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26 May 2014

Highwayman Banjo - Fret Holder

I've been busy with a little side-project today. I've combine 3 experiments into 1 to allow me to try out some stuff and hopefully learn something in the process. I've built a fret holder! More on this soon. First, let's talk about some of the things I wanted to explore...

I'm not sure who took this picture, but it looks like someone has attempted to make some fret-markers that look like the original Gibson Mastertone markers. The one in the middle looks flawed, but on the whole, I'm impressed! You will remember me talking about my "magic 21st" fret yesterday and my thoughts along the lines of doing something like this. Only, my marker is maple rather than mother of pearl. How and earth could I pull this off?

Perhaps I could etch the words, fill with paint and do it that way? Only one way to find out!

(Photo courtesy of  Banjo Brands

Do you remember my drilling efforts on the Kingcaster Electric Ukulele Build? I'd tried my hardest to get the holes all properly aligned and spaced, but I couldn't quite pull it off. I don't know why, but this morning it was bugging me that there must have been an easier way. After a little bit of research, I think I found a possible solution: by using a simple fence. Will it work? There's only one way to find out!

Lastly, I'm seriously thinking of varnishing my banjo with a brush. I have tried this in the past, but have tended towards aerosols more recently. Can I do it all by hand and then finish it smooth with sandpaper? There's only one way to find out!

Introducing the Mastertone Font as designed by Gibson and emulated and extended by me. Can you spot the spelling mistake? Ha ha... I missed out the "N" for some reason and added it in at the end for completeness! Looks kind of crazy!

I really like the vintage lettering with it's minimalist design and use of straight edges. Gibson almost predicted what was to come in the 80s with LCD calculator lettering. I figured that I would try and copy the style and see what it looks like. As you will see, I use it to number the holes in the fret holder.

I grabbed a block of maple for this project because this is the wood that I've used on the Highwayman Banjo to make the fret markers. If I can't get it to work on this fret holder then I don't stand a chance with the banjo.

See here that I've drawn out by hand all the numbers I'll need (and a few more) from 1 to 24. 

Next up I etched the numbers with my Dremmel. It was tricky, but as you can see I managed all the numbers without going too far wrong.

My intention was to paint the slots and then sand. 

This is what the wood looked like after being painted. I had to put my glasses on to get this right :-(

It looks pretty tidy from this distance, but to be honest, I was having second thoughts even at this time. 

Next up I got to try out the drilling experiment. See that I've clamped a thin wooden "fence" to slide the block against. On the other side is my drill press carefully adjusted to just the right distance from the fence.

All that was left was for me to slide the block along, drilling holes where I'd marked. Although the spacing of the holes is a bit variable due mainly to my measuring, the line is perfect! I'm marking this experiment up as a success! Yay!

I ran the block over the table saw to cut to width and length. Next up was some sanding. It didn't really sand as well as I'd hoped. Rather than to improve the look, I reckon it made it look worse. I didn't get a shot of it sanded, but if you hold on, you'll get to see a later picture...

I didn't finish the wood quite as well as I might have done for a ukulele, but it was good enough. Next up was some varnish. I intend to stick on a few coats over the course of the next couple of days and then give it a go at finishing. Judging my the first coat, I reckon that it's going to be a success, though If I go down this route for the banjo, then I must be patient and give it plenty of time to cure. I won't do this with the fret holder. 

This is the fret holder with one coat of varnish. The numbering doesn't look too bad I guess. I reckon I'll need to sleep on this before declaring it a success.

If you're still wondering what on earth a fret holder is, imagine lengths of fret wire sticking out of the holes. This is where I will hold the wire while I'm fitting frets. I'll be able to make sure that I don't mix them up or lose them. Will it make me any better at fitting frets... not a chance! Ha ha!

Having made a fret holder, I should probably have a go at making one of these! This is a fret wire bender as made by TallPaul of Brisbane. Could I make one? There's only one way to find out...

Finally, I've pulled together my recent musical demos into a sort of EP called "The Black Pirate Demos". What I really need is someone to help me to turn these into real songs. Or maybe they're real songs already?


  1. Jolly nice fretholder, but why pre-cut the frets? Are you going for a bound fingerboard with undercut fret tangs? If not, it's easier to tap or press the fret wire in and then cut it flush to the edge of the board. I work with a three foot length from Stewmac and it's a bit wobbly at the first frets but it rapidly gets shorter.

  2. It's funny you should say that, because that's exactly how I started out too. And then I began experimenting with pre-cutting with limited success. Yes, I now want to experiment with the undercut fret tang, although I'm not intending to have any binding. One thing that really bugs me is when you can feel the tang while playing and I'm wondering whether cutting them off before fitting.might solve this problem.

    I had a brainwave last night that my problems with fitting frets might actually all stem from too thin a slot. I've had some terrible times trying to bang them in where they've wobbled and popped back out. Could this all simply be down to the slots being too small? Could it really be that simple? I need to experiment with this a bit and see. Worst case, I might end up needing to add a little glue.

  3. It does sound like the slot's too narrow. I use a 0.5 mm blade on my mini table saw, or the backsaw from Stewmac which is (I think) 0.53 mm.

    Undercutting the tangs is a good move, I do that on my piccolos because I put them into the finished neck and can't afford the luxury of sanding down the ends all at once as I do on the still separate fretboards. (Am I making sense?) I cut off the corner at 45 degrees and file the end of the tang smooth.

    Then I also shape the fret ends to the industry standard PSFE. I could tell you what it stands for but I would have to kill you.

  4. You're using quite a thick blade. I've been experimenting today and I reckon a thicker slot does make a difference, but it's not my only problem :-(

    PSFE! Ha ha! Who'd have thought that this was a thing? So to speak...

    Thanks for the info here. The more I learn, the more I feel that I'm only scraping the surface!