I haven’t updated the blog for a while….a few work commitments and a spring cleaning of my workshop took way more time than i would have liked!
I was going to add a section on frets to the WTF section but, since i have a re-fret job to do, i might as well put that up showing some nuts’nbolts and blood’n’guts before unleashing a wall of text!
Here we have a late 70’s/early 80’s Japanese Fender Telecaster copy. This beasty is very well put together, my suspicion is that it was made in the Fujigen Gakki plant some time in the later part of the 1970’s….all this aside it has some problems….
As you can see from the photo above this guitar’s frets are LOOOOOOOOWWWW…way too low to be considered comfortable. They don’t have any string “divots” in them so they have been worn in the right way…levelled and dressed regularly so they wear evenly but, alas, they are history…..she needs a re-fret!!!
Now, let me pre-face this section by saying….ALL GUITARS, AT SOME POINT, WILL NEED TO BE REFRETTED! This is just life. In many ways you can look at the frets in your guitar as a sort of “creative consumable”. That being said, it is a pretty big job that requires skill, knowledge, concentration and patience….lots of patience! If you care for your frets by having them dressed well and often and you don’t have a grip like a shot-putter when fretting you shouldn’t need to have re-frets very often…unless you want to change the type of fret you have in your guitar which is a whole other ball game!
It is worth noting that, like most things in life, there are many ways to skin a cat, however, with this particular cat and all other cats i look after we would like to skin it the right way. A lot of people believe that re-fretting is simply a case of ripping out the existing frets and thumping in some shiny new ones, job done…..this is not the case!
When i re-fret a guitar i know that I’m about to spill its guts all over the floor…..by this i mean take something away that has been there a long time hiding all kinds of surprises and fundamentally changing the guitars make-up!
So before we blow the dust of the sharp pointy diggy-outy tools, we need to sit down with a nice cup of Tea/Coffee (delete as applicable to your residence) and have a look at the guitar, do some measurements and do some thinking.
When considering a re-fret you want to first establish the end goal for the job…are we refretting because the existing frets are not to our liking? Are we refretting because the existing frets are poorly manufactured/installed? Are we refretting because the existing frets are worn out? Obviously in this case we are refretting because of the latter. These frets have been worn/levelled/dressed so many times that there is but a sliver of metal separating the string from the fingerboard leading to an uncomfortable feel when fretting and buzzes due to insufficient string-to-fret contact.
So our goal here is to refret because the frets are worn and replace them with nice new ones that improve both tone and playability…..nice!
The second thing we need to think about is “what frets am i going to replace them with? Now, in general, unless the customer complains of a problem encountered with their frets caused by a source outside of fret wear itself i will try my best to choose the highest grade like-fro-like replacement wire i can source. You may wish to change the fret wire type all together but we’ll get to that later as the next process may have a bearing on our choice/options.
So we now need to think about the process of the job itself. At this point we have to have a good look at the guitar and do some measurements ( leaving the sharp pointy stabby tools in the box!). When assessing the guitar before fret removal you must assess and measure WITH STRINGS ON THE GUITAR TUNED TO PITCH!….seriously i can’t stress this point enough!! Before we start hacking the guitar up with sharp stabby cutty pokey tools we need to know how the guitar behaves WITH IT’S CURRENT FRETS and UNDER STRING TENSION ( i realise that none of these photos show the guitar with strings but trust me, these measurements were taken!). If we don’t know then we are urinating in the wind when trying to plan the refret! Without getting bogged down in technicalities (this is NOT a how-to!) we need to assess the neck’s relief under string tension and with frets AND without string tension with frets. We do this for a number of reasons, primarily to find out how much/little the frets are adding relief or back bow due to compression. Compression fretting is a VAST subject which i will tackle in the WTF section, suffice it to say that compression fretting is the cumulative effect that interference-fit frets have on the bow of a neck..ie if you squeeze a load of metal into ONE side of the neck it will expand on ONE side…and what happens when only one side of a long object expands?…the object will bow.
So we have looked at the guitar under string tension and taken measurements for relief and we have relaxed string tension and taken measurements to see what, if any, bow is left in the neck ( we will also measure the straightness of the neck once the frets are removed so as to calculate the level of compression the old frets were providing).
Now there is one last thing to look at before the stabby cutty pokey rippy burny tools are let loose…the asthetics of the guitar!! Trust me, this is important but it comes at this stage because now we have the strings off we can take a good look…
It’s fair to say that some guitars are easier to refret than others but all have either aspects of their design that make the job harder or nasty surprises during the refret or both!
If you have a look at the photo above the first thing that should be noticed is that the fretboard is “finished” ie sprayed and sealed. When these necks are manufactured they are fretted and then the entire neck is sprayed with either nitrocellulose lacquer or catalyzed polymer (including the frets!!). As the frets are levelled at the factory the fret tops are “scrubbed” clean of lacquer/poly. A lot of maple necks have this finish especially old Fender necks and Fender reissue necks. It leaves us with not only the problem of removing “lacquered-in” frets but the decision to preserve the existing finish or re-finish the guitar once the fret job is complete.
Here’s my thinking on the matter: If a guitar is “vintage” or if the way it is constructed, in whatever way, adds significant value to it then i will do everything i can to preserve the existing finish. If the guitar is old enough and played enough to have been given a certain patina then i will do my best to preserve the patina in every way. If the finish is good and the neck is straight and shows little or no wear i will preserve the finish.
So we already know that this guitar is an old(ish) copy of a Fender and, although very well-built and fairly collectible, has no significant vintage value. We can also see from the photo that as the finish has worn from the very centres between the frets it has left fillets of poly between the board and fret beads…when the frets are removed these will become little mounds of poly which will make seating new frets difficult. We can also see that there is a significant “ding” in the board. Upon inspection it is clear that this ding has thrown out some raised edges that will need smoothing before refretting. So with all this in mind it looks like this will be a re-finish.
This particular neck had a very mild back bow with no string tension but i wont know if this is a natural curvature in the neck or compression from the frets until i remove them so we grab the first of our pokey stabby sharp cutty burny tools…some flush-ground end cutters and a soldering iron.
To release a fret from a finished maple board we first need to “pair away” the lacquer, or in this case poly, from the edge of the fret with a sharp knife. Then we apply heat to the fret with a soldering iron. This helps dissolve any glue in the fret slot but it also liquifies oils in the wood that soften the wood grain and lubricate the fret tang on its way out. When the fret is sufficiently hot and before we burn anything we use the end nippers to grab the fret under its bead and slowly “pinch” it up and out of its slot,working from one end to the other…SLOWLY AND PATIENTLY TO AVOID TEAR-OUT!!!
As you can see in the photo i have started to remove some frets and paused on one so you can see how they, hopefully, peel up and out very gently without tearing any wood. If you look at the empty fret slot you can see the “bare” wood which shows how the frets were seated before any finish was applied. You can also see the “teeth” marks in the fret slot walls.These are marks left by the barbs in the side of the fret tang that cling to the walls of the fret slot as the fret is driven in. It looks to me like these are the original frets as fitted from the factory…pretty amazing considering this guitar is over 30 years old! The frets came out pretty easily with a little heat and some patience, the only trouble frets were ones that had been “pushed” into the finish and ones that had such slim ends it made hard work of wiggling end nippers under the fret top. No significant tear-out means either i did a great job or the frets were fitted perfectly from factory or a little of both ha ha!!
Here she is…naked as the day she was born!! After inspecting the general condition of the fret slots i once again turned my attention to the neck. As expected it now measures almost completely straight so we can prove that the cumulative effect of the fret tangs in one side of the neck was back bowing the neck, remove the frets and the neck pulls straight…cool eh!!
What we draw from this information is that we don’t need to “force” frets into the neck now to make up for any natural forward bow,we can choose fret wire with a tang that exactly matches the fret slots so as not to add unneeded compression. These fret slots measure 0.025″ which is pretty big….good job i don’t need to add compression as finding fret tangs bigger than that would be a problem.
Looking at the frets that have been removed gives us any clues to any surprises in the fret slot or any bad practice during fitting from factory. We can see this fret looks just as it should upon removal so no surprises as yet…
Now we have done the measuring, pulling and more measuring we can start to clean up the mess we’ve made…
Before we go grabbing some more cutty sharp stabby tools we need to grab a radius gauge and check the radius of the fretboard and its accuracy. As suspected this fretboard measures a healthy vintage style 7.25″ although it flattens out a very small amount towards the heel…not uncommon on pattern necks and no significant problem. Now we can select a cutty tool…
So, as the fretboard surface has a 7.25″ radius, we need to use a matching radius block to level the surface. We start with coarse grain paper to “cut” through the tough poly finish and move through progressively finer grades as we reach the bare wood, finishing with 600/800 grit to leave a smooth, accurate 7.25″ radius the entire fretboard length..
So there we are for part 1! We assessed the neck with/without string tension and with/without frets, we carefully removed them, we assessed the fret slots and cleaned and levelled the fretboard ready for shiny new frets.
As the fret slots measured in at a healthy 0.025″ and since i have no fret wire in the workshop with tang width like that i have ordered some up. When it arrives we will crack on with the next step!!!!
Stay tuned! TFM