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Don't Fret, It's Time for Frets

Test Cut

Before I went too far down the rabbit hole, I wanted to be sure that all my fret slots were deep enough to accommodate the fret wire I bought for this project. But I didn’t want to do that by pushing the barbed tangs of the frets down into the slots because I didn’t want the barbs to damage the slots when I pulled them back out. So I cut a tester fret and filed the barbs off the tang, thinning the tang itself a little as well. Then I put the tester into each slot and moved it side to side to verify that the depth was adequate across the entire width of the slot.

Cutting Frets and Trimming Tangs

With slot depths verified (and fixed, in a couple cases), it’s time to move on to the frets. Since the fretboard has bound sides, I need to trim the tang so that I have an overhang over the binding. You could do this with fret tang nippers (talk about a uni-tasker!), but since I don’t have such nippers, I used my dremel tool (little ‘d’ because it’s not an actual Dremel brand tool) and some clean-up-filing to trim the overhangs.

Cut them one; cut them all.

I’m using a glue-in technique to install the frets, so I want to take a minute to explain why, and how I’m going about this process. First of all, I think it’s generally a good idea to put a little CA glue (super glue) in the fret slots, whether you need it or not, just to fill any spaces or voids you might have at the bottom of the slots. In my opinion, empty pockets of air in the fretboard can have a deleterious effect on the tone produced by the instrument (though this has remained an open argument among luthiers for a long time). No one seems to believe that the glue actually sticks to the fret to hold it in. Rather, the glue goes in as a liquid, then the fret is set in place, then the glue hardens around the fret tang and barbs, helping secure the metal parts within the slot. So, I used a ‘plastic tape’ technique for applying the glue, and then set the frets in the slots with a hammer (as opposed to the clamp-in/press-in method). The CA glue won’t stick to plastic tape (i.e. Scotch tape), the tape is applied to the fret board right along the edge of the slot. A bead of thick/gel CA glue is run down the slot, and then pushed down into the slot with a gloved finger. The fret is set into the slot, and the tape is removed immediately, after which the glue is given time to harden. This usually takes a minute or two, and can be sped up with the use of CA glue accelerator.

I did those first three frets all at once, but afterward just did one at a time. I found that the plastic tape left some adhesive on the board if I didn’t get it off pretty quickly, so to avoid extra time spent cleaning adhesive off the board, I just did on fret at a time. The whole process went just swimmingly, the the exception of the 14th fret, which didn’t seat properly. So I removed it, cleaned the slot up and out, cut a new fret, and then finished up.

Next, I trimmed the ends off the frets, taped off the fingerboard, and leveled and dress the frets. They were leveled with a leveling beam and sand paper, then profiled with a three-sided profiling file, then the ends shaped with a very fine file from my needle file set.

Next, the frets were sanded with 220 grit to remove the file marks, then 500 grit to remove the marks from the 220 grit, then polished with 1000 grit and 2000 grit to make them all smooth and shiny.

One more rubdown with the teak oil to ensure the wood is good to go, and the fretboard is finished.

With the fretboard done, there are only a couple things left to finish, then this project will be in the books. In the next post, I will replace the bridge and shape a new nut and saddle. Leave me a comment, question or feedback if you have any.

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