Converting an Electric Guitar to a Fretless Guitar
Removing the Frets
Warning: If this will be your first defret, it’s probably a good idea to work on a cheap guitar. This is my precious custom-made VIC guitar, and my 3rd defret job:
Before we start, keep in mind that this is how I worked on this particular guitar. Some things could be done in different ways.
These are the tools we’ll be using for removing the frets: Fret pullers and a soldering iron.
A regular soldering iron and some fret pullers.
I strongly recommend this particular tool, because other similar tools don’t have small enough jaw edges – they cannot grab the frets. I know it’s expensive, but the StewMac tool makes the process so much easier and faster, it’s well worth it.
I first heat the fret a few seconds (depends on how hot your iron is, the hotter the better) using the soldering iron. The heat softens the glue which holds the fret in place.
Even if there’s no glue, heating helps as the fret expands and pushes itself out a little. Don’t let the iron touch the wood, and don’t heat the frets for too long – or your fingerboard will start to smoke!
When the fret is hot enough, grab the edge of the fret using the pliers, and pull it out slowly.
Pulling out the fret.
You don’t take the whole fret out at a single move, you start on the edge and walk it out of the slot. Be careful not to remove chips from the fingerboard.
If you do accidentally remove any chips of wood, just put them in back in their original place and try to keep them there until the slot filling process.
Removing your first fret might take some time but you’ll get faster as you get the hang of it. Being experienced, the whole process took me less than half an hour.
This is how the fingerboard looks with all the frets removed:
As you see, a rather large chip of wood got removed, but like I said, no problem as long as you don’t lose it. If you look carefully, you’ll also see that some of the inlay dots are buried within their holes. This happened slowly over the years, and I’ll be fixing it once the defret is done – the fingerboard has to be flat and smooth for the fretless to be problem-free.
Filling the Slots
The tools we’ll be using for this part are: epoxy, a needle and some toothpicks. You will also need some small disposable containers to mix the epoxy, I use big plastic bottle-lids for this purpose.
I’ll be using clear/transparent epoxy since i want the fret lines to be hardly visible.
I could only find 5-min epoxy for this job, it would be better if you can get a 15-30min one. This gives you more time to work on the filling.
Before I start filling the slots, I clean them using a needle.
Now we’ll get the epoxy ready. Pour equal amounts of the two parts into a small disposable container, and mix thoroughly. If you don’t mix well, it won’t become hard enough. Since my epoxy is 5-min, I’ll prepare a small mixture and quickly fill a few slots within 5 minutes, then prepare another mixture and so on.
I prepare each mixture in a new container, since i don’t want the drying epoxy in an old container to mess with the fresh epoxy. I use toothpicks to mix and apply the epoxy. I don’t plan to cover the whole fingerboard surface, just the slots, so toothpicks work fine.
Since epoxy is a hi-density liquid, it takes some time for it to flow into the slots. Some people also mix wood-dust with the epoxy.
Here you see the fingerboard about 20-30 minutes (may vary for various kinds of epoxy) after the filling the slots.
The epoxy has flown into the slots, and as you see, it requires some more epoxy to fill some of the slots completely. I apply additional epoxy to these slots until all the slots look “full”.
After this is done, leave the epoxy to dry for 2 days or so. The guitar should be laid horizontally for at least the first few hours.
Sanding the fingerboard
The nut must first be removed from the guitar before any fingerboard sanding takes place.
In order to remove the nut, I used a screwdriver and a hammer to “tap” it out.
These are the tools I’ll be using to sand the fingerboard: Sandpaper, double sided tape and a block.
Wooden sanding block, various grits of sandpaper (from 80 to 300) and double-sided tape.
If you want a radiused fingerboard, it’s best to have the right tool – a StewMac radiused sanding block that is. I’ll be using one with a 20″ radius.
However, if you’re fine with a flat fingerboard, you can use some other block, but make sure the surface is perfectly flat.
In order to attach the sandpaper to the sanding block, I first stick double-sided tape to the block.
Then I cut the sandpaper to appropriate size and stick it to the block. Here the sandpaper is attached to the block. And as you see, I’ve masked the guitar body around the neck, using masking tape. This prevents any accidents such as scratching the guitar body while sanding.
Start sanding with the lowest grit, and use increasing grits as you progress. I used 80, 100, 150, 180, 220, and finally 300.
When wood dust builds up on the sandpaper, you can hit it lightly using a round object to clean it. But if there’s too much wood dust, it’s best to replace it with a new piece before continuing.
This is my sanding technique. I support the neck with my left hand while sanding with the right.
It might be harmful to the neck if it is not supported, as a lot of pressure is applied while sanding.
Here you see the fingerboard after some more sanding. Its starting to look smooth.
If you remember I still have to fix the “inlay-dots-buried-in-the-fingerboard” issue before progressing any further. There are 4 dots with this problem, and you can see some of them in this pic, a close-up showing 2 of the buried dots.
As you can see, a little piece of epoxy filling got removed during the sanding. To fix the dots, i’ll glue new ones over them.
I ordered inlay dots of the same size from StewMac. I didn’t take pics during the process as it’s not a defret related issue, but this is what i did:
I glued new dots over the 4 buried ones using epoxy – I now had 4 “bumpy” dots. After the epoxy dried, I filed them flat to fingerboard level, making them ready for sanding. This is how one of them looked after being filed flat:
It was the time to refill the little spots where the epoxy got removed while sanding. Before I was about to start working on that, I discovered that the epoxy on some spots had not hardened at all, probably because i didn’t mix it well enough.
I identified those spots where the glue had not dried, using a needle. If you can easily push the needle into a slot, you’ve found a “soft spot”. I used the needle on every single slot to find them all.
Quick tip: If the epoxy filling looks white-ish, that’s where it’s soft.
After refilling those soft spots, I left the epoxy to dry for another two days, then the final sanding was done.
Here’s how it looks:
Before we call it finished, we have to do a few more things, starting with lowering the nut.
The Nut and Final Set Up
As mentioned earlier, before we can call it finished, we have to do a few more things, starting with lowering the nut. This is important as your action will now be a lot lower after loosing the frets.
I place some sandpaper on a flat surface and rub the bottom of the nut on the sandpaper:
Try the nut on the guitar (with the strings on) after sanding for a while to make sure that you don’t over-sand it. (It might be good to have a spare nut blank, just in case.)
Ideally, strings should be very close to the fingerboard at the nut, even less than 1mm (~0.04 inches). But you have to be careful, a little too low and there will be buzzing. After the nut height is OK, glue it in place.
I try not to use a strong glue (like epoxy or superglue) for this purpose, as it might make things difficult in case you need to remove it again in the future.
Once it’s done, install strings on the guitar and tune to pitch. It’s a common practice to use heavy strings (like 011’s or 012’s) on a fretless, so you may want to tune the guitar down to D.
I prefer flat-wound strings on a fretless, but they sound darker than round-wounds, so it’s a personal preference.
Now is the time to check the straightness of the neck. With the strings tuned to pitch, if the neck isn’t straight (if it bends under the string pressure), loosen the strings and tighten the truss-rod a little. Do not rotate the truss rod more than a quarter-turn at once, and wait for at least 5-10 minutes for the wood to get used to the new setting. Then re-tune the strings and check the straightness again.
Repeat the whole process until the neck is completely straight.
Next we adjust the action (bridge height). The action can be set very low on a fretless, and you should set it low as it improves sustain and tone. There should be slight but good-sounding buzzing that’s spread evenly across the fingerboard.
If set too low, then there might be a disturbing kind of buzzing at some spots (if your fingerboard isn’t perfectly smooth and flat, you may have this problem even with a high action).
As a guide, the current action on my guitar is about 2mm (0.08 inches) high at the 12th fret.
But it’s not uncommon to have it around 5mm (0.2 inches) high or so.
This too is personal, adjust as you like.
Lastly, check if the intonation is set properly. It’s quite possible that you may need to re-adjust it.
And that’s about it, enjoy your new instrument.
Here is the final shot of the guitar:
Thanks for reading, I hope I’ve given you the confidence to attempt your first defret and many happy hours playing fretless guitar.
See Sonic Deviant’s Blog as he follows the above instructions.