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Thread: Required tools for building own fingerboards?

  1. #1

    Default Required tools for building own fingerboards?

    I have a variety of exotic hardwood "offcuts" in my shop related to other projects--nothing large enough to make a bottom plate from or even an entire neck. But some could be used for fingerboards, I imagine. Some of these include bois d'arc (Osage orange), rosewood, ironwood and zircote.

    I've always planned on just ordering fingerboards of ebony from a supplier, since it is so important to get everything just right. So I am not in any way set up to make my own properly. If I were to consider doing so, what would you consider essential tools? I already have a couple of related tools for fretting. But I do not have any kind of jig, template, fret saw, etc.

    Thanks.

    Mark

  2. #2
    Hands of Pot Metal
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    Default Re: Required tools for building own fingerboards?

    A really good rule, 64th or 100s will work, 12 inches is sufficient. A mitre box or other fixture to cut the slots square. It would be good to have a depth stop of some sort to cut uniform slots.

    You could build a multi slotted mitre box to cut all of the slots, repeatedly, assuming the same size blanks. If the mitre slot is fitted to match the size of the saw, a good backsaw with the kerf set to match the fretwire tang, you’d be good to go.
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    Default Re: Required tools for building own fingerboards?

    You need a good back saw with a cut of .020" - .022", a good tight miter box, the "really good rule," and if you're making multiple fingerboards, there's a way to make a jig that uses an existing fingerboard as a guide. I don't know where to find the plans for the jig, but a friend of mine built one some years ago and still uses it.

    Google "fret slotting jig" and see what comes up. The West Farthing Woodworks jig looks like it works something like the one my friend uses. Also, see if you can access the Guild of American Luthiers publications and see if they have anything.

    For the few boards I've had to replace, I've just bought them pre-cut or had someone slot one for me who's already jigged up for the job. I don't build, and many of the instruments I work on have antique value, so I only replace boards when they are unsalvageable.

    Someday, if I get a burst of industriousness, I might build one of those indexed boxes. But at 63, the likelihood of my doing that is quickly declining.

    There are several banjo makers using Osage orange for fingerboards. A day is going to come when good ebony is going to be either prohibitively expensive or just plain unavailable.

    I sometimes reflect that 100 years ago, the instrument making world was positively swimming in rock hard black ebony, gorgeous Brazilian rosewood, good stiff Honduras and Cuban mahogany, and so on.
    Last edited by rcc56; Jun-07-2020 at 12:58am.

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    Registered User j. condino's Avatar
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    Default Re: Required tools for building own fingerboards?

    If you want the independence and autonomy and you feel like you will make a few dozen fingerboards, then by all means tool up for it. Do you have a tablesaw? If so, the LMI templates and fret slotting blades are fantastic. I've literally made 1000s of fingerboards using them for myself and others. It will run you around $200-250 for the full setup, so it only makes sense if you want to make a dozen or so. You could also buy the tool, use it, and then sell it on ebay for a slightly discounted price when you are finished or make up a dozen extras to pay for the cost of the tooling. I do that all of the time....

    BUT...if you only want a few fingerboards made, you can always send them to someone else who already owns that setup and they will cut them for you, usually for around $10 a board.

    PM me, call the shop, or schedule a visit if you need help.

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    Registered User Rodney Riley's Avatar
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    Default Re: Required tools for building own fingerboards?

    Quote Originally Posted by rcc56 View Post
    But at 63, the likelihood of my doing that is quickly declining.

    I sometimes reflect that 100 years ago, the instrument making world was positively swimming in rock hard black ebony, gorgeous Brazilian rosewood, good stiff Honduras and Cuban mahogany, and so on.
    Why is it declining. My dad turned 95 in January. He still makes a large garden, mows some of his yard (I do his second lot, orchard and around his 5 acre pasture.
    You could have 30 years of using it if build one now.

  7. #6

    Default Re: Required tools for building own fingerboards?

    Quote Originally Posted by j. condino View Post
    If you want the independence and autonomy and you feel like you will make a few dozen fingerboards, then by all means tool up for it. Do you have a tablesaw? If so, the LMI templates and fret slotting blades are fantastic. I've literally made 1000s of fingerboards using them for myself and others. It will run you around $200-250 for the full setup, so it only makes sense if you want to make a dozen or so. You could also buy the tool, use it, and then sell it on ebay for a slightly discounted price when you are finished or make up a dozen extras to pay for the cost of the tooling. I do that all of the time....

    BUT...if you only want a few fingerboards made, you can always send them to someone else who already owns that setup and they will cut them for you, usually for around $10 a board.

    PM me, call the shop, or schedule a visit if you need help.
    I do have a table saw, and in some cases I have quite a few off-cuts of certain species. I also have some "found" logs of several species like bois d'arc (I'm in Texas.) that would require processing and milling (which, again, I am already set up to do.) The idea of using different materials and particularly locally sourced species is really of interest to me. I did a lot of that when I was in my bowl turning phase.

    If you had your choice would you prefer the power/table saw setup or the manual fret saw miter box jig, like that StewMac sells? By looking at the LMI table saw setup it wasn't clear that you could use it for different instrument types (mandolins, guitars, etc.) but I have to assume you could.

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    Default Re: Required tools for building own fingerboards?

    There are a variety of different scale length templates for the LMI system. They have a video of its proper use, but I didn't look at it. If your table saw will accommodate the small blade, it might be a good way to go.
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  9. #8
    Registered User j. condino's Avatar
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    Default Re: Required tools for building own fingerboards?

    There are dozens of different templates; they cost about $25-30 each, from multiple different suppliers. You can also mix other manufacturers templates with the same blade setup. Interestingly, my preference is for the LMI saw blade vs the Stew mac version, but I like the Stew Mac steel templates. I've also had a local laser cutting company make custom templates for me for around $45 each for odd scale sizes.

    The only limitation on the table saw based blades is that they will not work with a Sawstop and still keep the safety mechanism working properly, but a 2 mm blade height is pretty minimal hazard. I've posted about this in the past and there is a detailed thread in the archives.

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    Luthier Tom Haywood's Avatar
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    Default Re: Required tools for building own fingerboards?

    Using your own wood for mandolin fret boards, I think you have to have a way to get a rectangle that has straight sides, 90 corners, even thickness, and flat planed bottom and top, before you begin to set up the wood to cut fret slots. With a good blank, cutting fret slots by hand is more difficult to think about than to do. I think the required tools are: good eyesight, steady hand, good millimeter ruler, good sharp scribe to start the cut. One of the few "luthier" tools I've purchased that I think is worth the money is the fret saw with adjustable depth gauge that StewMac sells. I don't think the miter jig is necessary, because you can easily set up a clamped guide for your saw with a few pieces of wood. There are a couple of web sites that will allow you to make an accurate printout to use as a guide for locating the slots. I also recommend creating a spreadsheet to do the math and give you the exact location of each slot. I do a hand-slotted fret board about once every two years - and only if I'm using a scale that a supplier won't cut. I'm working with a friend who purchased a CNC machine to get it set up to do fret boards. IMO that's the way to go.

  11. #10

    Default Re: Required tools for building own fingerboards?

    Quote Originally Posted by Tom Haywood View Post
    Using your own wood for mandolin fret boards, I think you have to have a way to get a rectangle that has straight sides, 90 corners, even thickness, and flat planed bottom and top, before you begin to set up the wood to cut fret slots. With a good blank, cutting fret slots by hand is more difficult to think about than to do. I think the required tools are: good eyesight, steady hand, good millimeter ruler, good sharp scribe to start the cut. One of the few "luthier" tools I've purchased that I think is worth the money is the fret saw with adjustable depth gauge that StewMac sells. I don't think the miter jig is necessary, because you can easily set up a clamped guide for your saw with a few pieces of wood. There are a couple of web sites that will allow you to make an accurate printout to use as a guide for locating the slots. I also recommend creating a spreadsheet to do the math and give you the exact location of each slot. I do a hand-slotted fret board about once every two years - and only if I'm using a scale that a supplier won't cut. I'm working with a friend who purchased a CNC machine to get it set up to do fret boards. IMO that's the way to go.
    My bandsaw is a Laguna 14bx, and I have an Inca 570 jointer/planer in extremely good condition plus a large supply of extra blades, etc. My table saw is perhaps the least impressive of the set--a Delta 36-725. It's a big box special, but gets the job done. It will cut straight lines and 90 degree angles fine. So I am able to produce boards that are straight and true. And I have experience drying wood to get it to a workable state.

    What concerns me about my table saw is the inaccuracy between the insert plate and the actual table. There always seems to be a slight issue between them. I've tried different inserts, also, and continue to experience the problem. So...if we are talking about a matter of a couple of millimeters to cut the slots and it has to be an absolutely precise depth, then I may feel more comfortable using a hand tool-based setup like the fret saw with depth gauge...

  12. #11

    Default Re: Required tools for building own fingerboards?

    Quote Originally Posted by putnamm View Post
    then I may feel more comfortable using a hand tool-based setup like the fret saw with depth gauge...
    Or make a crosscut sled. The throat plate/insert is irrelevant at that point, and you'd be using one (a sled) anyway for fretboards. Plus, it's probably the single most useful nearly-free shop fixture you can possibly make. Tapers, tenons, miters, you name it, you need a sled.

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    Mandolin tragic Graham McDonald's Avatar
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    Default Re: Required tools for building own fingerboards?

    As Tom Haywood suggests, you do not need much in the way of tools to slot a fretboard. A table saw and templates are wonderful but the job can be done with a handsaw (and the StewMac saw with the depth stop is certainly worthwhile), a small 4" engineers square, a 12" ruler and a bradawl or something to mark a line with. StewMac also have an online fret position calculator to give you the fret positions. Make sure you have one edge of your fretboard blank straight so the scored line are all parallel and clamp the ruler in position to mark the fret spacing. Do that cumulatively from the nut, rather than the distances between the frets, then score a line for each fret position using the engineers square and then saw the slots I know most Americans don't cope with metric, but marking positions calculated in 10th of a millmeter is simpler than 64ths or even 1000th of inches. 1/10th of a mm is plenty accurate for a fretboard and it is an increment which can be seen 8-)

    Cheers

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  16. #13

    Default Re: Required tools for building own fingerboards?

    Quote Originally Posted by Graham McDonald View Post
    As Tom Haywood suggests, you do not need much in the way of tools to slot a fretboard. A table saw and templates are wonderful but the job can be done with a handsaw (and the StewMac saw with the depth stop is certainly worthwhile), a small 4" engineers square, a 12" ruler and a bradawl or something to mark a line with. StewMac also have an online fret position calculator to give you the fret positions. Make sure you have one edge of your fretboard blank straight so the scored line are all parallel and clamp the ruler in position to mark the fret spacing. Do that cumulatively from the nut, rather than the distances between the frets, then score a line for each fret position using the engineers square and then saw the slots I know most Americans don't cope with metric, but marking positions calculated in 10th of a millmeter is simpler than 64ths or even 1000th of inches. 1/10th of a mm is plenty accurate for a fretboard and it is an increment which can be seen 8-)

    Cheers
    Thanks, Graham. Yes, just the hand fret saw with depth stop would be much preferable over a whole jig/setup--from a financial standpoint! The more I look at online the more I think that's the way to go for now. If I want to invest more later in say the miter box then I can. Or even the table saw if I end up producing a lot.

    Is there a recommended brand or maker of measuring or marking tools? All of my rules and squares are from big box retailers. They're worked for things like cabinets, music boxes, and other woodworking projects. But fretting is a very precise exercise, I understand, and I'd prefer something as exact as possible.

    BTW, as an American I have always shied away from metric...until I started building instruments! I'm starting to come around!

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    Registered User j. condino's Avatar
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    Default Re: Required tools for building own fingerboards?

    Do what you like...but... as someone who grew up with and was building instruments before any commercially available precision slotting templates were around, it drives me nuts as a player when I try to play an instrument that has hand cut fret slots. I can tell immediately and the dissonance makes it almost impossible to play. I'd never recommend that anyone who wants to cut a fretboard do it by hand with a graduated rule and pencil. The accuracy and precision available today with cnc cut templates and such is so much more consistent and superior that there is no excuse for bad intonation. YMMV

  18. #15
    Mandolin tragic Graham McDonald's Avatar
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    Default Re: Required tools for building own fingerboards?

    I have been using stainless steel rulers, 6", 12" and 24" from a variety of manufacturers, and bought mostly from our equivalent of Lowes/Home Depot. They all match up with no discernible differences. My little engineering square is all steel and very solid. You can always check these by flipping them over and seeing if the square is the same from both sides. Anything with a rigid point, like a bradawl, can be used to score a line for the saw cut. You can also clamp the square to the fretboard blank, making allowance for the .020/.5mm width of the slotted use the square as a saw guide. at least to establish the cut. If you can get your fret positions accurately to within a couple of 10ths of a mm you will be fine. Remember that as soon as you start to play the instrument and the nicely rounded tops of the frets start to get worn a bit flat, the intonation point will shift a little anyway. There is the other factor that even tempered fretboards will never actually play in tune anyway, but good musicians always seem to manage.

    Enjoy building your mandolins and do the best job you can. There is always the next one to build where you can improve on the previous attempt. That should be the fun of it. Remember it is not like brain surgery. No-one dies if you make a mistake.

    Cheers

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    Registered User Bob Clark's Avatar
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    Default Re: Required tools for building own fingerboards?

    Quote Originally Posted by Graham McDonald View Post
    I have been using stainless steel rulers, 6", 12" and 24" from a variety of manufacturers, and bought mostly from our equivalent of Lowes/Home Depot. They all match up with no discernible differences. My little engineering square is all steel and very solid. You can always check these by flipping them over and seeing if the square is the same from both sides. Anything with a rigid point, like a bradawl, can be used to score a line for the saw cut. You can also clamp the square to the fretboard blank, making allowance for the .020/.5mm width of the slotted use the square as a saw guide. at least to establish the cut. If you can get your fret positions accurately to within a couple of 10ths of a mm you will be fine. Remember that as soon as you start to play the instrument and the nicely rounded tops of the frets start to get worn a bit flat, the intonation point will shift a little anyway. There is the other factor that even tempered fretboards will never actually play in tune anyway, but good musicians always seem to manage.

    Enjoy building your mandolins and do the best job you can. There is always the next one to build where you can improve on the previous attempt. That should be the fun of it. Remember it is not like brain surgery. No-one dies if you make a mistake.

    Cheers
    As always, Graham, your postings on this topic are quite helpful. I am making my own fretboards in the way you describe and while far from perfect, they are getting better with each attempt. I am making my own for a few reasons. I am not using any tropical hardwoods in my builds, and thus far my fretboards have been bamboo. And I am building with unconventional short scale lengths (piccolo mandolins and short-scale mandolins). These two factors render off-the-shelf boards unavailable.

    Your Mandolin Project book has been super helpful all along the way and I recommend it highly to anyone starting building.

    Best wishes,

    Bob
    Purr more, hiss less.

  21. #17

    Default Re: Required tools for building own fingerboards?

    Quote Originally Posted by j. condino View Post
    Do what you like...but... as someone who grew up with and was building instruments before any commercially available precision slotting templates were around, it drives me nuts as a player when I try to play an instrument that has hand cut fret slots. I can tell immediately and the dissonance makes it almost impossible to play. I'd never recommend that anyone who wants to cut a fretboard do it by hand with a graduated rule and pencil. The accuracy and precision available today with cnc cut templates and such is so much more consistent and superior that there is no excuse for bad intonation. YMMV
    I appreciate the advice and your experience. I'm still mulling it over, as it will be a while before I have time to work on these fretboards.

    One question on the table saw method: How does it handle radiused boards? Do you have to build a cradle or some sort? Or do you cut the slots while the board is still flat and then radius?

  22. #18

    Default Re: Required tools for building own fingerboards?

    I suppose one way, isolated in a cabin with no internet, no Fedex tool delivery and a pile of sticks, which is maybe the fun way to go about it, could be done if one has a good mandolin to copy, a sheet of paper, a pencil and any kind of thin-bladed saw. Take a rubbing from the mandolin, even with the strings on. The accuracy is going to be really good. Using a pointy thing, transfer the center of the pencil lines to the new board. Might have to own some Scotch tape. Using any reference (new fret material, leaves of paper, or to be very fancy, a feeler gauge, a saw set or a little punch, set just a few teeth on the saw to proper width. Don’t need all of them. A piece of tape on the side of the saw or an ink mark is your depth stop. No ruler, no square, no electricity. Works on radius too.
    I’m sure that the ancients did it this way, once they graduated from tied-on gut frets, which of course, are still cool.

  23. #19
    Registered User amowry's Avatar
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    Default Re: Required tools for building own fingerboards?

    Quote Originally Posted by putnamm View Post
    I appreciate the advice and your experience. I'm still mulling it over, as it will be a while before I have time to work on these fretboards.

    One question on the table saw method: How does it handle radiused boards? Do you have to build a cradle or some sort? Or do you cut the slots while the board is still flat and then radius?
    I would slot first, then radius. That's what I used to do when I used a tablesaw. I second Marty's suggestion to make a simple crosscut sled (it can just be wood with wood runners). I used one with Makita portable table saw and an LMI template, and the setup was plenty precise.

  24. #20

    Default Re: Required tools for building own fingerboards?

    Radial arm saws seem like the perfect tool and they're cheap sometimes free. I'm waiting on a freebie right now and this is what I plan to use it for. My only question is will there be tear out due to unsupported fibers like on a table-saw sled.
    Richard Hutchings

  25. #21

    Default Re: Required tools for building own fingerboards?

    Quote Originally Posted by Dick Hutchings View Post
    Radial arm saws seem like the perfect tool and they're cheap sometimes free. I'm waiting on a freebie right now and this is what I plan to use it for. My only question is will there be tear out due to unsupported fibers like on a table-saw sled.
    First, if you haven’t used these things before, note that one of the reasons they went extinct for home use is that they are a good deal more dangerous than even table saws, both in crosscut and rip modes. And you’re not just exposing those 2mm! Please read up. Second, the Sears/Craftsman versions are also very poor. It takes considerable effort to set one up accurately, not that it would matter for frets. Third, the way to support fibers is the same as on a sled; that is a sacrificial piece on top of the work. And fourth, the special narrow blades (used to be called planer blades in larger kerf), are themselves flat and stable, but the arbor flange on a radial arm may or may not be accurate enough. If the blade is tilted at the attachment point, the kerf gets wider in a highly magnified way.
    I have two of these things, neither one purchased, and have found lots of uses for them as they are versatile, especially on long boards and as sanders, etc. I also still have 10 fingers.

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  27. #22
    Luthier Tom Haywood's Avatar
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    Default Re: Required tools for building own fingerboards?

    Quote Originally Posted by putnamm View Post
    So...if we are talking about a matter of a couple of millimeters to cut the slots and it has to be an absolutely precise depth, then I may feel more comfortable using a hand tool-based setup like the fret saw with depth gauge...
    As Graham indicated, when you do the math for fret distances from the nut, carried out to four decimal places, you'll see a lot of roughly 1/3 of a mm, 1/4 of a mm, etc. measurements. Using millimeters makes eyeballing those distances more accurate than fractions of inches. After your good eyes and steady hand put the scribed line at that location, then you have to anticipate the width of the saw blade. If you get lax about any of this before you've finished cutting 20 or so fret slots, then you will hear intonation issues forever. If you are persistent, it will actually sound quite good, and adjusting fret crowns can fix problems. It is certainly worth trying.

    The depth needs to be consistent, especially if the tang ends are visible, but also so that every slot is deeper than the tang height. It is a huge PIA to have a fret not seat all the way and have to pull it and cut the slot deeper.

  28. #23

    Default Re: Required tools for building own fingerboards?

    Quote Originally Posted by Tom Haywood View Post
    Using millimeters makes eyeballing those distances more accurate than fractions of inches.
    True, I guess. Eyeballing a quarter of a mm from a mm ruler may be closer than eyeballing 1/64 of an inch from an inch ruler. I'll give you that. But that's 60's technology. Still has its place...
    But today we have $20 quadrature calipers that read to 1/1000" ($20 mics to 1/10,000") accurately and lock in place for marking... rulers are basically extinct in machine shops for this reason, and should be extinct in our shops for stuff like fret slotting, too.
    Rulers are for things larger than 12", tape measures for stuff larger than 2'. Calipers for everything else.
    And if you like, for nostalgia's sake, you can set your $20 caliper to read in mm, decimal inches, or fractional inches with the press of a button.

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  30. #24
    Mandolin & Mandola maker
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    Default Re: Required tools for building own fingerboards?

    It really depends on how many fingerboards you are intending to make how you set yourself up. I used to buy slotted Ebony fingerboards from Randy Allen, but then decided to get properly set up so I can make fingerboards out of any wood I had that was suitable. I made a sled that fitted on to my table saw, which is an old cast iron machine over 40yo, but built like a tank and very accurate. The saw blade is from Stew Mac, and templates are from LMI, but I did make some guitar templates myself. I can cut a fingerboard in less then 3 minutes and they are all dead accurate. You also need a drum sander to get the blanks to the correct thickness, and a hand plane to get one edge perfectly straight. I have made many fingerboards from small logs of Lancewood and NSW Ironwood. First step was to cut the blanks out of the log with my large bandsaw, all quarter sawn. Leave them to dry for at least a year. Then thickness in the drum sander. Next, plane a straight edge to be used as the reference. Next cut the slots on the table saw. Lastly cut the fingerboard shape on my Inca bandsaw and radius on the linisher. Is now ready to inlay marker dots. The quickest job is cutting the slots, but if you do it by hand that becomes the hardest.
    Peter Coombe - mandolins, mandolas and guitars
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  31. #25

    Default Re: Required tools for building own fingerboards?

    Quote Originally Posted by j. condino View Post
    ... they will cut them for you, usually for around $10 a board.
    seems as if no-one in the UK has that setup, as I'm being quoted around UKP60 (=US$75) which is probably reasonable at UK labour rates if you don't have the setup and are doing it by hand.

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