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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My 2 cents on twisted fret ends. I have a pair of "duck bill" pliers by Snap-on. These things are the greatest. I reach for them for most of my plying needs. The jaws are very thin and can reach into some small spaces. Because of the mechanical advantage afforded by this most excellent tool, they will mash the bejesus out of anything you choose to stick in between the jaws. I use them to straighten bent fret tangs while I'm prepping the frets for installation. The jaw tips are dainty enough to handle small items with both ease and great purchase. BTW, I also have a pair made by Craftsman, and this is an instance where paying the extra $ for the Snap-on is a no brainer. The Craftsman tool is bulkier, lacks the finesse, power, and polish of the Snap-on. 

Another method I use for perfect fret ends is to cut the frets around 1/8 to 3/16 longer than the width of the neck, and belt sand the ends nice and square. It adds about 2 minutes to my process, but saves me the headache of pulling a seated fret with a twisted end. 

Duck billed that's a new one! I'll look for one...I love specialized tools.

Belt sanding the ends...without filing them first? Scary!  You must have one of those belt sanders that runs a 1" belt. I'd love one of those.

I just bought one of those nylon blocks with two Swedish files (90 and 35 degrees) from the Greek guy on eBay. He makes good stuff.

I've got that file as it came with the Essential Fretting Tool Kit, but haven't figured out how to use it. I've tried both Frank's and Dan's methods. 

Naw, not a Southpaw...ambidextrous like most guitar players but mostly righty.

I think a small part of my problem was fret clipping technique. I didn't realize I needed any :-) 

I think the main problem was my homemade fretbender twisting the fretwire.  Very disappointing...I built two prototypes and was careful about tolerances, wobble, etc.

I broke down and bought a fret "Bendernator" from Looks solid but will use it first time tomorrow.

I have been guilty of using the fret cutter on other things but stopped that after chipping and replacing one. Now I have some quality nippers I've ground for the other chores.

I never thought about torquing the edges out of alignment. Good point.

Dan says he takes the plastic handle off his end dressing file, grinds that end, and then uses it where the fret end touches the fretboard. Not sure what he means by this...both in what he does to the file and how he used it.

Thanks for the suggestions, Tom.  I'm pretty much with you except I haven't been using a caul to clamp frets before gluing.

Do you clamp and glue after setting each fret?

I have the Stewmac 4" cauls...would these be good? I'd use them with wax paper to keep glue off.

Do you use accellerator? If so, before or after?  When I last ran CA along both sides of the fret and then accellerated it left white spots. I've seen Dan E. do it both ways.

I'm thinking about making some narrow gluing cauls out of nylon or delrin...whatever CA doesn't stick to. I might be able to use a tiny Irwin-type clamp and replace the upper end with the caul. That would be fast especially if I don't have to insert the wax paper.

After pressing a fret in, I check for any gap between the bottom of the fret's crown and fret board surface with either a .0015" steel feeler gauge, or .001" piece of brass sheet (the brass is thinner, which is a plus, but it gets banged up fast). If my feeler gauge slides under there easily, I know the fret's not seated well enough, and I fix that before moving on. 

There have been cases, where the feeler gauge showed a gap in one little spot, and trying to clamp the fret down more does not make the gap go away. In that case I put a couple more frets in, and then I find the same thing happening with each fret, which means there's just a little "flat" area in the radius of the board, running the length of the board. 

Good advice. I'll try checking each fret as it goes in.

I use a leveling beam then a radius block using a white pencil to make sure I've kissed all areas. I guess I've assumed no flats. Next time I'll run a radius gauge along the fretboard and check next to every fret slot. I also need to be more careful about checking the length of every fret slot using a de-barbed fret to check depth.

New techniques and tools are great but keep in mind that Stewart MacDonald is in the business of selling tools and Dan Erlwine is a guitar repairman that works for them. Having said that you should buy a crowning file. Using a cant file to crown requires a fair amount of skill, the people that are good at it don't touch the fingerboard. If you think you're hitting the frets too hard get a smaller hammer and if you need to know how much force is being applied by an arbor press (they usually start at 1 ton) you're using to much. 

The real experience comes from paying attention to how each individual fret goes in and trying to put the next one in better than the last one. Guitar repairs is all about problem solving. 

 I saw a picture of a pair of end nippers with a small brass disc attached to one side, it was a tool they made in the Gibson factory. You could tap the frets in and trim them flush with the same tool. If you add 2 more files and some sandpaper you've got all the tools a repairman or builder needed to do a refret for 100 yrs. 

I'd like to see that Gibson tool. I'm guessing that, as in many things, "a poor craftsman blames his tools." I admit to being a tool weenie and having almost as much fun studying and buying tools as using them. However, I remember when I was younger and had only basic tools that I was able to build some pretty cool stuff by being creative.

Right. The reason I'm thinking about making thin cauls is it's impossible to glue the fret while clamped with 4" sanding cauls. 

Hi Robbie.

I know all this information is probably blowing your mind.  I'd like to offer some support & different advice:

To me, a standard refret requires the FB to be profiled to a certain radius.  Let's assume, for this explanation, that it's 12".  Of course, the fretwire needs to be overbent and washed with naptha to remove any oils on the metal. Fret slots require inspection & preparation. Then, you should use the same radius caul (12") to press/glue as you used on the FB. Plus, I always level my frets after they're in to address inconsistencies in the fretwire.  To me it's not an option. The 'flats' that result are simply a part of the process and the best file to use (as John stated) is a fret rounding file. Having to hog-off a lot of fret material is a red flag that something is amiss with the FB prep.  A good refret will yield very small flats when the frets are leveled, or as I call it "accurized".

Using smaller radius cauls than the FB profile is applicable when you run into problems with certain FB's or to address specific problems. I'll take a guess and bet that your frets aren't seating properly at the apex of their radius.  IF that's what's happening, it may be due to the use of over-radiused cauls.

It also might be that you're trying to incorporate advanced techniques when in fact the simplest techniques will cause the fewest issues and yield great results. We call this the K.I.S.S. principle. It's good to have all the knowledge you need when refretting, but you don't have to incorporate everything you know on every job.

BTW: I'm familiar with that hammer/clipper tool from the old Gibson days.  By today's standards, it's pretty crude.  Plus, the guys that KNEW how to use them had a decade of experience with fretting. The key factor was their experience.   Put it this way, IF it was such a great tool, why is it not being used today? Food for thought.

In summary, start simple and address advanced techniques only as needed for serious problem solving.

Just keep practicing on yard sale specials.  The only way to become proficient at fretting is to do a lot of them. Also, if there's a good tech or luthier in your area, you might want to ask them if you can observe them or ask them to watch you while you fret a FB in order to give you real time pointers. A couple hours of hands-on guidance is equal to about 1000 replies on this forum (:

And again, don't become discouraged. This skill takes a long time to get down and even after that; every job will present unique circumstances. Fretting truly is an alchemy of art and science. Although we have cool proprietary tools and techniques in the modern world, experience is still the best & only teacher. It has a steep learning curve.

Happy Holidays and best of luck,


Thanks for taking the time to give me pointers!

My procedure has been to

evaluate neck with industrial & slotted straightedges and radius gauges,
heat & remove frets,
adjust truss rod to straighten neck,
thoroughly check with straightedge to get idea of FB problems,
clean FB with naptha,
level FB with SM beam,
radius with SM sanding caul,
check radius with gauges,
clean fretboard with naptha,
clean slots and inspect with Optivisor,
blow frets slots out with compressed air,
check & correct for consistent slot depth,
re-clean fret slots,
clean, over-radius, cut fretwire,
install frets,
check for high frets and correct with 2oz ball pein and 1/8" steel plate,
tape fretboard,
level, radius and dress frets,
glue frets with CA & clean up.

I going to try and add in some clamping while superglueing.

BTW, I use a white pencil prior to sanding and a Sharpie before leveling frets.

I've watched the Erlewine videos (Basic, Adv I, Adv II) maybe 5 times so the steps are starting to sink in. As you mention, experience is what's needed and that means making mistakes to also learn what not to do.


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