All About Frets
Nickel silver, also known as German silver, is an alloy made from copper, nickel and zinc. Nickel silver is the traditional stuff and common on most guitars. The name is a bit misleading as the alloy contains no actual silver, but does have a color and sheen that resembles silver. One of the reasons this is so commonly used as fretwire is that this material is hard enough to form a good solid contact surface for guitar strings, but soft and malleable enough that it is forgiving and easy to work with and conforms nicely to the fretboard of the instrument receiving the fret job. These frets will last many years and will maintain the original tone of an instrument where harder fretwires like gold evo and stainless steel can be a little more bright sounding than traditional nickel silver.
Gold Evo is a nickel free alloy made from copper, tin, iron and titanium (CuSn15Fe1Ti0). It has been used to make durable frames for glasses for years, but is now available as fretwire. Gold evo is harder than the standard nickel silver frets used in most guitars, but is softer than stainless steel fretwire which is also an available option. The color of this fretwire is not a plating and will remain despite wear or future fretwork.
If you are looking for something harder than standard fretwire with a lustrous color that is a little different, gold evo might be for you.
*This fretwire may sound a little brighter than nickel silver.
Stainless steel fretwire is pretty self explanatory in its composition. Its nickel free, shiny, a little brighter looking than standard nickel silver frets, but more importantly, it is VERY HARD. Stainless steel frets are much harder to work with, much harder on tools and on the hands of the craftsman doing the work, but the resulting fretjobs will last many decades.
*This fretwire may sound a little brighter than nickel silver.
Doing a Complete Refret
The process starts with an assessment of your frets, the guitar’s neck and other factors that will determine what the best course of action will be. In some cases, a level crown and polish might be an opinion for you, in some cases, more targeted solutions can be used and in some cases, the frets themselves aren’t the problem at all. The things I will normally consider as factors for a refret candidate are:
Are the frets too low, or pitted so badly that leveling past the pits would make them too low?
Is the instrument in good shape otherwise?
Is it more effort and cost to do a refret than to simply replace the neck or guitar?
Is there major inlay work present or inlay work being planned?
Are there cosmetic or playability benefits you are wanting from having a different kind of fret wire installed?
See pics for examples:
These frets are badly worn and deeply pitted. This is a classic example of severe fret wear necessitating a re-fret
This is the same guitar as the pic to the left without the strings. You can clearly see how bad this wear is.
It looks like someone took a Dremel drum sander to these frets and hit the fretboard a bit while they were at it. These are unsalvageable.
Though most of these pits could be leveled out, that deepest pit in the upper left would require the frets to be leveled far too low to be playable, let alone crowned.
That gorilla glue in the middle of this shot is indicative of some pretty terrifying amateur work. The fret to the left of it is flattened to almost nothing. This will need help.
This is the same guitar as the picture to the left. You can see these flattened frets are smeared on the sides with gorilla glue and there are gaps under the frets. These are not only unsalvageable but will need special care to remove them. Also note that piece of paper crammed under the B string at the nut when perhaps a nut shim or replacement should have been done.
If its determined that a refret is the right solution, the next step is to use a combination of special tools to remove your old frets. This must be done carefully to avoid pulling up splinters from the fretboard and causing other damage.
Once the old frets are removed, the nut must be removed so that it’s possible to use a long leveling block lined with sandpaper to re-tru the fretboard. This is a precision operation that must be done with a very specific shape within a tolerance of thousands of an inch.
In the case of a cheap plastic nut like this one, I am going to recommend that we replace it with a custom bone nut since we are going to need to shim this one anyway once the refret is done.
Note how long this block is. Ideally, for leveling, you want as much contact as possible with the board in other to get it consistently flat. The bottom of this block is concave to sand a 16" radius into the board to match the original radius and maintain the comfort and feel of this guitar. If desired, a different radius could be sanded into the guitar's fretboard at this point in the refret. Some electric players will opt for a compound radius that starts steeper at the nut and flattens out toward the body. Whatever the radius, the fretboard must be precisely shaped in three dimensions in order to play correctly consistently.
Once the fretboard is retrued, the fret slots must be prepped. This is perhaps one of the most time consuming parts of the fret job. Each slot much be deep enough to accommodate the tangs of the new fretwire and completely cleared of all debris. Even a little fleck of sawdust or a slightly shallow fret slot could prevent the new frets from seating correctly. This must be done without splintering or otherwise damaging the fretboard, delaminating finish at the ends of the fretboard or damaging binding.
This is a specially gauged saw with an adjustable depth guard used for cutting fretslots on un-bound fretboards. One of the best tools for the job.
This is an exacto knife with a blade that I have modified into a chisel specifically for cleaning fret slots in fretboards with binding and other special situations where one of my saws or a fine time Dremel burr wouldn't be the best choice.
This is a saw specifically for fretboards with binding. The shorts sections of saw blade allow this to better work between the bound sides of the fret slot and clear it of glue and debris
Once the slots are clean, the edges of the slot must be delicately and carefully chamfered in order to allow the new frets to seat properly and prevent tear out when the guitar sees its next refret.
Next comes preparing the frets!
The fretwire must be radiused using a special device that bends it in the correct direction without twisting it or otherwise damaging it. This is done to a slightly steeper curvature than that of the fretboard to compensate for the fact that the fretwire will want to flatten out and deform in such a way that will prevent it from properly seating if it is left flat or not slightly overly radiused before installation.
Sections of fret wire must be measured out and cut with an abrasive cutting disc. Cutting these lengths with clippers would damage the fretwire, potentially twisting the tang and pinching off the bottom of the crown and preventing the frets from seating
correctly. Cutting must be done without much to spare in order to prevent overhang that can also pose problems for correctly seating the frets.
Once the lengths have been cut, the ends must be prepped. Regardless of whether or not a fretboard has binding, I always trim the tangs of the fretwire I install. One reason I do this is for aesthetics. I simply like the way it looks better when all that is visible of a fret is the crown. I feel that this makes a sharper looking line down the neck than leaving the tangs visible as the tangs have teeth that can sometimes make one look a little wider than the one next to it and having a bunch of them visible from the side of the neck sort of breaks up what I feel like should be a solid line of the corner of the fret bord. I also think trimming the fret tangs makes side dots more visible.
One of the the other reasons I do this is that as a guitar ages, the fretboard will tend to shrink causing the fretwire to stick out the sides of the board. If the tangs are left at the ends, that is one more thing that complicates trimming these back down in a way that looks pretty.
I have tried different ways of doing this in the years that I have been doing this and I have found that the trimmed fret tangs really are the better way to go.
I am using a permanent pen here to mark off how far back I want to trim the fret tang from the edge of the fretboard.
One side needs to have the mark transferred to the other side since my tang nipper only works in one direction.
This is the tool I use to trim the tangs without damaging the rest of the fret wire. It's expensive and highly specific in the way that it cuts but it does a good job of it.
This is a fret with the tang trimmed at both ends. Though this could be installed just the way it is, for the sake of detail, I like to do a little more work on it after this point so that it seats better and looks better.
A little bit of tang is always left on the trimmed portion of the fret that must be removed carefully with a file without changing the shape of the crown. For this I use a needle file that has safe sides with no teeth to work just that one part of the fret. I will also round over the trimmed tang because I find that if left sharp, the tang can catch on the inside of the fret slot and cause problems.
Here is a fully sculpted fret from the side. Note the end of the tang is rounded over .
Looked at from the top, you can see that the underside of the crown is smooth and consistent so it will sit nicely against the fretboard.
Once the frets have all been radiused, cut and trimmed, they must be cleaned with a degreaser. Most metal products come covered in various oils that are used in processing and shipping and in order to form a reliable glue joint which needs to happen in the next step, this layer of oil bust be removed. I like doing two passes, one with naphtha and a second with isopropyl alcohol while also handling the frets with nitril gloves to prevent my skin from adding any new oils to the equation.
I'll usually use cotton swabs and use one pass of NAPTHA, then a dry wipe followed by isopropyl alcohol followed by a dry pass. Between the two solvents, any oil or water based contaminates will be cleaned off the fret wire enabling glue to adhere to it. This is important since most metal products, including many that are non-ferris come coated with some kind of light protective oil from manufacturers and speaking from experience, its a good idea to clean any metal surface you plan on glueing to anything. This might be me going a little overboard, but it doesn't take that much time and in my opinion is worth taking the time to do.
Next comes actually installing the new frets. I use a combination of hammering and gluing here in order to install frets. I dab a little CA glue on the fret tang before tapping it home in its new slot. This ensures that when the fret is seated that it stays seated, even as the other frets are installed.
I am using a toothpick here to apply medium viscosity super glue or CA to the fret tang. I have a limited amount of time to install the fret once this glue goes on because if it hardens before its in the slot, it will prevent the fret from seating correctly.
Tapping in with a setting mallet is my preferred method of installing frets. There are all kinds of fancy jigs and tools out there for doing this job, but in my opinion, this is always going to be the way I like doing it best. This mallet was the first luthier tool I ever made. That handle is from one of the kitchen chairs from my childhood home, the mallet head was carved from a poplar scrap from one of my first guitar projects. It's a tool that has treated me very well over the decades.
The black canvas sack underneath the neck here is filled with bird shot in order to absorb the shock of the hammer blows from tapping in the frets. It's pretty essential that there is something to do that since shock traveling down the neck can shake braces loose, or cause frets to unseat. In general, care should be taken when doing anything that mixes impact with musical instruments.
Similar to the bag of birdshot in the photo to the upper right, my hand is doing the work here of absorbing the shock from the fretting mallet. I am applying upward pressure to the underside of the soundboard beneath the tongue of the fretboard. There are devices made for this that can be bought, but what can I say, I am old fashioned.
With the frets installed, the ends of the fretwire are now trimmed flush with the fretboard using specialized cutters.
These clippers have been modified to cut flush with a surface and cut the frets right up to the edge of the fretboard. This is another one of those tools that has been with me for a long long time. I inherited these clippers from my grandmother who may well have gotten them from my great grandfather. They see a new life with me in my craft.
After trimming the fret ends comes the level crown polish phase of the operation.
Glue, Level Crown and Polish or “LCP”
I decided to write this as its own section here since this is a procedure that is sometimes done to already existing frets in order to correct pitting, unlevel frets, flat crowns and other issues. In a lot of cases, when I get folks in who think they need a total refret, all they really need is a good level crown and polish in order to get the guitar playing again.
In fact, frets normally see one or two level crown and polish jobs before a total refret is needed.
First I will start by oiling the board. This helps prevent excess glue from sticking to the board and making a huge mess. Remember that the board was sanded flat and polished out during the truing process so the less work done on the wood itself at this point, the better.