How to Fret Dress an Electric Guitar.
The term "fret dress" refers to leveling and reshaping the frets. As you play your guitar, the strings wear down the frets because the strings are made out a harder metal than the frets. It is basically like taking a file to a chunk of steel. The steel will get worn down over time from the file. The strings leave little divots in the frets where they come into contact. Dressing the frets levels out these divots and makes the fret perfectly flat again. Then the fret just needs to be re-rounded or crowned. This is a very common repair, as guitar frets will wear down as they are played.
Fret Dress an Electric Guitar
with a Rosewood or Ebony Fretboard
Cover Magnetic Pickups.
Before we start this repair, you should place some kind of covering over your magnetic pickups, so the filings and metal dusk from the frets will not stick to the pickups. The metal dust can be attracted to the pickups and collect on the pole pieces. Built up dust will cause poor pickup performance and can ruin your pickups eventually.
Check for Loose Fret Ends.
A loose fret ends occurs when either of the ends of a fret are not fully attached to the fretboard. Fret ends can be slightly or extremely loose. Usually, fret ends become loose because the guitar has been dropped or banged up against something dislodging the fret. Fret ends can also come loose because they were never installed correctly in the first place. Regardless of the origin, check to make sure that all of your frets are securely attached to the fretboard. If any of the frets are loose, you will need to fix the fret ends before you dress the frets. For instructions on how to fix loose fret ends, see the fix loose fret ends page.
Adjust the Truss to Straighten the Neck.
It is very important that your neck is straight before you level your frets. If you level your frets while the neck is not straight, too much relief or back-bow, your frets will not be level after the neck is straightened. You will have taken a large amount of material off of the frets without actually fixing the problem. For instructions on how to adjust the truss rod, see the how to adjust the truss rod an electric guitar page.
Clamp the Body and Neck Down.
Next, you will want to clamp your guitar down, so it won't move around on you when you are trying to level and recrown the frets. There are several ways to clamp your guitar down. Probably the easiest way to clamp it down is to place your guitar on a table and run ratchet straps over the body and hook them to the edges of the table. You don't want to ratchet them so tightly that you break something on the body, but you want them tight enough to keep your guitar stationary. After you have your guitar snugged down to the table, you will need to make a support for the neck. You can make one out of a 2x4, or you can buy one. The support should not hold the neck higher than it naturally lies when the guitar is strapped to the table. The neck should not be propped up by the support. It should be resting on it. It is EXTREMELY important not to put the neck on the support before you strap your guitar to the table. If the support is too high and you tighten the pressure on the straps around the body, the neck can break off or crack. The importance of the neck support is to secure and stabilize the neck from the pressure exerted by leveling the frets. The supports are there to absorb and redirect the pressure from the neck joint--not lift the neck up in the air.
Mask/tape off the Fretboard.
Once the guitar is securely fastened to the table, you will need to tape off the fretboard leaving the frets exposed. You can use 1/2" scotch tape for the lower frets and 1/4" tape for the higher frets. Leave one end of the tape hang off the edge of the fretboard, so you can easily remove the tape after the fretwork is complete. Do not wrap the tape around the neck or down the side of the neck. Removing tape like this can remove finish as well. Keep the tape on the fretboard.
Mark the tops of the Frets.
Take a sharpie marker and mark the tops of the frets. The marker will be a guide as to what parts of the fret have been leveled and which need to be leveled.
Level the Frets with a Leveling Bar.
Next, you will need a fret leveling bar. A fret leveling bar is a rectangular piece of steel tubing that has two sides machined down to a precision flat finish. Take a piece of 320-grit adhesive sandpaper and attach it to the precision flat sides of the leveling bar. You can purchase one of these leveling bars directly from me. I manufacture several different sizes of fret leveling bars and offer them at a fraction of the price of the "brand name" ones. Go to the leveling bar page to learn more about my fret leveling bars or contact me about fret leveling bar purchases. Once you have the sandpaper on the fret leveling bar, run the sandpaper side of the leveling bar back and forth against the frets . Also, run the bar side to side. When you are running the leveling bar back and forth make sure to watch the nut of the guitar. One whack of the leveling bar and the nut can come clean off. Do not hit the nut with the leveling bar. Level the frets until all of the sharpie has been sanded off the tops of the frets. Pay attention to how much material you are sanding off the frets. If some frets are extremely low, you will have to sand a lot of material off the rest of the frets to bring them down to size.
Re-mark the tops of the Frets.
After all or most of the sharpie is off the tops of the frets, re-mark the frets the same way you did it the first time. Lightly sand the frets again with the leveling bar just to make sure all the frets are being hit equally. Then re-mark the frets again.
Crown the Frets with a Crowning File.
A crowning file is a special rounding file with concave edges that are made for frets. The nicer crowning files are encrusted with diamonds and come in different grits. I suggest getting a 300-grit file. Place a protective metal plate around the fret wire, so you don't mark up the fretboard. Take the file and round the edges of the fret until it is perfectly rounds--no flat top. A word of caution, you don't want to have pointed or pyramid shaped fret wire. It should be nice and rounded. This might take some time. File both sides of the fret wire until you get a nice crowned top. There should be a thin line of marker left on the top of the fret when you are done crowning it. Hence, you do not file any material off of the top of the fret after you level it.
Sand the Frets with Sandpaper.
Now that the frets are crowned, we can start the polishing process. You crowned them with a 300-grit file, so gently sand the fret with 320-grit sandpaper just enough to remove the lines from the file. Repeat this process with 600-grit and 800-grit sandpaper.
Polish the Frets.
Take either #0000 steel wool or a buffer and polish the frets to a high shine.
Remove the Tape.
To remove the tape, simple grab the end of the tape hanging off the fretboard and pull the rest of the tape off the fretboard. Do not just rip the tape off. Be careful because you do not want to take finish off the side of the neck or fretboard.
Clean Fretboard and Frets
After the tape is removed, drip some oil soap on the fretboard. Use a piece of #0000 steel wool to rub the oil soap into the wood and clean the frets and fretboard. Then wipe the excess oil soap off the fretboard with a rag.
Fret Dressing a Guitar with a Maple Fretboard.
Follow the same exact steps discussed above to dress the frets on a guitar with a maple fretboard except the follow:
Do not mark the tops of the frets on a maple fretboard.
Sharpie marker will bleed into and stain the light maple fretboard. You should not use a marker to mark the tops of the frets of a guitar with a maple fretboard.
Do not apply oil soap to a maple fretboard.
Do not clean a maple fretboard with oil soap.
Now your guitar frets are completely leveled and crowned. Your guitar should play better than when you brought it home from the store.