Fretting and finishing a guitar neck

Preparing the neck by sanding and sealing with clear lacquer
Unfretted Guitarbuild Stratocaster neck as received

Stratocaster neck as received

Stratocaster neck fretted and lacquered

Stratocaster neck fretted and lacquered

I thought I’d demonstrate fretting a neck and finishing it with nitrocellulose lacquer.

The Stratocaster has a soft V profile at the first fret.

Soft V profile neck

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!

Preparing the neck

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.

Preparing the neck by sanding and sealing with clear lacquer

Preparing the neck

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!

Preparing the Fretwire

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.

The fret wire is cut to length using pincers

Cutting fretwire to length

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.

The fret wire is cut to length and kept in order of size in a wooden block

All fretwire cut to size


Inserting the frets

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.

Looking down the neck you can see that all the frets are level and well-seated

Frets all seated

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.

Prior to clipping the frets short, the ends are secured with a drop of super glue

Securing the fret ends with a dab of super glue

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.

Trimming the frets

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.

The fret ends have been clipped short using pincers

Fret ends clipped short

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.

A Stewart Macdonald fret beveling file is used to dress the fret ends

Beveling the fret ends

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.

The fret ends have been filed flush using a diamond-coated steel

Fret ends filed flush

The fret ends are beveled to 30 degrees from vertical

Fret ends are neatly beveled

That’s the frets inseted, they’ll be levelled and the ends dressed properly once the neck has been finished.

Fitting the nut

Nut fitted and flied flush with the neck

Nut fitted and flied flush with the neck

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.

Spraying the finish

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

17 Comments on “Fretting and finishing a guitar neck”

  1. Hi Steve, I’m putting together a Strat from parts bought from Guitarbuild UK and really love the unpainted look of the wood (ash and maple ) and I’m wondering how to lacquer or seal the wood so as to keep the colour. I was considering leaving the ash body untreated because I dont want it to darken but worry about durability . Any suggestions ?

    • You won’t keep the colour by leaving the wood bare, if you play it the guitar will soon look grubby as dirt gets embedded in the wood grain.

      Lacquer will only darken it slightly, as much as wetting it would. I’d recommend you finish it properly, using clear lacquer on the neck and grain filler > sanding sealer > clear satin lacquer on the body.

  2. Howdy! I’m at work surfing around your blog from my new apple iphone! Just wanted to say I love reading through your blog and look forward to all your posts! Keep up the excellent work!|

  3. Hi Steve, this is an amazing site! Thank you for taking the time and trouble to post it.
    I just got myself a Tele kit, ash body, maple neck and black pickguard, and I will be glued to your site for the next few months. I’m going to take my time with the preparation: sanding etc, and do the painting over the summer when its warm and dry.
    best wishes and keep up the fantastic work.

    • Excellent, let me know if you need any advice. You do realise that nobody ever makes only one guitar? ;)

  4. Great site. I am doing my first build using a kit Tele. It came with the frets already inserted in the neck but it still needs a finish. Just wondering if I can still spray it or do I need to use a brush or other implement. Sorry if this is an obvious ‘noob’ question.

  5. Great blog ! I wasn’t quite sure I could do that by myself but now I’m confident. Thanks for the help !

  6. Hi Steve,

    I notice that instead of grain filling the neck, you’ve used nitrocellulose (or sealer). I’ve seen discussion elsewhere where it is recommended. Would you grain fill a maple neck? If not, why not?

    Love the site, keep up the good work!

    • Thanks for your feedback!

      There is no need to grain fill maple as it has a very tight structure with no open pores that require filling. Grain filler would not penetrate at all and merely wipe off the surface.

  7. The quality of most kits isn’t great but they are a cheap way to learn skills. Buying separate parts is potentially more expensive but you can pick and choose the components.

    As for the fret ends, you need to file them along the length of the fretboard.

  8. I am learning some of this as I only found out that I could buy DIY guitar kits a few days ago, and want to make a Fender Telecaster. I considered buying one, but I couldn’t believe the price of them, so I think it was on Ebay I saw the 1st kit for about £100. I have a Marlin Stratocaster copy and an unamed one that has all the frets sticking out about 2mm on the right side.
    I don’t have a shed or a workshop or many tools, but I think I could do most of the work using a Dremel 3000 i.e. cut or grind the frets on the crap strat copy I got for £30 which must have been an all in one kit for Xmas with a 10watt amp.
    I digress, I think I should tackle the frets on the strat 1st before getting a kit of the internet, but as someone says on one of the websites I read about making a guitar from a kit do it for the fun, as I think there are many skills to know to make a really good guitar and I don’t know if I have them, already I am thinking of buying better electrics than the one’s supplied with the kit, but I just want to have a go and see how it turns out, and thanks for sharing your wisdom, the superglue idea is great.

  9. Hi

    Fantastic work on this blog.
    This is a exact colour i want to paint my maple neck, but at the moment it has numerous layer of tinted lacquer which is making it orange. do you have any tips for stripping a neck?


    • If it’s lacquer then cellulose thinners will remove it. If it’s a modern finish then sanding and scraping is the best way. It’s a slow laborious process though if you want to avoid damaging the wood.

    • Thanks Eddie. It does get easier with practice. My first fret job on a Vox Lynx, nearly 40 years ago, didn’t turn out nearly so well!

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