Building my first guitar - Fretboard Construction

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Blog entry by thamar posted 06-29-2014 09:44 PM 3616 reads 2 times favorited 6 comments Add to Favorites Watch

After a couple of false starts this is the progress to date on the fretboard:

I got some 1/4” Phenolic -CE grade board on ebay. This is a very stiff resin type board that has layers of cloth embedded in it. It is way better than MDF or plywood for making templates. The first step was to cut the Phenolic to the exact length of the fretboard.

For that kind of precision cutting, I like to use the little Incra sliding table. Here is a picture of it actually cutting the one fretboard that I screwed up:

Can’t recommend this little sliding table enough! It does a great job on small parts.

I began by purchasing a Les Paul template (made out of MDF) on ebay. One of the pieces in the package was the neck and headstock. I cut the headstock bit off, rough cut the Phenolic and used double sided sticky tape to hold the two together. I then scribed the two lines of the taper.

I lined up the scribed line with my Dubby Taper Jig (purchased from Peachtree) and cut the two tapers. I really like this jig over the other two that I have because you get a real good feel on the alignment of the taper..

The next step was to use the Phenolic jig to outline the shape of the fretboard, to rough cut it on the bandsaw and then to double side tape to the rough cut fretboard and to clean it up on the router table. I use a pattern bit with a top and bottom bearing bought from Lee Valley so that I can cut with the grain.

Next I made the case for the inlay cutout jig that I purchased. (It was purchased from Bartlett Woodworking). My case was built to be exactly as wide as the fretboard and then at the narrow end I glued in tapers to keep everything centered.

I used a Foredom router “thing” hooked up to a router type base sold by Stew Mac. The actual bit that I used was a 1/8” shaft with a 3/32” cutting diameter. I had to make sure that there was a solid 1/8” shaft that would rub against the inlay cutout jig.

I purchased pre cut inlays for my first attempt. I glued these into the fretboard with white glue and then used my radius jig (bought from Luthier Suppliers) to sand the 12” radius. It worked fine but the mother of pearl really seemed to gum up the sandpaper very quickly.

I then used epoxy and some coloring to fill in the cracks around the inlays.

After sanding off the first bit of colored epoxy filler, this is where I’m at right now.

Next, I’ll cut the fret slots. Here is a couple of pictures of my first fretboard attempt. They show the fretboard cutting jig that I got form GMC Luthier Tools (in the UK). They were kind enough to make the jig to the specs of a Les Paul (which are not actually to a 24.75” scale; the actual scale is 24-9/16”). The jig worked fine but I was surprised at how much effort it actually took to cut all those slots!

The GMC jig wants the fretboard to be a rectangle. I had to cut a couple of tapers to jam it in (ignore the maple strips they were just extra filler).

After I’ve slotted the fretboard, I’m going to glue small 1/16” maple bindings along the sides and bottom. After that, i’ll clean out the slots and attempt to install the wire frets.

For the side dots, I’m going to make a small cylinder using some spare rosewood or ebony (about 1/8” round I think). I’ll then drill a 1/8” hole in the maple binding and insert these little rods. [I want to avoid as much plastic as possible on this guitar]

Well, time has gone on and things haven’t gone as smoothly as I’d like.

One fretboard cracked when I attempted to remove it from the radius jig. The darn double sided tape was just too strong. I don’t think that it helped that I’d cut the fret slots before I did the radius. All that did was to weaken the whole thing. In the future, I’ll do the radius BEFORE I cut the fret slots! [the bitter pill of experience!]

Yet another fretboard attempt had gone sour. What happened was that my inlay jig wasn’t entirely parallel along its length. I made a bit of an error by setting the Foredom cutter a bit too deep to begin with. When I routed out all the inlay “holes” the ones at the narrow end were deeper than the ones at the wide end of the fretboard. By the time I finished the radius sanding, I had wiped out the end bits of the mother of pearl inlay on the wide part of the fretboard. 1.5MM is pretty darn thin and there just isn’t much room for error.

Time to regroup.

I rebuilt the inlay jig and hopefully I’m a bit closer to perfection. To get it absolutely right, I ended up using a micrometer to measure down from the top of the inlay jig to the bottom of the jig. It’s within a few thousands of an inch being the same from side to side and along the whole jig. That took some time to get it close. Secondly, I blew a wad of cash and sprung for some thicker mother of pear blanks (2.5mm – used for knife handles). I may have other problems, but there is now no way that I’m going to grind off all of the mother of pearl!!

I’ll try to post some pictures here when I get to this stage.. again!

I’ve started to think about how to do the side dots on the fretboard. I’ve come up with the following jig, which is designed to help do the 3mm holes for the inlay. I drilled a 3mm hole through the pexi on the jig and I’m waiting for my 3mm end mill bit to arrive. If I’m going to use abalone for the dots (and I’m thinking about it), then I only have to create a 1.5mm deep flat bottom hole. If I use an actual drill bit, the hole won’t be flat. I’m hoping that the hole through the pexi will kind of support the milling bit. Anyway, here are a few pictures to give you an idea as to how the jig looks.

Tried out the jig today on one of the screwed up fretboards. My drill press has a little too much run-out so I modified the jig slightly and I’ll use it in my milling machine.

Although the metal jig for the inlay seems ok, even when I use a slightly smaller router bit to carve out the “hole” part of the inlay, it just doesn’t fit quite tight enough. My new plan is to take the plunge and actually make my own inlays. I gave it a bit of try on the 1.5mm inlay stock and I’m hoping that my skill level is now good enough to actually cut the 2.5mm mother of pearl. Let’s see how that goes this weekend. I’m using a Knew Concepts coping saw and an inlay jig / blower thing from StewMac. What I found when I did my test pieces was that I could cut the mother of pearl reasonably close with the fretsaw, but at some point I needed to sand the pieces into final shape.

I’ve now learned that mother of pearl dust is just about as bad as asbestos! Yikes! I’ve had to invest in a Hazmat type facemask to avoid any further potential health problems.

The other thing that I’m starting to worry about, is that the binding on the fretboard will be flame maple. It’s got to be finished with some kind of varnish/oil/laquer type material. How am I going to keep that finish off of the ebony fretboard?

I spent most of the morning fine tuning my inlay jig so that the depth of cut is within micrometer tolerances. The good news is that the latest fretboard that I routed is finally coming out properly. Slow and painful steps!!

The inlay jig is now done and hangs in a place of honor on the wall ready to do many more (I hope) fretboards.

I did manage to make all 9 of 2.5mm mother of pearl inlays today. After rough cutting them with the coping saw, I use sandpaper (and some different cylinder sizes of sandpaper that came with a little vertical spindle/belt sander that I got from Home Depot some years ago. The round sandpaper cylinders do a pretty good job on the mother of pearl. What I have ended up doing is to keep sanding the blank until it just slips through the inlay jig cutout. I managed to speed things up by actually using the little spindle sander to get the inlays into fairly close shape. Then I used flat sandpaper and the round cylinders of sandpaper to get the blanks so they just slipped through the steel inlay jig. (I sprung for the small version of the steel inlay jig just because it is a bit more convenient to use rather than having to unscrew/screw the big version of the jig)

I finished cutting out all of the inlays out of the thicker mother of pearl. Other than the next step of cleaning up the routed corners in the inlay field, I think they fit pretty good. The next picture shows the new inlays just sitting in the routed fretboard. I still need to trim out the corners to make them fit in properly.

Here’s a picture of the tools that I used.

I bought some cheap carving chisels to square the routed out inlay pockets on the fretboard. Ebony is tough and these little detail chisels just aren’t working very well. I ordered some Pfeil single bevel carving chisels from Amazon. I’m hoping that they will have enough heft to make clean corner cuts. I should have known that cheap tools never seem to work out well.

The Pfeil carving chisels worked a lot better than the cheap chisels. I’ve epoxied in the inlays and hope to do the radius sanding tomorrow.

Everything went reasonably well in terms of the inlay work. Once the radius was done I cut the fret slots. I then glued on the flame maple bindings and ran everything back through the radius jig so that the flame maple bindings go the same radius as the fretboard.

It’s far from perfect, but I guess it’s OK enough to carry on. Hopefully the hard lessons that I’ve learned in getting to this stage will pay dividends on future fret boards!

Anyway, for better or worse, here’s the finished fretboard. I won’t put on the actual wire frets until it’s glued on the neck. If I put them on now, I’m sure that the fretboard will do a bit of a back bend with all those little wire frets acting like mini wedges.

Although this last fretboard was “ok”, I’m still not entirely happy with the process for making it. The sequence of construction (at least for the tools that I have) goes as follows:

a. Make the mother of pear inlays.

b. Make the fretboard blanks (they should be a hair thicker than 1/4”); sanded smooth with 220 grit.

c. Joint one good edge on the blank.

d. Trim to exact length. If you are going to use binding on the “humbucker end” then take the width of the binding into account and trim a little bit shorter than full size.

e. Layout the side tapers with your template. I use a white mechanical pencil lead for this as it is easier to see.

f. Rough cut the side tapers on the bandsaw. Try to get close to the line (it make life easier when you do the next step).

g. Using double sided tape, stick the template onto the blank and route the two side tapers. Watch the grain of the fretboard. The pattern bit from Lee Valley that has a bearings at both the top and bottom of the bit seems to work fairly well so that you don’t have to route against the grain on one of the tapers.

h. Set the inlay jig so that it just cuts slightly less than 2.5mm (the mother of pearl thickness) into the fretboard.

i. Route out the inlay “holes” in the fretboard.

j. Using sharp carving chisels / knives or whatever works best for you, clean up the corners on routed out “holes” on the fretboard blank until the inlays just drop in nicely

k. Using long setting epoxy (and a bit of coloring powder) mix up a small batch of epoxy and plop in the inlays. The stuff that I’m using from StewMac takes 3 days to dry so you have to be patient!

l. If you are using binding on the fretboard, you will now have to trim the tapers on the fretboard by the width of the binding. I use the circular saw and the taper jig to do this.

m. Next I mount the blank on the radius jig and sand the 12” radius.

n. Although I could use the slot cutting jig described above, I’ve decided to take my old Craftsman 10” radial arm saw out of mothballs. With the special StewMac blade and an appropriate jig, it does a super fast job of cutting the fret slots. The downside is that the frets are in a radius but the slots are not. I hope this doesn’t cause an issue in the long run (the beauty of the manual jig is that it can be used to cut the slot in the same radius as the fretboard.

Note that the jig for the radial arm saw is not “square” to the table. I’ve attached (with double sided tape) a 1/4” thick guide that is square to the table on the back end, but has the Les Paul taper on the front end. When I put my blank up against this, it squares it all up so that the fret slots are true. I use double sided tape to hold the fretboard blank down while I do the sawing so as to avoid any slippage. The radial arm saw cuts on the horizontal plane (unlike a chop saw) so that I can set the depth of the cut to be just a little deeper at the bottom fret than the fretwire that I’m going to use.

o. Next I glue on the bindings.

Once the bindings have dried, I remount the fretboard on the radius jig and resand it once again to get the bindings all in sync with the rest of the radius. (also, if the epoxy hasn’t quite filled in a couple of spots, I can dab on some additional epoxy to fill any small voids in the inlay holes).

q. The next step is to take my large 12” radiused sanding block and go through the grits to get the final fretboard polished up nicely. Although I haven’t done it yet, I will probably buff the fretboard at this point.

r. The final step is to mark and mill the tiny little side holes for the side markers (I haven’t got to this stage yet so I’m not sure just exactly how that will unfold.

That’s it; 16 steps to make a fretboard blank.

6 comments so far

View LJRay's profile


103 posts in 1225 days

#1 posted 06-29-2014 10:11 PM

Very nice. I’m looking forward to the rest!

-- Ray

View Dallas's profile


3599 posts in 2207 days

#2 posted 06-29-2014 10:30 PM

I really don’t want to denigrate what you may have acomplished here, but all I got from this post was how wonderful and amazing the tools you had were. It all comes across as an advertisement to me, not really an accomplishment.

I hope that isn’t the case, because I love the work you are doing.

-- Improvise.... Adapt...... Overcome!

View sras's profile


4548 posts in 2849 days

#3 posted 06-29-2014 11:04 PM

This is looking good! Did you get a fret saw or do you have ontoher solution?

-- Steve - Impatience is Expensive

View thamar's profile


42 posts in 2343 days

#4 posted 06-29-2014 11:11 PM

To Dallas – I’m only mentioning the tools that I used (and whether they were any good or not) for anyone that was wondering what tool I was using and where they could find one.

View Dallas's profile


3599 posts in 2207 days

#5 posted 06-29-2014 11:22 PM

No problem. When I “mention”, I wait for someone to ask as there are a lot of ways to skin a cat, and a lot of different tools to buy that will do the same job equally as well.
I wish you the best, it’s just that our two ways are a bit different.

-- Improvise.... Adapt...... Overcome!

View Douglas713's profile


1 post in 1092 days

#6 posted 08-23-2014 03:31 PM

Hi. I have the same metal inlay template from Tom Bartlett and stewmac precision base for dremel, but when I route using the metal template the final carved area is smaller than the size of the inlay. During the routing process the bit shank hits the wall of the metal template not allowing the center of the carbide bit follow the inlay edge.
I see you have the same tools… How did you fix this?
Thx a lot.

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