My supervisor has asked me to build him a CBG, which I'm only too happy to do.  Thing is, my first two I used metal frets which were a royal PIA, so I was thinking of making his with toothpicks.  My questions are: how well will they really hold up, is there any noticeable difference in the tone, and which are the best to use?  Are the grocery store toothpicks hard enough?  What about bamboo skewers?  I've tried search but I'm just more confused.  Help!

A note from Shane Speal:  Thank you, Habanera Hal for this topic!  I've turned this into a featured discussion, so please post your tips, successes and failure with toothpicks and other wooden frets.  I've also added the photo above which shows a 70+ year old instrument with toothpick frets still intact.  (That instrument and others are detailed at CigarBoxGuitars.com.)      

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I would expect toothpicks to wear out faster, but they're cheap and easy to replace. As far as a difference in tone, I can't say. I gave my regular guitar to my sister almost two months before I built my first fretted CBG, because I never played made noise with it. So I have no basis for comparison. But I'd guess yes, although not to the point that it ruins the sound. All I've used are grocery store picks. There's just something about walking down to 7-11 and buying a box of frets. I would think bamboo skewers would work just as well, if not better. I've never tried them, yet.
Bluesboy Jag used to do all his frets with toothpicks.  I think he super glued them down and then varnished the living hell out of them to make them resistant to wear.  He has since moved to traditional fret wire from what I can see but he used to swear by toothpick frets and their longevity if executed correctly.

Conventional frets are really easy once you understand how to do it. Check the fretting video on my page here on the Nation. I fretted an entire neck from start to finish in under 30 minutes. I personally would not go the toothpick route. I tried bamboo skewers from the grocery store. I won't do that again.

 

It all depends on how you're installing the fret wire.  Start to finish for me takes a very long time, starting at marking my positions out to fully polished and ready to apply finish to the neck, but then I'm also fully dressing and leveling and all kinds of other stuff.

 

With toothpicks, I could see this going very, very fast,  Each tooth pick has a flat side so there is good contact with the fret board without having to file a notch.  All you need to do is mark your positions and then carefully super glue each toothpick into place.  Then go back and nip them flush and file the sides down flat.  Varnish, varnish, varnish, buff, and done.  It won't look all flash and pretty when you're done but then again, that's not what you're looking for if you're using toothpicks anyway.

A Dremel tool or something similar comes in very handy with tooth picks. My first time, I nipped them off and wound up with splinters. It wasn't a very clean cut. A cut-off wheel takes the ends off much nicer, with only a little clean up necessary. I do take the extra step of adding a shallow groove to each position. Nevermind the fact that my marks are probably a hair off anyway, once you put the toothpick over that mark, you can't see it anymore, and that leaves some room for error. That little groove is just enough so that when you slide the pick over it, you feel it click into place.

Once you get the hang of fret wire it is goes quite fast, and is the way to go for working well in both sound and longevity.

 If I am not convincing you, do fretless, mark the frets in with felt pen and throw in a slide as part of the package, and you will be done by dinner.                                           Cheers Ron.

If you want to give the toothpicks a go, steer clear of the flat ones.  They are made of softer wood and more inconsistent from pick to pick.  I prefer the round ones, they are made from harder wood.  I sawed a shallow trench with a miter jig so the trench was square, and glued the round pick in the trench.  Sand them all nice and even, and finish with something tough.

I sometimes use tie-wraps. They do mute the sound a bit, but they are movable (and tunable), so if you are worried about committing to fixed fret positions, this is another way you could go. All my guitars are to "practice" with in the privacy of my own home, so tie-wraps work well enough for me. However, my latest guitar uses real fret wire and the two before that used cut nail frets epoxied on. I've never tried tooth picks because they seem to soft and small. Bamboo skewers on the other hand seem like they would be strong enough, but you will want to use something like a Dremel tool to cut them as the bamboo wood is very fibery (to coin a word). I bought a pack of skewers a bout 6 months ago intending to experiment with them, but have never gotten around to it. The idea of heavily varnishing wooden frets sounds like a real good idea as well.

-Rand.

Thanks for all the input.  As I said, this one was to be for my supervisor, so I wanted to make one that was sort of a "suck up" gift, so i was worried that the toothpicks wouldn't be high class enough for him.  When I showed the design of the neck and box to my wife, she told me to keep it and make him something else - she wants this one for herself!  Because the style will be more "rural", and I'll be able to replace them if needed, I'm going to try the round toothpick frets.

My boss will just have to wait.

 

Here's a tease of the headstock in work:

The reply from Diane in Chicago says it all. I have done just about everything for frets myself and the tooth pick one is by far the quickest. As far as the wear on them yes I'm sure they will wear out faster but the amount of wear depends on his playing time and ability ( string bending ect) My personal CBG that I play daily now has toothpick frets and it has great tone.Also keep working on the real fret wire thing as the end results are well worth the time invested.

 

Hal,

It's fun and easy to use skewers. They also work great for Ukes because the nylon strings don't bite into the wood. Yes, the wood does wear out eventually, but a refret job is cheap- just replace the skewer! I thoughen my frets up by letting the porous wood soak up some thin super glue.

 

Wade

Toothpicks are fine - sure the tone aint like metal frets, but thats half the point.

Cut a slot with a hacksaw or similair to help locate the toothpick exactly where it should be while superglueing!

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