Many of us feel confident enough to tackle basic setup work, but most shy away from fretwork because it seems pretty complicated and requires specialist tools. With a lot of care, though, it can be done. The money you can save will more than cover the cost of tools – and you’ll be able to use them over and over again.
Even total refrets are within the capabilities of many amateurs, so this month we’ll be showing you how. We’ll start with fret removal and fitting, but if that seems a bit too ambitious then skip ahead to the levelling and dressing section and take it from there. With proper care and the requisite tools (see Pic 8 over the page) excellent results are achievable, but please, please start out on a cheap guitar rather than a prized vintage example.
Are you sure changing frets is necessary? If the fretwire is dented or worn flat then bending strings might be tricky, but removing original frets from a vintage guitar can decrease its value. Old Gibsons often had fret edge binding and retaining those fret edges or replacing them requires skills that are beyond the scope of this article. We wouldn’t recommend refretting a bound fingerboard until you’ve honed your skills on some unbound ones.
When extracting old frets, minimising damage to the fretboard should be your primary concern. Fretwire has tangs that grip the sides of the slot. As a fret is pulled upwards the tangs can cause the wood to flake or chip away, particularly with old rosewood and ebony. A previous repairer may have used glue to secure the frets, particularly if the guitar has been re-fretted before. Prior to removal, apply lemon oil to the area around the frets and leave it to soak in properly. Dry timber is prone to chipping. Before attempting to remove a fret, heat it with a soldering iron to soften or burn off any glue. Be careful not to let the hot tip slide off and burn the wood or melt any plastic parts.
If you prise the frets out with a chisel, you’ll make a big mess of the fingerboard. I wouldn’t recommend attempting fret removal without a fret puller (Pic 1). These pincers have sharpened edges that get under the end of the fret; they make the job simple and fast, plus they’ll only set you back £15-£20.
If any chips of wood do break off you can glue them back in place with superglue, but make sure you fix the chips as you go along or you’ll end up with the mother of all jigsaw puzzles. Similarly some dents can be removed by placing a piece of wet cloth over the dent then placing the tip of a hot soldering iron on top. Steam released from the cloth will expand the compressed wood fibres, and if you’re lucky the dent should eventually vanish.
Place a long straight edge, like a steel ruler, along the fingerboard to check for flatness. If the trussrod has previously been tightened to resist string pull, it’s possible that the neck will bow backwards when the string tension is taken off. To achieve flatness you’ll need to loosen the truss rod by turning it anticlockwise. Try a quarter turn, allow the neck to settle down, re-check and make more quarter turns if necessary until the neck is as flat as possible.
Some luthiers like to ‘plane’ the fingerboard to take out any high spots. You can use a flat block wrapped with fine sandpaper but special sanding blocks that are radiused to match most fingerboards are available from various suppliers. You can download a radius gauge (try www.pickguardian.com). Print it, cut it out then find the best match for your guitar.
Think twice: sanding vintage fingerboards isn’t always advisable. Removing playing indentations will almost certainly entail excessive wood removal, particularly with some Fenders’ ‘veneer’ fingerboards. Your guitar will also lose some vintage patina, which isn’t necessarily beneficial to its value.
If you do decide to sand your board, save the dust – you can mix it with Araldite to form a paste that will match your fingerboard. If there are any chips you haven’t been able to repair, pack the area with the sawdust/glue paste, allow it to dry fully then sand flush.
When refretting many players choose to change to a different type of fretwire. In particular Strat players, like SRV, often prefer wider Gibson-style frets to skinny vintage-style Fender frets. Some like taller frets because they find it easier to get their fingers under the string for controlled bends and finger vibrato. On the other hand jazz players who rarely bend more than a semitone might prefer the faster and sleeker feel of low frets.
When choosing fretwire you also have to consider the dimensions of the tang. You’ll need something that will fit into the existing slots without requiring any woodwork. If the tang is too deep you’ll be obliged to saw the slots deeper (you’ll often see vintage Fenders where previous ‘repairers’ have sawn all the way through the fretboard). Also bear in mind that you won’t be able to deepen a fret slot if the fretboard has binding.
If the width of the tang is too narrow the fret will be loose in the slot. If it’s too wide you probably won’t be able to get it in, and if you do you might cause the neck to bow backwards. If you have a digital callipers or micrometer, measure the tangs on one of the frets you have removed. If you haven’t got one, your local garage might be able to help. Suppliers like Allparts UK and Touchstone Tonewoods publish detailed dimensions of their fretwire, so it should be easy to find one that will fit properly and give you the height and width you prefer.
Hammer it home
Most fret wire is supplied in straight 12" lengths, so you’ll need to bend it before you can install it. You can buy specialist fret bending tools but if you take care you can bend it yourself with two pairs of pliers. I always wrap the ends of the pliers with masking tape to prevent them scratching the wire. Gently curve the wire over and take care not to let it twist. Be sure to finish up with a radius that’s a bit tighter than the fingerboard, otherwise the ends will spring up.
Snip the frets very slightly long before installing them. Most modern guitar manufacturers, and indeed many luthiers, use fret press systems. You can buy cauls that can be fitted to press drills or dedicated fret arbour presses but hammering them in is the traditional method. Your claw hammer isn’t suitable because the hard steel will damage the new frets. Instead, nip over to your local DIY store and buy a soft-faced hammer. B&Q stock one for less than £15 that’s ideal.
Make sure you thoroughly clean out the fret slots first; a thin saw is just the ticket. I always tap the ends of a fret in first, leaving a slight overhang at each end to align it in the slot
(Pic 2), and then I gradually tap from the edges towards the centre. If you start in the middle the fretwire can deform into a curved bow shape and you’ll have to throw it away. Ideally the seating action should force the tangs sideways as well as downwards, which should help them to grip.
I’ll always remove a bolt-on neck for refretting and I take off the tuners so it will sit flat on my work surface. Set neck guitars are trickier to handle, but providing you always ensure that the neck is supported under the area where you’re actually hammering and use common sense, it should be okay. You have to hit a fret hard enough to seat it, but if you hit it too hard you might damage the neck or compress the fingerboard, making the fret lower than the others. This will cause problems.
The only way to trim the ends of the frets flush to sides of the neck is to use the correct tool, a pair of fret nippers (£10-£20). Cut sideways, not upwards. Some of the ends might be loose, so drop some superglue into the ends and let it run into the slot. Hold the fret in position for a minute and it should stay tight.
On the edge
If the neck is still straight, it’s time to dress the frets. You can get specialist tools but I’ve always achieved decent results using a 20cm carborundum sharpening stone (£5-£10). Apply masking tape to protect the fingerboard (Pic 3) and put some on your pickups, or metal dust will stick to the polepieces.
Do the fret ends first by passing the stone along the edges until the edge of the fingerboard feels smooth. Then slowly angle the edges of your frets. Try to keep the stone at a consistent angle and don’t overdo it. Too much angle will narrow the usable fret width and the E strings might fall off the fretboard.
Levelling and dressing
Starting at the nut, run the stone towards the end of the neck. Don’t work back and forth because you’ll end up with frets that are lower in the middle than at the ends. Keep going until you can see scuff marks all across the surface of every fret. So long as your neck is straight and your frets are well seated, the process should be fairly quick. However, well-played frets might be worn flat in specific areas and there might be string indentations (Pic 4), in which case levelling will take longer.
After the levelling is done (Pic 5) we have to reinstate the crown. You can buy concave files to round over the fret tops, but a needle file will do. Carefully round over the square edges by holding the file at an angle and rolling it slightly towards the centre as you work. Aim to leave a wafer-thin ‘stone scuff’ line down the centre.
I use a triangular needle file to soften the edges around the ends, taking care to avoid damaging the fingerboard and binding. The frets are then sanded with 600 grit wet and dry followed by 800 and 1200 grit, then shined up with metal polish (Pic 6). Autosol works well and you should be aiming for a perfectly flat and scratch-free playing surface. Now it’s finally time to remove the masking tape.
If you’ve only levelled your frets, you should be able to put on a new set of strings and readjust the trussrod if necessary after the neck has settled down. If you’ve followed all these steps your guitar should be playing better than ever.
New frets will be taller than the old ones, so the string slots in the nut might be cut too low and all the open strings will rattle. If that’s the case you might get away with building up the slots with a mixture of superglue and bicarbonate of soda while protecting the fingerboard (Pic 7), but if they’re way too low you might need to fit a new nut.