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Thread: proper fret dress

  1. #1
    Registered User mandolin breeze's Avatar
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    Default proper fret dress

    Should frets be rounded or slightly flattened? Why and what are the issues if it's done wrong?

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  2. #2
    Registered User jim simpson's Avatar
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    Default Re: proper fret dress

    A crowning tool should leave the fret rounded. Slightly flattened is how they look after being leveled. Flattened could result in less clear noting.
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  3. #3

    Default Re: proper fret dress

    Ideally all frets should be crowned.

    In reality, everything's a compromise. Sometimes I'll really quickly level the frets on an instrument when I'm not being paid for fretwork, just a setup. I may not perfectly crown those frets afterwards. That's sloppy, I guess, and not ideal fretwork. But for a $100 mandolin shaped object that someone brought in and wants to do the bare minimum to get it playable, I think it's fine to do.

    Basically, get your frets level, that's critical to playability. If there's enough material to get your frets level, there's enough material to crown them. If I'm being paid for fretwork, or building a new instrument, I'll always make sure every fret is nicely crowned and the ends are trimmed, beveled, and rounded.

    A block of firm felt with 600 grit sandpaper does a great job of blending away any file marks from the crowning process, then I use micro-mesh up to 3500 grit and buff on a cotton wheel.

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    Registered User sunburst's Avatar
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    Default Re: proper fret dress

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    Clearer notes, better intonation, easier playing, better appearance, more work by the luthier.


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    Not very clear notes, difficult slides, difficult intonation, less work by the luthier. Basically, this is fret work that is not completed.

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  6. #5
    Registered User mandolin breeze's Avatar
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    Default Re: proper fret dress

    Great answers, I get it.

    Lastly, I've always wondered about the fret board wood when sanding / polishing the frets. Does the wood need to be protected from say 600 grit paper? Obviously just trying to sand the frets, but seems there will be some inadvertent sanding on the wood. I can see and have experienced that there isn't much concern with the higher polishing grits, but at what grit level should tape or other method be used to protect the wood from sanding or sanding marks?

  7. #6

    Default Re: proper fret dress

    I'm going to be curious about any reason for disagreement but frets should always be rounded and polished to a mirror finish. The main reason for this is longevity of the fret and the delayed reduction of wear. The development of a divot is reduced. Any right angle is subject to greater force while a rounded surface bears the string in a more spread out manner at both the fret being played and the fret below the fingered position. Rounded frets feel so much better. I could mention intonation as an issue and in some cases it would be but I believe in a majority, the difference wouldn't be noticed.
    From the perspective of a luthier, mandolin frets are quite different in that they are normally quite thin and not very tall. Its a bit more difficult to actually see the roundness of the fretcrown. An added complication is the lack of a radiused fretboard which is much easier to see defects in the crown and determine the need for crown repairs.
    With all that said, its rare for me to see perfect beautiful frets on any mandolin. There typically isn't a demand for it at my location. However, fretwork is my forte and its what I have studied most intently in my career. If I didn't have a modern selection of diamond crowning tools, or enjoy doing fretwork, I might not bother or be as thorough as I have the latitude to be.
    If I level a slightly worn fretboard and address a number of elevated frets the situation will be a large number of frets with very flat crowns. If I take a small piece of 600 grit sandpaper and simply go up and down the fretboard and follow this with my high speed buffer, the result will be quite a respectable looking fretboard and the mirror finish on the frets will hide the fact that the crowns are flat. The mirror finish makes it difficult to be critical. My method is to use a sharpie (I like blue) and a diamond crowning tool. I paint the tops of the frets with the sharpie and gently pass my crowning tool over the fret. The significantly wider flat fret crowns will show a wide remaining flat area which I can address individually one by one until each fret displays a very thin line of the sharpie. The whole process takes not much more that ten minutes but its the diamond crowning tool that makes this so easy.

  8. #7
    Registered User mandolin breeze's Avatar
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    Default Re: proper fret dress

    Thx Wrnchbndr . . . I picked these up recently, any thoughts on them? Or is there a set of diamond crowning tools you could recommend?

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    https://www.ebay.com/itm/Guitar-Prof....c100005.m1851


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    https://www.ebay.com/itm/Guitar-Fret....c100005.m1851

  9. #8
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    Default Re: proper fret dress

    Quote Originally Posted by mandolin breeze View Post
    Great answers, I get it.

    Lastly, I've always wondered about the fret board wood when sanding / polishing the frets. Does the wood need to be protected from say 600 grit paper?
    No, it doesn't need to be protected.

  10. #9

    Default Re: proper fret dress

    ...breeze, First, I don't think that the radius of the concave surface is tight/narrow enough for most mandolin frets. But it'll certainly be an improvement over not using any crowning tool at all. I've seen that specific tool both on ebay and at least one of my supplier websites at a very fair price. The reviews I've read are mixed. I've heard complaints that the diamond surface is inconsistent and that maybe the grit is a little more coarse than some people might appreciate. I have two of the original crowning tools sold by stewmac that are very similar. My tools have a wide and a medium crown size. One of them is fairly worn out. I purchased these when they were about half the current price on stewmac and if I lost them, I would order a replacement from stewmac the next day despite them being over priced. I'm tempted to buy one of those that you posted a picture of. I suspect that they've been made in the thousands so I might be lucky enough to get a good one -- I'd take the risk for the money but I'm not counting on it being as good as my tool from stewmac. I bought my first one 20 years ago and at that time I used it as my primary method of crowning. I used and abused it as my only crowning tool. With diamond files, you can file both in a forward and reverse motion. I think that its the heat generated by aggressive back and forth motion that will cause the diamond layer to debond from the steel. My current crowning method employs both a conventional toothed crowning file for rough crowning of wide flat areas and then followed up with a diamond tool and this allows my diamond tools to last a long time. The secret to using a good quality conventional toothed crowning file is to only employ forward controlled light strokes and to clear the teeth of the file no less than once every two passes with a stainless steel wire brush and never let the teeth load up at all. With a good conventional crowning file, they can get better with age -- even when used on stainless steel. I also use the stainless wire brush to clean the diamond files once between every fret as you can load up the diamond grit with nickel alloy.
    The tool I use for mandolin frets is the stewmac #4454 which is terribly overpriced ($87 -- jerks!) but IMO the best there is. I use it carefully and am careful not to generate heat or let it load up because I don't want to need to buy another one at its price.
    I've seen tutorial again and again with techs taping off the fretboard prior to fretwork and prior to running any sandpaper up and down the fretboard. The only time I mask a fretboard is when working on a lacquered maple fretboard. But then, I've done this for twenty years. I might reconsider running sandpaper up and down the fretwork if there are certain types of position markers that could be scared/scored by 600 - 1000 grit sandpaper. I should also add that I never use steel wool in my workshop. The chance that it might contaminate a polishing cloth is too great and that is from experience and an awful position I once found myself in related to a brand new black Gibson Les Paul. I do appreciate the fretguards sold by stewmac but they're not really appropriate for mandolin unless you modify them. I also employ a rotary tool to polish crowns to a mirror finish but it takes a lot of practice and has the potential to totally ruin your day if you mess up. The rotary tool can generate enough heat to char the wood in the fretslot if you lack discipline and it can get out of control and totally destroy neck binding. It takes practice and concentration but nothing does a better job. Even with years of practice, I would never use a dremel.

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  12. #10
    Registered User mandolin breeze's Avatar
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    Default Re: proper fret dress

    Wrnchbndr - that is such a great, comprehensive answer. Thank you for taking the time to not just answer my question, but to elaborate with insights gained only from untold hours practicing your craft. Tips that I couldn't have even known to ask. I'm learning and will benefit immensely from your experience offered so graciously. I would never have thought to clean the files that regularly and how critical it is for instance. Thanks so much!

  13. #11

    Default Re: proper fret dress

    I'm new to this forum. Recently smitten by mandolins. Not everything I know about guitars applies to mandolins and I'm eager to learn from those who know "stuff". Fretwork is my forte. I just hope I'm able to contribute and learn from others.

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  15. #12
    Martin Stillion mrmando's Avatar
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    Default Re: proper fret dress

    Was just quoted $195 for a full mandolin fret dress. Seem high?
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    Default Re: proper fret dress

    Can someone recommend a good video that shows how to crown a fret? Thanks

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    Registered User Tavy's Avatar
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    Default Re: proper fret dress

    > Was just quoted $195 for a full mandolin fret dress. Seem high?

    Way high IMO. Just my 2c. Actually that's more like the cost for a full refret.

    Provided it's all routine stuff, it's 4 hours work on average to do a full setup (including level and dress). There are instruments that are well looked after which are done in 2 hours. There are also worn out old workhorses which need more like 6 hours work - though strangely they're usually owned by customers that just want a "quick fix" and don't want to pay for a proper job done. And of course the occasional "problem" instrument that looks to be fine, but when you get down it there's a small niggle that takes hours to track down. But if you assume it's around 4-5 hours on *average* for someone who knows what they're doing that should give you an idea of what the cost should be in your area.

  18. #15

    Default Re: proper fret dress

    Depends on where you live and what is included with what they are calling a "Fret Dress". As just the process of working the fret ends to be round, and establishing proper crowns and polishing them, its too much money unless you are taking it to someone super prominent with a backlog of professional musicians. But in reality, the situation of being handed an instrument that only requires those things doesn't happen. Typically it'll be an instrument that needs a little fret leveling, maybe repairing a loose fret or six, stabilize a small crack in the fretboard or a loose inlay, adjust the nut slots and the trussrod, dress the frets, restring it and discover a tuner that is binding, adjust the bridge and repair a loose strap button. That would be about $195 to $225 in average America by a professional who balanced his valuable skills with the desire to have repeat clients.

    If one of my clients was some guy who was starting to build his own instruments and simply wanted me to do the fretwork only, ( I have three clients who fit this description), They'd be looking at a bill of about $100 to $125 and that would include some leveling.

  19. #16
    Martin Stillion mrmando's Avatar
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    Default Re: proper fret dress

    Well, it's possible that I misunderstood what this tech was offering. I might pay $195 for a really thorough setup job including a fret dress, but it sure sounded like she was saying she'd charge that much for a fret dress *in addition to* what she'd charge for a setup.
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  20. #17

    Default Re: proper fret dress

    There are a lot of folks who do this kind of work. Find someone that earns your trust and listens to you. If you don't have good communication steer clear. Its as much my responsibility to listen and understand to what my client wants as it is to explain what to expect as a result of taking my client's money. With a good tech, everybody wins. For $195, you could buy the tools and pay me generously for the hour it would take to teach you to do the work yourself. Its not entirely as simple as that because some very intelligent people just aren't wired to do this kind of work.

  21. #18

    Default Re: proper fret dress

    Quote Originally Posted by mrmando View Post
    Well, it's possible that I misunderstood what this tech was offering. I might pay $195 for a really thorough setup job including a fret dress, but it sure sounded like she was saying she'd charge that much for a fret dress *in addition to* what she'd charge for a setup.
    Probably worth it. I need to raise my prices.

  22. #19
    Registered User mandolin breeze's Avatar
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    Default Re: proper fret dress

    Regarding polishing freshly crowned frets. Wrnchbndr talks about the importance of a good polishing job as the last step in a good fret dressing, mainly longevity of the crowning and ease of playing. I recently purchased this set of micro-mesh sanding cloths. If you work all the way through the grit levels down to the 12.000, will this leave you a good / adequate polish job? I don't have a powered wheel, and more importantly, nor the experience to use one.

    https://www.ebay.com/itm/MICRO-MESH-...cAAOxyoVZTInvY


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    Default Re: proper fret dress

    I would add that finding someone you trust who's really good at fret work is, I think, hugely important. A good fret job can help the instrument play more in tune, as well as help make the mandolin easier and cleaner-sounding to play.

    I have found that, because the mandolin is small (relative to guitar or electric bass), tolerance levels are smaller also. Sometimes luthiers used to guitars don't fully understand how critical these tolerances can be.

    This has been my experience. Your mileage may vary.
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  25. #21
    Registered User Tavy's Avatar
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    Default Re: proper fret dress

    Quote Originally Posted by Wrnchbndr View Post
    For $195, you could buy the tools and pay me generously for the hour it would take to teach you to do the work yourself. Its not entirely as simple as that because some very intelligent people just aren't wired to do this kind of work.
    Haha, indeed, but more to the point you really do get better with practice at this kind of stuff. My early fretwork was OK, but the more I do the better they get no question.

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    Default Re: proper fret dress

    Quote Originally Posted by mandolin breeze View Post
    Regarding polishing freshly crowned frets. Wrnchbndr talks about the importance of a good polishing job as the last step in a good fret dressing, mainly longevity of the crowning and ease of playing. I recently purchased this set of micro-mesh sanding cloths. If you work all the way through the grit levels down to the 12.000, will this leave you a good / adequate polish job? I don't have a powered wheel, and more importantly, nor the experience to use one.

    https://www.ebay.com/itm/MICRO-MESH-...cAAOxyoVZTInvY


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    Going up through the 12,000 grit Micromesh pads will get you pretty well up to a mirror finish. That's a good way to go.

    Nice price on that eBay offer, BTW. Thanks for the tip.
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  27. #23
    Registered User doc holiday's Avatar
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    Default Re: proper fret dress

    Well-said Paul. I'm lucky enough to live a day's drive from Michael Heiden, & you're real close to our friend Tom Ellis. I'd rather do a root-canal on myself than do critical things on my instruments.

  28. #24

    Default Re: proper fret dress

    Mr Breeze, You polishing cloths will work great. 600 grit is fairly safe to clean up file marks without easily changing the actual height of the fret. 1000 grit is a better finish than you get on your average instrument hanging in a music store. 0000 steel wool is what I would use at home without my polishing wheel to yield a mirror finish from 1000 grit and the result would be very respectable. You could go higher but anything after 2000 is not getting you any better. Nickel alloy frets easily polish up to a nice finish. With stainless steel its a different story but we can talk about stainless in another post -- its different.

    Experience is everything. If you're really into this and want to provide the service to others, there are plenty of cheap instruments to practice on. Old necks and retired wall hangers too far gone to repair can often be had for the asking.

    Honest true story: Twenty years ago when I retired from the military and wanted to pursue this trade I went to Guitar Center and purchased three Squire stratocasters for the sole purpose of practicing fretwork and refrets. I went to the store manager and explained what I wanted to do asking to buy them in the box, uninspected, unserviced, and with no warranty. I got them for $62 each. I set each of them up the best I could following the instructions in Dan Erlewines book. The idea here was to take a perfetly okay instrument from the start so that any mistakes I made would be attributable to my work. I started by just leveling and progressed to refrets. In the following year, I changed the radius. I replaced the position markers. I replaced the trussrod. I replaced the fretboards and I even added binding. This was overkill but for not a lot of money I learned an awful lot. Twenty years later, I still approach every job as a learning experience. Its never a competition with anyone but rather a pursuit of just getting better at this. Its certainly not about the money cuz, well,... its not.

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