There are so many different types of fret saws today that it’s hard for new luthiers to know which ones to buy and how to use them. After all, cutting accurate fret slots is one of the most critical parts of building a great guitar, right?
Choosing the right fret slotting saw is one way to set yourself up to achieve the best possible results on your next guitar. In this guide to guitar fret saws, you’ll gain a better understanding of the features that make each type of saw unique, and how to choose the perfect tool for your specific needs.
Having spent over twenty years in the trenches myself, I’ll share my thoughts and experiences on fret saws, I hope to bring you the real-world insight you need to help you make your choice a little bit easier.
Use the table of contents to jump ahead or read on!
Table Of Contents
This guide is not just for beginners. It’s taken me many years to uncover many of the subtler points of using my hand tools, fret saws included. It took many, many guitars before I eventually realized some of the critical pieces of information I was missing.
Once I did get a deeper understanding of the tools themselves and how to use them, the quality of my guitars (and my life in general!) took a quantum leap.
The Fret Saw
A guitar fret saw is a simple tool really; a handle, a blade with teeth, and limitless possibilities – that’s why I love it.
Mastering the art of hand-crafting guitars is not just about having the most complex tools and techniques.
The true secret to doing our best work—world-class work, work that matters—is all about mastering the basics and staying away from the overly-complicated distractions that surround us, attempting to entice us away from hunkering down and working on the task at hand.
You might be thinking, “Tom, chill out! It’s just a saw, man!” To me, I don’t just see the tool, I see another opportunity for me to refine a fundamental technique, that when mastered, can reap great rewards of accuracy and personal satisfaction.
All done simply and quietly. No loud sounds, no computers. Just you, the wood, and that still small voice guiding you as you watch your hands do the work they were made to do.
4 Key Elements Of Fret Saw Design
1 – Saw Kerf
The kerf of the saw is the cutting width of the blade, so it determines the thickness of the slot you will cut. The saw you use, and the fret slot you create, needs to be properly fit to your fret wire for a snug, not too tight or too loose fit. Most fret saws will cut a slot that is .023” wide which is perfect for most fret wire and is the starting point for great guitar fretwork.
Here’s why it is so important: A fret that is in a slot that is too wide will result in a neck that lacks strength and in frets that tend to move or could even pop up, ultimately resulting in uncomfortable playability and lack of stability.
Conversely, if the fret slot is too small, the installed frets will compress the neck and cause a back bow which will ultimately result in uncomfortable playability and high action. Nobody likes that!
*For more on learning to master your fretwork check out our luthier training courses.
2 – Saw Tooth Design
There are two main tooth designs that one will commonly find in fret saws.
The most common is the Traditional Luthier Fret Saw Tooth. Each tooth is set to cut on the pull stroke and has a very slight alternating outward bend. This “outward bend” is how the kerf of the saw is established with this method. One good thing about this traditional design is that these types of teeth can be sharpened and reset if needed (though not many people do that these days).
The second common type is the Japanese Fret Saw Tooth (the bottom one in the photo). This type of tooth design is much different, having a superior cut (in my opinion). The drawback is that the teeth are very fragile and can easily be broken if misused. The Japanese style cannot be re-sharpened.
3 – Spine
The spine (or spline) is the part on the back of the blade which gives it it’s rigidity and strength. Saws of this design are commonly known as a Back Saw. Some saws have a full spine, others may have a ¾ length spine, and others may have no spine at all.
I find, for cutting fret slots, a very ridged full spine is essential to keep my cuts straight. It prevents the blade from curving, resulting in a buildup of heat and friction as well as the potential for a slightly curved fret slot.
For some flush cut applications, you need a no-spine saw which is typically of the Japanese style of tooth. Having at least one saw with no spine is a must in my opinion, though I would not use it for fret slotting because of the reasons mentioned above.
4 – Handle Design
There are basically two main styles of handles commonly found in guitar fret saws.
The first and most common is the classic rounded design. This type lets you wrap your hand around the end of the saw, creating a linear extension of your arm as you work.
The second handle type is the Japanese style. It’s much longer and gives the saw a sword-like feel. Your grip and fret slot cutting technique will be different with a Japanese-style handle, which is wonderful for fret slotting as well as other tasks like trimming binding at miter joints and other precision operations.
Choosing The Best Fret Saw
There really is no “best fret saw.” The challenge is to find the one that best fits your preferred style of cutting along with the specific application—and you’ll find many opportunities to use your fret saw that has nothing to do with frets!
I own several types of fret saws myself and use them all the time. If you have taken any of my guitar-making courses, you probably know that the way I work requires stillness and quiet so I can be sensitive to the wood I am working with.
Every time I turn on a machine, it shocks my system with sound, vibration, and danger. It takes me several hours before I get back to the sensitive and peaceful state I need to be in to do my best work. I reach for my fret saws (or the Japanese Dozuki saws we’ll discuss later) to make as many cuts as possible so I can stay in the zone.
When I built my first guitar in the mid-90s, I’m thankful there weren’t as many options as there are today. The variety of fret saws available to you may feel overwhelming and intimidating, not to mention all the other tools and advice available to a luthier. I’ve been building guitars over the last 20+ years, and this is what my experience was like.
Traditional Guitar Fret Saws (My Starting Point)
I had experience as a finish carpenter, but I had a lot to learn and a lot of tools to buy. When I built my first guitar, I couldn’t even afford to buy a fret saw!
Luckily, I was able to strike a deal with a local guitar technician. He let me use some of his lutherie tools one day a week for a few hours for the cost of $20. It was like a weekly guitar lesson, only in my case I got to use his small workshop and get a little advice along the way.
I only met with him a handful of times, but it was just enough to help me get the fingerboard slotted, along with a few other critical luthier-specific tasks like using fret crowning files, fret leveling, and other things that were outside of my previous woodworking experience.
Needless to say, once I built that first guitar I was hooked! I knew that I had found my calling and my life’s passion. I did finally get my own fret saw, a German-made one sold by Stew Mac (no longer available). It’s a nice little saw, and I used it on many guitars and repairs. Very lightweight and smaller than the newer models, it has its benefits for certain applications.
Eventually, I wore it out. It began to get too dull to cut ebony, so I started looking around to see what saw would be the right fit for the next phase of my journey into the art of lutherie.
The next saw I decided on was the LMI fret saw pictured above. This saw is a lot more substantial than my first saw, every part denser and heavier-duty. It feels great. The handle is a nice hardwood with a solid brass furl anchoring the spine and blade in place. It was a definite improvement from my previous saw, and I still use it all these years later. Unfortunately, it’s too dull now for some applications. I eventually needed an upgrade and decided to try the Stew Mac version of this saw.
This fret saw from Stew Mac is so close to being the same as the LMI version I literally sometimes don’t even pay attention to which one I’m using. The same great handle and stiff spine and blade make for a great saw. There is a very slight difference in the tooth pattern, but they both cut very well and have lasted about the same amount of time. Neither seems better than the other: both classic designs and quality investments, so you can’t go wrong with either one.
As usual though, after many more fingerboards and guitars, again this new version started getting dull too, and it seemed like a good move to try the one with the guide attachment next to help me get a more consistent fret slot depth.
This is the same great saw but with a depth slot attachment, the Stew Mac Fret Saw With Depth Stop. As I was writing this, I went to look for the attachment, but I can’t find it! After trying it for a while and struggling to get used to it, I eventually realized that it just wasn’t for me. Having the guide bolted to one side threw me off balance and blocked my view.
It did help me learn that I was perfectly confident in judging the depth of the slot by eye as I have always done.
I took away a valuable lesson: when you find something that doesn’t suit you and your style, it can actually help you define and refine your sense of style and identity.
Japanese Dozuki Saws
In 2000 I went to Baja California to study with Boaz Elkayam. When I was there, I watched him use a Japanese Dozuki saw like the one below to cut his brace wood to length, trim mahogany neck blanks, and several other tasks.
Being someone who needs quiet and simplicity while I work, I was instantly drawn to this type of saw. Incorporating it into my guitar-building practice reduced the number of times a day I turned on loud machines. Though I never could never use that particular saw for slotting frets because the kerf was wrong, the amazing cutting power of the super sharp teeth was intoxicating.
I wanted to cut fret slots with a saw like this. After I broke a few teeth on my first Japanese saw, I upgraded to the one above from LMI, but the kerf was still wrong for fret slotting.
Still, I use this saw every day for many different cuts: trimming binding, nearly all my guitar bracing work (tone bar article link), and cutting fret slots, too. I’d say it is one of the most used tools in my workshop, earning a premium spot on my tool wall.
The Ultimate Guitar Fret Saw?
It has beautiful fast-cutting, non-clogging Japanese-style teeth. The handle provides me with a great sense of control and stability, allowing me to do better work with a much more relaxed grip than I need for other saws.
Unlike my other Japanese saws this one has a very stiff blade and full length super rigid spine. It’s the perfect combination of all the greatest features from all the other saws mixed into one.
Fret Saw Technique
(Cutting with accuracy & efficiency)
Getting the perfect saw—is only half the battle.
No matter what saw you decide to use, a great deal depends on your sawing technique. Great technique is the “master key” to becoming a great luthier.
It takes a great deal of effort to master this subtle art, but with the proper guidance, you can start cutting like a pro in no time.
Are you ready to stop wrestling with that saw and struggling to cut those fret slots?
*This Video is a sample from the Luthier’s EDGE Online Guitar Making School – LEARN MORE HERE
Mastering The Fret Saw Technique
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Not that I’ve shared the journey I’ve taken to find fret saws that have worked well for me, I’d love to hear your story, thoughts, and your recommendations.
Which type of fret saw do you like best for fret slotting or guitar making in general?
Are there any saws that you think I should add to my list?
Please join in the conversation and leave your answers in the comments below. Remember to share this guide with your fellow luthiers and friends!