What's the learning curve on fret leveling?

Discussion in 'Tele Home Depot' started by johmica, Oct 16, 2021.

  1. johmica

    johmica Tele-Holic

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    I'm anxiously awaiting the arrival of my cheap-o Chinese guitar (it'll probably be February or later before I get it, given the current supply-chain disruptions).

    Anyway, the short story is that I bought a $300 Chibson-eque guitar (it's actually a rip-off of a Gretsch, so I don't know what that's called. A Grinese? A Chetch?). I got the guitar so that I could use it as a learning tool. I'm going to do some router work and re-wire it, I'm thinking about trying to strip the paint and refinish it, etc.

    In this line of thought, I have two questions, the first of which is in the title of the thread:

    1) What's the learning curve on learning how to level and polish frets? Is it possible to do a professional-quality job on your first try, if you're a bit handy and patient? Or is experience vitally important?

    2) What tools do I need, and what tools do I want (i.e., what tools are out there that, while not necessary, certainly make the job easier).

    As always, thanks for the responses. I'm just trying to keep my mind busy while I wait for the box to show up on my doorstep.
     
  2. Freeman Keller

    Freeman Keller Poster Extraordinaire

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    Perfectly level and crowned frets are the key to a perfect setup. The first step is to completely evaluate what you have, decide what you need to do and do it. You may find that starting with a piece of junk makes the job a little more challenging. I'm also a believe in good tools which unfortunately costs money.

    Here is how I do it

    https://www.tdpri.com/threads/basic-setup.952636/
     
  3. johmica

    johmica Tele-Holic

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    What an amazing thread. Thanks for having done this.

    And I love an excuse to buy more tools!
     
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  4. Boreas

    Boreas Poster Extraordinaire

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    I wouldn't say I did a "professional-level" job on my first try, but I did better than many professionals. And many professionals would have refused to tackle it. But it was a complicated 70s Fender maple neck that had slide-out frets and about a quarter inch of poly on the fretboard. If you are looking for a learning experience, this is the guitar on which to learn. However, if you really mess it up, it could make it into wall art. But as long as you do some study and buy a few good tools, you should do fine. If it is a bound neck, it will be a little more complicated, but certainly not impossible.

    EDIT: Whoops - I was thinking FRET JOBS, not leveling. Leveling is much easier!!!
     
    Last edited: Oct 16, 2021
  5. jays0n

    jays0n Tele-Holic

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    I am not as experienced as most of the members I am sure but I just jumped right in and it went well. I watched a few videos, read an article or two and ordered the basic tools, then just did it on my #1 at the time. It came out great and I did many others since. I am a tinkerer (some woodworking, building up and fixing bicycles etc) and already did all my own guitar electronics and setup work, besides leveling, before this though.

    ping me if you would like a list of the tools I got and those I upgraded later.
     
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  6. Boreas

    Boreas Poster Extraordinaire

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    One problem with purchasing cheap, Asian guitars to learn on is that nowadays they can be damn nice guitars! So, in the proper spirit, I hope yours is problematic enough to do extensive surgery!o_Oo_O
     
  7. backporchmusic

    backporchmusic Poster Extraordinaire

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    Just a quick thought--it's important to make sure the frets are properly seated before beginning the level. May be more common on older guitars as the wood of the fretboard expands and contracts over years/seasons, but even new guitar frets may need to be properly seated.

    Just a caution against 'jumping right in' with your bar and sandpaper in hand.
     
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  8. johmica

    johmica Tele-Holic

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    I won't lie - I'm hoping that it 1) it arrives and is a remarkably nice guitar for the price (I want to be able to justify dropping some money in high-quality upgrades like TV Jones Filtertrons and quality tuners and harware), and 2) I don't screw it up with my nascent skill set.
     
  9. bgmacaw

    bgmacaw Poster Extraordinaire

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    I still consider myself learning. I've done about 25 full fretting jobs on cigar box style guitars, from cutting the slots to leveling and polishing the frets, as well as a few regular guitar refrets and numerous leveling and final detail work, like fret edges. The nice thing about fretting CBGs is that if you screw things up you can start over again without it costing you too much.

    Leveling itself isn't too difficult though, especially if you're starting with a fretboard that's already pretty close. The thread linked above has good instructions and you can find several good YouTube videos on doing it. Taking your time and patience are the key.

    As for tools, I usually get them from Philadelphia Luthier Supply and Axe Masters and, very occasionally, from StewMac. I often find StewMac's prices and shipping to be higher than competitors. I've ordered some tools direct from China with varying results. Some have been quite good and others have been junk. It's really luck of the draw I guess.
     
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  10. pbenn

    pbenn Tele-Afflicted

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  11. netgear69

    netgear69 Tele-Afflicted

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    Depending on who you bought that from some of those Chinese builders show some pride in their work and build quality is right up there
    the big letdown is the hardware and electrics which is still junk
    to cut costs you can just ask just for the raw carcass no hardware no electrics no finish no serial numbers stamps and decals
    that gives you a lot of learning curve as in finishing setup etc
     
  12. Peegoo

    Peegoo Doctor of Teleocity

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    Learn on a beater neck first (make all your mistakes there).

    The more practice you get in, the better the results will be on a neck or guitar that really matters.
     
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  13. PhredE

    PhredE Tele-Afflicted

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    The above advice is good.

    I've picked up 2 Chinese made guitars recently. One had near perfect fretwork. The other, was very bad. The ironic part is that the one that most people had good experience with was bad for me, and vice versa. It's kind of like buying a lotto ticket! :D

    As netgear69 said above, the hardware is typically the weak point (hint: think about replacment PUs, bridge, tuners, pots+wiring, if you get an inkling that they won't work out).


    Also, just wanted to add a couple things..

    Study up and know what you'll need (tools, materials, etc) before you start. It might even be good to do a practice run on a beater guitar. You can make a decent DIY leveling bar by getting some flat dimensional board (say, 1"x2"x8" or so) and super gluing an abrasive sheet ("sandpaper") of something like 600gr or 800gr (I use fine stuff as to not cut fast -- slow and careful is definitely safer in the first or second try). Make sure the board is perfectly flat too (check it against a straight edge or the like).

    Be ready to crown too. If you remove any significant amount of fret material, you'll almost certainly have to follow the level with crowning. Don't skimp on the crowning file! Of all the tools needed to do the job, a good crowning file I found is the most important IMO. Also, think about polishing up when leveling, crowning are all done. Some people (myself) like super smooth polished frets. Other players.. not so much.

    Ron Kirn's thread is good in addition to all of Freeman's posts:
    https://www.tdpri.com/threads/fret-leveling-yer-tele-101.201556/
     
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  14. Cyberi4n

    Cyberi4n Tele-Holic

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    Easy with a notched straight edge, levelling beam, sharpie and fret crowing files.

    Hosco files are excellent. A good notched straight edge is a must. Levelling beams
    can be made from all sorts. The longer the better.
     
    Last edited: Oct 16, 2021
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  15. Peegoo

    Peegoo Doctor of Teleocity

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    In addition to a good crowning file, a set of quality nut files is necessary because fretwork usually requires nut work.
     
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  16. kennl

    kennl Tele-Afflicted

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    depends on your skillset
    my first attempt at a level, crown and polish was a success, but I have some machine shop experience
    I used my 24" bubble level as a straightedge, adjusted the truss rod to zero relief, marked the frets with a Sharpie pen, masked the fretboard with painters tape
    then block sanded with emery cloth, crowned with a triangle file and buffed with a Dremel tool pad
    the crowning part requires some manual dexterity
    I noticed a marked improvement in tone on the rosewood board Indonesian Squier neck after the job
     
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  17. Greenmachine

    Greenmachine Tele-Afflicted

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    It's totally doable. So much stuff on the internet to guide you.
     
  18. ghostchord

    ghostchord Tele-Holic

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    Also just learning here. To me the most difficult part is not knowing exactly what I'm aiming for. Any guitar will start buzzing when the action is too low. How crowned is crowned enough. What angle do you want to put on the fret end. If you have no benchmark it's hard to tell where you are. There's the obvious this is sucky situations and then there's anything in between. If I look at my MIM Strat as a reference, it has some pretty used flattish frets, it has a bit of a potential to buzz in one area, so I can relatively easily do better than that one ;) You look at some videos from PRS where people rave about their fret jobs (I own a PRS SE, it's pretty decent) and some of the stuff they seem to do looks quite iffy. I guess the golden standard is possibly the PLEK. Never seen or played a PLEKd guitar. I also haven't played enough guitars to have a feel for what fret ends are nice vs. not so nice, on all my guitars I can certainly feel the fret ends as I move up and down the neck, slightly more round, slightly more polished, how can you tell the difference...

    All that said, it's not super hard, and likely you'll get it well just because you're willing to put in the time.
     
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  19. EsquireOK

    EsquireOK Poster Extraordinaire

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    It depends on the person. A versed and skilled general craftsperson will take to it quite quickly. Those who have limited knowledge and experience working with tools and their hands to do fine, precision work will have a very steep learning curve; many will probably make their frets worse before making them better.

    Additionally, proper fret work also means proper nut work; the two go hand in hand. That's a whole other, but intertwined, set of tools and skills to build.

    I would be learning on $10 to $40 yard sale and/or freebie guitars, not a $300 brand new one...especially when those frets might be perfectly level – in today's day and age of relatively high quality, extremely low cost guitar manufacturing – and might just need a little end dressing and a polish.
     
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  20. Freeman Keller

    Freeman Keller Poster Extraordinaire

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    Can you explain why and exactly how you use a notched straight edge.
     
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