The Frets and Nuts
With the electrics taken care of we can move on to the frets and the nut. I chose this guitar because it had a nice, comfortable, straight neck, and the only work needed on the frets is to round over the ends (they’re quite sharp) and give them a bit of a polish… at £99, there wasn’t enough time to do this at the factory! I’m using a fret file made for the job and available from Stew-Mac: it’s triangular and has the edges ground off to make sure you only file the fret ends and not the surface of the fretboard… though for added security I’m also using a fretboard protector.Have a look at pictures 11 and 12, and you should be able to see what we’re trying to achieve. Don’t worry about the file marks, as they’ll come out when we polish the frets.
With all the fret ends finished, we can move on to polishing the tops. I’ve got a file for the job which has a concave cutting edge to match the radius on the fret, but I’m not using the cutting face of the file: instead I’ve wrapped a finer piece of 1200 grit wet and dry around it.
For the nut we’re using bone. Bone is by far the best – plastic doesn’t ‘hold’ the string very well and can also make for a dead-sounding guitar. With nuts, it’s important that the strings go over a hard surface at the points where they join and leave the surface of the nut, as this allows them to ring without being choked. To remove the old nut, place a block of wood behind it and give it a gentle tap with a hammer to break the glue joint. To thickness and shape the new nut I’m using a sanding block with 180 grit on one side and 320 on the other.
That done, it’s time for the grooves. I generally use a set of .011"s on Strat-style guitars as they generally play a little better with heavier strings. After spacing the strings out evenly over the nut, we now need to cut all the string slots – which means more specialist files. Nut files come in varying thicknesses to suit the gauge of string. Hold the file so that you’re aiming for the top of the tuning head; this will give you the right angle.
Once you’ve got all the strings to a height that you’re happy with, the nut can be taken out and cleaned up. Sand the top down to allow the strings to sit in at just over half their depth. Take all the sharp edges off with some 240 grit, then use 320, then 600 wet and dry, and finish off with a spot of polishing. Put a little glue underneath to hold it in place, and restring as soon as you’ve put the nut in: this will hold the nut down while the glue dries. People have all sorts of ideas about what the string height should or shouldn’t be, but the limitations are these; if it’s too high you’ll pull the strings out of tune when you fret them, and if it’s too low they’ll buzz on the frets.
Before I start to set the intonation I wind the pickups all the way down, as if they’re too close to the strings the magnets will pull on the strings and you won’t get the correct reading on your tuner. Remember, if it’s sharp at the 12th fret you’ll need to move the saddle backwards, and if it’s flat you’ll need to move the saddle forward.
Again, pickup height is a matter of personal taste, but I set them to get an even balance across each pickup to avoid excessive volume differences. Move the pickup closer to the strings for more volume, and further away for less. We’re done… and this guitar now sounds absolutely amazing, mainly thanks to Mr Duncan. It also plays reasonably nicely and looks, well… very red!