Fretting under string tension vs perfectly flat - Discuss!

Discussion in 'Guitar Building' started by Sully, May 8, 2013.

  1. Sully

    Sully Well-Known Member

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    Like many things, there are a few schools of thought on doing fret work under string tension. The Erlewine neck jig facilitates this, and there are tools out there that can level under tenion as well. I'd like to hear your thoughts about your preference and why; while I can understand the benefit, it just "seems" smarter to me to get the board perfectly flat. My thought is that if it's perfectly flat before leveling, it should be consistent under string tension.

    What do you guys prefer and why?

    Sully
     
  2. BWGuitars

    BWGuitars New Member

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    To be honest, I do my fretwork under tension, but the main reason for that is the convenience of having the whole instrument locked down to a jig so it can't move around on me. Because fingerboards with a cylindrical, single radius are inherently flawed, it's kind of a preference thing whether you do fret work under tension or not. If your fingerboards were conical or flat, you could then make an argument one way or the other.
     
  3. Jay Jillard

    Jay Jillard New Member

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    yeah.. i level it with the neck perfectly strait.. then when it gets string tension i have that slight bow that i want. havn't had any issues with it at all, and i ahve gone incredibly low with my action before.



    edit: even on my conical compound radius fanned fret bass, i did it under no tension. im not really a bass player, but all the players who have tried it said the action was perfect.. so.. thats something i guess.
     
  4. Jim Engen

    Jim Engen New Member

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    My very very amateur thought and experience tells me that the neck doesn't always settle instantly after tension is put on it. From my experience it can take weeks sometimes for the neck to settle. Also, how do you know you're putting the exact same tension across the entire neck as the strings would. I don't know.I'm sure they work awesome under most circumstances but seems to be over kill.

    My 2 cents,

    Jim
     
  5. crazygtr

    crazygtr Member

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    I like to fret my boards flat. With under tension fretting, there's so many variables, like what happens when you fret with a simulated heavy gauge tension and then the player changes to extra light.
     
  6. Jim_E

    Jim_E Active Member

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    So are we talking about the initial dressing when you’re building a guitar? Maybe not but anyway read on because I agree with you about being perfectly flat and some of this will be relevant. As you mentioned there are many schools of thought and some certainly seem smarter than others for sure.


    I have a slightly different approach and I’ve been fairly reluctant to discuss it with people, in fact I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned how I do it to anyone, so here goes Sully, let’s see what happens… First a little background.

    Talking strictly about guitars with a separate fingerboard like an LP or SG which is pretty much my method of choice.

    What I do is glue my board onto an mdf blank, I do that by using the white glue sparingly and using a piece of kraft paper between the finger board and the mdf (you peel the board off with a butter knife when you’re done), like so…

    [​IMG]
    Pre cnc days I used a number of jigs like a steel template for the holes and a router jig for the radius on the board and the outline cut.

    Either way when I’m done my board has a specific thickness and a radius, the outline is cut and the holes are drilled, then it’s off to the table saw for the fret slots which are cut on a jig that registers a pin in the holes down the side.

    So onto the topic - fret dressing – I press and glue the frets into the finger board while it’s still on the mdf jig and as you say I make sure the radius on the board is perfect first. I trim and sand the frets even with the edge of the board per usual, then I clamp the whole thing on a dead flat bench dress the frets, all I have to do to make sure finger board is flat is clamp the whole thing to a flat surface.

    It’s very easy to do when the board is off the guitar, easier to get it flat and keep it that way, no chance of damage or metal dust on your baby, etc etc.. Once the frets are levelled I peel the finger board off the mdf jig and bind it, then the other important part.


    I see guys all the time worrying about having as many clamps as possible when gluing the finger board to the neck, what I worry about is making sure I’m not gluing a bow or twist into that neck, which you have little to no control of when your neck is plastered in clamps and there isn’t a solid flat surface anywhere in sight.

    I glue the finger board to the neck by putting the board upside down on a flat piece of softwood and clamping like the pic below, yup there’s frets on that board… now that picture is staged so you guys could make more sense of my ramblings, I shape the back of the neck before I glue on the board. To me shaping the neck after gluing the board brings an element of luck into the equation, shaping prior to gluing on the board takes the luck out and bases the result more on good practices.


    [​IMG]

    One proviso - If I’m using a 2 way rod the I clamp the neck so it ends up dead flat, if it’s a regular 1 way compression rod I clamp the neck so it ends up with a micro amount of relief. I’ve had very good results doing the dress this early in the build.

    At the end of the day I don’t buy into the string tension thing if it’s a guitar I’m building, I dress the frets when it’s easiest and when I have the best opportunity to get the board dead flat.

    I think if you feel confident that you can glue the board down and have it come out of the clamps exactly as you want it, dressing the frets first is a good way to go. As you say there’s a school of thought that the neck bends certain ways under string tension and you need jigs to replicate that, I may be naïve but I like to think I know exactly how it’s going to bend as I’m building it, hopefully I’m right.
     
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  7. Barnaby

    Barnaby New Member

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    I've fretted eight necks from scratch in builds and probably done fretwork on at least that many again on existing guitars. Not a high tally, by any means, but enough, I hope, for my experience to count for a little. At least I have some idea of what works for me.

    When I started out building, I would set the board flat and level the frets with a beam, then put in a slight falloff at the end. This worked just fine for me and I could get the action pretty low, although there were sometimes inconsistencies.

    A while back, I got in touch with a guy here in Tokyo (he actually lives pretty close) who invented the Katana fret levelling system. It's designed to be used with the strings on and allows the tension to remain virtually the same as during play. Basically, you set the neck to where you want it, then adjust the flexible beam accordingly and sand away under one string pair at a time. The end result is even frets and nicer action than I could manage otherwise. I've been using it exclusively for a while now and it's fast, intuitive and very effective. In fact, I am planning to do a video about using it sometime, as there are a few small tricks to making it more effective that might be worth putting out there.

    Just to clarify, I've met the dude who makes it and spoken to him a bunch of times about how to get the most out of the tool, but I have no connection with his company. He's simply a nice guy who makes a good product, and that's it.

    Speaking of videos, there's an awesome review of it which shows how to use it better than I ever could, by some long-haired lout from the US. Can't remember his name, but, if I had a daughter, I'd keep her far, far away from him...:shock:

    [ame=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ypIRjrcDyA4]Sully's Guitar Garage - Katana Fret Level - YouTube[/ame]

    Personally, I think that understring with tension, in a neck jig, on a Plek machine or flat can all yield great results, and the skill of the luthier is the true determining factor. Give Roman Rist a worn-out nail file and a tube of toothpaste and he'll give you back a perfectly-fretted guitar, but give bad builders a super-expensive Plek machine and you'll get terrible fretwork and an unplayable neck, as a certain unnamed large company keep proving every day...:D
     
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  8. Sully

    Sully Well-Known Member

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    Nice one, Barn!

    I've used the Katana, but would like the additional insight, because while I can get a decent result from it, I don't know that I'd make it my go-to tool.

    Sully
     
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  9. num21lock

    num21lock New Member

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    Very interested in hearing any more input from folks who have been using the Katana Fret Level.

    Are you guys still utilizing the tool, and if so how has it been treating your fret work?

    Thanks in advance!
     
  10. nuance97

    nuance97 Member

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    I've never used the Katana, but I have leveled frets under string tension. Here's how I did it: adjust the neck so that it is as close as possible to dead straight with string tension, take the $tewMac 18" hollow radius beam (with 320 grit attached) string to pitch through the hollow tube, and level the frets. Obviously you do have to shim the nut and raise the bridge to get the strings high enough to accommodate the beam.
     
  11. bruce bennett

    bruce bennett Active Member

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    i've fretted necks with just about every method out there over the years.

    I still fret "flat" on some types of necks,
    and others I'll use the Erlewine jig,
    and even though I've not yet seen this "Katana" leveling idea.
    It sounds like something I've been doing for years anyway.

    I just loosen a pair of strings and leave the other 4 up to pitch and file or sand the frets until i get the surface I'm looking for by my straight edge. I've used this method for "spot fretwork" since the mid 80s when I ran into a few really stubborn fret jobs that just refused to play right. I tend to think of it as a "last resort" method just before I send it to the PLEK.

    Personally I like the PLEK system... Hate the price of the darn thing.. But it can make short work of a "stubborn fret job" PROVIDED you understand the machine and how it works. and you DON'T deviate from its procedure.

    I don't care at all for "compression fretting" that method is just FULL of problems if done incorrectly.
     
  12. Adam

    Adam Well-Known Member

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    I'm not sure if it's rolled out to anyone but Collings, but Plek has a new door assembly that simulates string tension, so you put the neck in the machine and it's already where it should be, then run the program and you're done.
     
  13. emoney

    emoney New Member

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    Why you always telling us what to do, Sully? Bully.
     
  14. The Guitar Surgeon

    The Guitar Surgeon New Member

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    I have always done it the way it was done before the neck jig was invented. I take the strings off and get the neck as straight as possible, then level and dress. I figure if Martin, Fender, and Gibson produced the glorious birds they did without the fancy tools, why can't I? Also, because I have just been too cheap to buy the neck jig. Looks like a lot of work to get it set up just right. Haven't tried the Katana. I was gonna buy one of those or the T bar thing that is for sale online somewhere. The only reason I thought of doing that is that I referetted a 1983 Kramer Pacer for a guy and it had a badly back-bowed neck with the truss rod all the way loose. It was that way before I fretted it. He couldn't play it as it was, so for some reason he paid me some good cash to refret it with the larges SS wire I could find. I did. He then sold me the guitar for $200. Don't ask me why, b/c I can't for the life of me figure out why he said, "Make me an offer." I ridiculously offered $200 and he said ok. So, I got it playing ok, but it still has some slight back bow and I get some squirly notes up to about fret 5. I figured if I left it under string tension and used a Katana or that cheap T-bar, then I could get the frets level without having to work on the neck for now. I may take the frets out and fix the neck, but I am buried with work.

    So, in short, I do it the same way you do, Sully. I would like to get a neck jig, but it looks like too much effort and time to get it right. I could have a fret level done before I get it set up in the jig.

    Just my thoughts.

    Bob
     
  15. B. Howard

    B. Howard New Member

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    I do most of my necks dead flat. About once a year or so a "rubber" neck comes in that reacts poorly to string tension where an Erlewine jig is useful.

    The only exception I routinely make is older Martins and the like without adjustable truss rods. I place them on a bunny rest at the nut end that is tall enough to lift the upper bout off the bench and then weight the shoulders of the guitar with 10 lbs. this puts a bit of flex in the neck and when leveled like this typically result in perfect relief when strung.
     
  16. Cagey

    Cagey New Member

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    I have one of those Erlewine Neck Jigs, and you're right. They're tedious to set up and I think the value as advertised is a bit oversold. However, they do make for a handy holding jig that makes fretwork easier. You have all-around access to the neck at any angle you want and the thing stays in place nicely while you work your wiles on it.
     
  17. CatonGuitars

    CatonGuitars Member

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    I worked for Lakland basses for over 10 years and for a few of them I was the shop manager. I personally hand leveled on average 15 necks a month for 10 years plus 20 years of repair/custom building work. Point being...Ive done a few fret jobs. Every neck I have fretted has been done using a combination of flat and tension simulation. I have a system of leveling the necks perfectly flat and perfectly compounded from 10"-12" (I do not use radiusing blocks), The neck must not move when leveling. After the initial level (perfectly flat from nut to last fret under no tension) I "Simulate" tension with a very simple fixture(no need for over priced stewmac crap). I place a feeler guage, .008" for a bass and .006" for guitar, (the amount of relief I want at setup) on the 6th fret(where I measure relief for the setup). I then place a straight edge over the guage and down the center of the neck, from the nut to just over the 12th fret slot. I then slowly simulate tension, until the straight edge touches the nut slot, the feeler guage and the 12th fret slot. "In theory" the neck is now shaped the way it will be when strung to pitch and the truss adjusted. I then sand from the 14th down, until the neck is perfectly level from the 9th down. I do not sand above the 14th, this is where the "roll-off" starts. Doing this gives the exact same amount of "roll-off" every single time. It also in theory makes the frets from 14 down perfectly strait if the truss rod is adjusted so that the neck has .008"(bass) or .006"(guitar) relief at pitch. After I sand the roll-off I take the tension off and double check. My neck should be dead flat from the nut slot to the 14th. Then very slightly start falling away from the straight edge after the 14th. This is really just a way to sand in roll-off the exact same way every time. At the end of the day the fingerboard from nut to 14th is leveled without being under tension.

    In my experience there is no need to level under tension as long as it is a well built neck. It is worth the time to use a proper fixture to hold the neck and body still and to meticulously level the neck dead flat, with or without roll-off. I also pay very close attention to my radius. Having a proper radius will help the rest of the fretwork go so much smoother and the end result is well worth the extra work. A well crafted fret job does not go unnoticed.
     
  18. CatonGuitars

    CatonGuitars Member

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    Ya we had that at lakland for doing level,crown,polishes on our import models. The Plek machine does require tension simulation to cut. To be honest it does a pretty good job turning a not so awesome fret into a not so bad fret job. Our imports came out playing great.
     

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