Reader Question: My Guitar has Sharp Frets. Should I File Them?
Read This Before Reaching for That File
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“My electric guitar’s fretboard is very dry, so the fret-ends have started protruding and feel sharp. What should I do? Should I buy a fret file and file them down? Will oiling the fretboard with F-One oil fix the issue?”
First, when it comes to sharp frets, I never recommend immediately reaching for a file. That can come later, if a more conservative approach doesn’t work first.
Next, while your guitar’s fretboard can benefit from the Music Nomad F-One oil if it’s looking a bit dry, oil will not fix the issue you’re having with sharp fret ends. You don’t need oil, you need moisture. And by moisture, I mean water.
Let’s dive in…
Sharp frets (or “razor fret” as we like to call it) can happen for one or more of the following reasons:
This is the most likely and most common reason for sharp frets–especially if they were fine before and then suddenly appeared. The guitar has been exposed to excessively low humidity (below 45%) for too long and the fretboard wood has literally shrunk, causing the edges of the fretboard to pull back, leaving the metal fret ends sticking out. Oil alone won’t fix this.
If you want to learn more about this, you can read my in-depth article about how humidity affects guitars.
Sometimes fret ends can actually pop up out of the fret slots. This will make just those frets (the ones that popped-up) feel sharp. You can tell whether this is the problem if you’ve only got a few sharp fret ends, but the rest feel fine.
This is the least-likely reason, and usually only an issue on very cheap guitars. The factory just didn’t file the ends properly. This usually isn’t the case though if the sharp frets weren’t there before and then suddenly appeared.
Whenever a guitar develops sharp frets, the first thing I do is tackle #1 (possible under-humidification). It’s not only the most likely reason you have sharp frets, but the remedy is also the least invasive procedure. Not to mention that under-humidification needs to be addressed anyway.
So, we need to get moisture back into your guitar’s fretboard. The wood has physically shrunk, leaving the fret ends exposed. Essentially, we want that wood to swell back out to where it’s supposed to naturally be.
Before you dive into the procedure I outline below, the first, most conservative (but slowest) approach is to simply start keeping your guitar inside an airtight case with a good humidification system whenever you’re not playing it. A couple humidifiers that I recommend are the Music Nomad Humitar or the D’Addario 2-Way Humidification system.
Do this consistently and hopefully it’ll give the wood enough hydration to swell it back out to where it’s naturally supposed to be. This could take a few weeks to a couple months depending on how disciplined you are about keeping the guitar in its case with the humidifier when you’re not playing it.
If you use the Humitar or any other sponge-based humidifier, remember that you have to re-wet the sponge every couple weeks.
If you don’t want to wait a couple weeks or months by using the normal hydration approach I outlined above, here I’ll outline a way to accomplish the same thing a bit faster. Repair shops use this method (or something similar) to quickly get a lot of moisture back into a guitar that’s severely dried out.
A word of caution: this is going to get a lot of moisture into the guitar in a short period of time. There is a risk of going too far in the other direction–of actually over-humidifying the guitar–if you do this process for too long. So, be careful with this and monitor humidity and progress closely.
Before you begin, here’s what you’ll need:
If you’ve had the guitar in the bag for up to 10 days and STILL have sharp fret ends, it’s time to stop. Any longer and you run the risk of over hydrating the guitar.
At this point I would recommend taking the guitar to a professional tech or repairperson. They’ll determine whether your frets need to be filed and/or re-seated, and be able to do the work without scratching your guitar. If you’re inexperienced at this and attempt to file the frets yourself, you will most assuredly scratch the edges of your fretboard or the body of your guitar.
However, if you really want to tackle this yourself, here’s a good article on how to perform the procedure: Fixing Fret Ends That Stick Out in Dry Weather, by Stewart-MacDonald.
As you can see, these tools aren’t cheap, so it’s probably cheaper and safer to just take your guitar to a pro and get a price quote first, before buying specialized tools like these–tools that you may only ever use once or twice in your life.
If you are doing this procedure to an acoustic guitar, you may be tempted to put your humidifier in the guitar’s soundhole–especially if it’s labeled as a “soundhole humidifier.” Don’t do this. Putting the humidifier in the soundhole really only benefits the body of the guitar, not the neck.
It’s the fretboard that needs help here, so putting a humidifier into the soundhole defeats the purpose and robs the fretboard of needed moisture.
Unless you can get the room humidity up to about 75% humidity or higher (and keep it there for several days or more), it’s just not going to get enough moisture into a guitar quickly enough. Worse, even if you do get the room super humid and keep it there for several days or weeks, you then run the risk of condensation forming on other equipment or risk promoting mold growth in the walls and whatnot.
A room humidifier is fine for everyday maintenance–after we’ve got the guitar’s wood back in balance. If you use one, aim to keep your guitar room between 45% – 55% to prevent future occurrences of razor fret.
Yes, the issue can indeed come back. If you live in an excessively dry climate where your guitar is exposed to humidity well below 45% the majority of the time, this is going to be a recurring problem for you. In this case, if you can’t at least keep the guitar in a case with a humidifier when you’re not playing it, you may indeed benefit from simply having the frets filed back.
So, before you reach for that file (or fretboard oil), reach for a humidifier instead and get your guitar back to an ideal humidity range of 45% – 55%. If that doesn’t resolve the issue, then and only then should you consider filing them (or letting a pro do the work).
Do you have sharp fret-ends? If so, let me know if you’re going to try the humidification procedure outlined here, or if you’re planning to get the fret ends filed by a repairperson. Or, maybe you’re planning to file them yourself? Let me know in the comments below!
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