Trade Secrets!

When dry air makes fret ends stick out, here's the fix


Issue 122 September 16, 2010

Photo: ouch! fret endsFirst-time lutherie project
When dryness sets in,
fret ends stick out

This banjo’s problem is painful,
but at least it’s not hard to fix.
Dan Erlewine, September 16, 2010
When Bob Parrott served as a Navy pilot in Vietnam, this banjo was there with him. Returning home, he got a better instrument, and set this one aside.
Photo: fret ends sticking outRecently Bob got the urge to pick the old banjo again. Years in a hot closet had dried it out, and the fret ends were sticking out 1/32" from the edges of the fretboard. Playing this neck was painful!
Bob’s son in law, Mark Hyatt (pictured above), stepped in to fix the problem. Mark directs marketing at StewMac, and wanted to try his hand at fretwork. I offered him the use of my shop for his first flight as a luthier.
Photo: old banjo
There’s no maker’s name on this nice old-timey banjo. I’d estimate that it’s from the early 1900s. The neck is maple, with no fretboard (the frets are set directly into the maple). The fret tops were a little bit worn, but miraculously buzz-free. It was just those nasty fret ends that needed work.
Narrow Fretwire
Photo: banjo held in clampHere's a good way to hold a neck while you work: fasten a mini cam clamp to the peghead, and hold the clamp in a nut/saddle vise. It’s a firm hold that allows free access to the whole neck.
In this picture, Mark’s started filing those fret ends so they’re flush to the maple neck, using a 6" fret leveling file.
Mini Cam Clamp
Photo: capo as safety stop
A capo at the nut serves as a safety stop. That’s good insurance. It’d be easy to slip with the leveling file, and a single stroke would cut into the nut or nick the curve of the peghead.
Fret/Fingerboard Leveling Files
Photo: smoothing with diamond leveler After filing the ends flush to the neck, they need smoothing. Here, Mark’s honing them with a coarse diamond leveling stone. This work goes quickly on most of the frets, leaving just one hard-to-reach area shown below.
Diamond Fret Levelers
Photo: banjo fifth string peg
Problem. The fifth string tuner gets in the way of filing the first four frets on the bass side. Even with this short 3" leveler, there’s no room for a good filing stroke without banging into the tuner.
Photo: filing banjo frets
Solution. The answer was to protect the fretboard edge with brown binding tape, leaving these fret ends exposed, then flush them to the board with a fret end dressing file. It takes firm pressure with the file, which is why we chose this heavy, tough tape. It offers better protection than masking tape.
Binding Tape
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Photo: banjo fret dressing Dressing the fret ends.
Regular masking tape is enough protection for the light filing needed to round and smooth all the fret ends. Here, the same dressing file used above knocks off any remaining sharp burrs and lightly rounds the fret ends. 
Fret End Dressing File
Photo: banjo fret polishing Polishing is the final touch.
Shining the frets with 400-grit (green) polishing paper leaves them gleaming. A thin metal fingerboard guard protects the wood.
3M Flexible Polishing Papers
Photo: cleaning banjo with naphtha Clean up with naphtha.
Before stringing up, Mark leaves the neck clean and grease-free by wiping with a soft rag dampened with naphtha. (Nitrile gloves protect those pickin’ fingers.)
Behlen Naphtha Solvent
Photo: banjo frets are fixed Hey, it worked!
The neck’s comfortable now that the fret ends are back where they belong. You could pick this for hours without needing a single band-aid! This banjo’s ready to go back to his dad-in-law, and Mark’s one happy first-time luthier!
Nitrile Gloves
Problem-solving products for this kind of work:
3M Flexible Polishing Papers
Strong micro-grit finishing papers, so flexible you can use them like cloth--wet or dry!
Fingerboard Guards
Protect the fingerboard from accidental scratches and gouges with these stainless steel guards.
Fret End Dressing File
The perfect tool for dressing the ends of your frets for that professional look.
More More More
Diamond Fret Levelers
Industrial diamond-coated steel blocks. Excellent for putting a razor edge on chisels and knives, and great for leveling frets!
Fret/Fingerboard Leveling Files
These custom-made files give you a handle on your fret work!
Binding Tape
Super strong and super useful in the shop.
More More More

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