Preparing An Instrument For The Installation Of Frets

The Primary Commandment Of Lutherie: “Preparation…Preparation….Preparation”

Reading The Neck
In a prior article, we learned about how wood responds to the five natural forces. We also learned that wood is not a predictable, or consistent medium, and that successive planks cut from the same part of a log may behave differently when subjected to those forces. Once it has been determined that an instrument is in need of a re-fret, I examine, and “get to know” the neck and fret board by performing a variety of tests with the instrument under string tension, and un-strung. What I observe by “reading the neck” at the very beginning of the process will determine a number of things, including which type and size of fret wire to recommend, where, and just how much compression will need to be applied during fret installation, how the fret board will be leveled, and if any “weak” areas of the neck need special attention.

Working Safely, Cleanly…and Patiently
The initial preparation of an instrument for re-fretting involves the removal of its hardware, which is then inspected for wear. All good parts should be cleaned, reconditioned if necessary, polished and stored for reassembly. The client is advised regarding any hardware or parts needing replacement. Special protective materials are fitted on the instrument to protect its finish. It is then assigned a bench which is carefully prepared for the task at hand. Jigs, fixtures and all necessary tools are allotted to the bench area.

Next, the fret board is prepared for fret removal, and a high heat soldering iron with a specially modified tip is readied for use. The Iron’s tip should contain a groove or notch allowing it to fit securely on the fret tops so that it won’t slip during the heating process, causing damage to the instrument. After a fret is sufficiently heated, a special extraction tool similar to flush cut nippers is used to gently ease it from its slot. The tool is carefully manipulated to get it under the fret crown and carefully dislodge the fret without splintering the surrounding wood.

After the frets have all been removed, the fret slots are cleaned out and re-sized using specially gauged saws and other tools. On bound fret boards, the fret slots can be cleaned out and re-sized with a Dremel tool and router base, and miniature router bits. This method allows us to recondition and re-size the fret slots without disturbing the binding.

Preparing And Leveling The Fretboard
Now that the Instrument’s frets have been removed, and the fret slots have been re-conditioned, the neck should be re-examined, and made as straight as possible with a truss rod adjustment. Then the headstock to 3rd fret area must be tested for headstock deflection, or excessive response to applied tension. This step is of great importance because the fret slots are no longer under compression from fret wire and glue, thereby reducing the stiffness of the fret board. After any final adjustments have been made, any decorative or engraved inlay may have to be removed and re-installed later.

If a neck is twisted, warped, or presents other issues, we sometimes fit the entire instrument into a special string tension simulation device, or Neck Jig before beginning the leveling process. Neck and fret board problems are easier to detect and correct when the wood is “under load”. In certain instances, the fret board, or even the neck may be unsalvageable and need replacement. Some necks may have to be removed and re-set to a proper angle for good action and playability. We’ll discuss those topics in upcoming newsletters.

During the leveling process, the fret board surface is sanded using both flat and radiused leveling bars fitted with quick cutting adhesive back sand paper. The work is frequently checked with a straight edge until the fret board is true, and then its radius is restored, or modified. By the way…Changing a fret board radius
should only be considered if there is enough available wood to complete the process without wearing through inlays or the side position markers or “Side Dots”. Also, removing too much wood from a fret board can make the neck unstable.

After the initial leveling has been completed, additional fret board modifications may be necessary, including the removal of additional wood from either, or both ends of the fret board to compensate for headstock deflection, the player’s request for lower than normal string action, vibrato use, or the desire to do exaggerated string bending. The fret slots are checked again for proper depth and width, and adjustments made, as wood has been removed from the fret board surface. The fret slots are burnished and lightly beveled with a modified three corner file to avoid splintering, and to also facilitate a nice flush contact area between the frets and the fret board.

Next, the fret wire is prepared for installation by cleaning it with a strong solvent like lacquer thinner or Acetone to remove any contaminants, oils or oxidation. A piece of the fret wire is then tested in every fret slot for uniformity of fit and compression. This is one of the most important, and way too often ignored elements of the re-fretting process.

The process of re-fretting a stringed instrument involves a series of complicated and exacting procedures, which, if not properly executed, can damage or destroy your instrument. The purpose of this technical article is to entertain and inform the reader. Please do not construe the subject matter contained within as a tutorial, or an instruction manual. Lutherie is both an art, and an engineering discipline which involves years of training, mentoring, and the application of specialized knowledge. Any major structural or cosmetic procedures performed on a stringed instrument should be entrusted ONLY to persons with the proper training, knowledge and professional experience. I will not in any way acknowledge or accept responsibility for actions taken, or procedures performed on musical instruments by in-experienced or improperly trained individuals.

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