I've acquired a few inexpensive guitars over the last couple of years and, apart from their bang for the buck, they've one thing in common: they'd all benefit from a fret dress. But with the pros charging more than many of my guitars actually cost, I decided to add to my skill set and do it myself. How hard could it be? Step 1: the method
Ron Kirn, over at TDPRI, has this pretty much covered in a couple of his threads: http://www.tdpri.com/forum/stratocaster-discussion-forum/104487-ok-so-i-promised-here-ya-5.html#post1265684
. I'd never have considered doing this without his excellent step by step guides. Thanks, Ron. Add a tour round half a dozen guitar forums and StewMac's site and I was ready to go.Step 2: the tools
Now it's possible to spend a lot of money here and I completely understand the DIYer who enjoys putting serious money down for the best tools out there. That's not me. If I have to pay, I will, but I'm sure going to try and avoid doing so if I can.
Searching eBay, I managed to find a Corian offcut (with precision flat faces) and a quality 180 grit silicon carbide sanding roll (50 metres! It'll come in, right?) for no money. Result. With the addition of some low tack masking tape, double-sided tape and a marker pen, that's the levelling tools sorted.
Finding the right crowning tools at the right price was more difficult. There are several ways to go and none of them are anywhere close to being cheap. I eventually went with StewMac's medium three-corner fret dressing file. £13 didn't seem too high a price to pay, even though it's essentially a triangular file with the edges ground off. I also picked up their fret end dressing file to complete the tool box.Step 3: the guitar
Now I needed a guinea pig to learn on. So for the last few weeks I've been on the lookout for a fixer upper. Step forward, for the princely eBay sum of £27.21 (with a tatty Laney solid state practice combo thrown in), a used/abused and pretty much unplayable MIC '95 Squier Strat.Step 4: levelling
First job was to get the neck level. A minor tweak of the truss rod and it was straight enough! The fret board was taped; the patient was prepped and ready. Notice the improvised neck support – I'm going to have to rig up something better up for the next one.
Every fret was marked up with the pen:
I used double-sided tape to attach the sandpaper to the Corian and set to work. No force was required. Just gently passing the block up and down took those high spots back immediately.
After just a couple of passes:
Looking across all of the frets, the cuts confirmed the neck was straight enough to continue.
After a minute or so of gentle up/down/rolling action, most of the pen had gone but not all. You can see here that frets 21 and 22 were stubborn hold outs. Fret 20, on the other hand, had been taken back a lot. No wonder this guitar was unplayable above the 12th fret.
Another minute or so though and the job's done.
To finish off, for that pro touch (roll off?), frets 12 and upwards were given a few more strokes to take them down just a tad further.Step 5: crowning
I marked the frets again with the pen. The job now was to remove all of the ink with the file save for a fine sliver on the crown. A nice dome shape was the goal but I'd be happy with an inverted 'v' on this one. Either way, it's all good.
After watching StewMac's video demo for the triangular crowning file again (http://www.stewmac.com/shop/Fretting_supplies/Shaping_and_crowning/3-Corner_Fret_Dressing_Files.html?tab=Video#details
) I took a deep breath and began.
Progress was slow and steady. By working from both sides of the neck, I tried to get each fret two thirds of the way there before moving on to the next. The file's 'safe' edges did their job for the most part with the masking tape holding up well but I wouldn’t think of trying this with a bare neck.
You can see here the first fret I worked on. A couple of slips are visible on the crown and the tape's worn through and needed replacing. I got better.
Next, I went over each fret again, working on the profile and getting that ink line nice and fine. My confidence grew and I actually started to enjoy myself. About an hour after starting, the levelling was done. Step 6: finishing off
After cleaning up the fret ends (though the majority needed little to no work) I used a piece of 1000 grit paper wrapped round my finger to take off the remaining ink and buff up each fret. I finished them off with a good polish and removed the tape. A little lemon oil on the board and I'm smiling.
The finished article:
Rewired with a new switch and jack, I've kept the stock ceramic neck and middle pickups and added a cheap DeArmond bridge humbucker I had lying around. I've replaced the pickguard, nut and tuner bushes and tweaked the trem. The dirt and grime's been removed revealing a well matched three piece alder body though the finish has chipped off in a couple of places – mojo, right?
How does it play? With its fret dress and new set up: like butter. How does it sound? For the most part, like a MIC '95 Squier of course but it's not too bad and if I decide it's a keeper that can be changed.
Bring on the next guitar!