I've been using a 6in. file for leveling jobs, and i'm getting a little tired of it.  I'm feeling like it doesn't cover enough span, it chatters when it hits a spot that's really out of level and needs to bite more, and of course it leaves a lot of destruction in its path.  I remove all of the filing marks with a triangle file, come back and check for level, only to need to go over them again or spot level.  I always deliver a completely level board with fully crowned polished frets with no filing marks, but i'd like to speed up the process.  I'm considering grabbing a few rolls of stikit paper and a leveling beam, maybe the middle length offered by Stumac.

I went to diamond crowning files years ago and they changed everything for the better.  How are the diamond fret levelers from Stumac that are basically knife sharpeners?

What are your preferred methods? 

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Apologies for bumping this thread yet again, but I have another question that is related.

I'm looking to avoid using the sticky sandpaper and was looking at rolls of non-sticky sandpaper online. What do you know, they're made of different materials and their backing has a weight categorization (or something like that). Needless to say, I know nothing about this stuff (any quick primer to sandpaper would be appreciated), but most importantly, does it matter what type of sandpaper I get for fret work? It seems like a lot of people like the 3M StikIt stuff. Is there something comparable and non-sticky?

Thanks again!


The 3m stickit is just their Fre Cut product with adhesive on it, so you could buy sheets or rolls of frecut and stick it on withdouble sided tape and have something pretty similar. Ive found I really like the frecut for a lot of things, but any dry lube aluminum oxide paper would be 'similar'. I think the fre cut gives you the best value when you consider how long it lasts and how well it cuts.

Paper weight is basically the thickness of the paper, A being the thinnest and so forth (i think thats right). Personally Im not usually keen on anything over a B weight for most uses as its more flexible and conforms more nicely. Not sure if there would be much difference for levelling frets, except that maybe a thicker paper might have some cushioning effect.

Eliya mind if I ask you why you don't want to go the self-stick route?

I'm asking because if you are thinking that changing paper will be easier with non-stick paper it's pretty easy with the self stick paper too.  A quick wipe with naphtha after peeling off the self-stick and your back in business.

If you use paper with no stick you are going to have to use tape to keep it in place and then deal with that adhesive removal as well.

Just curious as to why you're not keen to go the self-stick route?

I only use three grits of paper anyway, 80, 120, and 220.  One beam does two grits and a second beam does the third and then you have dedicated beams for different grits making changing paper less frequent.

I saw that some people in this thread mentioned how removing the old sandpaper can be a bit of a pain (although I'm a big fan of pulling out the naphtha whenever is necessary). Another reason is that the stikit stuff is more expensive.

My idea was to put a small piece of double sided tape inside the beam on each edge. This way the sandpaper wraps around the beam and should hopefully sit flat against it. When changing sandpaper, I will only have two small pieces of tape/residue to deal with, and I probably won't care too much if I removed all the residue. That's because the area where the sticky tape is on isn't on the surface of the beam.

Maybe I'm wrong though!

Also, I was going to use 400 grit paper for the bulk of the leveling. I used a fine diamond stone before and I thought it was just the right grit. I believe it's comparable to 400 grit sandpaper. Should I actually go with more coarse stuff like 220?

Thanks again for all the replies. This place is my favorite luthier forum!

In my experience, using anything coarser than say, 350 grit is only necessary if the frets are way out of level.  Graduate to 400 then use the 400 on the frets at 90 degrees (along the fret) to wipe out the 400 scratches from the leveling.  Re-crown the frets with the 400.  Move to 600, then coarse steel wool followed by fine wool to polish.

BTW I didn't know they still sold that old short-lived paper.  Why use that cheap crap?  Also, naphtha is quite dangerous!  Don't just pull it out when necessary.  Avoid it and use grain alcohol (you can make a great martini with it also!).

For me, self-sticking sandpaper is good for lining the concave disk for sanding linings down.  I don't like the stuff.  I like your idea of the double-stick tape.  It lasts forever and is recyclable.  I have had a roll for 2 years and it is only half used! 

Ok I think that we need to back up a bit here and then maybe some of this will make more sense.

Leveling beams are not only for leveling frets, they are also perfect for leveling the board prior to fretting for builders and for refrets for repair folks.  The greater the precision when board leveling the less material removal one has to do with a fret dress.

So let's address leveling the board first:  When was the last time that you attempted to level a fret board with 400 grit....  Perhaps I am one hell of a lazy sort but I really don't want to spend all day at it or go through a LOT of paper.  This is where a beam with 80 grit comes in handy.  We are seeking to level the board and not attempting to put a final surface on the board at this point.

Also you need a beam long enough to span from the nut to beyond the 12th for leveling the board (or frets).  You also need a beam short enough to go from the 12th to beyond the last fret for milling in fall-away.  Please see my pic earlier in this thread.

And again we are addressing the board only at this point with 80 grit AND even with 80 grit you will be spending some time doing this depending on how unlevel the board may be.

For fret leveling I typically first mark the fret tops (magic marker) and then hit them with 220 on again a beam long enough to span from the nut beyond the 12th.  At this point I want to see where I am hitting and address the following taking in to account where I am indeed hitting frets:

1)  Where do I need to do the heavy lifting so-to-speak in terms of milling frets down below any divots or where the beam is not hitting (this is for a fret dress on an existing, used instrument).

2)  Is the neck correct in so much as more relief on the bass side and less on the treble side?

3)  Is the neck angle correct and if not and if desired I have an opportunity to mill into the frets a bit of correction that can increase not the neck angle but the fret plane angle in respect to the saddle, bridge, etc.

All three of the considerations above can be addressed and somewhat corrected if not completely corrected at times, not always, with a well thought out fret dress.

After seeing where I am hitting AND considering the above if very little material needs to be removed I may stay with 220.  If there is more leveling to be done I switch to 120.

The entire point of using leveling beams is to do a fret dress that has a very high level of precision where the frets are leveled to within .0005" from each other.  Even greater precision is possible here too and we've done it and measured it as well.  Very demanding players may need uber low action and this is where having a high-precesion methodology for fret dressing will be desirable.

Using shorter beams say between the nut and 12th will take the precision out of the process.  We are attempting to address the entire fret plane not individual frets in isolation.  In addition using the beams side ways to sand out scratches also defeats the entire purpose of the beams - precision.

On some occasion when the frets are a nightmare.... I may use 80 grit on a beam too on the frets.

My typical fret dress starts with 220 and marking, may go to 120 for most of the leveling, and then I return to 220 but "in line" with the neck never across the frets with a beam.  Returning to 220 takes away the 120 scratches AND preserves the level set precision that is the entire goal of the beams and this process.

Once I have my level and finished up with the 220 I may crown and hit them all again with the beams with 220 to check it all out one last time.  Then I go with 320 in hand and the beams are put away and the 320 is folded four times as I attack scratches on the tops and sides of the frets, then 400, then 600, then, then, then - your milage may vary.

For us after 320 I put on a face mask and take it all to our dedicated fret buffer which is a four wheel process that David Collins created and built.  We can obtain a very high degree of polish with out all of the hand sanding but I also may hand sand at times or when I am not where the buffer is.

So starting at 400 grit will be something that you will in short order regret because it will take forever and use a LOT of paper.  If avoiding scratches is an issue let me know - what we do takes them out in no time and is pretty easy and also can be done by hand - it's old school!

We used to wrap the paper around the edges of the beam and stopped doing this because we see no difference in the results but when wrapped the paper changes are more difficult and take longer.

Regarding Naptha it's a very valuable staple in every Lutherie shop that I know of.  Everclear is great too but you have fire risk with either and Naptha is far cheaper, easier to find (Everclear is not sold in Michigan).  

Fret dresses are done nearly every day in our shop.  Our beams are checked on a calibrated surface plate from time to time and releveled if need be.  Time is money for us but very high quality work is also always our goal and required in our market as well.

Lastly like many processes the kind of results that I speak of are dependent on 1) understanding the process and 2)  following the methodology strictly and not picking and choosing what aspects work for you now and then being less than thrilled when your results may not be acceptable.

You will still be cleaning adhesive with double sided tape AND dealing with issues such as what if the paper gets a very small tear in it where there is no adhesive all of which are not issues, trust me please...., when simply using self stick sand paper.

Is this being over thought here - looks that way to me.

Hope this helps!

Thanks, Hesh. I found it interesting.

Perhaps you'll someday address getting fret ends to stay down on bound fretboards.

Hi ya Robbie:

We clamp and press our frets using the Jaws II tool and a host of adaptors that we created and shop-made.

For pesky fret ends we start with over radiused wire and then choose a fret pressing caul with a tighter radius than the board, ever so slightly tighter radius.  Now when we press in this fret the ends get more pressure than say in the middle.  

We also run a bead of super thin (fresh thin) CA next to the fret, wait to see it wicking up the other side, wipe with acetone, reclamp with the Jaws II tool with over radiused caul, and hit the thing with accelerator.  

Easy peezy, ends down, fret clamped in place and now glued too, next!  If you give it some thought too you will determine how to move along the board so that where you spray accelerator does not contaminate the next fret location that you will need to address.

Thanks, Mr. Breakstone. My procedure is the same except for the reclamping. I've tried it but found it difficult to get the Jaws II in place and screwed down before the superglue hardened on its own. I guess practice makes perfect. Meanwhile, I'm making a Jaws I in my evening machine tools course. I milled the caul body last time out of glass-filled nylon and will slot the lower jaw for the anvil tonight.

Thanks Hesh for this thorough and helpful reply. I read and re-read it and will keep doing it until it sinks in.

Everything I wrote and asked so far was strictly about leveling frets and not fret boards. Sorry for the confusion. To be honest, if I had to level a fretboard, I'm not sure I'd trust myself with a beam. I'd be worried I'd mess up the radius of the fingerboard.

Do you mind clarifying these two points? Again, I'm a real novice when it comes to fret work, so I want to make sure I understand it right:

2)  Is the neck correct in so much as more relief on the bass side and less on the treble side?

By this you mean that the frets are lower on the bass side than the treble side?

3)  Is the neck angle correct and if not and if desired I have an opportunity to mill into the frets a bit of correction that can increase not the neck angle but the fret plane angle in respect to the saddle, bridge, etc.

I feel like this one is strictly about acoustics and electrics with set necks. How would something like that be done? Seems like it would take a lot of effort!

Thanks again for this post. It's really appreciated.

Too bad my ideas were so summarily dismissed.  I was only talking about new instruments.  After leveling the fingerboard, IT IS LEVEL ALREADY - no heavy lifting required when fretting.

I go ALONG THE FRET, hitting each fret with equal pressure and the same amount of strokes, thereby eliminating the possibility that an individual fret will be different from the rest.  I find it easy to do that up to the point of polishing it.  It's just my technique and it works every time.

Phil. My fret method is fairly close to yours. Level to 400 - 600 - Steel Wool. No Everclear, but I do use gloves when working with chemicals.


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