Level & Crown – tools

You’ll need some specialized tools to do level and crown jobs. First, you need to determine what fretboard radius the guitar has. Fretboard radius can vary from 7-1/4″ to 20″ or even totally flat!

Fret Radius Gauge

When filing the fret tops level, you’ll want to ensure you’re using the correct radius file.

Fretboard radius gauge being used on a fret

Be aware that a previous “guitar tech” may have used the wrong radius block when leveling frets. I see this on 10″ to 12″ fret board radii quite a lot. Aparrently, some techs have the more common 9-1/2″ block and figure it’s “close enough”.

Well, it isn’t close enough! They take off way too much fret material when changing the radius like that, and you’ll compound the problem if you try to “correct” it.

To save much of your customer’s fret life, it usually pays to just follow along and use whatever radius the frets have and ignore the fretboard radius, unless replacing frets.

Radius gauge being used on a fretboard

Fret Radiused Leveling Blocks

Fretboard leveling blocks come in a variety of radius shapes.

The best deals on radius blocks currently come from China. But it can take weeks, even months for a shipment to arrive. And occasionally (thankfully, rarely) the wrong radius is shipped, so you need to double check each one.

Obviously, this means you can’t afford to wait until you have a customer job on the bench before you order your radius blocks.

Why do I tape the radiused side of the blocks? Well, you need to adhere the sandpaper to the block somehow. In order to preserve the wood surface, I tape it, being careful not to overlap nor leave a gap..

Elmers Craft Bond is a good choice for gluing your sandpaper to the block. The sandpaper sticks well enough to do the fret leveling work, yet is removeable when it’s time for a new sheet of sandpaper.

If there’s a lot of wear to level off, I typically start with #220 grit sandpaper, otherwise #320.

Fretboard Notched Straightedge

Before leveling frets, you want to be sure neck is straight.

Typically, we have tension on the truss rod to counteract the tension of the strings. But with the strings removed, the truss rod can create a back bow and will often require loosening before starting the leveling process.

It’s important to realize that there may be a difference between having the fretboard straight (using a notched straight edge) and having the fret tops straight (use a normal straight edge)!

What matters is the fret tops. If a previous “guitar tech” had leveled frets without ensuring the fretboard was straight – let’s say there was a slight back bow – the center frets may now be lowered so that fret tops are straight while there is still tension on the truss rod and giving approximately the correct relief when strings are tuned.

If you don’t check for a difference and only use a notched straight edge, you will now be removing excess material from frets at either end of the fretboard. Depending on how much fret material you have to work with, it could be best to follow the previous tech’s example and go by the fret tops rather than the fretboard.

This is a decision you’ll have to make. I just want to be sure you are aware of the potential issue.

Guitar Nut Removal Tools

I’ve already written an article about how to remove a guitar nut. You’ll want a heat gun, nail set (punch) and small hammer.

Removing the nut is necessary in order to get the sufficient stroke length over the cowboy frets. Otherwise, you’ll be removing far less material in the first several frets than in the rest of the frets.

Don’t forget to lower the neck pickup and tape over it to be sure no wayward sanding strokes “file” the pickup poles!

Painters Tape & Scissors

Assorted widths of painters tape will speed up fretboard taping process

Painters tape, in varying widths from 1/4″ to 3/4″ and a pair of scissors will come in handy. Most frets will take two strips of tape. Be careful to align the tape edge precisely along the fret edge. If the tape climbs up the fret a bit, it will likely tear and expose the fretboard to damage.

Most tape widths will have a good match with at least one fret, allowing you to use a single strip instead of two in those instances.

Fret Crowning Files

Fret crowning files

I have an assortment of files for fret crowning. The far left file is a triangular file from Stewmac. Supposedly, its corners are smooth and sufficiently rounded to not cause marks on a fretboard or tear the painters tape.

But that has not been my experience! That file will scratch any surface within its zipcode!

Another over-priced and limited usefulness Stewmac tool is the one on the far right. It’s short length makes it handy for filing between a guitars “ears”, but the files seem to be made of softer stuff than my Baroque files and I’ve had to replace a couple of them. I remove the bodies of bolt-ons, but I still use this little crowning file around the ears of set-neck guitars.

I’ve decided I like course, fast-working crowning files better than the finer files. I have to come back with sandpaper either way to clean up file marks and perfect the crown shapes, so why not get the filing part over quickly?

Now that we’ve decided whether we need to level & crown and we know what tools will be required, it’s time to get to work.. (Click next page)