Fernandez Music "Custom Set-up" (see how it's done)

We have received hundreds of e-mail complimenting us on the guitars we sell. The brands of Spanish guitars we sell (Esteve, Juan Hernandez, Manuela Adalid and Vicente Sanchis) are among the best constructed on the market, however, we improve them in small ways which make a big differences to players. Because we want our customers to understand the work we put into each guitar, I have decided to share information on the way your truly, Ron Fernandez, does the fret dressing and set-up of the guitars. There is also a video on YouTube entitled Fret Dressing which shows what I do.

Each guitar we import and sell has been specially prepared in our California workshop to enhance their sound and playability. Guitars which enjoy this special preparation are identified by a Fernandez Music label inside the guitar.

Here's what the identification number tells me. The first 6 number are the month, day and year (September, 6th, 2003). The next letter or number stands for the model--in this case the Fernandez "Valencia". The last number tells whether the particular guitar was the first, second, third, fourth (and so on) guitar of that model prepared on that particular day.

In addition to the photo essay which appears below I have produced an 8-minute video about how I dress frets, shape the saddle and check the nut. The information in the video is slightly different than what is written in the photo essay. You can watch the video on YouTube, or right on this page.

Here is my procedure for leveling and dressing the frets.

Typically I work on a workbench while resting the neck on a 3"x4'x6" cork block.



First, I reduce the tension on the strings and pull the strings apart and insert a fingernail buffing file at the soundhole to keep the strings apart. Then, I protect the soundboard area adjacent to the fingerboard with a low adhesive masking tape. Finally I use a piece of cardboard cut to shape to further protect the soundboard from accidental scratches (you can see the cardboard protector in various photos below).


Then, I begin checking the levelness of the frets. This is done with a 3" metal straight edge ruler on the first 9 frets and a 2" straight edge ruler on the higher frets (see the 2" ruler being used in photo below). The procedure is simple but very important. You place the straight edge on 3 frets at a time to find out if any of them are high. To feel whether any fret is high you must hold the straight edged ruler on the corners and evenly press down. If the ruler "rocks" then you have found a high fret. It is necessary to check the levelness under each of the 6 strings all the way up the neck. While guitar factories do a pretty good job at installing the frets in a level manner I nearly always find a few which are slightly high. I have perfomed this procedure on thousands of guitars made all over the world and I continually find high frets on both production guitars and handmade instruments from famous builders.


If there are only a few slightly high frets I simply hammer them in with a 5 oz. plastic coated hammer.

Usually I have to level all of the frets lengthwise with a file covered with sandpaper. The traditional method is to level the frets with a bastard file. I have found that I can control the amount of metal I remove much better by using a piece of 120 grit adhesive-backed sandpaper over the bastard file--Iin this way I am using the bastard file as straight support behind the sandpaper. In the photo below, the file covered with sandpaper has been made easier to hold by the addition of a handle made of wood glued to the file.


Next I file the fret edges on an angle with a smaller file covered with 120 grit sandpaper.

To further smooth the fret ends. I use a small Swiss file which has been made smooth on the bottom. I use this file to cut off the corner of the fret end so it is not abrasive to the finger.

Next, I use a triangle file, the edges of which have been smoothed to prevent damage to the fingerboard. With this file I smooth and round the edge of the fret.

Then, I use 2 different diamond faced fret "crowning" files (150 and 300 grit) to put a smoothly round or "crown" on the top of the fret.

Using a small metal fret guard to protect the fingerboard, I sand each fret with 320 grit sandpaper which I wrap around a rubber eraser.

The following step is to polish each fret with very fine steel wool (grade 0000).

The last step is to polish each fret with a hard polishing wheel affixed to a Dremel tool. I use a metal polishing compound on the wheel to bring the frets up to a high shine.

In the photo below the 1st fret has been sanded, buffed with steel wool and polished with a Dremel tool.

The next procedures involve the saddle in the bridge. I upgrade all saddles to real bone. The height of the saddle is adjusted in order to control the height of the strings at the 12th fret. The standard string action at the 12th fret is about 4.0mm for the 6th string and about 3.0mm for the 1st string. For flamenco guitars the action is a bit lower--ranging from 3.0 to 3.2mm for the 6th string and 2.5mm to 2.7mm for the first string. This matter of string action involves many factors such as the tolerance of the player for buzzing, the tension of strings used, the amount of neck relief of the guitar, the amount of neck inclination and the flexibility of the soundboard.

The height of the saddle is in a 2 to 1 relationship with the string height at the 12th fret. This means that if you lower the saddle by 1 mm then the string action will go down by .5 mm at the 12th fret.

Because the bass strings vibrate in a wider arc than the treble strings, the bass action is set higher than the treble string action so that the strings do not hit the frets when played. Since the bass action is higher than the treble this means that the saddle will be higher on the bass end than the treble end. Typically, the bass end is 1.5mm to 2mm than the treble end.

My next point is a subtle but important one. The upper edge of the saddle which the strings contact must be slanted so that the edge toward the sound hole is high than the edge away from the soundhole. With this slant the string is in contact with the maximum surface of the saddle edge and it can move smoothly over the surface when tuning. If the saddle has square corners or a pointy edge then the string will make a noise as it is pulled over the surface when tuning. Subjectively I feel that the guitar sounds better and plays more easily if the saddle has been shaped as I describe.


In the photo above I am using a small Japanese power sander to rough sand the saddle. Notice the way I am slanting the saddle against the sanding surface.

After I contour the upper edge of the saddle I smooth it by hand with 320 sandpaper. On expensive instruments I spend more time and polish the contoured edge with finer abrasives.

The nuts on all of our solid wood guitars are usually made of real bone. While most of our laminated back guitars have nuts made of a very hard molded plastic. On all nuts I open up and smooth the string slots with a special diamond rat's tail file.

I also adjust the height of the nut. To check the nut's height the procedure involves pressing the string between the 2nd and 3rd fret and observing the height of the string above the 1st fret. The string should never be touching the fret or else a buzz can occur when the player is holding down an upper position fret. The right height over the 1st fret is very difficult to measure so we do this by eye. The height is about the thickness of one or 2 index cards.

My final step is to tune the guitar up to pitch and play all of the notes to determine whether there are any problems I have missed. At that point I am again looking at the string height and I am checking the neck relief on the guitar (neck relief is a slight curvature in a neck under tension which delivers a cleaner sound--classical guitars have more neck relief while flamenco guitars have little or none). At this point I am asking myself whether all of the notes are clean when played at normal force.

The above description is the minimum version of my set-up.

To summarize, our special preparation includes: 1) A complete professional fret dressing which involves inspection of the levelness of the frets, precision leveling of the frets, recrowning the frets, smoothing the fret edges, sanding with 320 grit sandpaper, and buffing with 0000 steel wool. On selected guitars we polish the frets with metal compound and a Dremel tool. 2) Adjustment of the bridge saddle height for improved playing action. 3) Shaping of the saddle surface for increased string contact. 4) Installation of real bone nut and saddle . 5) Smoothing of the nut slots. 6) The addition of clear plastic string guard below the bridge to protect damage caused by string breakage or slippage. 7) The addition of a limited 1 year warranty for guitars sold in the United States.


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