When you play your guitar, pushing its strings down against the frets causes them to wear. Depending on how hard you grip the strings, this metal-to-metal contact can cause the frets to develop divots or small depressions. As a guitar’s frets become uneven, vibrating strings lose sustain and clarity, intonation gets compromised, bending can become difficult, and it can feel like you’re fighting to get good tone from your guitar.
Eventually you may need to replace worn frets with new ones—a job for a professional—but before you reach that point, there’s a lot you can do yourself to keep your guitar in good playing condition.
People use different terms to describe basic fret maintenance. I’ve heard it called fret leveling, fret treatment, recrowning, grind and polish, and fret milling. Whatever you call it, the process and goal is always the same, and that is to reshape and recrown the frets so they have an equal height (with the exception of the last five to eight frets, which I’ll explain in a moment).
But first, a word of caution: Fret leveling is not a casual project. Unlike adjusting pickup height or intonation or a truss rod, it involves actions that can’t be undone. To level and recrown frets, you need the proper tools, a steady hand, and a lot of patience. The tools alone will probably cost more than hiring a pro to do the job on a single guitar. If you have several guitars and an innate interest in maintaining them, learning to level frets can be worthwhile. But if you’re not prepared to invest in the tools or take the time required to execute this delicate task, then do yourself a favor and take your guitar to a qualified tech.
That said, even if you decide to hire someone to level your frets, understanding what’s involved can be useful—especially if you buy used guitars or deal regularly with guitar techs. Knowledge is power, as they say, so read on.
Project overview. To illustrate the fret leveling process, we’ll use a Manea jumbo acoustic a client recently brought in for work (Photo 1). It’s a great-sounding instrument, but over time the frets have become uneven and many are no longer properly seated in the fretboard. Our task is to seat those frets securely into the fretboard, and then level and crown all of them.
Before you start a project, it’s important to gather the necessary tools and supplies. Photo 2 shows the items I use for a fret level: a 24" fret leveling bar, a two-sided fret crowning file (designed to round the top of both small and medium fretwire), a fretting hammer, a truss rod wrench, self-adhesive sandpaper (400 and 1500 grit), thin superglue, razor blades, 0000 steel wool or Planet Waves fret-polishing paper, and a flathead screwdriver.
You can purchase most of these tools and materials at a home improvement store or online from such retailers as Stewart-MacDonald.
You need to immobilize the guitar to perform accurate fretwork. To support the neck, I use a 25-pound bag of buckshot wrapped in leather. Alternatively, you can use a bag of sand that’s similarly wrapped. I also rest the guitar body on a piece of leather to protect the instrument and keep it from sliding around.
Finally, I strongly recommend placing a guard over the soundboard in case you slip with a tool while leveling or recrowning the frets. This protective surface—a thin sheet of plastic or even cardboard—should cover the top around the fretboard extension (Photo 3). Make sure the guard is thin enough that you can access the frets, yet thick enough to provide protection from sharp tools. You can secure it with blue painter’s tape.