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Beginners guide to leveling frets

posted Oct 23, 2013 17:38:19 by MichaelWamback
As we all know, all of our beloved Chibsons have fret issues when we first pull them out of their Styrofoam sarcophagus. Many of them will have a lot of buzzing caused by uneven fret work. If you are a beginner, the concept of leveling and crowning frets can be really scary. If you plan on only buying one guitar in your lifetime, it is probably easier to have it professionally done. Cost for a professional fret level/dress and setup is usually around $150, but can vary a lot so shop around. But if you want to learn to do it yourself, there are some tools you will have to invest in. Here is a guide on how to level and dress frets.

First, remove the strings. You will also want to cover the body of your guitar with paper taped down, particularly the pickups. Magnetic pickups tend to attract metal shavings. Funny how that works.

Step 1 - Make sure your neck is straight.

You can't tell for sure by laying a straight edge along the frets, since the frets are uneven at this point. You will need a straight edge the length of the neck. A good steel measure from your local hardware store will work, or the straight edge from a drafting "T" square. You will have to cut small notches in it to allow it to drop over the frets onto the wood of the neck. Using this tool, you adjust the truss rod until the neck is perfectly straight, with the straight edge making contact with the wood the entire length of the neck.

Step 2 - Protect your fingerboard

You don't wish to accidentally scratch the wood on the fingerboard, so cover it with some blue painters tape (or masking tape in a pinch). This will protect your neck as you work on it with the files.

Step 3 - Mark the frets

Using a sharpie, you now mark a black line on the top of each fret. This will allow you to easily see when all of your frets are level. The leveling file will not make contact with a low fret, so the black lines won't disappear until all of the frets are perfectly on the same plane. You are now ready to level the frets.

Step 4 - Fret level

There are a number of tools available for leveling frets, but the all have a perfectly machined flat surface with either a metal file or sticky back sandpaper. You run this tool up and down the fretboard until you have just removed all of the black marks from the top of the frets. Make sure you take your time, and keep a close eye on your work. You don't want to remove more fret than necessary. For absolute beginners, you may want to start with something that uses sandpaper as it's safer than using a file. 220 grit would work reasonably well, although it will take a bit more time. 150 grit is faster but will scratch more. What I like to do is to use a more aggressive grade paper to get them close, then make a final few passes with the 220 grit to smooth the frets out.

Now your frets should be perfectly level - eliminating the buzz and allowing you to set your action low for optimum playing comfort.

The problem now is that your frets are no longer round. The tops of them will be flat where the file ground them down. My Chibson arrived from China in this sorry state.

Your going to want to "crown" your frets, meaning to make them round again. The reason frets are round and not flat is twofold. First, that flat fret is going to offer more friction and resistance to a string when you bend it. And more importantly, the string is supposed to make contact with the exact center of the fret, not the edge. If the fret has a flat spot, the contact point with the string will be too close to the body of the guitar, making that note slightly sharp.

Crowning frets used to take a lot of skill back in the day. Luthiers would use a small needle file and do each by hand, rolling the file to create a round fret. There was a lot of technique involved in getting perfectly crowned frets. Fortunately, today's kids have it good.

Step 5 - Crowning frets

These diamond crowning files do a fantastic job. They come in 300 and 150 grit. Buy the 300 - it cuts fast enough but won't go too fast. You place the file on the fret and run it back and forth. The diamond dust files away the fret, and the files concave shape makes sure they will end up perfectly round. Some people like to remark the tops of the frets with sharpie again before they crown them, but I find you can see the frets well enough in good light to know when they are round. The diamond file will leave behind a very smooth fret, as compared to a steel file. You could even stop at this point, and a lot of people would be happy. Fortunately, were here at CGS are not a lot of people. :)

Step 6 - Check your work

Using the fret rocker, check each fret just to make sure you haven't inadvertently removed too much material from a fret when crowning them. The fret rocker has sides of different length. You set it across 3 frets, and if it is stable then your frets are level. If the fret rocker rocks back and forth even a very tiny bit, then the middle fret is slightly higher than the frets on the ends. If you discover you do have a high spot on a fret, don't panic. Just use your fret crowning file and make a couple of passes across the high spot on the fret. It will level it back down. Check all the neck again until you are satisfied that all your frets are perfectly level.


Now we really want to go the extra distance to make our guitars feel amazing. To do this, we are going to polish the frets. This will give them that "glass" like quality to make them feel silky smooth.

Step 7 - Sandpaper

Use a very fine grit sandpaper to remove any scratches from the frets. I usually start with 1000 grit and then progress to 1500 grit. Just take a small piece and run it up and down the neck. This grit will be too fine to remove material from the frets, but will be enough to sand out the scratches.

Step 8 - Steel wool

You now go to 0000 steel wool, which you use to run across the length of the frets. This is finer than the sandpaper, and will really make the frets shine. I use about 40 or 50 strokes on each fret. (Following this step, I like to give the frets one last quick check with the fret rocker. They are now super smooth to the touch, and you should find the rocker slides easily over them. But then again, I'm a bit paranoid.)

Step 9 - Polishing compound

There are a couple of ways to do this. Some people use a Dremel tool and jewelers rouge. Personally, I use a foam pad on my cordless hand drill and some fine cut polish compound from the local auto store. Just dab a bit on each fret and then buff them with the polisher. This will make them very smooth.

Step 10 - Leather - it's not just for the S&M crowd

Use a piece of scrap raw leather to give the frets a final buff. It will remove any residue from the polishing compound and leave the frets super shiny.

You then remove the tape, clean up the guitar, install some new strings and set the action and relief - and you are good to go!

So see - fret leveling doesn't have to be scary. And one of the great benefits of an inexpensive Chibson is that they make great projects for you to learn skills that involve more than playing.

The two most important things to remember in life: "The only time it's acceptable to work with amateurs is if you are making porn." "If you want to work with clowns, join a circus."
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27 replies
EricMidgett said Oct 24, 2013 01:39:10
This is a great post! Thanks!
digidrums987 said Nov 15, 2013 23:10:31
Hi mate ,
You are a truly wonderful person you put so much effort in providing all this information for all to learn and for that I thank you so much.
Thank you,
MichaelWamback said Nov 16, 2013 02:00:29
No problem. Glad to share.

I really encourage you guys who plan on buying more than one Chibson to consider investing in the tools to level frets yourselves. It's a skill you will never regret learning. The thought of leveling and crowning frets can be really intimidating for a beginner, but the new tools make it so much easier. In particular, the diamond fret crowing file does such an amazing job of crowning frets - and virtually anyone can use it. It requires very little skill.

One thing I should have mentioned, buy one of those little wire brushes at the hardware store. As you use your crowning file, small bits if file shavings will clog the file. Every fret, take a moment and run the brush down the slot of the file to clear away the debris, and allow your file to make a nice clean cut.

If you are really nervous, buy a beater guitar off Criag's List to practice on the first go. You can a super cheap guitar off there for no more than $40 most days. It's something you will have absolutely no emotional attachment to, so it's safe to practice on. Once you have crowned the frets the first time, you'll realize just how easy it is to do. You'll then feel a lot more confident working on your Chibson.
The two most important things to remember in life: "The only time it's acceptable to work with amateurs is if you are making porn." "If you want to work with clowns, join a circus."
Buddhapickups said Nov 16, 2013 21:45:57
good stuff thanks!, I need to start doing this, just not enough hours in the day...
dg_info said Nov 29, 2013 08:42:25
that's great info, thanks
juz360 said Dec 05, 2013 01:55:12
what width are you guys getting on your frets? I have measured mine and im getting bang on 3mm. I have got this guitar as a mess about guitar and would like to learn how to re fret completely. I have had my chibson only a few days and there are little things popping up that i am noticing. It plays nice only a few high frets, but some of the frets have been cut a bit too short and not beveled correctly. Which is me anyway. I have read around some forums and it seems gibsons seem to have a 2.7mm width fret although i might be wrong. I would love to give it a go
MichaelWamback said Dec 05, 2013 07:03:00
It depends on the model. Gibson uses a number of different size frets. Direct from Gibson's website:

Fret width and height affect playability considerably. Fret wire measures at .078 to .110 at the crown, or top, and runs between .035 and .055 high. Taller frets, at .45 and up, tend to make for easier string bending and produce clear notes without much pressure. The latter makes them ideal for high speed playing. The furthest point of that concept is the scalloped fretboard, employed most notably by Yngwie Malmsteen and John McLaughlin, who played a specially designed Gibson J-200 with scalloped frets and drone strings with the group Shakti.

Some fast pickers prefer short frets for quick fingerboard work. It’s all a matter of taste and style, although low-fret guitars will also produce a softer-edged tone. The Gibson Les Paul Custom is a classic example.

There’s also a school of players who prefer wide frets, typically .100 to .110, for improved intonation. Wide frets wear slower than skinny frets, so they retain all their properties – including the ability to sound notes accurately – longer.
The two most important things to remember in life: "The only time it's acceptable to work with amateurs is if you are making porn." "If you want to work with clowns, join a circus."
juz360 said Dec 06, 2013 19:48:49
think im going to give it a go, no time like the present to learn how to do it. Its going to be a long drawn out thing is this guitar. It will play and does play pretty well its only a few high frets that need sanding down a bit and it will be bang on. Its just some of the fret ends have been cut too short and not beveled properly which really annoys me looking at them.

I also wanted to ask what radius are these les pauls fret boards coming out of china are they 12" i just want to get all the tools on a slow drip along with all the hardware etc so that i can just do it all in one go. Some of the guitar tools are so expensive they really are.
[Last edited Dec 06, 2013 19:52:11]
MichaelWamback said Dec 06, 2013 20:42:53
Stew Mac has some nice tools, but their process are often really high. You can often save quite a bit by shopping around. Always good to check Ebay and Amazon.

Gibson doesn't always use the same radius. I've seen anywhere from 10 to 11 1/2 on their guitars. You shouldn't necessarily need a radiused file to level frets. Stew Mac sells them, but they are expensive. You would want those if you were building a guitar and wanted to radius the fret board.
The two most important things to remember in life: "The only time it's acceptable to work with amateurs is if you are making porn." "If you want to work with clowns, join a circus."
juz360 said Dec 06, 2013 20:48:57
i was thinking more for when i pull the fret wire out ive been watching a few tutorials on youtube and they all seem to clean the fret board with a radius file after pulling the frets.

Im on amazon and ebay everyday looking for some bargins but they rarely show up. For a decent radius file i could always stick some sandpaper on the fret board and file down a piece of wood. That would the leave me with the radius i need to sand my board.

I have come across a little tool for crowning frets called a Littlebone? You familiar with one?
If you are, how do you rate them?
MichaelWamback said Dec 06, 2013 21:37:34
I have one of the little bone files and would not make it my first choice. It is basically a file set at am angle, but is not curved, so basically will cut the fret like a triangle. I strongly recommend the diamond crowning file from Stew Mac. I realize they are a bit expensive, but it's the one tool you don't want to cut corners on. That file is worth it's weight I'm gold to me.
The two most important things to remember in life: "The only time it's acceptable to work with amateurs is if you are making porn." "If you want to work with clowns, join a circus."
juz360 said Dec 06, 2013 21:53:22
yes they are expensive, think they come to about £60 over here...i dont think i can justify spending it on a file i wonder if it would be easy to make one? get a cheap diamond file the same radius as the frets to create a groove in say, a piece of wood or metal. Then just put some sandpaper in there. A little bit like the philips screwdriver technique.

Out of all the things hardware change etc, what would you do first?

Would you do the fretwork or get the hardware?
MichaelWamback said Dec 07, 2013 00:32:36
Forgot to mention that the Little Bone has been around for ages - it's actually a small tool you throw in your tackle box to sharpen knives.

There are less expensive tools that you can use for crowning frets. Of course, the old method was to use a flat triangular file and roll it over as you worked the frets to round them. It actually took a bit of practice to get them perfect. The new files are so much easier. Because they are concave, you just lay them on top of the fret and file back and forth. The advantages to a diamond file, as opposed to a metal one, is that you can file in both directions; plus it leaves a very fine cut (especially the 300 grit) with no tool marks which makes the polishing stage a lot faster.

The Philips screwdriver technique that CGS showed would likely be similar to the Little Bone, although it may be a bit rounder with the sandpaper in the groove. My concern would be to make sure the highest part is dead center of the fret, otherwise it could throw off your intonation on that note by making it a hair sharp.

There are a few diamond files on Ebay that have come down a bit from the Stew Mac price, plus there are a few other tools. The least expensive is the "fret leveling stick" which is a small tool with a concave end that has a small belt of sandpaper. It would do a pretty good job for under $20, and would work similar to the diamond crowning file. having the ability to go to finer grades of sandpaper as you get close would be a good thing. And you can purchase replacement sanding strips from them as well. I suspect you'd want to get a few. But definitely a more affordable alternative if you are only doing a guitar or two now and again.

I tend to work on a lot of guitars, not just my own. So for me, the cost of the diamond file was a good investment.
The two most important things to remember in life: "The only time it's acceptable to work with amateurs is if you are making porn." "If you want to work with clowns, join a circus."
vallaz23 said Dec 30, 2013 12:35:50
thank you for your tips friend :)
i followed all the steps and I have leveled down all the frets, but still I have to make a high action to play without buzz on my prs :(
I have bought the buzz-off tool which I find it very helpful, it has a rounded wood which can be used alongside with the sandpaper, so the fret stays rounded.
I am sure that the fretboard is completely straight, Do i just have to keep using the sandpaper and low down more?
Thank you :)
MichaelWamback said Dec 30, 2013 14:25:24
Use the fret rocker first to double check your frets. Just start at the headstock and work your way back. Take your time and check for even the slightest irregularity. If you find that you have a high spot, then you can just use your tool to remove a bit of material on that one fret until it is level.

Can you tell me where on the neck you are getting the buzz? (near the nut, middle of the neck, near the body)

One of the things that can happen with necks is that the frets can be perfectly level with the strings off, but then deform as you reapply string tension. In other words, the neck may not stay perfectly straight, but may raise up in places. Still, it shouldn't require that high an action if your frets are level.

Can you also tell me exactly what "high action" means you you. Measure the gap between the bottom of the "E" strings on the 12th fret and give me the measurements on both the bass and treble side.

And make sure you have some neck relief. Capo at the bass "E" string at the first fret, hold the string on the last fret and there should be a very small gap between the bottom of the string and the 7th fret. Most guitars play great with about .010 inch of neck relief. If you don't have any relief, your strings will buzz with a low action even with level frets.

Just let me know what your setup numbers are, and we can go from there. :)

The two most important things to remember in life: "The only time it's acceptable to work with amateurs is if you are making porn." "If you want to work with clowns, join a circus."
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