Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Fretless Neck Refinishing

I play the electric bass, I'm not really a proper musician – I can’t read music, I never had a lesson in anything and I could write the sum total of my musical theory knowledge on the back of a matchbox… in lipstick – I am comfortable with this, however, so, unlike many fretless bass players, I feel no need to try and make it sound like an upright bass. I use rotosound roundwound strings and position my right hand near the bridge. The problem with this set up is that it wears grooves in an unfinished rosewood fretboard faster than you can say ‘Jaco Pastorius’ and this was starting to cause me some problems. I found a guide on the internets which suggested varnishing the fretboard with superglue and figured I’d give it a shot because it wouldn’t cost much to try and if it went wrong I could always just sand it off.

I make no claims about this being a particularly good method, like all things I do it's kinda half arsed and involves as little expertise and equipment as you can possibly manage - I figured I'd put it up here though, because I'm sure there are others, like myself, who aren't hugely interested in doing a professional quality job, just one that looks ok and works. It's bare bones stuff, so if I say to do something or not to do something it isn't because I think it sounds like the right thing - it's probably because I've done the opposite at some stage and didn't like the result.

Materials Needed

- 1 Pot of superglue (I found that about 20g was sufficient, although more might be a good idea) I used only the finest Wilkinson’s £1.50 a pot stuff.

- 1 large packet of disposable gloves (you don’t want to become permanently attached to your bass, and will probably need to change gloves often)

- lots of sandpaper, from about 250-300 grit to the stuff that is essentially rough toilet paper

- a washing-up scouring sponge


You’ll need to do this outside. Remove the nut (try very hard not to damage it) they are normally only lightly glued in – if at all – so it shouldn’t be too hard, just ping it off with a screwdriver or something. Mask off the body of the bass (if the neck is still attached to the bass, I just unbolted the neck because I needed to anyway) to prevent scuffing the finish, that is, if you actually care. And mask off the back of the neck – this is more important, the back of the neck is a surface you are constantly touching and sliding your thumb up and down – if it has imperfections they will get annoying fast.

Sand down the fretboard, preferably with some sort of sanding block to keep things level and smooth out imperfections but if you have very flat hands, or just can’t be arsed to find a suitable blocky type thing, then just use your hands. After it is sanded smooth and clear of any serious imperfections, scrub the bejeasus out of it with a wet scouring sponge a couple of times, drying it in between with a cloth – this is to get all the dust off it before you apply the first coat.

Put on the gloves, then get some sandpaper that you’ve already used and splurge a 50p sized blob of superglue onto the back of it. Spread this evenly over the surface of the fretboard, splurging on more if needed. Now leave to dry – you’ll be doing that a lot so I suggest listening to something to keep you entertained, I found that the radio series of the Mighty Boosh and The Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy work especially well for this purpose.

When it is dry add another coat, then wait for that coat to dry. If you don’t think that it looks sufficiently well covered then add a third coat, but that one isn’t essential. If no third coat is desired then wait a long time, longer than seems sensible, to make sure that the glue is completely dry (don’t touch it to check, it’ll leave marks) and sand it down with light sandpaper. The reason for the extra long wait is that if you start sanding it down when not all of the glue is completely dry then the white sanding residue will stick to the still wet parts and you will end up with misty looking discoloured sections of finish. After you’ve sanded it fairly smooth get out the sponge and scrub it down before you add another set of coats.

Repeat this process a few more times, enough to give you, say, at least six layers of glue in total. Then lightly sand it smooth with fine sandpaper and polish it with the scrubbing side of the sponge and some cloth.

Reattach the neck to the body of the bass (if you took it off) and begin the process of setting it up. You might need to raise the height of the nut slightly if it was really close to the surface of the fretboard before; I did this by cutting a small piece of cardboard and placing it underneath the nut to raise it slightly. There are some that would argue that this technique would decrease the sustain of the instrument and, if you actually buy into that crap, then feel free to just buy a new nut made of fossilised angel shit or whatever they are saying gives you the best sound at the moment, and cut it to the right height.

Tune up and check the neck for buzzy spots, if you find one then get the light sandpaper and the sanding block and do some more levelling on the fretboard under the affected string. Once it's all playing smoothly get your groove on and play until your fingers hurt.