Saw File Guitar Luthier | eBay

    Guitartechs Fret Pullers Quick SHIP from USA Flush Ground Luthier Guitar Tool | eBay

    Guitartechs Long Span 12" Fretboard Leveler Sanding Beam Luthier Guitar Tool | eBay

    Short Scale Bass Straight Edge Notched Luthiers Tool | eBay

    Geetargizmos Fret Tang Nibbler Nipper Cutter Luthier Tool Guitar | eBay

    Musicianatheart Fret End Smoothing File Small Luthier Dressing Fret Buzz Tool | eBay

    6" inch 150mm Stainless Steel Electronic LCD Digital Vernier Caliper Micrometer | eBay

    Frog Tape 0 94 in x 60 yds Green Multi Surface Painters 1 3 5 10 36 Case New | eBay

    Luthiers Professional Fret Hammer Tool for Tight Fret Jobs | eBay

    Sandpaper Wet Dry 84 PC 3" x 5 1 2" 400 600 800 1000 1200 1500 2000 Grit | eBay

    Howard Products Feed N Wax 16oz Beeswax Orange Oil | eBay

    Jewelry Cleaning Polishing Cloth Silver Gold Brass Restore Shine Double Layer | eBay

    Dr Gooze Micro Fiber Instrument Polish Cloth for Guitar Bass Gear Bonus 3 Pack | eBay

    Klean Strip Acetone Quart QAC18 | eBay

    Sharpie Fine Point Permanent Markers Box of 12 Markers Black 30001 New | eBay

    Folding Table 4ft Portable Plastic Outdoor Indoor Fold Picnic Party Dining Camp | eBay

    Brasso Metal Polish 8oz Brass Copper Stainless Chrome Aluminium Bronze Brand New | eBay

    Stanley 1992 Utility Knife Blades 11 921 Box Cutter Razor | eBay

    E Z Bond Super Glue Cyanoacrylate Thin 2 oz 5 CPS | eBay

    Blue Tarp All Weather Reinforced Tarpaulin Canopy Tent Shelter Cover Car Boat | eBay

    here just a few of the main things , i lost everything in a fire so i got this for a portable luthier station setup for guitar, bass neck straightening dressing crowning work
  7. JeremyRodriguez5544998

    JeremyRodriguez5544998 Well-Known Member

    Likes Received:
    Nov 12, 2013
    Dang! Useful thread indeed. Thanks a bunch!
  8. MetalViking

    MetalViking Regular

    Likes Received:
    Nov 5, 2016
    North Carolina
    I know I am very late to this thread, but thank you so much for this informative post!
  9. Phil Lewis

    Phil Lewis Regular

    Likes Received:
    Jun 1, 2019
    Manchester, UK
    Late to the party again, but...

    Don’t forget to tape off your pickups, or all the little bits of metal from the filing and sanding will be attracted to the magnets...
  10. sharedEQ

    sharedEQ Regular

    Likes Received:
    Jul 5, 2016
    Washington, DC
    I had a fret crowning file but it wore out pretty quick. Thats one of those tools I suspect "real" luthiers don't use because they are constantly working guitars.

    With a little practice, you can learn how to form crowns with flat diamond files.

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