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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Hal

 

I have a roll of stainless steel bailing wire in a small gauge.  I'm sure you could find some locally if you wanted to try and just cut small pieces of the stainless steel wire and epoxy them on the fretboard.  That would last a long time.    

I’ve used toothpicks on my last few canjos with nylon strings. They work great! They are very comfortable and sound just fine.
I made slots using two 24pt hacksaw blades clamped together. For my round toothpicks, that’s a nice fit. Tried to make the depth about half the diameter of the picks. Glued in with white glue. Leveling, crowning and end finishing was much easier than fret wire. My Fret Guru files made quick work of it. (This was probably not necessary, but I was curious…)

I finished up with a few coats of shellac, that should leave a pretty tough surface. No hint of wear so far.

I tried installing a few in a scrap of 1 1/2” mahogany, and the pale birch picks made a lovely contrast with the dark wood. Maybe my next ukulele will have this look!

I use bamboo toothpicks for frets & skewers for zero frets, sometimes you can find thin skewers that are similar in size to a jumbo fret, but the good quality ones are usually found at Asian stores. Very rigid, so they don’t thin out as easily as wood does? steel, nylon, bronze strings have had no effect on wear? Cheers :)

I’ve found many hardwood possibilities for fretting. Cherry, Boxwood, native Plum, coke Cherry, Pin Cherry, Apple, crab Apple, etc. so carve you own “pics”.

Tip: use finish sandpaper & ultra fine files to shape so you don’t take off too much at a time, it only takes one bad stroke to create a low spot? (found out the hard way) Also, I found that these foam files or nail buffers if you will, do wonders for fretwork? Commonly found at Amazon, eBay & Stewmac?

The spongey nature of the foam is more forgiving than a sanding block or file, way more finesse without extra effort? You can also find foam files cheap at the drugstore as well as bargain stores in the ladie’s aisle, if you don’t mind bright colors or pink? :D They’re the same thing, just marketed in a different direction, go figure? 

Dave, I heard stories of the olden days , where they made their own toothpicks from branches outta the front yard? Ha! Crab apple! My grandma used to call my grandpa a crab apple when he was mad!  :D

Those spongey nail polishing doohickeys are amazing and as BrianQ has said they are so much more forgiving than a Block and files. If you look carefully for them you can find various grades of “grit” .

I have to say they saved the day on my CBG, I had dropped a major one on it and ended up having to cut 51/2 inches off the neck, the headstock  snapped at the scarf joint. So from the first fret/ nut had to be redone without a scarf joint and it went from a 25” scale to a 19 1/2” luckily it wasn’t originally fretted just burnt Fret markers which these little Nail sponges did an amazing job of removing. 

With this guitar being a gift, I was so impressed that I have now got a box of them, well the wife has and I know I’ll use them more than she does.

While the OT was about skewers as Frets after the trials this little CBG caused I was stuck for some material to use as frets and ended up using 3mm weed strimmer Nylon line, which much to my surprise worked like a charm and because of doing so much to the neck already I didn’t want to start cutting slots, So a quick file later and with a nice flat edge and thick superglue stuck diatonic spaced frets and I’ve got one happy little granddaughter. Now onto making more for the other girls.

I’ve used toothpicks on several canjos, all with nylon (actually, 50lb fishing line). They sound just fine and are very comfortable.
I used two hacksaw blades clamped together to cut slots to a depth of half the diameter of the pick, and use a bit of glue when I press them in. That leaves plenty of height for leveling and dressing. I use 400 grit paper on a flat stone countertop to level and standard fret files to crown and end finish. (My files are from Fret Guru and they work so well for this that I giggle while I’m doing it!) The work goes much faster than with metal and I think it is good practice for developing your technique.

I finish my stuff with shellac.

The result is some very comfortable frets that don’t hurt the sound at all. Wood frets open some interesting possibilities with contrasting colors and such. Definitely worth trying, especially for nylon strings!
I’m not sure that using flexible sanding tools will make things easier. The goal of good fretwork is the same with metal or wood; you want the profile to be rounded with just a whisp of a flat along the top, and that flat should be level with all the other frets. That’s hard to do if your tools don’t hold a shape.

Of course, there is no one “right” way to do anything!

Actually foam files have been used by luthiers & techs for the last 10 or 15 years or more, they have give but aren’t as “flexible” as you’re thinking. In fact they have less give than sanding sponges? One thing I learned working as a tech in the traveling music business is keeping abreast with new technologies & techniques, as they always make my work easier. Plus, I have to try everything before I knock it, it may be the future of things to come? P.S. I worked with Bernie of Fret guru a few times in the business, he’s a great guy! I also have a full set of his tools, they’re pro quality for sure :)

I have used toothpicks on a few canjos. After gluing them in my sawed slots on the fretboard , I would file/sand them level, then soak each one with thin super glue. Seems to harden them abit.

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