Hi all,

This is my first post. I'm a guitar player, not a luthier. I've done a few setups on my own guitars over the last five years using Erlewine's book and some tools from StewMac; radius gauges, radius blocks, crowning files, and straight edges. I finally had to take my main guitar, an '81 ES-175, to be refretted and it came back buzzing worse than before. This has motivated me to get better at doing my own setups.

I've read all the posts on this forum concerning refretting and setups and there seems to be two main camps on how to approach getting frets level.

1) Use a neck jig to simulate string tension then use long radius blocks or straight files, or

2) Adjust the neck straight with normal string tension and use a 1" straight, sandpaper-coated piece of U-bar.

I have a few questions. If using method #2, how do you get the proper radius to the fret tops? Is eyeballing it good enough?

And why doesn't someone make a hollow metal radius block that you could thread the strings through to get the best of both worlds, i.e. get the correct radius all at once with the true string tension?



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Hi Steve.

1. Produces a straight cylinder shaped radius.

2. Produces a compound conical shaped radius.

Making your dream radius tool would be complicated and there would be a need for several versions/iterations per guitar style.

The old school methods can still work well without a neck jig. In short: straighten neck - level frets. This a subject with a myriad of answers. Methods, tools, approaches vary widely and wildly! IMHO The best thing to do is just dig in and start doing the jobs - and experimenting. Tools and methods will evolve to fit your needs. - Tom

Thanks for the reply, Tom.

It seems to me that for my guitar, with the string spacing wider at the bridge than at the nut, a compound radius would be ideal. A quick calculation shows that for my Peerless New York with a 12" radius at the nut, should have a 14.6" radius at the 12th fret, and 17.2" radius at the bridge.

So why are all guitars made with wider string spacing at the bridge? I can understand why finger style players would like it, but playing with a pick, I would prefer the closer spacing at the bridge.


Fretboard shape and string spacing have evolved over time. Both huge info subjects. It's come down to accepted standards and/or personal preference. And good reason to buy more guitars!

Or just re-cut the slots on my bridge. That might be the easiest way to salvage the refret job. I believe the radius is 12" all the way down.

No wait; I've got a Tune-o-matic bridge on the 175. All the ones I could find have the same string spacing; aarggh.


Now would be a good time to take a deep breath and think about this:  

Firstly, if you do nothing but have a refret done with a cylindrical 12" radius on the fingerboard, a 12" radius on the frets and a twelve inch radius on the nut and bridge (which is standard on Tom's) and then measure and adjust the string heights at the 12th fret via the bridge height adjustment post (these measurements are readily available in the repair books etc) then your guitar will play OK.  

This is called a "do nothing option" and is as the guitar comes out of the factory.  After that you can think about redesigning the wheel and checking out the guitar for problems which cause it to deviate from a standard configuration.  

I don't see what the problem is with your string spacing - every guitarist in the world uses that spacing and can generally come to grips with it - but if is a problem for you just buy an un-notched TOM (Tonepros and Schaller make em) and cut your own string slots at whatever spacing you feel you need.  They are both 12" radius.  It'll screw up your string spacing in relation to your pickup poles so you need to be aware of that.

I suspect the problems you have are related to your fundamental understanding of how a setup works - not unusual these days.  

You need to take a step back from the guitar, put away your tools and think about each individual string path in relationship to the fingerboard, how each string behaves as a function of its tension and deviation from it straight or quiescent state and what available adjustment is available for each string.  

This list has most of the following things:  neck geometry in relation to the bridge and nut position in space, string gauge, nut slot height , string to fret height, neck relief (string arc), pickup pole height, bridge radius and most importantly,  how the player attacks his strings with both left and right hand technique.  All these things make a difference and all are important in the mix.

When you have had a good think about these things, go and read your text books again - Dan the Man is pretty good for a rudimentary start, but the luthier who helped me understand set-ups was Hideo Kamimoto ("Complete Guitar Repair") - his section on setups is worth the cost of the book alone.  This is not to say I am a self-styled expert - I am still leaning how to master setups now after many years of repairs and building and I find every guitar has its own sweet spot depending on all of the above things.

This is a precursor to compounding,  leveling methods,  and drop away techniques which all have significant bearing on how a guitar will perform when hooked up to a musician and a particular amp.

Some of the big guns here can add a lot more to this complex subject and I hope they can spare a minute to talk a bit to the subject - it's not simple, even though it's made out to be.



Rusty gave you excellent advice. You can take it to the bank. Definitely take it to heart.

I'd like to emphasize the need for you to command a much better understanding of the highly detailed business of setups. (there are tons of discussions about this in the forum's archives) As casually as they're discussed on junk forums, and there's 95% misinformation on those forums, contrary to popular belief, it's a VERY difficult task to learn...and master.  The biggest mistake novices seem to make is just doing a couple of steps required in a setup, being overly expectant of their benefits and then they quit and complain about a poor setup.

Even though you have the tools and a good instruction book, it's the skill of the craftsman that makes the ultimate difference. Skill is only gained through practice and experience....and it requires a serious investment of time and sweat.

In defense of the guy who did your refret: Give him a call and clearly explain the issues you are having.  He should also be told of your preferred setup specs, including the gauge of strings you use.

Here's why: After a refret, it is very common for the fingerboard/neck to settle in or move, requiring a few minor adjustments.  And in setup work, the MOST minor adjustments can make the BIGGEST difference in player satisfaction.  This is the reason Dan E. refuses to let "setups & refrets" leave his shop for 3 days after the work is done. Again, that is a common occurrence and it's caused by the guitar, not necessarily by the luthier who did the work.

Good luck in getting this resolved.

Thanks Paul,

I just read through my stuff and realised I'd inadvertently slighted Dan E.    What I meant to say is that the Guitar Players Repair Guide has a rudimentary guide to set-ups (to keep new folks safe) which can be developed and built on as time and experience is gained.  

Secondly, In our build schedule we let guitars settle and play em a bit - and we generally have to do a bit of remedial fret work as the frets adjust to their new's a pain but it's a fact of life.  

I've noticed people going off about a major guitar maker who PLEK's their instruments and the general conversation is that the PLEK is not so good.  The fact of the matter is that the producers move their stuff out the door very fast and, particularly when Northern Hemisphere made guitars ship overseas to the southern hemisphere, from summer to winter etc, the frets end up getting a bit of a massage by the environmentals and can move a bit.  Most guitars benefit from a bit of fret work straight out of the box - mandatory with the post sale set-up I would say.

Paul also hits the spot with his advice on returning the instrument to the tech for a look-see.  I always appreciate the chance to see if there is a problem with any of our work - otherwise we don't get to learn or correct our technique and we may leave a disappointed customer out there, which is no good for business.



A quick question. Is the string height the same now as when you sent it out for re-fretting?Also where it's rattling on the neck can tell you everything you need to know. If you had the re-fret done by an experienced tech it's doubtful that the problem is frets. The action could be too low or the neck too flat. That's the areas I always look first. Russell's advice is dead on, so is Paul's. I have an agreement with every customer I do fret work for to take it home and play it, let it settle in and bring it back if needed.  I've worked in my humidified shop only to have an instrument that played great have issues because the owners home is dry and the top drops or the neck flattens out. There's so many little things that can cause what you're experiencing.

As far as learning fret work, unless you plan on doing a great deal of it there won't be much payoff for the time it will take you to get proficient. I still use my 3 corner files I safety edge for crowning. I learned that from an old school repairman 30+ years ago. I'm not all that wowed by the PLEK thing and feel that a skilled tech can do a great job.

Hi Rick,

The string height and relief are about the same as they were before the refret. I believe the problem is due to a rising tongue / not sanding any falloff into the upper frets . My 18" ruler runs into the upper frets when I slide it down the neck. I should have some time this weekend to look at it.

That can happen. When I was more of a newby in the trade I actually caused that issue until I got enough feedback and experience to anticipate it. What leaves me scratching my head though is this shouldn't be an issue unless major resurfacing of the fret board was done. If the fingerboard is in good shape and it's a simple re-fret it shouldn't happen.

So I looked at the neck. With no relief, my straight edge rested on frets 2 and 20. I sanded down the extension area so that the straight edge rested on 2 and 14 (it doesn't reach from 1 to 20). It didn't help the buzzing, which has always been primarily on the 1st string. 

I next checked frets 1-14 with a fret rocker and found that 10 and 13 were slightly high. Sanded them level, did a quick crowning, and changed the strings. It plays really good now with no buzzing. Due to the small amount of sanding I did on 10 and 13, I suspect it was a string problem all along.


Thanks for your detailed reply.

In Erlewine's book, where he discusses fixed vs. compound radius, he focuses on the difference it makes when bending strings. Tom's reply got me thinking and I now see that a compound radius is the theoretically optimum way to build a neck for lowest action IF the string spread at the bridge is larger than at the nut, which is virtually always true. But is the difference noticeable?

I wrote a program to calculate the deviation of the 1st string from it's ideal (non-vibrating) path for a 12" fixed radius neck and bridge. For a string spread of 1 7/16" at the nut and 2 1/16" at the bridge, the path dips .011" below the "straight" path at the 12th fret. In other words, if you had a bridge with a 12" radius and spring spread the same as the nut, a perfectly straight neck could have the action set to .011" at every fret. If the bridge was changed to 12" radius and 2 1/16" spread, the string would just brush the 12th fret. 

BTW, I ordered Hideo's book. I used to frequent his shop in Oakland in the early '70s. My impression was that he did alot of work on band instruments. He definitely had a bunch of 3/4 violins around and also wind instruments IIRC.

Also, the unnotched TOMs won't really work for my experiment. To get a spring spread of 1 7/16", the 1 and 6 strings would have to share a nut with 2 and 5, which would be right on the inner edge of that nut.


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