ALTERNATIVE FRETTING METHODS for HAND-MADE GUITARS
One of the hurdles new guitar makers face is fretting a neck. It seems at first glance a technical, very specific, difficult task… and that’s not an invalid first-impression. It is technical and specific; you do have to put the frets in exactly the right spot, at exactly identical height. However it’s like most other fields of endeavor: it’s a lot easier if you know the tricks.
USING “REAL” FRETS
Most experienced git builders will tell you it’s not difficult to install real frets-- and they’re right. Once you know how and have fretted a couple of fretboards using store-bought frets, you likely won’t want to do it any other way. However, the benefits of installing “real” frets and how to do so isn’t the purpose of this article.
IT’S ABOUT ALTERNATIVES
Home-made guitars at basic concept (whether cigar box, solid plank, tins or other kinds of bodies) embody the concept of making a music instrument by hand, using “found items”. The idea of alternative fretting methods isn’t because this is any easier or better… it’s because it’s different, using items you may already have around the house, without being required to use specialty tools such as fret saws, fretting miter boxes, etc.
THE TOOLS YOU’LL NEED
You will need basic tools of course.This is a list of my basic fretting tools. You don't have to have these with all methods. For example, with fishing line frets you only need the first few items. The tools you'll need will depend on your fretting method. Most of these tools you will likely already own:
* A meter stick (like a yardstick but in millimeters).
* Good-quality super glue gel. I prefer Gorilla brand. Good stuff.
* Heavy-duty side cutters (wire snips)
* Needle files
* A square of some kind
* Thin-line mechanical pencil
* Hobby knife (X-acto type or those cheap flat-blades that are everywhere)
* Some kind of sanding block
* Fine sandpaper, around 400 grit
* Wood clamps can be invaluable in setting a fingerboard full of frets. They're also great for clamping a fretboard to neckboard.
* Level. I have found an 18” to 24” level to be very handy for getting frets even.
* A thin “Japanese pull saw” (about 23 kerf)
* Small-head hammer ( a little "tappit" hammer works well). Not always needed but good to have on hand.
Japanese pull saws:
MAKING YOUR OWN FRET MITER GUIDE
Some of the fret types I’ll discuss here will require cutting slots in the fingerboard for aligning frets. For this you will need the aforementioned pull saw and a miter guide. You can build the miter guide yourself for little or no money. It takes about five minutes, plus a couple of hours for the glue to dry.
To make the guide: cut 1x2 pieces of wood about 5 inches long. I prefer oak or other hardwood, and of course 1x2 in lumber terms means 3/4” x 1.5”. Glue one to the other at an exact 90 degrees (using a bracket or angle tool) and clamp in place. Your end-tool should look something like the following diagrams. I present here two styles; either style works well:
With Style 1 you simply place it on the edge of the fretboard and cut the slot using your pull saw, keeping the edge of the saw against the side of the guide. Style 2 provides a guide for both sides of the blade and may be preferred by builders whose hands are a little unsteady.
Usually simply holding the fret guide against the neck is sufficient, but some like to clamp it to the neck. Clamping takes a bit more time but insures against slippage.
Since we aren’t installing standard frets you don’t have to cut very deep; just 1/16” or so should do fine. Some of the methods presented won’t require cutting slots at all-- just marking fret lines with a pencil.
KNOWING WHERE TO PUT THE FRETS
One of the most common questions is, “How do I know where the frets go? There are several ways, but the most common are these:
1. Measure an existing guitar. If you have a store-bought guitar sitting around, you can make a fret placement guide using a piece of cardstock and marking the fret positions, placing your marks at the exact center of the frets. This is a fairly reliable way of getting a good fret template to transfer to your own git.
2. Use a “Fret Calculator”. These are available for free on the Internet and tell you exactly where to place your frets, depending on the scale length you choose. The scale length is the distance from the nut to the bridge. The distance from the nut to the 12th fret should be identical to the distance from the 12th fret to the bridge. Standard scale lengths range from between 24” to 25.5” depending on the preference of the player. Each scale length will require its own precise fret placement.
When using a fret calculator I recommend measuring in millimeters rather than inches. It is far easier to measure with accuracy. When doing this a metal meter stick (similar to a yardstick) comes in very handy. They’re not expensive and you’ll likely use it repeatedly. Well worth the purchase if you don’t already have one.
The following information comes in handy:
24” = 609.6mm
24.5” = 622.3mm
25” = 635mm
25.5” = 647.7mm
25.75” = 654mm
If you lose track of this chart just Google “inches to mm” and you’ll have a handy calculator right there. You’ll only need these measurements for the initial fret length entry; the fret calculator will compute the rest. The fret calculator will provide you precise measurements to the thousandth of a mm; you really only need to get within 1/4mm accuracy and you’ll be “close enough”. Some folks try for 1/10th mm accuracy, which is fine. The more accurate the measurement, the more accurate the fret placement.
MARKING THE FRET LINES
You will need to mark the fret lines on your neck. Remember the first mark is the nut, also known as the zero fret. I highly recommend zero-fretting over using a nut. Google “zero fret” to learn how it’s done. It’s easy and offers great advantage over standard nut methods.
Zero fret method:
ACCURACY. First mark your frets using a thin-lead mechanical pencil for accuracy. Some folks use a hobby knife for even greater marking accuracy. Either way is fine, as the fret itself will hide the fret marks once installed.
You will want to allow no less than 14 and up to however many frets you wish beyond that. A good average is 18 to 20 frets. On a 3 or 4 string guitar no more are really necessary… but it doesn’t hurt anything if you decide to place 24 or 25 frets (although it’s somewhat overkill on this type of instrument).
Once you have the fret marks, draw a line clear across the neck using a square. This will insure the fret lines are straight and perpendicular to the sides of the neck (straight across 90 degrees).
THE FRETS THEMSELVES
You can make frets out of many different materials. Most of these methods will require super-gluing the fret to the neck, which takes some time clamping it down. One of them is far simpler:
WRAPPED FRETS-- FISHING LINE OR WIRE
You can use a heavy nylon fishing line, light weed-eater cord or metal wire to make what is called a “wrapped fret” system. This is possibly the easiest method. I recommend wearing good-grip gloves while doing so to reduce strain and pain on your fingers and help insure the line / wire is wrapped tightly.
For this method use your pull saw or hobby knife to cut notches at the ends of each fret line. To begin, drill a small hole through the center of your neck from the side, just above the nut. Run your line through the hole and tie a firm knot in the end so it won’t slip back through the hole. Then wrap the line completely around the neck pulling it tightly, fitting it into the slots at the side of each fret marker. The end result will look somewhat like this (neck length shortened for illustrative purposes). The light blue lines run behind or through the neck, the darker blue lines form the frets. It’s all the same fishing line in one long piece:
The advantage of this method is twofold: 1) It’s easy to do and 2) It practically guarantees perfectly flat frets… so long as you keep the fishing line tight.
Initially some think it strange to have line running behind the neck, as you’ll be able to feel it with your thumb. However this doesn’t interfere with playing and after you get used to it you won’t think about it being there. Since the line is heavy nylon it lasts pretty much forever. If it ever does wear or break you can easily replace it. Even steel or nickel frets wear out after time, so composition of the fishing line isn’t as big an issue as one would initially think.
As an alternative to fishing line you can use heavy metal wire, but it’s not as malleable or friendly to use as nylon line. Still, given that you keep it tight as you wind it, metal wire can work fine for fret wrapping.
INSURING LEVEL FRETS
Before discussing other methods of fretting I need to mention ways to insure level frets.
You can use other types of glue than super glue gel… so long as they dry strong and sturdy. Even a quality carpenters multi-material glue or wood glue will do fine if you give it time to dry properly (24 hours). There is some advantage to using a glue that takes a bit longer to dry.
One way is by using a level and clamps. Once the frets are glued in place, lay a flat 1x2 across the top then place a level on top of that. Starting at the center and working outward, use wood clamps to clamp the works solidly, then let it set until the fret glue is completely dry. For super glue gel this should be about 30 minutes to an hour to fully cure; other types of glue may require up to 24 hours to dry properly. This full-neck clamping method clamps all the frets evenly so they dry at a uniform height above the fretboard. In short, for a level set of frets, use a level.
The second method is to use a drywall sanding block. This is a low-cost tool that measures about 3 or 4 inches wide and 9 to 12 inches long. It holds a piece of sandpaper and is usually used for sanding drywall. But in our situation the large, flat surface works nicely for sanding the surface of frets and getting them nice and level with one another. Hopefully this method won’t be necessary, but it comes in handy when a set of frets is out-of-level.
In many instances a simple tap-hammer (small-tipped hammer) can be used to lower a too-high fret. It is sometimes the case that one or two frets just won’t set correctly and be a bit higher than the other frets, causing “string buzz”. Locating those frets and using a tap hammer to seat them further may be all that is required to get them level with the other frets. You can check for un-level individual frets by using a straight edge and examining the frets from the side, seeing if one sticks up above the others (or alternatively, is lower than the others). If a fret is lower you may need to remove it, fill the fret slot with wood putty or epoxy putty, re-saw and re-fret.
You see why fishing line frets are popular. They save doing all that. However if you want different frets than “around the neck” fishing line, here are other options.
Good frets can be made out of long, thin finishing nails. You will need some way to cut the nails (cable cutters or a cut-off tool) as they are too hard for standard wire cutters. Cut them at exactly 1.5” (the width of the neck) then use a file or bench grinder to smooth off the ends. Once you have them properly “prepped”, it’s just a matter of cutting fret slots into your fretboard and using super glue to glue the nails in place.
The advantage of this method is that such nails are widely available, are very hard and strong, and this method is relatively easy to do. The fret slots don’t have to be too deep or wide; just enough to properly set the nails. If you get the fret slots even and set the nails properly they should be precisely level.
One of my favorites. The thin finishing nails that work in nail hammers have a great advantage in that they are very uniform in size. The disadvantage is that they are glued together so they fit well in a nail hammer. You dissolve this glue with lacquer thinner.
Simply fill a jar or small bowl with lacquer thinner, break the brad nail strips into smaller pieces and drop them in. (You can use acetone- nail polish remover- instead of lacquer thinner.) Using nitrile gloves to protect your hands (as well as doing this in an open-air ventilated area), stir the nails around until they fall apart. It works quickly.
Once the nails are separated and the binding glue well-removed, dry them with a paper towel. Then use them for frets in the same manner you use standard finishing nails.
Finished brad nail fret job:
The advantage to this: nail hammer finishing nails are very thin, very straight and very uniform in size. They’re also inexpensive; you can buy them by the hundreds or thousands and have all the frets you’ll ever need without breaking the bank.
Boxing staples are more difficult to come by but can be used as frets. As with brad nails they must be separated using lacquer thinner or acetone. Then cut off the “feet” of the staples, making sure there are no burrs or bumps on the underneath side. Glue them precisely along the fret lines. For this method I prefer to glue the edge of the staple along the fret line so that each staple sits in exactly the same place along the line. This prevents having to estimate where the fret line is in relation to the “center” of the staple.
The advantage of this method is that you don’t need to cut fret lines; just glue the staples along the marked fret lines on the neck. It saves a major step and reduces time. Disadvantage: it can be difficult to get the staples to remain exactly where you want them as they dry. Because of this I like to use a small clamp to hold them firmly in place for a few minutes. Using several small clamps allows you to alternate and work on several frets at a time.
Note: some builders have tried drilling holes for the feet of the staples. This is not as easy as it sounds nor does it work as well as one would think. Most agree it’s easier to just cut off the feet to start with.
Long bobby pins make great frets. Used like staples, they are cut the correct length then glued to the surface of the neck.
The advantage: easily available, same placement method as staples. Don’t worry about them being thin; they’re no thinner than small-diameter “real frets”. They work fine as alternative frets. The disadvantage: they tend to be a bit more expensive than other types of frets (bobby pins these days sell at a premium) although no more expensive than “real” frets.
Cotter pins are available at auto stores, hardware stores and lumber yards. You’ll want one thin enough yet long enough to make a good fret. If you get the right size you can get two frets out of each pin. They are cut, finished and attached just like staples or bobby pins.
The advantage to cotter pins is that they have a flat bottom and a round top; they’re perfect for alternative fret material. Disadvantage: they may have to be manually straightened to get them to lay flat. In such case a plastic-tipped or rubber mallet against a hard, flat surface does the job well.
While you can use round toothpicks, square-shaft toothpicks are greatly preferable. These may be available at a local store or in a pinch, can be ordered though the Internet.
Toothpicks are most often used on ukulele builds, as they are “authentic” (old ukuleles often used wood as frets). Toothpicks are made of birch which despite the flimsy nature of toothpicks, is surprisingly hard wood. Once you glue them to your fretboard they make pretty good frets, even with steel strings.
The advantage is they are inexpensive, easy to glue with wood glue, easy to cut, easy to place. The disadvantage is that toothpicks are not consistent in size. So once they are glued to the fretboard they will almost certainly require sanding using a drywall sanding block in order to get the surfaces of the frets level with one another.
Replacing one isn’t difficult; just carefully cut the old one off with a hobby knife, glue a new one in place and sand to the proper height. Many git builders have used toothpicks on at least one or two builds. It’s not as odd an idea as one would initially think. For ukulele builds, toothpicks add an air of authenticity. However they can be used on any 3 or 4 string guitar as easy-to-make frets. They hold up a surprisingly long time.
"FOUND ITEM" FRETS
These are just a few “found item” fretting methods. Likely you can think of additional items that would work as frets. Just remember the important concepts of fretting an instrument:
1) Proper fret placement (measuring)
2) Identical fret material (so the frets are as close to the same as possible)
3) Level fret height (they must be precise in that aspect)
4) Attaching them to the neck so they stay
If you get all of those things down-- which usually comes down to carefully planning and knowledge before starting-- you’ll wind up with a respectable set of frets that should serve their purpose for years.