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The Ukulele Guild of Hawaii December 2001


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Dress not,I bring you sad tidings...

This is the fractured version of the Good News, "Fear not, I bring you
glad tidings of great joy" that the angel brought to Mary 2000+ years ago.
Since Christmas is this month, I thought the title was fitting. We'll talk
about fret dressing as an essential part of a good setup. And without this
process it could mean sad news of how our instrument would play. Forgive the
corn---I couldn't resist.
You now have your bridge saddle in the right location and your frets are
pounded into computer accurate slots. What more do you need? They should
all be in the same plane. High frets can cause an unclear or 'buzzy' tone.
The ones that are high can easily be recognized by lightly drawing a file or
sanding block ocross the tops. Many makers do this(and this only). This may
eliminate fret buzz but clear tone and intonation may still suffer. And
besides, well dressed frets feel nicer as you slide over them.
Picture the "new" points of intonation you have created by flattening
those high frets. Now they make string contact at a point closer to the
bridge. What's the sense of having an accurate fret layout if their points
of contact with the strings are moved? In effect that's what happens when
the fret crowns are flattened. However slight that distance may be, it is
the equivalent of shifting those frets closer to the saddle.
The solution: recrowning the frets to restore that 'crown' or convex
profile to those flat topped frets. A fret file of the matching radius is in
order. I've invested in fret crowning files of all radii in order to crown
the smallest mandolin wire to the largest bass wire. Recrown to the point of
seeing only the finest trace of a line down the center. If you file past
that, there's no knowing when to stop. Then you have to file the surrounding
frets again to bring them into the same line. You could go on indefinitely
until you have no frets. Don't make this mistake. If unsure, cut up an
aluminum ruler to make straightedges that span only 3 frets. You'lI need
several lenghths. If there is excessive rock among 3 frets--you guessed
it---that middle fret is the culprit. Concentrate on bringing that fret in
line with it's neighbors. Check again, file again until satisfied that the
frets are now in the same plane. Marking the frets with a black marking pen
and a LIGHT continuous pass with a STRAIGHT file or fine sanding block with
'Stickit' paper will tell you a lot. The frets that are still high will show
a glean of silver. Sight down the neck along the fret TOPS. Your
fingerboard may have waves. To some degree those waves don't matter if you
can dress the frets into the same plane. Good light(and/or magnifiers) and
examining from different angles will be your best aids.
The temptation in setting up is to bypass this step and go straight on to
setting your saddle height and nut slots. My advice is---"don't". Why? If
you set your ideal action at the saddle and nut and discover that you need to
dress your frets, you'll need to lower the saddle further. Not a problem.
But you may find that your nut slots are now too deep. And now you have buzz
on the open strings. As a repairman I do a lot of setups on guitars and
ukes. The customer wants 'lower action'. But he(she) has fret buzz all over
the place. I always recommend a fret dressing even if they say: "Nah--no
need". That fret buzz they came in with now becomes even more pronounced
with the string action lowered. This is part of playability-equally
important as having good tone.

Merry Christmas, Nate

Nate's October Article "Location, Location, Location"