Fender Nashville Deluxe Telecaster. Fret levelling, dressing and upgraded tuners

Although some parts of my 1999, Fender Nashville Telecaster will have to be replaced – the guitar is still in excellent overall condition. I want to keep as much of the original intact, and ensure that any cleaning and restoration that I have to do, doesn’t remove some of the general character and “patina”. The neck is a case in point. Cosmetically – it’s mellowed beautifully, and has some subtle signs of age and maturity in the wood. It’s hard to buy character like that and, over time, it becomes an essential part of the personality of any instrument. However, there are a couple of technical issues here which need addressing – so I want to try and keep any intervention as balanced as possible. I’m not out to fill every dint, or correct every slight ripple in the finish. A gentle clean will do in most places – but where parts need to be replaced, and interventions made on the actual components of the guitar itself – I want to make sure they’re worthwhile, and subtly done.

Assessing a fingerboard for straightness

The neck itself, displays quite a few dints and scrapes on the reverse, and there are now a few spots of wear appearing on the fingerboard. All said, however – it’s still a nice neck to play. I can live with the visible signs of age – and a gentle clean will, for the most part, be enough to spruce things up. However – I have had a few issues which have become more apparent recently. Rattling tuners, possibly a “sticky” nut, some tuning issues and also some fret buzz – high up, beyond the 12th fret. Combined – these problems might, concievably, be all down to one main cause. The tuners might be worn, the back-bow of the neck might need adjusting, the nut might need attention, or the frets might need levelling and dressing. I could try each “cure” individually, and see how things go, but it’s probably going to be much more time-efficient, if I look to “restore” the neck, more from a technical point of view. Leaving the overall finish and condition much as it is – but levelling and polishing the frets, and replacing the tuners with new units. I could always try and source some new, “aged-looking” tuners – to see if they fit more in-keeping with the context – but I’ve always quite liked the contrast between new and old parts on a guitar, and the odd new component on an old relic, just goes to show that a guitar is regularly played, cherished and cared-for.

I’ve checked the fingerboard for level before – and using my stepped straight edge – I’ve adjusted the truss rod tension so that I’ve now got the board as flat as I can possibly get it. Additionally – the neck has had a few days to settle. What I don’t quite understand is… if the neck is straight – why aren’t the frets, themselves, anywhere near level? When I use a flat straight edge along the frets – there’s clear gapping in a couple of places – especially either side of a, sort of, slight central “hump”. The high frets also seem to be slightly higher than most of the other frets. Far from “falling away” – these high frets are obvious suspects as the cause of some of that troublesome fret buzz. It also looks like the neck bow has probably been adjusted way beyond what would normally be necessary on a true, flat neck. Most likely – to compensate and allow for the gapping around the middle of the neck. Overall – the frets still mostly measure over 0.050″ in height. That’s plenty. I’ll mask off the fingerboard, and look to level and re-dress the frets.

Preparing a neck for fret-levelling

I’ll be adressing the tuner issues later – and if it’s not already been done, now is a good time to remove the tuners themselves, together with the string tree. When dressing the frets – it helps to have the neck flat and level, and firmly supported. The entire fingerboard is protected with some thick masking tape – leaving just the frets exposed. The crown of each fret is then marked along it’s full length, with an indelible pen.

Fret-levelling. Prior to re-crowning

The pen ink is allowed to dry, and then a fret levelling beam is used to file away the very tops of the frets. The beam is a long, heavy, super-straight aluminium box section – with different abrasive papers stuck to each side. The beam is used, straight and smooth, along the full length of the neck – in a number of parallel runs. The idea is to ensure that the overall curve radius of the frets remains unchanged – so the same attention needs to be given to each pass, and the whole process needs to be consistent. Regular checks with a curve gauge are a good idea.

A coarse grade of abrasive is used until the pen marks, along the full lengths of all of the frets, have been removed – leaving a flat, shiny top. Wherever black pen marks remain – these indicate “low” spots, and all of the surrounding “high” areas need to be worked until the levels are equalised overall. The minute all of the pen has been removed – the frets should be level, but it’s important to continue with a series of passes, if that means the application will be consistent across the neck. The key is to remove as little material as possible, but with the most accurate effect. After just a couple of strokes – it’s usually apparent where the problem areas are going to be, but the approach should always be to continue evenly and methodically, until the crowns of the frets are all completely level with each other. Sometimes, a few additional passes are made to the higher frets, and this can pre-engineer a little “fall away”, if required. I’m concious that I’ve already had to work the upper frets a little more to remove the slight “extra height” there – so I’ll stick with level, for the moment, and see how the guitar sets up with that. You can always take away more fret metal, if you need to – but you can’t ever put any back .

Once level has been achieved, the beam is turned over, and a few even passes are made using the finer abrasive on the other side of the levelling beam. This begins the polishing process.

Crowning and dressing the levelled frets

While the fingerboard remains protected with the masking tape – I can now begin to crown and dress the frets, so that the original curved profile of each one is restored. A special fret dressing file – which has three, slightly curved faces – allows me to gradually work away at the sharp “shoulders” left behind, on each fret, by the levelling beam. It helps to mark the flat tops of the frets with a pen again, and then to work evenly from each side. Eventually, the sharp “shoulders” are filed away, and just a fine ink line is left as an indication that the rounding process is nearly complete. A special, curved crowning file can then be used along the top of each fret to give each one the same, rounded profile.

Once the frets are shaped – they are still covered with fine scratches and file marks, and will now require polishing. I take some 400 grit paper, wrap a piece around my fingers, and then make repeated sweeps along the full length of the fingerboard in both directions. Once the uneven scratch marks begin to disappear, I switch to a slightly finer grit, and work along the length of each fret in turn. Then, using an even finer grit wrapped around my fingers – I sweep again along the full length. This is repeated through all the grades, until the frets are polished up to 2000 grit. With the metal now displaying a consistent, but slightly dull sheen – I polish each fret to a mirror shine, by running through the grades again with some fret rubbers. Once the frets are polished up – I usually give the work a final check over with a fret rocker – just to make sure there isn’t a rogue hump somewhere. A good check over with a curve gauge is essential too. If any irregularities are discovered – I can focus work specifically on them, and then repolish everything so that the frets are now perfectly level and playable.

Applying a fingerboard cleaner

With work on the frets complete – the protective masking tape can be removed, and the neck given a gentle clean over. For the maple portions – a light proprietary guitar cleaner is sufficient. For the fingerboard – I want to clean and recondition it. This is a two part process. Firstly, a gentle fingerboard cleaner is spritzed on. This is there to open up the pores of the wood, and to gently begin to remove some of the accumulated grease and gunk. I use Crimson Guitar’s Fingerboard Cleaner. It does a really good job, and it pairs well with their fingerboard oil. Once the cleaner has had a little while to sit – a light scrub with an absorbent paper towel begins to lift twenty-odd years of grime. What once looked like it might possibly be a light Rosewood board – now looks much more like a Pau Ferro board. I can’t find a 1999 Fender catalogue, for reference, anywhere. The 2004 catalogue shows the Nashville Tele as having just a Rosewood fingerboard option. Either things were different in 1999, or perhaps Fender made a few early experiments with Pau Ferro. I’ve certainly never seen Rosewood this colour before.

Applying a fingerboard restorative

The colour does darken a little bit, with the application of some fine fingerboard oil. I always apply plenty, and let the board sit for a while to drink it in. After wiping away any surplus, I usually end up giving two or three applications – depending on how long it’s been since the board last had a drink. Once the fingerboard has soaked in as much as it’s going to – all the excess is wiped away with an absorbent towel, the neck is allowed to dry a little, and then the fingerboard is buffed up with a soft cloth. A final check to assess the new fret heights, shows that about 0.005″ of fret has been removed. There’s still plenty of play left in this neck and, additionally, I might not have to adjust the nut too much. Hopefully, I’ll be able to re-slot the existing nut, and eliminate any possible “stickiness” by filing, polishing and easing the existing string slots to proper tolerance – rather than having to fit and cut an entirely new nut from scratch.

Packing out a loose tuner bushing

I now turn my attention to the tuners. The originals rattle a fair bit, and a couple of the posts appear to be quite loose, compared with the others. I think the gears might have worn over time – resulting in a little more “play” than usual. For a while now – I’ve perceived a sort of unnatural vibration – almost a sort of high piched buzz, whenever the neck is “struck” or sounded. I did fear a possible loose truss rod nut internally – but I think it’s more likely to be (a) loose tuner(s). Certainly – having removed the tuners – the neck already feels and “sounds” much more solid. It turns out that two of the bushings are extremely loose. Wheras all six can easily be pushed out from the rear – two literally fall out, all on their own.

This is fortuitous in some ways – since I’ll have to swap out the bushings for ones which will work with the Gotoh SDS510 tuners I’ll be using. The new posts are slightly too wide to pass through the existing bushings – so I’ll use a new set, as supplied with the new tuners. They appear to be ever so slightly bigger overall, than the previous fittings – but they push home with just a little more effort than the originals came out with. It’s not a good idea to force bushings into a headstock – but if they push in with finger pressure, cushioned by a flat piece of waste timber – that’s just about ideal. For the two looser fittings – I wrap an additional thickness of thin, self-adhesive copper foil around the milled edges of the fittings – before pushing them home. The additional, thin metal shim packs the bushings out, and the foil is also thin enough to form itself around – preserving the milled edges somewhat. This means the new bushings can grip better inside the pegholes. Now – none of the new bushings are loose. Already, I can feel and hear a difference.

Gotoh SDS510 Tuners, with “CARD” system washers

The new tuners match the old tuners’ external dimensions exactly – and I can use the same attachment screws in their original screwholes. However – some of the holes are now showing signs of having been slightly stripped, and most of the screws appeared a little bit loose as I backed them out. I plug each hole with a glued, sharpened matchstick – and then poke a small pilot-hole, in the original locations, with a sharp bradawl. This preserves the original holes, but provides a little extra “meat” down inside the hole, into which the screw can tap, and hold. The tuners come with some special carbon composite washers, which give even more stability to the machine posts. These are placed into the rear openings of the pegholes, and then the new tuners are positioned down, on top. As the screws are tightened down, the tuner casings clamp down around the washers, and the posts are effectively held by bushings at both sides of the pegboard. The result is that the whole assembly immediately seems much more “positive” and sturdy. A metal ruler acts as a straight edge to get all of the machines in line, and then the screws are tightened down. Solid. That slight, perceived rattle has now disappeared, and the whole neck feels heavier and sturdier, with the tuners in place. If the tuners perform as well as these early signs promise – then it’ll have been a long-overdue upgrade. These are, without doubt, my favourite vintage style tuners on any of my builds, so far. What a shame they’re so hard to get hold of…

Restored neck complete

I’ll save work on the nut until I get the neck re-fitted. It always helps to have the neck held as firmly as possible when cutting the nut, and I don’t have another, equally convenient way to clamp the neck and keep it stable. I figure I’ll only have to deepen the slots by a couple of thousands of an inch, and will mostly be concentrating on checking that the string paths are as smooth and straight as possible. Once the neck is attached to the body – I can assess the nut with some test strings in position, and also gauge the straightness of the neck joint. Now I need to turn my attention to the compressed bolt holes, on the reverse of the body.

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