In 1994, Dan Erlewine urged me to get into teaching. Thanks, Dan. I think I've learned more about the way I work by teaching than my students have! To teach effectively, I really have to analyze how I do things. I want to share my refretting technique because I think it is an important repair process that can be broken down to a routine.



Refret Technique
© Frank Ford, 2/22/98; Photos by FF, 5/21/95


Here's a list of the operations in case you want to jump ahead:
1.Get Ready 2.Evaluate 3.Remove strings, etc. 4.Loosen truss rod 5.Check tuning posts 6.Lube open gears 7.Protect top 8.Heat & remove frets 9.Level fingerboard 10.Create "drop-off" 11.Check neck12.Bevel top of fret slots 13.Clean up fret slots 14.Trial fit fret wire 15.Prepare a set of new frets 16.Tap in frets17.Trim fret ends 18. Sight down fingerboard 19.Level & seat frets 20.Check for high or unseated frets 21.Check for loose tuner parts 22.Fill fret slot ends 23.Glue Frets 24.File fret ends flush 25.Finish fret ďcornersĒ 26.Level tops of frets 27.Round fret tops 28.Buff frets 29.Buff edges of fingerboard 30.Clean fingerboard 31.Set up

Bear in mind that my goal is not to suggest that this is the way to go about refretting an acoustic guitar. This is just a view of the way I work when I'm doing the most generic refret job on a standard acoustic guitar, with no neck warp, loose binding, or other complications. Here, I'm working on a 1973 Martin D-35 with a nonadjustable truss rod. As I go along I'll mention a few techniques that apply to other instruments as well.

I figure I've refretted somewhere near 1000 instruments by now, and if my Arthur-itis doesn't get the better of me, I've got about 1000 more to go. I try to view my work as a flow of jobs rather than a series of crises.

OK, here we go:

1. Plug in soldering iron. I have a 50-watt soldering iron with groove filed in the tip to balance it on top of the fret:

I donít try to remove a fret without heating it, and I clean the soldering iron tip frequently to get good heat transfer. I want the fret to get hot. Heated, the fret lubricates its path out of the slot by searing the wood surface of the fret slot a little, releasing natural oils and such.

2. Check out the neck. With the guitar tuned to pitch, I make note of the gauge of strings , evaluate straightness of neck, sight the fingerboard for evenness, check neck angle, etc. This is a matter of ďfeelĒ and experience. Flexible necks can be stiffened with tight fitting frets; necks with no relief can be made a bit more flexible with loose frets. If the guitarist wants to use heavier or lighter strings, Iíll take that into consideration as well.
I'm not going to try to get into this process any further here. I'm not even sure I could verbalize beyond saying itís a matter of feel. It takes only a few minutes to draw on 27 yearsí experience. Within limits, I think we all must make some of the same mistakes and learn along the way.
Here's a close-up with the strings removed for better visibility:
No question about the worn frets. The only way to restore full playability is to replace them!

This D-35 had no neck problems other than the usual very slight hump that occurs at frets #13-15 as a result of the neck being fretted before installation on the body. In refretting, Iíll have an opportunity the factory didnít have. I can level the fingerboard precisely through its length and over the body, so itís probable that I can get even better playability than when the instrument was new.

3. Remove strings, bridge pins, nut and saddle.
Using the .010Ē kerf X-acto #34 backsaw blade Iíll saw through the peghead veneer just behind nut to the depth of the nut and tap the nut toward the peghead with a small hammer and a block of hardwood to break the glue joint & remove the nut.

The tiny saw cut is hardly visible when the nut is reglued in place.


4. Remove, lubricate and replace truss rod nut; tighten slightly. Truss rod nuts are rarely lubricated by the factory. Oiling the threads makes it much easier to judge the action and tightness of the rod during adjustment, and prevents unnecessary twisting of the rod when the nut is turned. A few guitars have double-acting truss rods, which usually canít be lubricated easily. (Of course, lots of old ones have none at all.)

If I refret an instrument with the truss rod tightened slightly, I can create a little extra forward bow, or relief, if needed after the job is complete by simply loosening the rod. Now is a great time for a tiny drop of thin superglue in the truss rod cover screw holes to harden up the threads in the wood -- those little guys are frequently almost stripped out.

5. Check tuning posts for clearance. Iíll remove first and sixth tuners if they're likely to be bumped in the sanding process. If it seems like a close call, Iíll apply some masking tape over the tops of the tuners just in case they might be grazed by sandpaper.

6. Check for loose tuners, screws or parts.

Tighten tuners, Lubricate open tuning gears. This is a good time to catch the kind of thing that is easily forgotten during setup after the frets are done. If the tuners have press-in bushings that might fall, I wind a rubber band around the posts to keep the bushings in town while I'm working. It still amazes me how far those teeny parts can travel when they hit the deck.

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