In this article I hope to explain the basics of what a fret dress is, the work that goes into completing a good fret dress, and why you may want an experienced guitar technician to perform one on your guitar. To start, ask yourself a few questions about your guitar: Is your guitar starting to make unusual buzzing noises when you play it? Do some notes on your fretboard choke out and go silent immediately after hitting the string? Can you see dents in the frets underneath where the string hits them when you press down on the string? Do some notes sound just not quite in tune? If any of these problems sound familiar, you may be a candidate for a fret dress, which is the process of leveling and reshaping the frets on a guitar so they have an even height and shape all the way up and down the fretboard.
This Suhr electric guitar is on my bench today for a fret dress. Over time, a well played guitar will start to form dents in the frets. This happens because the metal that string manufacturers use to make guitar strings is made from a harder material than what the frets are made out of.
Also, over time and during seasonal changes, the humidity in the environment where a guitar lives may also cause the fretboard wood to swell and contract, which could push frets up and out of the slots that they are seated in.
In this picture you can see the dents formed in the frets by the player pushing the strings down into the frets. This is a very common problem that is bound to happen during the life of any guitar that gets played regularly. Now that the height of all the frets is uneven due to the frets being worn down, the player will start to notice his guitar buzzing excessively, poor tone from the guitar, and the intonation of their playing will be off. A fret dress will take care of all these issues.
Once the neck has been removed, we make sure that the neck is as perfectly straight as possible. To do this, I use a notched straightedge which sits on the fretboard itself so I can accurately adjust the truss rod to the perfect straightness instead of using a standard straightedge and using the uneven frets themselves as a reference for how straight the neck is. This allows me to be as accurate during this procedure as possible.
For frets that have popped out of their slots due to humidity changes, I press the frets down using this specialty fret press which has a caul that matches the radius of the fingerboard to get the fret seated nicely. I then wick a small amount of water thin superglue underneath the fret to ensure that it stays in place.
I’ll have to do a significant amount of shaping, sanding, and polishing during the fret dress, so laying down a layer of masking tape over the wood in between each fret ensures that the wood will not accidentally be marred or dented.
Now it’s time to sand the tops of all the frets down evenly so they are all the same height. I use this precision-ground leveling bar with adhesive-backed 220 grit sandpaper on one side of it and carefully proceed to use it to the sand the tops of the frets down evenly, going back and forth and side to side to maintain the proper radius of the fingerboard without sanding any flat spots into the frets.
I have applied black marker to the tops of the frets to demonstrate the leveling process. As you can see, the black marks on the top of parts of these frets indicate that I still have a bit of leveling to do before I get rid of all those dents.
This picture shows you the shape of the frets after we’re done leveling them. As you can see, there is a flat plateau area on the top which needs to be ground down to achieve a smooth, round frets with a single point of contact for the string to touch. This will allow the player to get the best tone, comfortable playability, and dead-on intonation.
This is a picture of the specialty tool that I use to achieve the right crown on the tops of each frets. Each side of the tool has a groove with diamond-grit abrasive to shave down the sides of each fret to get the proper crown. Luthiery has lots of trade-specific tools; without the right tools, the work will generally be sub-par, which is why it’s so important to bring your guitar to experienced, dedicated luthiers to have the work done right the first time!
I have once again applied black marker to the tops of each fret to clearly show the crowning process. The fret on the left has only a tiny sliver of untouched metal on the top of the freshly rounded fret; this will be the single point of contact that the strings will touch once the frets are polished and the guitar is setup. The fret on the right still has the flat plateau on the top of the fret. Each and every fret has to be accurately crowned for the best playability.
After each fret has been properly and accurately crowned, I use a fine three-corner file with the corners ground down to gently round of the edges of each fret so it feels as comfortable as possible for the player.
Once the frets have been crowned and the fret edges touched up with the three-corner file, now its time to polish the frets to a smooth, mirror shine. I start with 400 grit sandpaper wrapped around an eraser which helps the sandpaper grip the fret nicely, then I work my way up through the grits up to 1200 grit sandpaper, then I polish the frets with extra fine (0000) steel wool which gives the frets a smooth, clean appearance and feel.
Most guitar repair shops would stop at the steel wool, but we are no ordinary repair shop! To get the smoothest, cleanest, mirror-like polish on the frets, we take the neck over to our buffing wheel to take the playability of your guitar neck from good to excellent. That’s just how we do things here at N Stuff Music!
With all the frets accurately leveled, precisely crowned, and beautifully polished, we then assemble the guitar, put new strings on, and set her up for the best playability. Now this guitar plays, feels, and sounds better than it has in years. Treat yourself and your guitar to the finest craftsmanship available and bring your guitar down to N Stuff Music in Blawnox for all of your guitar maintenance, setup, and repair needs! If you have any questions about fret dresses or any other aspect of guitar repair, give us a call down at the store anytime.
-Chad Gerbe, Luthier, Guitar Service Department