Newbie: Seating Frets to Consistent Height; Using cant file correctly.

I just finished my second refretting -  Jazz Bass neck. My first refret was a Danelectro 1445 with just about every neck problem imaginable: slight twist, s-shape with 3 humps, .026" wide fret slots, etc.

I had to remove a lot of rosewood on the Dan'O which I figured was appropriate considering its problems. After I hammered in the frets (crimping the heck out of them with the SM tool) I found that the neck was still straight but the frets were very uneven. There were some shadow lines on some frets so I think maybe I needed to deepen the frets slots more than I did. In any case, I had to take a lot of metal off the frets and was left with some very wide flats that took a considerable amount of time to round.

I assumed that my hammering technique had something to do with my inconsistent fret seating so I decided to use a arbor press for the JB neck. I tried Erlewine's method of using a 6" radius for the ends and a 9.25" for the actual insertion. The frets all seated cleanly.  I was chagrined to find that, once again, I had fret height variation prior to leveling that I considered beyond acceptable tolerances. This meant, of course, that I once again had to take off a lot of metal and leaving me with wide flats to deal with (keep in mind I'm a newbie with high standards, but no one to tell me when I achieve what may be an average result).

It occurred to me that inconsistent pressure applied to the arbor press arm could be to blame. Too bad the arbor press doesn't have a dial that reads force applied (could be a useful mod to the SM arbor press)!

To add insult to injury, when I crowned the files I forgot to tape up the fretboard. I used my new SM cant file for the first time. I assumed that since the bottom vee had been "safed" that I could rest it on the fretboard as I made strokes. Now I have slight grooves pressed into the wood parallel to the frets. Both of the fret jobs look pretty good except for two problems: the fretboard grooves and some slightly twisted fret ends.

I plan to yank the frets on the JB and start over as soon as new fretwire arrives.

I have some questions, but any and all advice is welcome.

Q1: Is there a secret to consistent fret seating other than lots of practice?

As for the twisted fret ends. I'm thinking this is happening either when I'm bending the frets or when I'm clipping off the fret ends. I'm using a homemade fret-bender to over-radius the frets and Dan Erlewine's method for clipping fret ends using a SM clipper.

Q2: Is it more likely my fret-bender is twisting the fretwire or that I'm twisting the wire as I make the cut? Is twisting a problem with pro fret benders?

Q3: As for the fretboard marks, does masking tape provide enough protection to rest the cant file on the fretboard or is this a general no-no?  I do have the metal fret guards but had forgotten about them.


Tags: cant, dents, file, fret, fretboard, seating

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Robbie, as far as fret height goes, I use a hammer with a hard, plastic head,  I can tell by the sound and "feedback feel" through the handle when a fret is "home."   Practice.  On the cant saw, you're probably using too much downward force into the fingerboard.  Run the file parallel to the fret gliding easy on the wood.  I generally don't tape off a rosewood board, and any slight marks come out with 220 sandpaper.

When trimming fret ends be careful to keep you nippers steady to avoid twisting.

Read Frank's technique on

Thanks Christian!

I have the SM black hammer with the brass head. I was just looking for a hammer like Frank' appears to be a Stanley 8-oz 57-594. Amazon has them for $17.50.

I've read Frank's tutorial and watched Dan Erlewine's Basic, Advanced 1 and Advanced 2 Fretting DVDs about 5 times. Everyone seems to leave out this particular topic - i.e., resting the file on the fretboard and removing parallel marks.

I've tried scraping with a razor blade, using it like a card scraper, but won't I slightly scallop the fretboard?

Also, when you use sandpaper to remove parallel marks, I assume you sand with the grain. How does one sand with the grain and next to the fret?

I'm now leveling the frets on a Squire Tele for a friend (he went after them with a file without instruction). This time I taped the board and am keeping the files off the fretboard entirely.  My best results seem to occur when I first use the cant then the small triangular file to take the corners off the flats, then the 150 grit SM diamond crowning file, then the regular SM crowning file (effect seems finer than 150 grit diamond file). Is it usual to go through so many different files to get there?

Rereading Frank and rewatching Dan yesterday, I realized that they both use a 2-oz ball pein hammer and a metal plate to level and seat frets after hammering them in. I haven't done this. I'll pick up a 2-oz ball pein along with the plastic faced hammer, but does the metal plate need to be trued or can I just get some flat steel from Home Depot?  Frank says his is 1/8th" thick though it looks more like 3/16 or 1/4.


Cut the sandpaper into small pieces with straight edges.  Use fingers with the grain and bump it into the fret.  

Defiantly get a small ball pien.  I use a piece steel I got from HD.  My hammer is a Craftsman I got at Sears 10 years ago.  One side hard rubber;the other hard plastic.  I use cant saw, triangle file, 400,600 grit wet sandpaper, and micro-mesh.  I don't use crowning files.   Buy a couple of cheap garage sale cadaver guitars and practice.

Have fun!

Christian's right... it takes nothing but practice to get the feel of "how much is enough" when tapping the frets. Ditto for keeping the nippers straight. 

I'm hooked on the steel fret-guards from StewMac. I'll lay down 4 or 5 at a time, then connect them with light-tack blue masking tape to fill the gaps... it keeps them in place and protects the board.

Another trick is to take a few and trim the edges lengthwise so they're narrower than normal... good for the upper frets where the standard-sized guards don't always fit. 

I picked up some 1/8" steel and cut a 2"x 3" plate to use with my new 2 oz ball pein.  I have the steel fret guards and am definitely going to start using them. Another "duh" moment for me.

Thanks Christian & Mike!

Robbie here are a couple of things that I noticed from your very comprehensive description of the issues that you are experiencing.

1)  Fret files from Stew-Mac (and likely anywhere too) need to be "safed" prior to use.  This means grinding/sanding down the bottom edges so that they do not mar the board and create those lines that you are seeing next to the frets.  To safe your files carefully, with all safety precautions i.e. safety glasses AND without the sander dust collection turned on... sand the bottoms of the file edges, the "V" that I think that you called it until the channel with the filing action is shallower and the edges of the file have been both reduced in height and smoothed over to avoid marring the board.  There is a sweet spot here where if you go to far you can ruin the files ability to stay on the fret crown, not far enough and you will still mar the board.  It only takes a minute though.  You unplug the dust collector to avoid a spark from the sanded steel getting into your dust collection and causing a fire.

My cant files have been safed or additionally safed too and this reduces the possibility, along with technique of marring the board.  Tape provides very minimal protection and the steel guards kind of get in the way in my opinion AND reduce the effectiveness of the file on very low frets since they raise the file.

2)  I use a single edged razor blade to scrape in between the frets.  I know that Frank is not keen on this method and instead has made individually radiused and sized sanding blocks to sand in between the frets.  Either method works and a combination of both may be where I move to in the future.  As for scalloping the fret board my razor blade technique is to only scrape enough material to nix the mark, no more.  I also am methodical in counting my strokes.... hell I count everything and always have and can't stop either...;) so as to remove material in a uniform manner.  When I was a kid I even counted individual uprights in the fences that I walked by and still remember the totals....  It's not easy being me... but I digress...:)

3)  What fret wire are you using?  Some wire is better than others at not having the "fillet" on both sides of the underside of the fret next to the tang where the tang transitions into the underside of the fret.  This fillet, since it widens to the underside of the fret, can prevent frets from seating all the way.  The fix is two fold that I know of with one fix being to use wire, Jescar, that has a very minimal fillet and/or to use a small triangle file to break the edges of the top of the fret slots to accommodate the fillets.  Once you do this the fret will seat all the way.

4)  When refretting we also level the board.  I use precision sanding beams that are not radiused.  By adjusting the truss rod and neck one can pretty much control the new shape of the board, correct low spots, add relief where desired and nix relief where it should not have been.  Every great refret begins with some thought and effort provided to how one levels this individual board with it's own list of individual issues.

In the leveling process some slots may become too shallow, and not in the they don't care about others sense.... ;) and need to be deepened.  I use theses things from Stew-Mac to prep my slots prior to fretting:  The fret slot depth gauge (a shop-made gauge would do the very same thing), the hooked tool for cleaning out the slots, and the two bladed saw for deepening and cleaning the slots.  Once all slots are deep enough, free from old glue you are good to go.

5)  Lately my refrets like the one I did last night are done with a combination of pressing with the Jaws tool and hammering with a Taylor fret buck and SM black hammer.  Although I can't prove it at least in my case I am more consistent pressing my frets than smacking them home (actually tapping....).  This is evidenced in how much material I have to remove from the frets with the pressed frets having the least material removal.

The better that one levels the board though the less material one will have to remove from the frets.

But what caught my eye here in your post is how are you supporting the neck and guitar when smacking the frets?  Early on in my Lutherie adventure.... I had a work bench in a spare bedroom of my condo which was carpeted.  For the life of me I could not hammer frets home.  Turns out the problem was that the carpet under my bench legs AND poor support for the work on my part cushioned the blows resulting in inconsistent results, damaged fret slots, and way more leveling necessary....  Lots of us use a 25lb bag of lead bird shot under the neck to help support it well when fretting.  Anyway my hunch is that once your work is better supported your hammer blows will be more productive.

6)  No mention of gluing the frets in your post.  Do you glue?  I glue my frets while also clamping them in place with the Jaws tool.  I also have a complete set of radiused cauls for the Jaws tool that were custom made by a CNC guy in any imaginable radius that we may encounter.  I wick in thin CA, quickly clamp with the appropriate radius caul, hit with accelerator working in a direction to not contaminate the board where I will clamp next with accelerator, and I'm done and move on.  Lots of ways to glue frets, this is just what I learned and like.

7)  Twisted ends sounds like the tool that you are using to cut the ends to me.  Maybe time for a better set of nippers, eh?

Anyway I hope that something helps here. 

Wow...thanks for your thoughtful advice!

I think you found several of my weaknesses.

I didn't spend enough time safe-ing my files as I basically just ran the edges across a bench sander until the ridges were gone.  As soon as I repair my stupid Delta Shopmaster bench sander I'll take this matter seriously and have at it.

I do have quite a few of the StewMac files but assumed they had safety-fied them enough. I'll look at them.

I've been using a StewMac neck caul sitting on a towel on the bench for removable necks. I wondered if the compression would be a problem. I've considered getting a bag of shot but put it on the back burner when I found it was $50 a bag. I guess I'll change it's priority.

I've been using CA on the fret ends but not while the frets were clamped as I haven't a Jaws. I use Dan E.'s method of putting the neck on its side and feeding it in through the side of the slot. This is mainly to keep fret ends from popping up.

I saw a photo blog recently of a guy that clipped the tangs off so they were below the fingerboard edge and then filled the slot edge with CA and rosewood dust.

I can't afford the $250 Stewmac Jaws at the moment so am making a pair out of welding clamps, brass and Delrin. I just finished building a mount for my fret press that gives it a foot of support on each side. Solid!

I picked up a plastic Stanley hammer like Frank Ford uses. I'm going to sand out the dimple in the face to remove a possibility of kinking the fret.

I agree with Hesh that files sometimes need some extra safety added via the sander. I use the Cant files and give it them a good extra smoothing on the 'bottom' edge. It's bite will also become less aggressive over time.I use masking tape. I keep an eye on it and replace if needed, or sometimes double it up with that brown binding tape. The metal things don't feel right to me, but that's the way it seems to go ... every finds their own way with constant evolution, learning, experimenting with each job.

I also recall seeing an interesting concept in an article on a guy that used two separate Cant files for 'left and right' sides. He completely smoothed opposite edges.

Go with slow sure strokes and keep thinking. Some days are better than others. 

I think I saw someone on Part II of Erlewine's Advanced Fretting that used different cant files. I'm going to try everything until I find a method that gives repeatable, professional results. I'm definitely going to re-safety all my files.

Hi Robbie.

Man, you got a LOT of superior responses to your questions.  Aren't those folks great? (:

I'm just stopping by to add my encouragement to keep on practicing and in a few years, you'll be a very good fret tech.

Also, in general: Regarding "safe edge" files...

When I safe edge my files, I use a abrasive drum on a Dremel motor tool to do the primary stock removal.  Although, any method that gets the job done is good.

After that, I use a set of three, 2"x 6"diamond coated sharpening 'stones' (120-220-320g) that I picked-up in the bargain bin at the local mom & pop hardware store (for $1.99!) to further refine the safe edge.

Once I get the safe edge to the appropriate profile for its intended purpose, I start w/ 220 grit abrasive paper & begin polishing the safe edges using the same schedule one would use to polish frets, up through 1000 grit.

One final kiss of jewelers' rouge with a felt disc on the motor tool gives it a smooth, mirror-like finish.

The bottom line: with ultra-highly polished safe edges, I usually leave only the most minor CSI evidence on the FB.

Best of luck(:


Yes, great replies from some very knowledgeable people!

I think I'll give your method a shot. I also pickup up some inexpensive diamond plates ebay. Not industrially flat but very useful. I was half-assed about safe-ing just tagged the edges on the bench sander. I'm serious now ;-)

Lots of great advice here.  But for dressing fret edges, I like a Stew-Mac Fret End Dressing File:

Both edges are nicely safed and the curved edge makes it easy to roll to work on the curved ends without marking the board.  The flat edge allows close filing of that little point that always seems to show up on the corner where the fret end meets the edge of the board.  it's useful for a whole lot of other things too, where close filing up to an edge is necessary.  I am also a model builder and it's come in handy in lots of places for that.  Check out Dan Earlewine's video on how to use it on the SM page.

Re twisting of the fret ends, be sure your cutter edges meet squarely and perfectly.  It's easy to twist them out of alignment if you torque them while cutting harder material and sometimes the non-meeting edges will then tend to stay crooked, especially if the tool is low quality.  

And are you left handed, like me?  Many tools are made for right handers and using the left hand will tend to torque the jaws of a tool away from square alignment as you cut.  They'll then spring back after the cut (unless they have bent as a result).  To demonstrate, try using your left hand with a standard pair of scissors--the blades will tend to spread and won't cut well against each other.  It isn't an insurmountable problem, it just requires awareness and extra care not to twist at the handles when using a cutter or other scissors-like tool.  Box jointed tools also help maintain alignment better than those with lap joints.

Some inexpensive tools are great but cheap cutters seem to lack the precision that spending more will get you.



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