Re-fretting a Guitar

Today I’ll be dealing with a somewhat more advanced repair, re-fretting.  Like neck resets on an acoustic, this is something every guitar will have to face if it’s played for any length of time.  The nickel silver frets are much softer than the steel or bronze strings they come in contact with and those divots they create will eventually cause the string to buzz.

We’ll be dealing with two kinds of frets here.  The traditional nickel silver [I’m including the newer Evo alloy (CuSn15Fe1Ti0.1), a copper alloy that is a little harder than nickel silver and has a gold color] and stainless steel.

We’ll start off with nickel silver.  As I stated before there is no silver at all but an alloy of copper, nickel and zinc.  The nickel content is what is referred to in the percentage, i.e. 18% being the most common in fret wire.

First the tools:  Obviously you will need the same tools as a level, crown and polish with the addition of end nippers in two sizes, standard and small.  I recommend a high quality brand such as Channellocks as they will hold up better and unless you’re really good at grinding I suggest you buy them from a guitar supply because they have to have the face ground flat. You will also need a soft blow or plastic tipped hammer and if you are going to compression fret (more on that later) an arbor or drill press and appropriate radius caul to install the frets. Some manufacturers and builders glue their frets in (I do) so you need a soldering iron to break the joint.  Finally, you will need a fret beveling file.  You can purchase this from Stew-Mac but one can easily be made.

The steps are as follows:

1. Remove the old frets by heating the top of the fret with the soldering iron.  Be careful not to contact the board surface.  I usually cover the body of the guitar with some sort of protection and you can do the same with the board but I usually don’t.  Then use the small nippers to ease the fret out.  Do this by starting at the very end and getting under the fret bead.  Be careful to do a small amount at a time.  The heat from the iron not only breaks the glue but minimizes the chipping that can occur when the dimple on the tang is backed out.  I usually do about a 1/16″ at a time and that is, in most cases, enough to keep the chips to a minimum.  Sometimes the board is old and brittle (very common in ebony boards) and some chipping is inevitable.  Immediately glue the chip back in with a little cyanoacrylate glue and continue on.  If you lose the piece you can fill it with dust and cyano.

2.  Now that the frets are out you must assess the fretboard and the slots.  There is likely wear on the board itself, less so on ebony than rosewood.  Divots from the fingers and the strings is common, especially under the first three frets.  If the board has enough thickness I will try and level it.  If it’s been done before you can expect to run into several problems.  The fret slots may not be deep enough after the board is surfaced.  You may go through the position markers and need to replace them.  In the case of Fenders with curved fretboards (the board is curved on the top and bottom to save wood) you may not be able to re-surface. In the case of maple boards there is the added problem of the finish on the surface.  Maple, unlike rosewood or ebony, needs a finish or it will discolor.  This is exacerbated by the fact that Fender finished the boards after they are fretted.  This means you have to score along the fret and hope the finish doesn’t come up with the fret.  In any case some re-finish is likely so this can up the cost of a re-fret on a maple neck considerably.

Now, if the fret slot is not deep enough you will need to use a back saw of the proper thickness (usually .023″) including the kerf or set on the teeth.  Do not go too far and be careful to maintain a straight and true slot.   If the slot is deep enough you must now remove any glue from the slot.  I found that an X-acto knife blade ground in the shape of a hook will work, but you can also buy saws for this purpose.  All this is complicated by a neck with binding.  You can check the slot depth by using a business card inserted in the slot and marking it with a very sharp pencil.  If it’s not deep enough you must either make a tool by cutting a back saw blade off so that you only have about an inch of blade or buy a specialty tool to get into the slot without cutting the binding.

You can now level the board using a level or radius block with 100 through 320 grit sandpaper.  I start by releasing the tension on the truss rod.  I don’t use anything coarser that 100 because it is too hard to remove the scratches of a 80 or less grit.  After leveling I use a small three corner file to bevel the fret edge to make the fretting easier.

3.  Choosing the proper fret wire is next.  If you’re replacing like with like, just measure the width of the bead and match it.  Several companies make fret wire and between suppliers like Stew-Mac, Luthiers Mercantile and Dunlop to name a few you should be able to find a match.  If this is a new guitar you can take your pick.  A word of caution in getting jumbo wire.  The wider wire is considered the choice of players who like to bend strings, but in reality it’s not the width that makes the bends easy but the height of the fret.  If the fret is crowned properly the string only hits the fret at the top so the width has no practical value.  In fact, as the fret wears and flattens it can cause buzzing and intonation problems because the string is contacting a larger surface.

Prepping the fret wire is next.  This step should not be overlooked.  It should be de-greased using naptha or alcohol.  Then the wire should be bent in a radius greater than the fret board radius.  This helps the fret seat by setting the ends of the fret first and causing the dimple on the tang to go in at somewhat of an angle.  Fret benders are available as are plans.

I then cut the wire to length by making it about a 1/4″ over the width of the slot.  Using a block with holes drilled and numbered it’s easy to keep track of the frets.  If the fretboard has binding you must clip the tang of the fret so that the bead overlaps the binding.  Special nippers are available but you can, with patience, use a fine file.  A quick note about Gibson guitars with the “nibs” on the binding following the fret profile.  This is done before the fretboard is applied to the neck and is not practical to do on a re-fret.

4. The installation of the frets. On bolt necks the easiest way is to take the neck off to re-fret. Just remember to bolt the neck back on as the torque of the screws can affect the neck straightness.   Acoustics can be the most challenging because the area of the fretboard over the body is supported only by the braces of the guitar top.

You can use a hammer to seat the frets by tapping them in from both ends first to the center.  You should use a plastic or brass faced hammer so as not to deface the relatively soft fret wire.  When you get to the body area you can hold a bag of lead shot underneath to soften the blow of the hammer.  Some people take of dimples off the tang and glue the frets in. This can be done by using a special pair of pliers or a set of files designed for the purpose.

I set my frets using the compression method.  This is done with a drill press or arbor press to seat the frets using even pressure.  If you do use the drill press be sure to unplug it first!  I use a caul that is the radius of the fretboard this is chucked into the drill and a platform is attached to the press table.

To glue or not to glue?  I use white or yellow glue to set the frets.  I feel it’s just another step above.  The glue not only keeps the fret in but lubricates the fret slot and fills the space left from the bottom of the slot to the top of the fret tang.  Some luthiers use cyanoacrylate to do this but I find it’s too easy to get the stuff on the instrument and damage the finish.  I wax the board without getting any in the slot.  This stops any glue from sticking to the board.

I apply the glue in the slot with a toothpick and try to avoid applying too much.  I do about four slots at a time, and press the fret in until it’s seated.  This is something that takes some practice but before long you can feel the fret seat.

I use another padded block to place under the back in the area of the head block to support the guitar when I’m fretting over the body.  I don’t like to take the dimples off and glue as I feel it doesn’t give the fret enough holding power, even with the glue.  Instead I use a Taylor fret buck.  This is a massive casting that sits on top of the guitar and clamps to the underside through the soundhole.  This allows me to install the frets over the top without worrying about collapsing the top.

Once the frets are in I allow the glue to dry and clip the fret ends with end nippers.  I use the fret beveling file to put a 35 degree bevel on the fret ends.  Make sure that you protect the top from any damage.

Now you can proceed with the Level, Crown and Polish.

Of course as I pointed out in a previous post on Level, Crown and Polish, stainless steel frets have reared it’s hard head.  Some people find a difference in tone, but I feel that this is very subjective.  These can cost over twice the average cost of a re-fret but you probably won’t have to re-dress the frets for ten years or more.

Stainless can come in several different grades.  Most fret wire is either 300 or 400 series stainless.  Most luthiers like the 300 better because it has more nickel in the alloy and polished up better.  The 400 is greyer in color. End nippers will not hold their edge with stainless and traditional crowning files are practically worthless.  You will need hardened diagonal cutters (even these won’t last long) and diamond crowning files are a must.

Even if you choose not to do your own fret work at least you will be better educated in what it takes to do a first rate fret job.

Cheers,

Mark

The Importance of Humidity Control in an Acoustic

Today I want to go into the effect that humidity has on acoustic guitars.  I live in Southern California and contrary to what people might think, humidity is just as much a factor in guitar longevity as it is on the east coast.

Acoustic steel strings can be categorized in two ways, plywood tops and solid tops, with either plywood backs and sides or solid.  The first are usually entry level guitars that are typically priced below $200.00.  This does not mean they can’t be set up to play well and sound quite good but they will never live up to their solid wood counterparts, all things being equal.  They are made up of three or more layers of wood, usually spruce but sometimes maple or other hardwoods.  Some of the curly maple veneers used in these guitars can look pretty flashy but don’t be fooled by the glam, you pay a premium for these guitars and your money would be better spent on a solid top.

Most of these plywood guitars are battleships (not to be confused with dreadnaughts) that are great to take to the beach, mountains etc.  While the effect of humidity is present, these guitars are much better at handling changes.

The next step up would be a solid top with plywood back and sides.  This is where we must start considering how we’re treating the instrument in regard to moisture.   The solid top is a mere 1/8″ and can move a great deal with temperature and humidity. Usually these guitars are in the medium price range but not always.  Some custom builders like the extra stiffness laminated sides make and consider them superior.

The third is the all solid wood guitar.  These guitars can have a huge difference in price.  From about $700.00 to as much as you want to pay.  An anniversary Martin can run over $90,000.00.

Of course there are other things to consider: wood choices, kind of bracing, finish, etc.  A $700.00 Guild GAD is a much different animal than a $20,000.00 Somogyi but they all have something in common, they need to be treated with care.  Most manufacturers and builders suggest 45% humidity.  This is simply a middle ground that guitars are built at.

Guitars can also take moisture better than they can give it up.  When a guitar starts at 45% and goes to sa, 60% the wood will swell but not usually crack.  The opposite is true for giving it up.  If you’re at 45% and the humidity drops to say 15% ( this can happen in a matter of minutes in Southern California if the Santa Ana’s roll in) there is a good chance it will split.

Here’s a good chart that Kevin Ryan of Kevin Ryan Guitars developed:

Dear Friend,
Here is a chart I have made for your reference.  If you become familiar with these numbers and are conscientious about proper humidity for your instrument, your guitar will remain in pristine condition through many, many years. 

The figures below represent RH (Relative Humidity):

100%; You shouldn’t really be playing your new guitar out in the rain
 
95%; This is dangerous for your instrument; glue joints are compromising right now and the thin wood plates are highly stressed and buckling due to their swollen condition 

90%; This is far too humid for your instrument; the action of the strings is very high; maybe it’s time for some air conditioning for both of you? Bad things are possibly going to start happening to your instrument 
 
85%; Too humid; your wood plates are beginning to swell with the moisture; this isn’t good 

80%; A little too humid I think (plus, aren’t you getting uncomfortable?); soundboard movement is starting to affect the action (making it higher over the frets) 

75%; Probably getting too humid; if it keeps up you may actually notice the soundboard movement; sort of OK for awhile 

70%; OK for awhile but don’t let the guitar get too warm; more wood movement with the soundboard bellying out somewhat perhaps 
 
65%; A little too humid; there might be a small bit of wood movement but don’t panic
 
60%; Still sort of OK
 
55%; Not too bad
 
50%; OK  

45%; PERFECT 

40%; OK 

35%; Time to think about humidifying your guitar; the soundboard is starting to sink in; probably will be OK for a few days so don’t panic (yet!)
 
30%; It is really time for humidifying your guitar, (a few days might be ok); action starting to get low; maybe you can start to feel the ends of the frets beyond the edge of the fretboard (which has shrunk back due to moisture loss); install the Planet Waves Guitar Humidifier when you are not playing the instrument
 
25%; Time to be really concerned; time is not on your side; take corrective action now; use the Planet Waves Guitar Humidifier and put the guitar in the case until the dry conditions are over; cracks are planning their assault; frets are hanging over the edge of the fretboard now
 
20%; Danger Will Robinson!!! You are living on the edge now; huge stresses are building up in the plates of your expensive instrument and; cracks may start to appear at any moment; the soundboard is sunk in and you have string buzzes
 
15%; Give me a call and we can discuss a time slot for your repair
 
10%; Now we need more time to fix all those cracks and glue the thing back together
 
5%;   It’s over!

Kevin

There are several good humidity control products by several different companies.  Planet Waves, Oasis, Martin, Crafter are a few.  They all work about the same, a sponge or other media, such as silica, that absorbs water to give it up gradually.  They can fit in the case or in the guitar soundhole.  Even a plastic container with a sponge and a lid with holes poked in will work.

Some of these even include the hygrometer ( I recommend these).  If you don’t have one you should get one.   You can’t evaluate what action to take if you don’t know the % humidity.

I know this is a rather dry subject but important.

Cheers ’till next week

Installing a pickup in an acoustic

First a bit about different pickups and how they perform.

Guitar pickups have come a long way since the DeArmond sound hole pickups of the 50’s.  I remember my uncle playing his Gibson J-45 with a DeArmond, a Fender Twin and an Electro-Voice microphone.  That DeArmond was about the only choice if you wanted to play live without two microphones.

Now there are so many options it’s staggering.  Fishman, D-Tar, Schertler, Dean Markley, LR Baggs, etc.  In fact there are so many pickups you may wonder where to start.  I have to say that there is no right or wrong.  All the pickups currently made are very high quality and will serve most people very well.  It’s more a question of what’s right for you.  Your guitar, how you play and what kind of setting you will be playing in are very important.  I feel the best way is to try them out at you local music store.  Try them out and see what happens

There are three basic types of pickups:

Electro-magnetic, such as Dean Markley Pro-Mag, Seymour Duncan Woody, Fishman Pro-Rep 102, the LR Baggs M1, as well as the aforementioned DeArmond to name a few.  These pickups are identical in structure to a pickup for an electric guitar.  They are however, voiced for an acoustic.  A magnet made of alnico (aluminum, nickel and copper), ceramic or rare earth metals is surrounded by wire, usually copper and when a ferrous string is struck the vibration creates an electric charge that is transmitted to an amplifier. These pickups vary a great deal in quality, starting with the Dean Markley to the limited run Sunrise.

Piezo ceramic, (the most common) are typically under the saddle consisting of a thin ribbon of piezo material.  The name piezo  comes from the Greek “to squeeze” or press. When the string (ferrous or non ferrous) is struck the vibration causes the piezo to compress and produce the electric charge.  Some piezos can be contact as well.  These are attached directly to the sound board and can work on many other instruments.  Be aware that the contact pickups will also pick up any surface noise from the top and can feed back more easily than the under saddle piezos.  This applies to some pickups such as LR Baggs i Beam that are attached to the bottom of the bridge plate.  The charge is minute and must be amplified by means of a pre-amp.  Most modern units include the pre-amp in the 1/4″ jack supplied with the pickup.  Almost all of them come with an option to use volume and tone controls inside the edge of the sound hole. With the right amplifier you can get something that approaches a natural guitar sound.

The third is a microphone, usually installed inside the instrument but sometimes, in the case of Schertler, under the saddle.  In most cases this is my least favorite kind of amplification.  The sound made inside the guitar is not the sound you hear from outside.  Having said that, you should check them out for yourself.  Some pickups like the B-Band make a pickup with a combination of piezo and microphone with a mixer.  I make an exception with the Schertler as I have recently installed this in a parlor guitar I made with stunning results.

I find that all of these are a compromise of one sort or the other.  None of these will produce as natural of a sound as a good microphone.  Sometimes that’s just not possible so the pickup is a must for most stage performers.  If someone from a music store tells you a certain brand of pickup is the best, walk out.  There is no best, try them all out in a guitar that is closest to what you have.

Now, enough procrastination… on with the install.

If you’re using a sound hole pickup, you can simply run the cable out the sound hole and be done.  The Dean Markley Pro-Mag is such a pickup.  Not all of the sound hole pickups are like this. The higher end LR Baggs and Sunrise use an end jack strap button.

For most pickups there are three steps in installation:  First, for the under saddle variety you must drill an appropriate hole for the pickup wire.  The piezo units come in two sizes, 3/32″ and 1/8″. Pick the one that fits your saddle slot.  Fishman’s have the lead at the end of the pckup,  Schertler’s have a rectangular lead in the middle and some like the DTar have a coaxial cable that has to have a hole drilled at a 45 degree angle so as not to kink the cable.  This brings me to the next step in fitting.  Some DTar’s (Timberline model) and the Highlander pickup have a round cable and the bottom of the saddle slot has to be altered to fit.  This means you will have to have the correct router bit and make or buy a jig to route the slot properly.  This should only be attempted by someone who knows what he or she is doing.  It’s pretty easy to muck up things.

If we simply put the saddle back in, the action will be to high so we must take away material from the saddle in the same amount as the thickness of the pickup.  Sand paper on a piece of glass is the simplest way to accomplish this.  Be sure you maintain a flat and true surface on the bottom.  If the saddle does not contact the pickup evenly your sound will suffer.

The next step is to install the end jack.  If you don’t have a strap button on your guitar it’s simply a matter of drilling the correct size hole.  This is usually 15/32″ or 1/2″ depending on the brand of pickup.  Make sure of your position and use a center punch to mark the location.  Then use a brad point drill to drill the hole, taking care to keep it straight and true.  If you have a strap button this becomes much more difficult as your drill bit has no starting place.  DO NOT under any circumstances try to free hand this operation.  You can crack the end block!  The simple solution is to buy a step reamer for your drill which will take the tapered hole and enlarge it to the right size.  These are expensive at about $70, so unless you’re doing a lot of them, you can take a wooden end pin and cut it off at the point it is even with the body.  Then you can safely drill the hole.

Some guitars such as late model Taylor’s have an end pin that is all ready for the end jack, just unscrew the end pin and install the jack.

If you’re using a DTar Load n Lock where the battery is in the end jack, the drill size is 7/8″ and this is the only method to use.  As always make sure your tools are sharp and do not use regular drill or spade bits as this will not end well.

You must now connect the pickup to the end jack.  Some models are a simple 1/8″ jack (DTar), others (Fishman) require you solder the connection.

Set the inside nut to fit the thickness of the end block.  Most end blocks are a pretty consistent 3/4″ but I have encountered some Martin’s from the late seventies and early eighties that have end blocks over an 1″ thick.  If this is the case it’s best left to a professional luthier.

The last thing is to set the battery box.  Usually it’s got a clip or bag that attaches to the back or head block with self sticking Velcro.  Clean the surface of the wood with alcohol or naptha to insure good adhesion.  Use the wire guides to do the same with the wires left dangling.

This should work for most set ups.  Good luck and see you next time.

Replacing tuning machines.

This is one of those projects that, on the face of it, looks simple but it’s one I’ve seen botched more than a few times.

If you’re replacing your tuners with ones that are exactly a match then it’s a simple matter of just taking the existing tuning machines off and dropping the new ones in.  This is rarely the case.  Usually upgrades are what you’re after and that can be challenging.

First lets get into what’s available.  There are two basic kinds (with all sorts of variations) open backed and sealed.  Open backs are most often seen on acoustic flat tops but also on older cheaper electrics.  Open back does not mean cheap.  Waverly tuners sold by Stewart MacDonald are extremely high quality and the cost starts at $140 and up past $300.  The posts are bronze and the gears are nylon bushed stainless steel.  They are copies of pre WWII Grovers and far surpass the originals in quality and materials.  They also are the same foot print as Grovers so it makes upgrading your pre-war Martin easy to take.  No extra screw holes and you can replace them without hurting the value of a vintage instrument. Grover Sta-Tite is the modern version of their vintage tuner.  They are about 25% of the cost of Waverlys and an excellent choice for replacing worn machines on a budget.  Several other companies that produce this kind of machine are Ping, Schaller, Gotoh, and Schertler.

I include the older style Klusons and their copies in the open back category because they are basically open backs with a cover.  These are not to be confused with the next group: sealed machines.

Sealed machines were an invention of Grover.  I’m guessing in the late ’50’s although I couldn’t find much information on their history.  These machines called Rotomatics had permanently lubricated gears with sealed backs.  This meant no more messy oil to contaminate the head stock.  Almost overnight this replaced the open back.  Martin, Gibson and later Fender all put sealed tuning machines on their guitars.  Grover had some quality control issues in the 70’s and Schaller, a German company, quickly became the tuning machine du jour. Gotoh, a Japanese company, makes what I consider the finest of the sealed tuners, the 510.  It has an 18 to 1 gear ratio and almost no backlash. It is well finished and in my opinion a better value than Schaller.  Other companies that make sealed tuners are Ping, Spertzel and Planet Waves.

A sub genre in both open back and sealed tuners are “locking” machines.  These are machines with an internal post that pins the string to the main post through the threading hole.  These are either adjusted by a knob on the bottom of the machine or on the top of the post itself.  While these work very well on guitars with tremelos, I don’t think they’re necessary on most guitars.  Most designs add excess weight and if the string is put on correctly with an ordinary turner you won’t get much slippage anyway.

While I have preferences in what I like to put on my guitars, with the exception of economy machines you can’t go wrong in your choice.  All will preform well and get the job done.

Now after that long winded intro, on to installation!

To start with, most of the open back use a 1/4″ post with a bushing that is between .328 and .393 inches in diameter.  While you can just drill the hole at the bushing diameter, it leaves the post only supported at the bushing.  The correct way would be to drill an initial hole at 1/4″ then use a bushing reamer or pilot bit to enlarge the hole or the bushing.  This reamer is a cutter of proper diameter with a solid 1/4″ “pilot” to guide the cutter.  These are sometimes called step drills.  Of course, if you are replacing tuners you will already have the holes so you won’t have to do anything but swap parts.

If you’re going from the open back to sealed machines you have two choices.  Most sealed machines have a base that is .390″ or 10mm.  DO NOT under any circumstances try to drill the hole with a standard or brad point drill bit.  You have no way of ensuring that the hole drilled will follow the proper course.  If you have no other choice, you can plug the hole with the proper sized dowel and drill with a brad point bit but his can still be tricky as you will be drilling into the end grain of the dowel and the bit can still wander off center. I’ve seen more than one head stock cracked because someone tried to use a standard drill bit and the torque from the drill got the better of them.

The easiest is to use a reamer like that used for the bushing on a open back.  Most of the threaded bushings on sealed tuners are .310″ so it’s the opposite of open back as the top of the peghead should be smaller than the back.  Pilot bits are also made for this but sometimes it can be very difficult.  I also feel that the tuner is much better supported as the bushing is threaded into the base so this is not as critical as the step in an open back tuner.

Going from a sealed tuner to a open back is a little easier as you can buy bushings that will fit the .390″ hole.  These are press fit and will look pretty close to original open back bushings. The shaft will only be supported at the bushing but in most cases that will not be a problem.

If you’re using open back tuners you should fit the bushing now.  They should be tight but be careful not to make the fit too tight, so as to not crack the peg head.  If you’re using the pilot bit the fit should be perfect.  I pad the back of the peg head so it won’t be marred and use a clamp to press the bushing in.  DO NOT use a hammer as the trauma of brute force can also crack the peg head, plus a misdirected blow can occur.  Neither of these is good for business!  If your machines are sealed use the appropriate wrench to tighten the threaded bushing.  Again go easy and don’t over tighten.  Some builders will countersink the washer so that when torque is applied to the bushing it doesn’t pucker the lacquer.

The next common problem is that hole position of the screws that hold the tuner in place are often in different positions than the replacement.  You can try to fill the holes but I find that this often looks worse than just leaving them.  If you’re worried about moisture getting in the hole just drop a bit of lacquer in to seal it.  Just be careful not to get any on the surrounding peg head.  The problem comes when the screws are put in without first pre-drilling.  At the least you can break the screw and worst, crack the peg head.  I’m repairing a guitar now with this issue.  You want to pick the bit size that is equal to the barrel of the screw (the solid part not including the threads).  Temporarily put the machines on the peg head and line them up where you want them.  Get them even on the peg head.  If they are off line your eye will pick that up and it will look like a very unprofessional job.  Take a piece of tape and after measuring the depth of the hole needed, put the tape around the drill bit.  Don’t ruin your day by drilling all the way through to the face of the peg head!  The next important step is to lubricate the screw with wax or a small amount of soap.  Don’t use auto wax as this can contain silicone which will be hard to remove if you want to refinish someday.  Make sure you use the proper sized screwdriver and carefully install the screw.  These screws are very soft and easily stripped, so go easy.

Some machines have a small post on the underside of the surface (Spertzel). This post is used to stop the tuner from turning.  To install these, put the machine in the proper position and lightly tighten the threaded bushing just enough to imprint the peg head, then drill the hole to the proper dimension.

I hope this helps dispel any misconceptions and happy lutherie!

Level, crown and polish the frets

The title pretty much says it all.  Most frets are made of 18% nickel silver, sometimes called German silver in reference to the Germans 19th century workers trying to copy a Chinese alloy called paktong… and you thought this was just going to be about guitars. There is actually no silver at all in the alloy, it’s just called that because of it’s color.  It is made up of 60% copper, 20% nickel and 20% zinc and is hard enough to stand up to string wear but soft enough to work with hand tools.

In the past few years stainless steel frets have been the rage among electric players.  Most repairmen do not like working on these (I’m being polite).  A typical LCP can run from about $100.00 and up.  A stainless LCP can cost three times that amount and that’s not including intallation.  Professional fret work demands specialized tools that can cost quite a bit of money… stainless requires even more specialized tools and wears them out quicker.  Are  they worth the extra expense? I’ll leave the value of installing them up to the individual.  Some people feel that the tone is superior and it’s a fact that they will out last standard frets.

I’ll try and give you instruction on how to do it with simple accessible tools as well as with quicker more expensive ones.

As the title suggests there are three steps to fret work:  First the leveling of the frets.  Over time the steel strings will create divots.  The more aggressive the style, the faster it will occur.  To start the fret board has to be straight.  After the strings are off the truss rod can be adjusted with a straight edge to check for flatness.  This is very important.  If the neck is not flat, it cannot be leveled without taking excess fret height off.  Total replacement of fret are least three times the cost of a LCP.  This can be accomplished using a 1/4″ piece of plate glass approximately an inch and a half wide by about six inches long.  Using 100 grit sand paper stuck to the glass you can use it as a leveling surface.  Alternatives would be a six to twelve inch mill smooth file (sometimes hard to find, do not get a mill bastard file as they are too coarse) or some of the fret levelers available commercially.

A word about fret board radius.  That’s the curve of the fret board from bass to treble.  These can vary greatly.  Early and vintage reproduction Fenders are 7 1/4″, some Ibanez’s 20″ with everything in between.  Some repairmen and builders use wooden or aluminum blocks to level frets to a specific radius.  These are very handy as they speed up the process greatly, but they can be very expensive and if you’re doing your own guitars, not necessary.  Radius has quite an impact on playing.  The tighter the radius the easier it is to chord. Your fingers have a natural curve so it’s easier to do barre chords.  By contrast, it’s a lot harder to bend notes.  As you bend the note the the string is going and contacting the next fret up, noting out.  If the radius is flatter the string doesn’t hit the fret.  This is why some guitar players use a compound radius.  At the nut the radius may start at 10″ and end at 20″, allowing easy chords at the first frets and easy bending toward the neck joint.  For this post I’ll stick with a single radius.

First, start by checking for loose frets.  You cannot expect them to be level if they are bouncing around the fret board.  If they are loose gently tap them in with a non marring hammer (plastic or brass head).  If that doesn’t work use a little cyanoacrylate glue and hold the fret in place with a screwdriver until the glue is dry (only a couple of minutes).  Next we mark each fret with blue or black magic marker.  This will make your progress more easily seen.  Lay the glass, sandpaper side down on the fret board.  Draw it along the length of the fret board.  You will now see that the top of some of the frets will have a shiny surface.  Continue this action until you see a shiny surface on all the frets.  You do not have to go any further than a thin shiny line.  Note that some of the frets will have a larger shiny surface than others.  This is normal in that some frets will need more surfacing (no matter how good the craftsman some will be irregular).

Once the frets are leveled you will notice a flat spot on the top of the fret.  If we left it like that the guitar would be very hard to play.  The string would contact the flat part and sound very sitar like, as well as not playing in tune.  We need to put the “round” back on the fret.  The simplest way to do this is a fret file.  These are special files that have a round surface.  These can cost from between $20 for a traditional file to $100 for a offset diamond fret file (a must for stainless frets).  These files usually have two sides, one for medium frets and a larger diameter for jumbo.  The diamond come in two grits, 150 and 300.  When you’re starting get the finer grit as the coarser one will cut too quickly.

Now use your marker to again cover the top of the fret.  Using the file draw it over the surface of the fret until the marker all but goes away.  Leave a fine line of marker evident because if you take all the marker away you will ruin your leveling job as the fret will be below the other frets.  On traditional files, they only cut in one direction so try not to drag the file back but pick it up. It will last much longer.  On diamond files they have industrial diamonds bonded to the surface, so they will cut in any direction.

A cheaper alternative to this is to get a small three cornered file with a fine cut.  Grind the sharp edge off all three edges and polish them (these are also available already polished).  Mark the fret board as before except you will now put masking tape on the board itself to protect it from stray file marks. In fact this would probably be a good idea when you start out even with the commercial fret files.  At about a 45 degree angle file start to bevel each side of the fret.  When all the frets are beveled, you can go back and round them until only a thin line of marker is visible.  This is somewhat slow and tedious but a very good job can be obtained with patience and practice.  If your funds are low this and the glass plate method of leveling can be very effective.

Now to the last part of the job:  Polishing.  I start with 220 sandpaper and very lightly take the scratches off the frets.  Be cautious and don’t be too aggressive as you do not want to ruin all your hard work.  Run through the grits: 320, 400, 600.  This is usually enough but I have some clients that like me to go even higher.  When the sandpaper is done, take a high quality 0000 steel wool and polish it with the direction of the fret first, then go over the fret board with the grain of the wood.

Now you should have a completed level, crown and polish.  String it up, adjust the truss rod for relief… Now you can breath.

Next time: tuner upgrades.