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.)
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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!