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Thread: Fret Files and Other luthier tools?

  1. #1
    I really look like that soliver's Avatar
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    Default Fret Files and Other luthier tools?

    I have used sandpaper on beveled wood blocks for fret work, but would like to more seriously look at building some mandolins, so my mind is on luthiers tools worth investing in.

    Just curious about Fret Files: is it absolutely necessary to pay the Stew Mac price for a decent Fret File, or are the markedly less expensive Amazon Facsimile's serviceable?

    Stew Mac, $108+: https://www.stewmac.com/luthier-tool...ing-files.html

    Amazon, $40: https://www.amazon.com/Hosco-Crown-T...%2C149&sr=8-49

    or

    Amazon, $13: https://www.amazon.com/iLuiz-Crownin...s%2C149&sr=8-7

    ... Theres also an Amazon choice for $8

    Seriously not trying to knock the Stew Mac tool, just curious what makes it cost so markedly higher?... Is it worth the extra expense?... Is it worth even buying a fret file?

    What are other luthier tools you feel are worth having in your arsenal?

    Love to hear opinions.
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    Registered User Walt's Avatar
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    Default Re: Fret Files and Other luthier tools?

    I think the selling point of that particular Stew-Mac file is that the center of the file doesn’t have teeth so you can’t accidentally cut into the top of your leveled frets. I don’t think it’s a necessary purchase to get started. An eye-opening moment for me was watching a video of someone knocking out a great fret job with just an off-the-shelf 3 corner file.

  3. #3
    Registered User Walt's Avatar
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    Default Re: Fret Files and Other luthier tools?

    Here’s an example of someone crowning with a 3 corner file (from Stew Mac of all places).
    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=Db_rHgArP9s

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    Default Re: Fret Files and Other luthier tools?

    The Stew-mac Z file that soliver linked to is an overpriced boutique file. Every year or two, Stew-mac comes out with another designer file. Stew-mac makes some wonderful tools, and I've found a few of them to be indispensable, but the also sell a lot of gimmicks and stuff that is just plain unnecessary.

    I've always had good results with the old fashioned double-sided crowning files that have been available for 40+ years, though I've about worn mine out. I also use the Gurian style file with interchangeable burrs. I've worn it out also.

    I never thought about how long I've been working on instruments until I started wearing tools out.

    I've also used a triangular file with the corners ground safe, but it can be tricky to handle, and now I mostly use it for roughing in bar frets.

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    Default Re: Fret Files and Other luthier tools?

    I agree with rcc56 that that Z file is a specialty tool aimed at someone who probably shouldn't be doing the fret work to begin with. I do have several different fret files bought long ago from either Stewmac or LMII. I mainly use the Gurian offset as a caul with 600 grit sandpaper to fine sand the frets. I'm using mainly EVO gold and the Gurian file struggles a little with that. It's ok with normal nickel silver. The main one I use is this:
    https://www.stewmac.com/luthier-tool...ret-files.html
    My strategy is fairly straight forward. After the frets are flush on the sides of the fingerboard, I bevel the ends a bit with a regular file to get the sharp ends off. Then I use a Sharpie to put a black top surface on all the frets. Then I level with 320 grit paper held with a radiused board, same radius as the fingerboard. As soon as all the black is gone, I re-black the tops of the frets and go to the crowning fret file. I stop when there is just a little bit of black line left to the top of each fret. I use the same file to finish the ends, always going away from the face to make sure I don't pull the fret end up. Then it's on to 600 grit sandpaper, and higher, and then polishing with steel wool and polishing compound .

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    Default Re: Fret Files and Other luthier tools?

    Well, the very expensive one uses diamond grit (300) so it cuts both directions, like sandpaper. The others are single-cut plain files. Everybody and their dog comes up with tool ideas. If I were to sell an ‘improvement’ to a distributor, I’d just put a grip in the center or two handles on the ends, or...
    Just FYI, nearly all bonded diamond tools (files, burrs) come from China and are usually very inexpensive. They’re ok, except not for use on soft or sticky metals as they will load up. Hasn’t anyone jumped in with a curved model for radiused fretboards? Or a conformable version?

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    Default Re: Fret Files and Other luthier tools?

    I use one of the cheapies and like it fine. One thing you can do to prevent digging into your fingerboard is to get some cheap drafters erasing templates. Thin sheets of metal with slots precut. Cut plates the size you need and use blue tape to hold them around your fret as you work it.

  10. #8
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    Default Re: Fret Files and Other luthier tools?

    Are you guys referring to this when you talk about the Gurian file?

    https://www.stewmac.com/luthier-tool...SABEgIim_D_BwE
    aka: Spencer
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    Default Re: Fret Files and Other luthier tools?

    Yes. They are [or were] also available from other sources, and are available with a deeper handle angle. They are well made, and are particularly useful for crowning the frets above the body joint.

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    Default Re: Fret Files and Other luthier tools?

    The big Stew Mac diamond fret file: I have one and it is a very important tool in my shop that I would instantly replace if needed,and has been in constant use for almost 20 years, but....

    If you pull back the rubber coating on the handle and see the original manufacturer's writing, you'll realize that it is not a one off tool that only SM produces. It is a readily available commercial Japanese fish hook file that can be purchased for about $30 or less!

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    Adrian Minarovic
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    Default Re: Fret Files and Other luthier tools?

    Many of the big pro's use ordinary tools whenever possible. For beginners it's easy to buy special rounded file and do s good job but the Pros are dealing with so many different fret sizes and repair situations that owning a specialty tool or two for every different job or fret size would cost them more than they can earn. These files load and replacing is costly. If you learn to use simple file properly for wide variety of jobs you will save lots of money nad time (the better you become at working with tools the more efficient you will be as well).
    Often I wonder why folks use such files in refrets, especially with stainless wire. If you prepare the surface of board perfectly and install frets properly they are as level as it gets (the modern wire is so consistent in dimensions). I only "wipe" the tops of frets with 400 or 600 grit on a straight perfectly flat block of quality plywood as the last operation just to check the fretwork. I can see that I barely touched the crown of each fret and i will just take piece of 1200 / 2000 grit paper to shine upi the frets. No real levelling or crowning.
    For crowning after levelling of worn frets I use most of the time one ordinary square file with safe edges ground and few small needle files with whole safe sides for rounding the ends. Never held any of the special tools in my hand. I can replace the file for 3 EUR and five minutes of smoothng the edges once it gets loaded...
    Adrian

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    Default Re: Fret Files and Other luthier tools?

    James, I'll have to look at my diamond fret files. The one I referenced is newer than mine. Mine has no rubber handle. It's old school. Like you. (and me) If the one you're referencing is the one with the curved ends- if something happened to mine, I'd replace it the same day if possible.
    I recently did a refret on a mid 70's Mossman guitar with a compound radius. Never did that before, even after 40+ years doing this. Had to use a flat board as a sandpaper holder. The rest was coordination between hand and brain, like most things. It was no more difficult than a flat board or a cylinder. I don't think I even came up with a new mistake to make. Customer was happy.

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    Default Re: Fret Files and Other luthier tools?

    I was reminded by this discussion of the tool I first used for fret levelling and reprofiling close to 40 years ago. A plate of aluminium with two creases in it which was sold by the only place in Melbourne, Australia that had wood and some tools for luthiers. It came with a some sheets of emery cloth of increasingly fine grades. The idea was that the flat side was used with a coarser grade of cloth to level the frets, than finer grades were used on the side with the ridges which ran over the frets and rounded off the flat tops which had been sanded in by the other side. From memory it worked quite well, but I had nothing to compare it to!

    Cheers

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    Default Re: Fret Files and Other luthier tools?

    Huh. I've never seen anything quite like that.

  18. #15

    Default Re: Fret Files and Other luthier tools?

    That tool is still being made and sold by Thomas Ginex on eBay. I remember them advertising in the back of guitar magazines 30 years ago....

    StewMac sells a lot of gimmicks, but they also sell a lot of quality tools. I have many StewMac tools in my toolbox that still see daily use 25 years later. My peghead reamer cost a small fortune from StewMac, but I use it every day, it seems. I picked up a $5 reamer at Harbor Freight a couple of years ago as a spare and it is a dull piece of junk. My old one is still sharp, so......in my mind it is a pretty good value, especially over time.

    I also use anything that works to get the job done. Any small block of wood with sandpaper wrapped around it can be a useful guitar (mandolin) repair tool, IMHO.

    Trade Secret: keep in mind, fret leveling does not have to be THAT critical, contrary to popular belief and people who have a vested interest in things like PLEK systems, etc......think about it for a minute -- when your instrument started buzzing and being hard to play, it didn't just happen over night, did it? Most folks limp along, putting off a repair unless they can't stand it anymore.....my point being it played fine up until then, when in fact, it was probably WAY WAY off for a while, but it just didn't buzz yet. Like I say, pros play instruments that need fret work every night on stage, for MONEY....

    The hobbyist is much more critical, in fact. Or, I should say, the pro is better at avoiding the problem areas in public.....just a thought.

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    Registered User j. condino's Avatar
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    Default Re: Fret Files and Other luthier tools?

    There are many different variations available in almost every shape and size you want readily available for reasonable prices.

    Here is one for $3!

    https://www.ebay.com/itm/Outdoor-Dia...2cca3be10dae70
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    Default Re: Fret Files and Other luthier tools?

    Thanks so much everyone!... I'm feeling good about not wanting to pay $100+ for one file!

    What are some of your "can't live without" luthier tools? ... Say I were wanting to spend some of what's burning a hole in my PayPal account; what would you recommend getting?
    aka: Spencer
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    Default Re: Fret Files and Other luthier tools?

    Most of the tools necessary for general lutherie can be bought from sources other than luthier's supply houses. If you are adept, some of the more specialized tools can be made by modifying common tools.

    I am very selective about purchasing expensive, specialized tools. I avoid buying them unless I consider them to be essential. I've starred the ones I would purchase first.

    -----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    If you're going to do much fretwork, especially on older instruments, I find the following specialized tools to be indispensable:

    *1. A good set of fret pullers. In the old days, we made these ourselves, but the ones that are designed for the job are more durable and work better than any that I can make here.

    *2. A good set of tang nippers.

    3. I've found the Stew mac fret tang crimping tool to be worth its weight in gold.

    *4. A good quality crowning file [not a fancy, expensive one].

    *5. A saw suitable for cutting and cleaning ~.020" to .022" fret slots.

    *6. 2", 3", and 6" metal straightedges for finding high or low frets. These can be made from a good metal ruler, or you can buy a "fret rocker."

    **7. You need something to level frets accurately. There are at least a dozen choices for this; I use an old fashioned two sided Norton sharpening stone available at a hardware store.

    --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    For general work:

    1. 3 or 4 old fashioned cabinet scrapers in different shapes and sizes. You need good ones, but not the fancy new high tech ones.

    2. Several long throated clamps for gluing guitar bridges and braces.

    *3. A really good set of nut slotting files. The Stew mac double-edge slotting files are of high quality and are worth the expense.

    4. A Dremel with a luthier's router base. I modified a Dremel router base by making a new base plate. The Stew-mac base is better, but mine works.



    -----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------


    It's better to get the following from sources other than a luthiers' supply house:

    1. Heat blankets: 1" x 5" 25 watt for lifting guitar bridges and mandolin fingerboards, 2" x 5" 50 watt for guitar fingerboards. These are available from MSC International or McMaster-Carr. LMI also sells them, but at a heavily inflated price. A Harbor Freight router control can be used as a temperature controller.

    *2. Several palette knives of different sizes and shapes from an artist's supply house are important. Also a spatula or two, and a couple of modified putty knives. These are all for separating glue joints.

    **3. Accurate straightedges graduated in 64ths of an inch, *6" [available at Ace Hardware], *12", and 18" or 24". A reasonably accurate metal yardstick or meter stick for checking bridge saddle location on guitars. These are also available from MSC or McMaster.

    4. It is wise to invest in a least a couple of good chisels and do your best to learn how to sharpen them.

    5. I had a cabinet maker make me two beveling blocks that hold files at 60 degrees and 85 degrees for profiling fret edges. They are not essential, but they have been worth the time and trouble they save.

    ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    Power tools:

    1. A belt sander
    2. A reliable hand drill
    3. A drill press is optional until you start making guitar bridges.

    -----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    Tools that I reluctantly do without:

    1. A bandsaw
    2. A good airbrush and compressor
    3. A small pattern maker's router.
    Last edited by rcc56; May-19-2020 at 2:10am.

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    Registered User j. condino's Avatar
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    Default Re: Fret Files and Other luthier tools?

    A strong mentor of mine always said the most important thing in a luthier's shop is a wife with a good job!

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    Adrian Minarovic
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    Default Re: Fret Files and Other luthier tools?

    Quote Originally Posted by j. condino View Post
    A strong mentor of mine always said the most important thing in a luthier's shop is a wife with a good job!
    Prehaps even the luthier with a second job is handy as well.
    Adrian

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    Default Re: Fret Files and Other luthier tools?

    HAHA, great stuff gang, thanks for the advice, rcc!... I have been a cabinet maker and woodworker for about 20 yrs now so I have a shop full of stuff, but there are loads of specialty tools for luthiery and I'd just love a good idea of whats worth having and what's fluff, esp at Stew Mac prices.

    I have been slowly converting my shop (more quickly recently during the pandemic) into a more functional work space rather that a catchall for junk. Specifically I have been insulating and sealing the building and organizing things so it functions better, leaves space to work (particularly with hand tools) and is protected from exterior heat/cool and humidity. My goal is to be done "getting it ready" in the next month or 2 in order to start my first mandolin build and to continue building as a hobbyist... esp since my wife is a stay at home mom and I am gainfully employed . Even if I only end up building 1 instrument, I will have made my shop into what I've always wanted it to be, so thats a plus. I've already done one guitar to tenor conversion which was a lot of fun and hop to be building a mandolin soon.

    Regarding the guarian style file, or other nut files that have the arc'd interior shape; how do you use those without unintentionally filing the top of the fret down too low?

    Love all the recommendations gang... love this forum!
    aka: Spencer
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    Jacobson Nautilus Oval Hole Prototype

    Hand Crafted Mandolin Armrests
    Check them out here

    "You can never cross the ocean unless you have the courage
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    -anonymous

  28. #22

    Default Re: Fret Files and Other luthier tools?

    Quote Originally Posted by soliver View Post
    Regarding the guarian style file, or other nut files that have the arc'd interior shape; how do you use those without unintentionally filing the top of the fret down too low?
    Basically, that's where you use a Sharpie to mark the tops of the frets. The Sharpie is used twice in the leveling process. First, the tops of the frets are marked black and the frets are leveled either with a flat file or a sanding bar until all the black is gone, indicating you have removed material from each fret. Then you can double-check with your straight edge or fret rocker for any high frets. Second, is the crowning process, since all the fret tops have been flattened. Again, mark the tops of the frets black with the Sharpie, then with the crowning file you remove the material from the edges until there is just a very very thin strip of black showing on the tops, letting you know that the sides have been crowned, but the top height hasn't been changed from when you leveled it. The curved design of the file teeth will first file the edges before the top is in danger of being filed. Then you can take 400 sandpaper and remove the file marks, followed by some 0000 steel wool, and some people like to polish the tops with a Dremel buffing wheel and polish to make them shine, but usually 0000 steel wool is good enough.

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    Default Re: Fret Files and Other luthier tools?

    I simply place my bench light where I can see the fret well. You will be able to see as you round the fret how much flat is left. As with the sharpie method go until you have a fine line.
    THE WORLD IS A BETTER PLACE JUST FOR YOUR SMILE!

  31. #24
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    Default Re: Fret Files and Other luthier tools?

    Quote Originally Posted by soliver View Post
    . . . but there are loads of specialty tools for luthiery and I'd just love a good idea of whats worth having and what's fluff, esp at Stew Mac prices.
    The absolute essentials for me were a set of fret lifters, a crowning file, a slotting saw, a set of deep throated bridge clamps for flat-top guitar bridges, and a set of nut files. That's all.

    For years, I got by with these and nothing else except a store bought triangular file with the corners ground safe.

    Optional, and very important but not essential, are the fret tang nippers and the fret tang crimper. You shouldn't need the crimper for new construction.

    I wore out my original set of Herco bridge clamps several years ago. I replaced them with Stew-mac clamps, which are better quality and should not wear out.
    The nut files and crowning files are also wearing out. If I was younger and had a heavier work load, I also would have replaced them by now.

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    Adrian Minarovic
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    Default Re: Fret Files and Other luthier tools?

    To say the truth in my almost 30 years of work in luthiery I have used NONE of the specialty tools offered by the Stew mac or LMII or similar.
    I admit I bought fretsaw from S-M with my first order of ebony many many years ago but that is just ordinary saw (and looking at the manufacturer logo I see it was imported from UK to US and back to me in EU so I could get it locally es well).
    I do have some specialty tools but I made them myself or modified common tools.
    Fret pullers - just sharpen small off the shelf pullers (1-2 EUR) so the edge is flush with outside
    Fret nippers - again reground good quality nippers (something like 10-15EUR at most), I've been using them to cut wire as well as undercut the fret ends for 15 years now... they even undercut ss wire quite cleanly with not too much celan up with file (5-6 strokes).
    Scrapers from old fretsaw...
    I could go on with nearly all the tools big boys buy from specialty shops. I think I posted pics of some of the more interesting things. (I'll attach some pics of them)
    I never invested too mych time or effort into the tools, some of the older ones are quite rough in looks but they do work well.
    And I even made my own airbrush compressor....
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    Adrian

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