Fretless conversion material question

Discussion in 'Luthier's Corner' started by Marco Conti, Feb 7, 2020.

  1. Marco Conti

    Marco Conti

    Feb 4, 2020
    I read the post HOW TO: Lined Fretless Fingerboard on how to turn a regular neck into a fretless.
    However, the post is from 2007, back when the dinosaurs roamed the Earth and there is a chance some things may have changed.

    Mine is going to be a budget conversion of a very budget instrument (long story, check my other post). I have some experience in defretting a neck (back in the 70s) and I think I can do it with minimal damage by using heat, tape, clamps and lots of care.

    My question is about the kind of Veneer that would work best and how to finish the neck.

    I don't have a spraying boot and I don't think applying the finish with a brush would give me a good base, so I was thinking of using several coats of this:
    Minwax 33050000 Fast-Drying Polyurethane Aerosol

    A1: Is this OK?
    A2: Is there something better?
    A3: How many coats?
    A4: I do have experience applying paint of various kind (mostly on metal as in a car and using pro equipment. I am not a complete idiot in this matter, but I am willing to admit I could be partially an idiot. Are there any obvious pitfalls I should be on the lookout for?

    Filling the Fret Slots

    I had a friend that made his own fretless using wood putty of some kind. AFAIK, he is still playing his bass and he is happy, but when I saw the tutorial using veneer to fill the slots, it made a lot more sense.

    B1: My biggest fear is buying the correct thickness veneer. Too thin would defeat the purpose, too thick I am afraid it may contribute to warping the neck. Could it?
    B2: Should I measure the slot after I take the frets out?
    B3: Some have used plastic inserts. Is that really an option?

    The bass is a Fender Jazz clone. I am not aware of frets having wildly different thickness, but what do I know? That's why I am here.

    One last disclaimer: I am not a gigging musician. I will play some, maybe a lot if I really like it, but I am not about to go on tour with the 'Stones. Plus I have a fretted bass I'll be playing as well (and I own a Cello, which sometimes I use as a bass as long as it's a simple line).
    In other words, this thing needs not be a tank. I am also not interested in reselling value. If I ever get rid of it, I will donate it.
    I do care somewhat about it not looking trashy and having the lines will certainly facilitate my fingering at first.

    On Amazon there is a dazzling selection of veneers, a world I was completely unaware of until today.
    Is there anything that could do the job there? veneer


    My final concern is the nut slots. I assume I'll need to lower the strings at the nut, but I have no idea by how much or what happens if I go too low. In the tutorial, unless I missed something, the nut is mentioned, but not in detail.
    C1: Clearly, I'd prefer not to have the strings buzzing against the wood. Is that even a thing on a fretless?
    C2: Is there a comfortable string height at the nut for fretless?
    The only live example I have is my cello, but construction is so different, the strings thinner and the action is so high, there is really little correlation.

    C3: Given all of the above, am I on the right path or should I rethink it?

    P.S. Does anyone sell fretless (but lined) necks that don't cost as much as a new Fender Squire?

    Thank you.
  2. rllefebv


    Oct 17, 2000
    Newberg, Oregon
    The kerf on my fretting saw is .022" which is pretty standard for fret slots. My favorite fill is thin veneer strips of maple or purpleheart depending on the fretboard material. Try a local "Woodcrafters" store as they usually have some thin stock laying about, (I've never NOT found some)... Second best, IMO, is plastic... the stock used for ID badges works well...

    For finish, I like an oil based feel. TRU-Oil is good, but I make my own from a formula I found years ago in "Make" magazine:
    • 1 part Mineral Spirits
    • 1 part boiled linseed oil
    • 1 part MinWax Wipe-On Poly
    Usually, for the first two coats, I go about 1 1/2 parts Mineral Spirits so that the mixture penetrates deeper. Lay it on, let sit for a bit, the wipeit off... Go as many coats as you want... The beauty is that it is easy to mix up and reapply later when truing the board after a few years, if necessary.

    I've also had fairly good luck using super glue on Maple... plenty of info out there on doing that. I will definitely say this though... All of the tutorials mention the need to do the glue finish in a well ventilated area. HEED THIS WARNING!!! I stupidly didn't the first time and had a pretty bad reaction... Imagine your eyes at their worst burning/itchiness factor, then triple that. Seriously... not a joke, but totally doable, (after I waited a few days and moved everything outside!!)

    On the nut, that's a preference thing. Again, I've had good luck using a 1/32" feeler gauge between the nut slot and fingerboard as a starting point and carefully proceeding from there. For your first time, maybe start with 1/16" and work slowly lower... remember, you can always take more off, but it's harder to put it back!

    Good luck! You can do this!

  3. SLivinghouse

    SLivinghouse Supporting Member

    Aug 31, 2004
    Meadow Vista, CA
    I've done three and agree with the good advice above. Woodcraft or Rockler are two common chains that would have the veneer and it is about the right thickness. I've used CA on two and they turned out the best. Mask the neck well with tape too. The glue will run easily so have the glue solvent on hand. Good luck.
  4. cholyoke

    cholyoke Supporting Member

    Oct 1, 2016
    Rubber City
    I used 0.020" thick black plastic strips on maple and coated the fingerboard with cyanoacrylate (super glue). The warnings/advice above are good. Always use nitrile/latex gloves and keep acetone nearby. Remove the nut before putting on the CA because the CA will build up more along the nut than along the board. Tape the edges of the neck or you will have to spend a ton of time dissolving the CA that dribbles over the edges.

    I have a ton of extra plastic left over and can mail you some strips you can cut down if you want it.
  5. dwizum


    Dec 21, 2018
    Before we go much further, can you tell us what the fretboard is made from (maple, rosewood, something else?) and what finish, if any, is on it now? If it's maple, you will want a substantial, clear, hard finish on it (CA, epoxy). Poly is probably okay if you'll use flats but it may wear quickly. Maple needs a hard protective layer or it looks dingy and worn really quickly. Maple fretboards always have a finish from the factory, you'll probably want to strip the current finish off before proceeding. If your fretboard is something darker like ebony or rosewood, you may prefer an oil finish like stew mac's fretboard oil, which is an actual finish that dries, versus an oil that stays wet. It dries very thin and protects the wood without giving the look or feel of having a finish on it. Or you could go with something more substantial like CA or epoxy, but again, poly may be too soft.

    Also, do you know much about the history of the instrument? If it's had "fretboard oil" or any other product applied to the freboard over the years, that may present challenges with refinishing. Worst case, if the fretboard has had anything silicone based, or any non-drying oils applied to it, you may need to either leave it as-is or strip and sand it to a fresh surface.

    In terms of veneer, the good news is that the vast majority of wood veneer is cut to 1/40" (.025") by default, which is pretty much the exact width of a typical fret slot. Just look for raw wood veneer, you don't need the paper backed stuff. A lot of the pre-packaged stuff aimed at craft use will be paper backed. Ebay is a good place to look if you want to do online, there's a better selection than Amazon and you usually get photos of the actual pieces versus a generic marketing photo.
  6. Gilmourisgod


    Jun 23, 2014
    Cape Cod MA
    I wouldn’t mix plastic and wood, most lined fretless I’ve seen with plastic lines, they end up raised or lowered seasonally, as wood and plastic expand differentially. I have a Warmoth lined fretless Jazz neck, ebony with maple lines, and a polyester topcoat, it’s never moved, dead flat. It’s a super hard finish, but you need pro spray equipment to apply it. CA seems like the simplest technique, just wiping on in layers, but it’s kind of nasty to deal with. Glu Boost makes a new version that looks pretty good.
  7. wraub


    Apr 9, 2004
    ennui, az
    When I did mine, I went to a local wood shop ( in Brooklyn) and asked about veneers and described the job... the guy and I talked about the project and the likely small amount of material I'd need, he handed me a sample book and said to take what I need. :D I'd suggest talking to a wood shop or supplier and asking around.

    I'd avoid plastic or putty, for several reasons.

    I ended up with a solid maple that was almost exactly the width of the fret slot. The "pages" in the book were all different woods of approx. the same thickness, but (I think) treated with something to hold up to repeated page turning. I remember some having paper backing, and others not- the one I got didn't.
    I really wish I knew how it'd been finished, because it seems like a nearly ideal filler material.
    Gilmourisgod likes this.
  8. Bruce Johnson

    Bruce Johnson Gold Supporting Member Commercial User

    Feb 4, 2011
    Fillmore, CA
    Professional Luthier
    I've been using 0.020" white styrene plastic from the hobby shop for the white lines on all my lined fretless Scroll Basses for 20+ years. I've never seen or heard of any that raised or sunk or needed to trimmed. I think the styrene is soft enough that it moves with the wood.

    If you really want to be low-budget, you can fill the slots with paper or white business cards, or posterboard, soaked with CA glue. It won't be as bright and pretty looking as the white plastic, but it will be strong and stable. Wood fibers soaked with glue.
    Last edited: Feb 8, 2020
    Winslow, wraub and rllefebv like this.
  9. Marco Conti

    Marco Conti

    Feb 4, 2020
    Thank you for the input. The purist in me wants to put wood in there. That's why I am attracted to veneer. And I am guessing something slightly thinner than the slot may be better so a not to compound the force of all the inserts, but I am really not too sure about that either. Ideally, something that slides in with minimal force would be best.

    I am going to take the closest fret to the bridge and test it there. Then I'll decide if I am going to go plastic, wood or unobtanium.

    I know somebody used Balsa wood for the job. I wonder if that's too soft. Then again, I have read that some prefer a very rigid coat over the fretboard. In that case the balsa would be below the plastic-like coat.

    But I'll start with one fret and go from there.

    Thank you very much everyone.
  10. pellomoco14


    Mar 2, 2017
    Newport, OR
    The slots should be .020"-.022".
    Luckily 1/42" veneer happens to be the same dimension. For me it usually slides in to a clean slot easily and with out without gap.
    A tight fit for the veneers is what you want.
    That helps the neck remain stiff and resist the string tension. Without frets the board is already slightly collapsed you're just correcting that by replacing the missing section of wood. Maple veneer is easy to work, cheap and less likely to break off in the slots.
    Last edited: Feb 8, 2020
    wraub and Tom Bomb like this.
  11. Winslow


    Sep 25, 2011
    Group "W" Bench
    Seconded the above. I've used styrene in my own DIY fretless conversions, and the necks are still as smooth as the day I did them. :thumbsup:
  12. Marco Conti

    Marco Conti

    Feb 4, 2020
    1/42 veneer, roger that. It's going to be useful if I buy online (I need to stay home and take care of my wife as much as I can, so I am buying online unless I have no choice).

    Thank you.
  13. BarfanyShart


    Sep 19, 2019
    DC Metro
    For the nut questions, this is a helpful video. The same principles apply to a fretless BG, but, if course, the nut is going to get filed lower to accomplish the same thing.
    Marco Conti likes this.
  14. pellomoco14


    Mar 2, 2017
    Newport, OR
    I bought a roughly a sq. ft. of maple in November for about 12$ on ebay.
    I didn't do anything besides clean the slot with a business card, slide strips of maple in, superglue it up then trim and shape.

    Attached Files:

    wraub and Marco Conti like this.
  15. JKos

    JKos Supporting Member

    Oct 26, 2010
    Surprise, AZ
    Looks like you got the frets out very cleanly. Great job!

    - John
    Last edited: Feb 8, 2020
  16. Marco Conti

    Marco Conti

    Feb 4, 2020
    I was just on Amazon looking for Veneer, but their thickness was around 2 to 3 mm. I even searched for ".05mm thick" but I got no results.

    If any of you guys know where to find online, I'd appreciate it if you let me know.

    I am also looking into the styrene (I bought it, in face, since it's cheap).
    I decided I will test the thickness on the very last fret on the body end of the neck before I even start taking the other frets out.

  17. BassUrges


    Mar 14, 2016
    Veneer sources i have personally used include:

    The thicknesses given are nominal and have at most one significant figure.
  18. CatchaCuda


    Feb 3, 2018
    Transfer, PA
    dean owens and pellomoco14 like this.
  19. Jaco had lines on his bass but I seriously doubt he relied on them for playing. He was already very proficient at playing an unlined upright bass. Besides, they are not as helpful on a fretless as one would think. You can feel a fret but you can't feel a line. In my opinion and experience, lined fretboards are way overrated for learning to play fretless. It's the dots or sidemarkers that you'll end up relying on when playing a fretless. (Unless you are very new to playing bass). It's the dots or side markers that matter, and speaking of those. They will need to be relocated.

    Fretless bass playing relies on the side markers/dots and not so much the fretlines. Fretlines are hard to see anyways with a bass hanging from a strap and the lines are not as precise as you'd think they are. To explain why is for another thread. On a fretless, you rely on muscle memory from playing a fretted and place your finger where the side markers are as a guide and should know where the fretlines would be from your fretted bass experience. If you are off, your ear will tell you and then simply move forward or back as needed. On a fretted bass the dots are aligned evenly between the frets but on a fretless they need to be aligned on top of the fretlines and not between them. It will mess up your playing if you don't do this conversion and I'm speaking from personal experience.

    A good luthier can easily do this job and should be able to do it at a reasonable price. Personally, I would have a luthier do the complete fretless conversion to ensure a quality job was performed and I know I would probably screw it up anyways. Also, while you're having the dots relocated you might want to consider Him/Her putting in the new "Glow in the Dark" dots/side markers.

    The best online course you'll find for learning to play fretless is on "TrueFire" by the "Fretless Monster" Tony Franklin. He's played with Paul Rodgers, Jimmy Page, Carmine Appice, Chris Squire, Whitesnake, Kenny Wayne Shepard, Blue Murder, David Gilmour, Roy Harper, and many others. He's an awesome person and is popular and talented enough to have his own signature fretless bass line with Fender. I was fortunate enough to meet him at a bass guitar clinic at Replay Guitar Center in Tampa FL a couple of years ago. He's a really nice guy and took the time to talk and autographed my Fender R&D Prototype Fretless Monster neck while I was there.

    His online course is at I highly recommend it. It focuses on playing the fretless and converting from a fretted to a fretless. There is nothing about music theory is it focusing on exactly what you need to know about playing fretless vs a fretted guitar and that's its. He doesn't wasted any time with music theory since that can be found many other places. Good luck finding any other course that focuses just on converting from fretted to fretless.

    Below is the R&D Prototype neck when Fender used when developing the TF Signature Bass. Unfortunately, I don't have the body but I know who does and he refuses to sell it. But Tony did confirm the neck's authenticity for me. By the way, he posts regularly on FaceBook and is a great guy. I wish the Firm would get back together.

    I asked him if he could convince Fender to come out with a Lake Placid Blue TF Bass and if they did, I'd be first in line to buy one. Now I have to keep my word which is a good thing,

    IMG_0038.jpeg IMG_0043-1.jpeg Music Man Stingray 5 2010-9.jpg
    Last edited: Feb 9, 2020
  20. Marco Conti

    Marco Conti

    Feb 4, 2020
    That's great, thanks.

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