Fret Work: Level Crown and Polish
What Is A Fret Level, Crown, and Polish?
Before a proper setup can be performed on a guitar or bass, it is crucial that the instruments fretwork be in good shape. This is especially important when a player requires that the action set very low. A higher action may hide fret problems that become glaringly apparent once the string height is lowered.
Fret Leveling on New Instruments
It is not uncommon for even new guitars to be in need of a fret leveling in order to reach their full potential. During the making of an instrument, frets are installed into slots in the fingerboard by pressing or hammering them into position. Try as we might, it is virtually impossible to press or hammer all 20 or more of them in a perfect plane. A fret leveling is the best way to remove these inconsistencies.
Factories will often grind and polish the frets after installation, but sometimes a cursory job is done; On moderately priced or inexpensive instruments, this crucial step can be overlooked altogether! With the action set to “manufacturers spec.”, this is often sufficient. However, since many of us prefer our action below manufacturers spec., more detailed, and time consuming, fretwork from a qualified repairman may be required.
Fret Leveling Used Instruments
Used instruments typically require fretwork for two major reasons. Over time, the metal of the strings wears down the metal of the fret wire and can create grooved impressions where the strings make contact. Sometimes these grooves get deep enough that the fret has to be replaced, but many times it can be solved by a fret leveling. However, even with minimal play time, improper instrument humidity care can also cause the board to swell and contract, loosening and unseating the metal frets in the process
Apart from the obvious issues of buzzing, rattling, or muted notes, poorly executed or badly worn fretwork can also cause intonation issues and other problems. What follows is a brief explanation of the process used to level frets. This procedure is interchangeably called: “fret leveling”, “level, crown, and polish”, “grind and Polish”, or simply a “fret dressing”.
How To Level Guitar Frets
The picture above shows a Fender Stratocaster with frets in need of repair. While they may not be quite as bad as the ones shown in the photo at the top of this page, they do show some pitting and are just generally flat. In order to get the best playability out of the instrument, the customer elected to have them dressed.
After determining that all of the frets were well seated, we removed the strings and the neck from the guitar, then adjusted the neck straight. After taping off, we used a flat block and sandpaper to grind the frets. Filing with even strokes across the neck, following the lie of the strings, the high spots are hit first and low spots will remain untouched. Using a trained eye and several specially sized straight edges as a guide, we carefully remove material until all of the frets on the guitar neck are the same height.
Once the frets are level, they are left flat, scratched, dull, and in short: unplayable. To remedy this, we begin the time consuming process of “re-crowning”. Though there are several specialty “luthier’s tools” available for this job, we have found that the traditional method still works best in most cases. As such, we prefer to use a specially modified triangle file. Working slowly, we re-shape the profile of each fret individually until it returns to its original crown.
With the frets now leveled and crowned, we use a series of fine sandpapers, followed by extra fine steel wool, to polish the frets back to a high shine. After re-checking the work to ensure that it is perfect, the guitar should now be ready for setup. With the frets in order, we should have no problem getting a nice low action, with proper intonation, and buzz free bending on this guitar!
Although the theory behind this work is relatively straight forward, it requires good hands and a trained eye that only the and experienced tech. can provide. This information is presented as an educational resource, not as a tutorial! I would not recommend anyone to attempt this job on their own instruments. If you have any questions regarding the fretwork on your guitar, please reach out for a free evaluation. Together, we can determine the best way to care for your instrument.
About Guitar Repair Long Island:
Guitar Repair Long Island is the area’s premier destination for fretted musical instrument care and maintenance. We fix all fretted instruments, including: guitars, basses, banjos, mandolins, and ukuleles. Conveniently located in Ronkonkoma NY, the shop is dedicated to providing quick, honest, and reliable service. Our vast experience in all aspects of instrument repair ensures that we can help with whatever your needs are. Contact us or book your appointment today