Spotlight: Anatomy of a Fret Dress

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Photo-journal of a Fret Dress using the StewMac Neck Jig

The back story...

I had a customer bring a Fender Squier CV 60 strat in for some upgrade work.
The customer (Kristian) wanted some upgrades on the pickups (BKP Irish tours) and wondered if I could make it feel nicer to play.

I’m quite fond of the CV Sqiuers and with a little work they can turn out to be cracking good guitars, and like so many other Squier CV strats this one was a good guitar and played pretty well already.

Upon close inspection, the frets were pretty level with only one tiny high spot, but I suggested that they could be a little bit smoother as they felt just a little bit gritty when bending strings.

The guitar didn't NEED a fret dress at all but we both felt that the frets could do with a good polish, and whilst we were doing that we would add a little "fallaway" (skimming just a tiny amount from the last few frets and introducing a little compound radius-ing on the treble side to facilitate cleaner bends).

The good news (for Kristian) is that we went a bit beyond the call of duty because I decided that I wanted to record the processes for an interesting forum post to show what we go through when we do a fret dress on a strat, so he got a fret dress and set-up rather than just a fret polish and set-up.

The customer had a good idea of what he wanted to do with regard the pickups. He also decided that if spending all that money upgrading to a boutique set of pickups, then also upgrading the circuitry with CTS pots, CRL switch and a switchcraft jack doesn't break the bank and will give years of reliable service.
This also allowed us to remove all of the existing pickups and electronics intact (we labeled them for him) so that he could have an easy job of transplanting them to his Fender Bullet strat – so he got two upgraded guitars from the deal.

The pots I chose to use are made by CTS for Bare Knuckle pickups. They have a 280k ohm value and there is a reason for that choice: All electronic components have a tolerance of up to plus or minus 10% of the value. On pots they often come up as lower than the specified value.

So on a 250k ohm pot it could get as low as 225k ohm and this reduced value can cause "loading" on the pickups and you lose a bit of top-end clarity. Bare Knuckle chose to have CTS make 280k ohm pots so that at worst their pots will read 252k ohm which is the preferred value on a strat.

If the pot reads a little more than that it is no problem – you just retain more of the top end spectrum of the pickups output. We discussed capacitor options (we keep a few types in) and decided that the orange drop was a great and cost effective way to go. I personally like the effect of a 0.022uF cap in a strat or tele, but also understand that others prefer the more traditional 0.047uF.

At a couple of £ it wouldn't cost much to swap it over if he changed his mind later.
The Bare Knuckle pickups come with the lovely vintage style "push back" wire and we will use the same type of wire for the rest of the wiring job too, for a nice vintage touch.

Lets get down to business and show you what happened

Here is the guitar on the workbench awaiting attention.

Here is our Erlewine/Stewmac neck jig that we always use for fretdressing.

It allows us to recreate the effect of string tension on a neck – even when the strings have been removed.

This gives a degree of accuracy and control that otherwise wouldn't be possible.

Here is Kristian's guitar strapped into the jig with the neck adjusted dead straight and the dial indicators touching the rear of the neck.

The jig is tipped to put the guitar in the 'playing position'.

The neck is once again checked for straightness, and the dial indicators are set to read zero.

So here is the dial near the nut set to zero (the other dial nearer the body is also zeroed).

Tipping the guitar back onto its back allows gravity to pull the headstock down a little and that can be measured by the first dial.

Removing the strings causes the dials to both move as the neck loses the pulling force of the strings and the force exerted by the truss rod to balance that string pull now pulls the headstock back and causes the neck to bow upwards in the middle a little.

Here is the first dial:

Here is the one nearer the body.

So now we both prop up the headstock and also pull down at the nut - thereby recreating the same forces on the neck that the strings exert(and removing the effects of gravity). 

Here is the adjustable jack under the headstock:

Here is the dial back to zero.

Next the support rods are brought up behind the neck to hold everything steady so we can work on the frets and apply pressure without altering the level or straightness of the neck.

First we take a long precision ground levelling bar and skim all the frets at once – thereby removing any high spots. We blacken the tops of the frets and the leveller has abrasive paper underneath and removes fine amounts of metal( we obviously take care to keep the radius intact – although a tiny amount of compound radius is introduced).

We know when we are getting there as all the fret tops shine through the black marker as they are exposed by the leveller.

You can also see the metal filings on the fingerboard either side of the frets.

Then we also add a little bit of fallaway to the top frets.

This involves carefully filing away a little more on the uppermost frets , so ensure that the neck plays cleanly above the 10th fret.

We shim the levelling bar up at one end and it only hits the last few frets.

We also add a little more exaggerated compound radius-ing on the treble side to allow clean bends on the high E.

But now the fret tops are flattened on top and need to be re-crowned.

So using our diamond coated crowning files we re-profile the frets to a neat dome shape.

Note how we have blackened the tops again to show up where we still need to file.

Here it is after using the file – just the last traces of the marker visible.

Now we need to remove the file marks using wet and dry paper – grades 600, then 1200, then 2000 and then rubbed with 0000 grade wire wool.

Finally we took the frets to the buffing wheel and left them with a mirror shine.

So now we turn our attention to the body and electronics.

Here is the body laid out ready.

We opened her up and were surprised to find that it seemed to be already screened (the black paint). Excellent we thought.

I took a electronics multimeter and tested the electrical continuity of the screening.

It didn't have any continuity at all - so it was pretty much just black paint. What a shame – but we could fix that.

We redid the screening with our own special nickel screening paint.

Here it is repainted and had perfect continuity now.

The screening is connected to the earth connection on the back of the volume pot which then goes directly to the earth side of the jack.

Okay we're on the home straight now: Electronics time!

Here is the original wiring harness.

I extracted that in it's entirety and labelled the wires so Kristian could drop it directly into his Fender Bullet strat.

So onto the new wiring. Theres nothing much to say other than what we put in our earlier post in this thread, other than saying I try to work as neatly as possible , making good solder joints. I chose to use the old style push back wire to complete the wiring so Kris could have it like an old strat as much as possible.

The good quality of the parts made them a joy to work with and later when we tested it we were pleased with the sounds too.

Here is the pick-guard loaded with all the new stuff.

We put this all back together and restrung the guitar. A little care was needed to prevent the components from shorting out against the screening paint as the switch was somewhat deeper than the one that the body had been routed for.

Once assembled adjustments were made to get the set-up right (which weren't something that make any sense to photograph) and things felt pretty nice.

On reflection I am glad that we did fret dress the guitar as there were a couple of frets that were a tiny bit high and also the work we did with adding fallaway and the compound radius-ing at the top end will pay dividends.

We certainly didn't remove much metal at all - but the little we did remove will just make everything better from a playing point of view.