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.