This is something I’ve been meaning to write for a while now. Since writing my book, I’ve learned easier ways of fretting instruments and wanted to pass along that information. Recently we went to see The Calamity Cubes!
play and they ended up staying at our house and Brook ended up buying a copy of How & Why. He sent me a message a couple of days ago saying he was almost done with his first cigar box guitar. I told him I knew of an easier way to fret and promised I’d pass along the info (with pictures).
I went out to the garage, but found I’d already fretted everything that was ready. So I found a neck that wasn’t ready, grabbed my son Jed to run the camera, and fretted it anyway. It was mostly ready, but I usually like to stain and/or finish the necks before fretting them. This neck was for an experimental cigar box guitar, so it doesn’t really matter anyway. (Thanks to Jed for being a good sport and helping me track down the tools I couldn’t find after misplacing them during my mad building spree a couple weeks back… and then sticking around the cold garage to take pictures too.)
So the first step is cutting the frets slots in your neck, which I’ve covered in How & Why: A Do It Yourself Guide. Not much has changed since then. I still haven’t bought a miter box. I’m pretty sure one day I’m really gonna kick myself for that. However, here’s what has changed since I wrote the book. I no longer cut all my frets to length, shape them, and then install them on the neck. Here’s my new method.
Installing Frets with a ‘Fret Hammer’
First off, I set the tang of a length of fret wire into the fret slot and then tap it in using a fretting hammer. In the picture below, the first two frets were from the beginning of a new piece of fret wire and had nice square ends, so they could be lined up with the edge of the fretboard. However, when you cut the fret with an end nippers, it leaves one side square and one side pointed. You could turn the fret wire around and cut the end square, or you can just hang it off the end of the fretboard a fraction of an inch, then come back and trim it off later. The latter method seems to go faster.
A fretting hammer is about $20 from Steward MacDonald and comes with a plastic head on one side and a brass head on the other. My ‘fretting hammer’ is from Harbor Freight and cost about $6. It has a plastic head and a soft rubber head. The rubber head isn’t much good for fretting, but the plastic side works great. It’s hard enough to install frets without marring them. (One of these days I’m going to see if the Stew Mac heads fit my hammer) Another option might be covering the end of a regular hammer with thick leather. I’ve never tried this, but it seems like it might work.
Anyway, I start on the side of the neck farthest from me. I tap in that side and work towards myself. Usually it takes 2 – 3 taps. You want to tap hard enough to get the tang all the way into the wood so that the crown is against the fretboard, but not so hard that the fret is slightly indented into the neck.
Tapping in fret with fret hammer
Once you’ve tapped your fret into place, cut the end flush with the neck using an end nippers. You can buy special fret cutters which are shaped to cut closer to the edge of the fretboard, but they’re 2 or 3 times as expensive as an end nippers from the hardware store, so I go with the end nippers. They’ll cut real close. In fact, if you’re not careful, you’ll sometimes nick the wood.
Cutting fret to length with end nippers
Installing Frets with a Wood Block
Here’s another method for installing frets. I mostly covered this in the book, but there’s a slight change. Instead of cutting the frets to length and then tapping them in, you can set the fret wire in the slot (with the pointed end hanging off the edge slightly), set a hardwood block on top, and tap it into place. My favorite piece of wood to use is the tapered piece I remove the neck to get it to fit the box. It’s rather thin at one end so it’s just wide enough to cover the fret. The other end is a bit wider for hitting with the hammer. The thin side makes it easier to hit just one fret when they’re getting close together. It also make it less likely that you’ll accidentally hit your fretboard with the edge of your block.
Pressing fret into slot before positioning wood block
Tapping fret in with wood block and claw hammer
As I mentioned above, it pays to be careful with your wood block. Keep it as vertical as you can to avoid hitting the fretboard and leaving a divot. I’d like to say I did this intentionally to show the “wrong way to do things” but the truth is, I’m just out of practice with this method and got careless.
Divot caused by not holding wood block straight up and down when hammering
Here’s what you end up with. All the frets cut flush on one side, and hanging off just a little bit on the other.
All frets tapped into the neck
Frets hang over edge of neck on one side and need to be cut to length.
Just go down the length of the neck cutting all the frets flush with the edge of the fretboard.
Cutting all frets flush with edge of neck using end nippers
Dressing the Fret Ends
Now you’ll just need to dress the end of your frets. I find it easiest to do them all at once. If you’re careful, you can do it without damaging the neck or finish. Take a fine metal file and hold it at about a 30 to 45 degree angle to the end of the frets. Then just move it up and down the length of the neck filing an angle on the end of all the frets until the edge of that angle is flush with the edge of the neck.
Filing fret ends
This will sometimes leave the tang of the fret protruding a bit from the side of the neck.
This picture shows (kind of) that the fret tangs are still protruding from side of neck.
This can be remedied by holding the file almost flat against the neck (angle it just a tiny bit) and filing the end of the fret tangs.
Filing end of frets
Now you’ll probably want to round off the end of the frets. I bought a double edge fret file from Steward MacDonald for doing this. Mine will do both narrow and medium frets, which is all I use. It’s kind of expensive at about $39, but it makes things SO easy. I just hold it at an angle to the end of the fret and then round it off with one stroke.
Rounding end of frets with fret file
This shows two frets that have been rounded, and two that still have sharp edges. It also shows the divot I created with a badly aimed wood block.
If you don’t have the fret file, the ends can be rounded using a 3 sided file. I have never done a whole neck like this, just individual frets that had to be replaced. It works best if you use something to protect the neck. Of course Stewart MacDonald has a special tool for this, but you can also just use a piece of aluminum cut from a soda can. Just lay it next to the fret so you don’t nick the neck with the edge of the file.
Rounding fret ends with 3 sided file, using piece of can as a guard.
No matter how you do it, you may want to hit the edge of all the frets with a sanding block when you’re done. Just wrap some fine sandpaper around a piece of wood, hold it at an angle (like you did with the file), and run up and down the edge of the frets a couple times. This will smooth out any file marks.