Fretboard Set Up

Stores that sell factory made ukuleles will tend to promote their set up process which more or less finishes the construction of the fret board by leveling the frets, and adjusting the height of the saddle.  I assume this is because the factories don’t have the time to do this fine tuning for the price they wholesale for. A luthier who makes instruments one at a time will have done all this as part of the normal construction and finishing of the instrument.

For example here are the steps I go through to make the fretboard and set up each instrument. These steps reflect my Classical Spanish style neck where it is already built into the body of the ukulele, and are for a flat fingerboard.

  1. Scrape the fretboard blank with a cabinet scraper to remove saw marks, and smooth sand the fingerboard surface.
  2. Cut the fret slots into a fret board blank and trim the board to the finished length.
  3. Lay out the centerline and tapered edge lines, mark fret dot locations.
  4. Drill the holes for the fret dots on the face.
  5. Cut the side tapers and drill side dots holes.
  6. Inlay the fret dots and glue in place.
  7. Sand the dots level with the wood and sand the face smooth with higher grit sandpaper.
  8. Clean out all the fret slots to remove sanding dust, so the frets will seat all the way into the slot.
  9. Hammer the fret wire in the slots and press to seat them fully with a vice.
  10. Verify there are not high frets with a level.
  11. For an unbound fretboard, file the fret ends level with the sides of the fretboard and then file a bevel on the ends.
  12. Sand the sides of the fretboard to smooth the wood as well as smooth the bevelled ends of the frets.
  13. Put specs of thin CA glue on the fret ends to soak in and hold the frets as well as fill any small gaps between the fret wire and the wood.
  14. Dress the ends of the frets by lightly filing the sharp edges to round them off on each fret.
  15. Clean the back of the fretboard with alcohol to pull out any oily resins before gluing.
  16. Apply glue to the back of the board and neck, lay the board on with the indexing pins aligned, and press together with multiple clamps.

After the final construction, sanding and finishing of the instrument, I finish the fretboard set up.

17. Check the frets for high frets that need to be taken down to the same level as all the other frets to prevent buzzing. It is rare to have high frets using my construction method.
18. Frets that needed to be taken down to level may need to be fine sanded and buffed with steel wool first to remove file marks.
19. Polish each fret with Tripoli buffing compound and a Dremel buffing wheel to remove any scratches in the metal and make the metal shine. A guard is laid over the fret being worked on first so only the fret and not the fretboard is exposed.
20. Use a razor blade to scrape the wood between the frets to remove any glue, finish or foreign material.
21. Polish the fretboard wood again with the buffing wheel.
22. Oil the fingerboard with Stewmac fingerboard oil.
23. It is now ready for installing the nut; sanding as needed for a tight fit, the nut was already sanded to the proper width and side bevel with the neck while while the neck was being shaped and sanded.
24. Adjust the nut height so the string height it about the height of a zero fret after cutting the string slots.
25. Put a straight edge between the nut and saddle held up on a 2.5mm spacer laid on the 12th fret, and mark where the straight edge hits the saddle.
26. Sand the saddle down to the height marked and verify that the height is even across the length, test the height with straightedge at the 12th, and crown the top of the saddle to make a single point of contact.
27. File the string slots in the nut to fit the strings selected.
28. Install the strings and test for proper height and tone down the fretboard to verify there is no buzzing.