With the neck already bolted to the guitar – I really don’t want to have to take everything apart more times than I absolutely need to. However, with the prospect of finishing the build at last – I need to make sure the neck and frets are level, so I can eventually set the guitar up properly. In true vintage style – the truss rod in this neck is accessible only from the neck pocket end, so any adjustment means taking the strings and the neck off, adjusting and then re-stringing. Whilst further adjustment may remain a necessity – it makes sense to do any fret levelling work sooner, rather than later.
I’ve managed to get hold of a notched straight edge for a short-scale, Jaguar neck. This is a straight edge with notches cut out for the frets. With a backlight – it allows the builder to check for the straightness of the neck before any tension is applied. The level sits on the wood of the fingerboard, and light shining through shows up any dips or ridges between the level and the fingerboard. Since the Jaguar neck is a shorter, 24″, than the standard Fender 25.5″ scale – a Stratocaster straight edge won’t fit the fret spacing of the Jaguar. It’s taken a while to track down a straight edge for the shorter scale – but it’s worth waiting for. If I do have to do any fret levelling work, it’s pretty pointless unless the neck is firstly proven straight or adjusted, as necessary.
The neck checks out absolutely flat though, which is great news. Whilst some adjustment is always possible with the truss rod – it’s always good to get a well finished and well prepped neck from the supplier. Nice job Allparts. Next step is to check over all of the frets with a fret rocker.
The fret rocker is a smaller, multi edged, straight edge – which allows you to check and compare three frets at a time. The idea is that if the level rocks over the middle fret of the three being checked – this indicates that this middle fret is higher than the two surrounding frets, and will therefore need some attention. By checking each overlapping set of three frets, it’s a lengthy, but pretty straightforward task to check over the entire neck. Because this particular neck is radiused – in this case to 7.5″ – it’s important to check along the full length of each fret – keeping the rocker perpendicular to the frets at all times. It’s quite usual for a fret to be high, just for one or two strings – and then fine along the rest of its’ length. I tend to work my way along the neck, and mark each high fret area encountered with a permanent felt tip pen on the top of the offending fret.
The frets on this particular neck are made from quite thin, vintage style, fret wire. The fret job checks out to be almost as good as the fingerboard levelling and truss rod adjustment – only two frets on the whole neck show as being a tiny bit high. Since I need to do some filing work, and need to protect the fingerboard itself, I put a couple of layers of masking tape over the fingerboard, on either side of each of the frets in question.
It always makes sense to do any fret filing before the pickups go in, as there’s always some fine, metal filings produced – and they love to find their way around the magnetic pole pieces of the pickups. If your pickups are already in place – keep them covered. (If you do manage to get filings stuck to the pole pieces – try using some sticky tape to get them off).
In the event of a lot of frets being out, or in the event of a few irregularities towards one particular end of the neck over the other, it might make sense to use a fret levelling beam to dress the whole neck. Since, in this case, it’s only a couple of frets – and then only one small particular area on each – it makes much more sense to individually and carefully file each area in question. For fine, accurate work, I use a diamond tipped, fret crowning file – hand-made and supplied by Chris Allsop Guitars. By carefully filing away the permanent ink marks on each fret, a few strokes at a time, it’s possible to gradually lower the high areas, for each fret in question. Leaving alone areas which are already checked and OK. After every few strokes, it’s important to re-check the relative levels of the frets with the fret rocker. Once the affected fret is level, it’s important to check each adjacent set of three frets – that way an assessment can be made to make sure too much hasn’t been taken off. Obviously, if a fret is made too low – it will cause the next fret along in each direction to be relatively too high. Go slow, and check regularly, all along each of the frets being worked on. If you mess up here – you may well have to get the levelling beam out after all, and start again from scratch.
With the frets levelled, a few strokes of the crowning file make sure the curve of the crown is restored, and is continuous along each fret. Then, I use some fine wet and dry papers to gradually polish up the frets – 800, 1200, 1600 grits – checking any scratches and file marks are completely polished away. A quick check over the entire neck with the fret rocker again, now confirms all the frets to be level. I then check the ends of each fret in turn, to make sure they are well shaped, with no sharp edges. They all seem to have been finished well enough – all at the correct angle. I should now have a perfectly flat neck with level frets. That will, hopefully, drastically reduce the possibility of any fret buzz when I come to string up, and setup, the guitar.
All that is needed now is a final fret polish. Some people like to use metal polish and a dremel to do this, but I think it’s enough to polish each of the frets in turn using a set of fret rubbers and a fret shield. If you’re using this method, it’s important to get rid of any bits of fret rubber after each pass, with each grade. If any little bits get under the shield – they tend to rub and polish the fingerboard a little, leaving shiny rub marks across the neck. I don’t want to have to sand the rosewood fingerboard down, so I take my time. If you want to make absolutely sure the neck is protected, then masking the fingerboard off is the logical way to go. It takes longer – but it can save you a job if you happen to be careless with the fret rubbers. If you want to go down the Dremel route – I’d highly recommend you properly, and fully, protect your fingerboard with masking tape first.
With the fret polishing rubbers – I work each fret, and the ends of each fret, with each rubber in turn – working through the four grades from coarse, through medium, fine and super fine. I check each fret carefully to make sure there are no file marks or scratches left on each fret. Eventually I’m looking at 22 shining, polished frets on a perfectly flat, rosewood fingerboard. All that’s left to do, is to oil that fingerboard one more time.
I use a fingerboard preparation made and supplied by Crimson Guitars. It’s a nice, super-fine oil – especially formulated for the purpose. It’s probably lemon oil. Ben Crowe’s videos on YouTube have been a great inspiration to me – and a fantastic resource of “how-to” knowledge – so I wouldn’t be suprised to find there’s some magic pixie dust, or something, in there as well. I rub enough oil over the fingerboard, leaving enough to slick up and sit on the surface. Then it’s off to make a cuppa, and to let the oil sink in and penetrate the wood. One cuppa later, a quick rub over with a paper towel removes any excess. (Make sure none has gone over the edge of the neck, if you haven’t already done so).
It’s worth oiling fingerboards regularly, and it’s amazing how much oil seems to be absorbed each time. I’ve already fed the board a few times while I’ve been putting this project together – and I’ll probably give it another clean and feed every time I change strings. The neck is now left overnight to dry, and will be wiped over again with a clean cloth in the morning – (just in case any oiliness remains on the surface).