What's in a ‘Fret Dress’ ?

The most common cause of frets lifting is by dehydration of the fingerboard, where the wood shrinks as it dries out, allowing the barbed tangs of the fret to let go of the inner walls of the fingerboard’s now-opening fret slot and raise slightly. Now some may lift, and others won’t, due to the random differing density of the wood and/or how much moisture it’s lost in that spot. This will often be apparent in dry climates, or wintertime in cold, temperate climates when we use forced heat, and the first indicator on newer guitars that haven’t been dressed previously will be the sudden appearance of sharp, protruding frets ends which happen when the fingerboard shrinks and the metal fret obviously does not. These are very uncomfortable to play on, to say the least.

Many people are very surprised to learn that even brand-new, out of the box guitars are often in need of fret leveling, particularly on Asian imports, where the guitars are often made in warmer, humid environments, then are subjected to numerous environmental changes on it’s long journey from the manufacturer to docked shipping containers (usually 1-3 weeks by boat), then to each national distributor by truck, where the boxed guitars will sit in the distributor’s warehouses anywhere from 1 day to many months until they finally go to individual retailers and to customers. That’s a lot of fluctuations in temperature and humidity levels, which can wreak havoc on new guitars which still have ‘unsettled’ glue joints, not fully cured finishes and other factors which can be influenced by the constant expansion/contraction of varying environmental conditions. And one the first symptoms to emerge from this is randomly lifting frets, mostly from manufacturers who haven’t utilized the glued-in fret method.

Here’s my step-by-step example of how a full fret dress is basically done.

First, the guitar is tuned to the desired pitch with the intended string gauges, and then the truss rod is tightened until the neck reads as perfectly straight as possible in the horizontal bench position. This difference will become apparent a bit later.

Starting at the upper frets and working downward, we use a precision straight-edge ‘fret rocker’ in passes across each fret, locating the tell-tale ‘tik-tik’ of high spots on each fret. For a brand new guitar, it had no less than 16 high frets – over half of them were unlevel !

Each high spot is marked with a black marker for reference

This time working from lowest to highest while maneuvering the neck support under each fret to be worked, each high spot is carefully re-seated with a few taps of a fret hammer, and then rechecked for level before moving onto the next fret.

After all the frets have been basically seated, we place the guitar into what is one of the most important tools in my shop – the Neck Jig. This rig replicates the effect of the neck under the same tension and flex with no strings as when it is fully strung and tuned. Combined with the notched precision straightedges, you can achieve the most accurate fretwork, and will also show where there are any humps or dips in the fingerboard itself – something that you cannot achieve accurately by the old-school, benchtop leveling methods and just a normal straightedge which only measures the tops of the frets, not the neck itself. An irreplaceable tool.

The guitar is adjusted into the jig until the neck is perfectly parallel and centered to the main jig beam.

The guitar is carefully but firmly strapped into the jig until it’s tight and immovable

The highlighter is pointed towards the wall behind to help with seeing the fingerboard gaps using the straightedge. Then the guitar is again tuned to pitch…

The effects of gravity is shown clearly, even the movement from the bench to the jig shows how necks will constantly flex as we move around. It was dead straight on the bench using the neck support, now freestanding neck but body strapped horizontally in the jig shows that some relief (bow) has appeared.

Again we adjust the truss-rod and check tuning again…we will do this repeatedly until perfectly set in place in a few minutes.

And now the neck is dead straight again…we will be repeating this one more time.

Now it’s the last, most important and logical adjustment stage: the jig is temporarily removed from the workmate and clamped into the ‘normal’ playing position, approx. slightly less than 90 degrees. This stage is vital, and most accurately reflects how the neck flex behaves during actual use.

Well look there, it’s Mr. Gravity at work again! We had adjusted the neck straight only moments earlier, and now it’s showing some slight bow again.

Now for the last time retune and adjust the truss rod again making the neck dead straight. Keep doing this until you have the neck perfectly straight and at the desired tuning.

Adjust the jig’s dials to zero, and return the jig to the horizontal working position in the workmate.

Back in the horizontal position you can see again how much the neck has flexed under gravity, the black dial tabs were set at the zero mark where it was optimized. It moved .19″ at the 1st fret, and .09 at the 8th fret.

Loosen all the strings completely slack and we now see that the neck has back-bowed a whopping .93″ at the 1st fret, and .35″ at the 8th.

Remove the strings and nut. Now the neck will be re-adjusted back into position and the fingerboard will be prepped for dressing.

The fingerboard radius must always be checked before commencing work.

Now the neck must be flexed back into the original place where the dials were set to zero, simulating the neck under proper string tension. Starting at the top of the headstock, a small jack is used to push the head and neck upwards (like strings pulling on it) until the first dial is back at zero, while the black nylon band at the nut is pulled downward via a thumbscrew under the main beam, simulating the downward tension at the nut. This is continued back and forth until both dials read zero again. At this point the steel support rods can be slid into place to hold the neck in position while the work can be carried out.

Before taping the board off, we will prevent the re-seated frets from lifting again and keep them in place while running a leveling beam over them by running water-thin CA glue into the slots. In many case I will just do all the frets, depending on how well seated they look initially.

The fingerboard is taped off with low-tack masking tape, and the original high spots are reproduced onto the taped area for reference. This will also show us if there are any humps or dips in the fingerboard itself a bit later during the beam leveling when you see where the most fret metal has been removed. The fret crowns are colored with black marker to show how much metal is being removed. On a new guitar like this, I don’t anticipate much being filed off.

A cardboard body/pickup protector is secured into place.

I have many files and such, but these are the main four tools I will use for leveling: radius block and leveling beam (both with 320 gold paper), fret end file and one of my favorite files in the shop – the diamond crowning file.

“A diamond crowning file? What’s the difference, and is it really better”?  Well, yes. On the left is a traditional crowning file, which only cuts on the forward stroke, is prone to making ‘chatter’ marks on the frets and clogging up easily. The diamond file on the right has none of those backfalls. This is not to say that the old files were no good – in fact they’re very good at hogging-off a lot of metal fast if you need to, and then follow up with the smoother diamond grit afterwards.

The majority of the leveling is done with the beam, followed by the radius block to re-shape the curvature.

Here you can see the dust from how much, and where, the most fret metal is being removed.

After the frets have been basically leveled, you need to remove just a little more in the upper register to create some ‘fall away’ to allow for the strings’ vibrational arc and keep buzz and choke to a minimum with very low action.

The fret tops are re-colored with marker again, this time for crowning after leveling. On the left is how the fret looks after a handful of strokes with a crowning file.

After leveling and crowning, comes polishing out the marks left. This is usually the longest part of the job, and to help I’ve made a handy little block from cork, created a fret groove on the bottom, then infused with CA glue to give it rigidity. I will start with 600 grit, then cycle through 1000, 1500 and then 2000. I will finish and bring them to a mirror shine with micro-mesh and Blitz cloth.

Polished frets after the 2000 paper…

Now after the tape is removed, it is cleaned off thoroughly with naptha.

Fret ends are lightly touched-up for smoothness.

Then that horrifically dry fingerboard is re-hydrated and conditioned with lemon oil. That’s looking way better now!

In most cases after a full dress, some nut slot depth touch-up is required, but in the case of this new 8 string, very little was removed from the first fret so only the low 8th string slot was enlarged to accommodate the larger .080 gauge string the customer wanted. The stock Ibanez nut slot would only fit up to a .070 or so without modification to keep the action low at the first fret.

And after modification of the 8th string nut slot, we can achieve low, comfortable action at the first position. Regular guitars with non-locking nuts will usually require some slot filing as well during setup. After setup (which is included with a full fret dress), the guitar is now able to play at it’s optimum, with low fast action and minimal buzz.