I thought I’d demonstrate fretting a neck and finishing it with nitrocellulose lacquer.
The neck I used was very nicely made, with a compound radius fretboard which progresses up the board from 7¼” to 10″ radius. The back is a nice soft V at the first fret, rounding out towards the heel. A compound radius isn’t authentic of course but it does help set the guitar up with lower choke-free action so is a welcome improvement on the original uniform 7¼” radius.
The fret slots measure 25 thousandths of an inch wide which is perfect for my chosen fretwire.
The tuner holes are stepped vintage holes, ideal for the original tuners. I have some early 70s Fender Mustang tuners in my parts drawer and although they have white buttons should look almost the part!
The first job is to sand with 320 grit paper. The neck was well sanded as received but had a few deep scratch marks that needed to be sanded out and I wanted to round (roll) the edges of the fretboard slightly to make it more comfortable to play. I took extra care on the fretboard so as not to accidentally reprofile it.
Next I sealed the neck with clear lacquer. The reason for this is to keep any metal dust from the fretting process out of the wood grain, I didn’t want the neck to get grubby. I used my Clear Satin nitrocellulose lacquer but you can use any clear lacquer or sanding sealer.
The first light coat of lacquer raised the grain slightly and showed up one or two sanding marks that I’d missed. I knocked back the grain with 320 grit paper again and sprayed another light coat. I don’t want to build up any finish thickness at this point, just to seal the grain.
It’s best to spray with the neck hanging vertically with a hook through a tuner hole but if that’s not possible, you can lie the neck down, spray one face and when dry flip it over and spray the other. Whichever you choose, be sure not to miss any areas such as the end of the headstock or the heel – it’s easy to do so!
You can buy fretwire in cut lengths or longer pieces. I tend to buy fretwire by the pound in 2 foot lengths from Stewart Macdonald and hold most of their sizes in stock. Whether you buy ready cut or in lengths your fretwire needs to be bent slightly more curved than the radius of the fretboard. This is easy if you have longer lengths of wire and a fretwire bending jig, but it’s not such a problem to bend individual pieces using a pair of pliers.
I have selected Stewmac #154 fretwire which is close to a modern Fender profile, being 0.1″ wide and 0.05″ tall.
When cutting to length, I used the fretboard as a guide and store the pieces in order in wooden block. You can see the curvature of the fretwire, this helps keep the ends of the frets well seated tight against the wood.
I’m using a soft-faced hammer to seat the frets. I bought the hammer very cheaply at a DIY superstore and it’s ideal for the job. I made a short video showing the fret insertion technique. The camera focus isn’t great but you get the idea!
Notice that I seat each end of the fret first before hammering the centre down. You can see that it’s quite a quick operation!
You might also notice that there is a lot of noise that can damage your ears so it’s a good idea to wear some ear protection when doing this.
Once the frets are seated, the next step is to cut the ends close to the neck. Before doing this however it’s a good idea to place a drop of super glue under each protruding end. This will secure the fret to the neck and avoid it being lifted when the end is trimmed.
Don’t worry that the fret won’t be easy to remove when it’s time for a refret, a bit of heat on the fret will vapourise the glue and release the bond.
There are three steps here, firstly cutting the frets as close to the neck as possible, then beveling the fret ends and finally filing the tangs flush with the neck.
I used a pair of pincers to trim the fret ends as close as I could to the edge of the neck. This minimises the amount of filing required.
Once I had trimmed the ends, I made sure to vacuum the workspace as I didn’t want bits of metal getting embedded in my nice new neck.
Next I used a fret beveling file to trim the fret ends at a 35 degree angle from vertical. It’s easy to tell when the file is just touching the neck and it’s time to stop.
I have two of the files, one for each side of the neck, but it’s also possible to bevel the fret ends with an ordinary file or a diamond coated steel by hand. It just takes a bit more care.
You can see in this shot the beads of super glue on the fret end. This will be removed when the tangs are filed flush with the neck.
Once I had done this I had lots of metal filings around so again vacuumed the area thoroughly to remove them.
I used a diamond coated steel to file the fret tangs flush and followed this with 320 grit abrasive to give a smooth finish.
That’s the frets inseted, they’ll be levelled and the ends dressed properly once the neck has been finished.
Now is a good time to fit the nut. You can use a variety of materials from hard plastic to bone, or brass. I’m using Tusq here as I had a nut to hand and I do like Tusq. It’s pre-slotted which will save time when I come to adjust the string height.
I tidied the base of the nut slot using a nut file and sanded the nut to the correct width by rubbing it on sandpaper on a flat surface until it was a snug fit in the slot. I made sure that the curvature of the base was correct and that it was a good fit with no gaps at the ends before gluing it in place with a small dab of super glue at each end. You can use carpenters glue if you prefer but I like that superglue sets very hard, which ought to transmit sound better. Fender nuts don’t need much glue as the curved base keeps them in place.
Once the glue had dried, I filed the ends flush with the neck using a small file and sanded smooth.
Like the final fret dressing, the fine-tuning of the nut will be done once the neck has been sprayed with lacquer.
I want to spray a light tint on the neck to give it a slightly aged appearance. A 1969 neck would have been finished in polyurethane which doesn’t yellow much so I don’t want to add too much colour. I will add a bit more colour to the headstock face as this would be finished over the transfer in nitrocellulose which naturally yellows more readily. Of course I’ll be using nitrocellulose lacquer throughout.
The finish is covered in the next post, Spraying the neck