Fret leveling - string tension or not? AND, how to work on a compound radius?

Discussion in 'Luthier's Guitar & Bass Technical Discussion' started by Lavely, Jan 18, 2015.

  1. Lavely

    Lavely Silver Supporting Member

    Messages:
    1,341
    Joined:
    Jan 4, 2002
    Location:
    Minneapolis
    I am new to fretwork, but I have been playing a long time. I hope to build up my knowledge on fretwork and build a few guitars, plus maintain my arsenal.

    My general question is around the "recommended process" for fret leveling, crowning & polishing. If I acquire a used or new guitar, I want to make it play its best. I understand I need to think about nuts, setup, etc., but this post is focused on "How do I go about making the frets the best they can be"?

    I don't think I will be buying a contraption that puts "string-like pressure" on my necks. WITHOUT this contraption, it sounds like some folks will ink the frets, then go over them with a radius block with sandpaper. Others will use a long narrow block, maybe an inch wide, cover it with sandpaper, and level the frets this way.

    FIRST QUESTION - I am having trouble getting to my question, which is basically "do you have to have string tension in order to do this"? Or, is there debate about whether you really need string tension to do the fretwork? Do you first get the neck "perfectly straight" using the truss rod and measured by one of the rulers with notches for frets? Or, how else do you do this first "fret leveling" process without a string-tension contraption?

    SECOND RELATED QUESTION - If I have a compound radius fretboard, is a straight edge with sandpaper a much better method than radius blocks? Or, should I use start with one radius block, move to another, then maybe move to a third or fourth block as I move along the fretboard?

    Once the initial leveling is done, I think I understand the process:

    1 - Bevel & round fret ends
    2 - Ink frets again
    3 - Crown frets
    4 - Polish frets

    Now, understanding is different from "able to do it", and I know it will take time...

    Joe Lavely
     
  2. GuitslingerTim

    GuitslingerTim Member

    Messages:
    2,178
    Joined:
    Jan 9, 2005
    Frets that are leveled without any tension will more than likely never be completely level when the neck is strung up, but that's how they used to be leveled, and many players seem to be happy with the results.

    IMO radius blocks should not be used to level frets. Regardless of whether a fingerboard is cylindrical or compounded, a flat block is the best tool to use for leveling.
     
  3. bullfrogblues

    bullfrogblues Supporting Member

    Messages:
    2,797
    Joined:
    Jan 4, 2002
    Location:
    South Fl.
    If you use a leveling bar that is as long or almost as long as the fretboard, leveling in the direction of the strings will also follow the radius of the neck, compound or straight. I only use radius blocks to radius the fretboard before frets go in.
    Just get the neck as straight as possible before you begin, no need to have it 'under string tension'. Once done, many times you end up with perfect relief after you string up the guitar without need for truss rod adjustment. YMMV.
     
  4. Dana Olsen

    Dana Olsen Gold Supporting Member

    Messages:
    7,641
    Joined:
    Oct 2, 2002
    Location:
    Santa Barbara, Marin, Chico, CA
    Hey Joe -

    There are 'degrees' of leveling. A light fret level just to get everything back to square one mostly requires that the neck is supported to that it doesn't bend during the leveling process. Obviously the neck will flex when you push on it if it's not supported. You can do this type of level without a neck jig and get good results, after some practice.

    Leveling after a refret is a different critter, as is leveling severely used or worn frets. Once you do a few of the easier type levels, like on cheap-ish guitars for practice, you'll get a good feel for it. Check out Ron Kirn's tutorial for this type of level too.

    As you get better, your 'eye' will improve, and you'll begin to see imperfections. This is when the jig will help, 'cuz some of those imperfections can be real pesky, and the practice helps too (GRIN).

    Hope this helps, or just encourages you, Dana O.
     
  5. Lavely

    Lavely Silver Supporting Member

    Messages:
    1,341
    Joined:
    Jan 4, 2002
    Location:
    Minneapolis
    bullfrog - got it, makes lots of sense.

    GuitslingerTim - are you also saying that you use radius blocks for the fretboard itself, and not frets?

    Dana - so, again, the neck tension contraption is really for "BAD" neck jobs, or new fret jobs? I'm relatively OK doing light fretwork (leveling an crowning) on a newer guitar by working on a "flat" neck without tension?

    Lavely
     
  6. bullfrogblues

    bullfrogblues Supporting Member

    Messages:
    2,797
    Joined:
    Jan 4, 2002
    Location:
    South Fl.
    As Dana mentioned, you don't need a fancy 'jig', but you do need to be able to support the neck the entire length. Sand bags work when you have nothing else. Just make sure the neck has no 'give' to it and can't flex at all.
     
  7. GuitslingerTim

    GuitslingerTim Member

    Messages:
    2,178
    Joined:
    Jan 9, 2005
    Correct.

    Leveling frets under simulated tension is a superior method regardless of the guitar. The reason is that most necks will twist or compress slightly after being strung up, causing frets that seem level in an unstrung state to not be perfectly level once the neck is strung up.
     
  8. Dana Olsen

    Dana Olsen Gold Supporting Member

    Messages:
    7,641
    Joined:
    Oct 2, 2002
    Location:
    Santa Barbara, Marin, Chico, CA
    Hey Joe -

    In general, as you I'm sure understand, the closer you can get the neck to the 'shape' it's in when under tension, the more accurate you fret level will turn out.

    Most cats do that by straightening the neck to dead level, and then supporting the back of the neck so it won't flex or move. Guys who are gifted with hand tools and experienced wood workers can often do a very precision job without a jig, but most of those guys agree that good jigs help get that last couple percentage points of accuracy.

    It's not necessary to have a jig to level frets, but as you build more guitars, you should include a neck tension jig as a tool that you want to acquire down the road.

    My guess is that by the time you get or build a good jig, your eyes will be getting good enough to be able to see fret leveling at the new, finer level of accuracy that the jig can provide.

    Some of this stuff is playing around the edges a bit, but in fret leveling, more accuracy is better, period.

    Hope this encourages, Dana O.
     
  9. walterw

    walterw Gold Supporting Member

    Messages:
    33,426
    Joined:
    Oct 16, 2006
    different (filing) strokes for different folks, but it's the tensioning jig for me, anything else is just memory, guesswork and hope.
     
    Cal Webway likes this.
  10. swiveltung

    swiveltung Member

    Messages:
    14,566
    Joined:
    Feb 5, 2011
    Location:
    PNW
    It's the "chicken or the egg " thing I guess. My thoughts are : adjust the truss rod so the neck is flat prior to leveling the frets.
    Then adjust the truss rod when strung up to the relief you want (if any)
     
    9fingers likes this.
  11. Lavely

    Lavely Silver Supporting Member

    Messages:
    1,341
    Joined:
    Jan 4, 2002
    Location:
    Minneapolis
    Just completed my first fret level & dress - I feel great that I was able to achieve pretty good results!

    Thanks for the help!
     
  12. flcmcya

    flcmcya Silver Supporting Member

    Messages:
    3,119
    Joined:
    Nov 30, 2008
    Location:
    Twin Cities
    Good job Bud,

    I have a couple going to Willie's for some "adjustment"! :mob
     
  13. paul14470

    paul14470 Member

    Messages:
    248
    Joined:
    Jun 23, 2003
    Location:
    Massapequa, Long Island, NY
    I use a notched straight edge to read the fret board. With a back light, adjust the neck until no light shows thru between the bottom of the notched edge where it rests on the fret board. This assures the neck is as straight as possible (if the fret board is noticeably uneven, and the frets are low to begin with, at this point I'd recommend pulling the frets and leveling the fret board). Then I use a 6" file to get the frets even while supporting the back of the neck evenly with a Stew mac sandbag neck rest. Don't put a lot of pressure on the file, let it do its own work. I then follow up with 320 grit paper on a 18" level, 1 or 2 passes usually does it.

    Once the frets are crowned & polished and its re strung, I check each fret with a fret rocker, and if there is a high fret I'll take it down (raise the strings with 2 plastic door shims at opposite angles).
     

Share This Page