14. Trial fit fretwire. I take a short
piece of a fretwire candidate and cut the tang, bending a right angle about 3/8Ē
long. I tap this tiny section into a fret slot to check the fit and feel:
I pull on the ďhandleĒ of the fret to see how easily it pulls out of the fingerboard. With a little luck it doesnít take long to find the right size wire. Usually I predict which wire will fit based on previous experience with the specific model guitar Iím working on. Any time I hear of a kind of fretwire I don't have I get at least a pound to have it available, just in case.
Ace repairman, Larry Cohea, gave me a swell tip: Take this same little trial piece of fretwire and file the tang very thin. It then makes a perfect depth gauge for the fret slot, using the wire that will actually be used. Larry just runs it through the slots to find high spots at the bottom.
15. Radius and cut a set of frets to fit the fingerboard. And trim the ends to overhang binding, if any. Nothing like the Stewart-MacDonald fret trimmer for overhanging frets. A couple of years ago I got a phone call from my friend, Jeff Traugott. He was revising his repair price list and asked me how much more I charged for unbound fingerboards. I said I charged less for them because I didnít have to overhang the frets. He claimed that filling the fret slot ends made the unbound fingerboard harder to work on. Iíve timed both jobs many times now, and I find they take nearly the same time on the average, thanks to that swell tool. As a result, I charge the same for both. For unbound fingerboards, Iíll cut the frets 1/4Ē longer than the slots.
I like to have the fretwire radius about 10-20% smaller than the fingerboard radius. Given the choice I buy fretwire in coils, which just happen to be the perfect radius for refretting Martin guitars. Otherwise, I use another Stew-Mac tool, the fretwire bending roller, to radius the frets before I cut them. Iíll bend frets by hand if I feel I need to change the radius as I go, depending on how well the frets seat as I tap them in. After I cut them to length the frets go into a block with numbered holes so I can keep track of them. I have two rows of holes in the block in case I change my mind and decide to use a different fret wire for the job and want to save the first set for another.
16. Tap frets in with plastic hammer. I hold the hammer with the handle parallel to the fret to minimize the chance of kinking the fret if I tip the hammer sideways. If I hit the fret with the corner of the hammer face, Iíll bend or kink it enough so that it absolutely canít be driven perfectly. Holding the hammer handle parallel to the fret means Iíd have to tip the handle up or down to catch the corner of the face, which is much less likely than accidentally rotating the hammer side to side.
Choking about halfway up the handle, Iíll deliver the sharpest blow I can, by swinging very little with my forearm and mostly whipping the hammer down with my wrist and fingers:
Iím looking for a sharp snap of the hammer, not a hard blow, because I think the fret seats more accurately if it goes in with a maximum number of small sharp taps. Positioning the fret exactly where I want it, I hold it vertical with one finger in the center of the fret. Then, I tap the ends lightly at first to hold the fret so I can move my finger out of the way, then tap the fret back and forth along its length to drive it in slowly and smoothly as possible. Itís normal for me to tap a fret 20-40 times, with increasing intensity.
If I hit the fingerboard I wonít make a dent, and I canít overdrive the frets by hitting too hard with my plastic hammer. Iíve tried every kind of hammer I can find, and always come back to my lightweight hammer with a transparent hard yellow plastic face. Dead blow hammers donít seem to deliver as sharp a blow, and metal hammers can scar the frets.
My neck support is a piece of redwood four-by-four covered with two layers of leather. I use this simple neck support for virtually every instrument, except banjos and guitars with removable necks. I like the pattern maker type vise with swivel jaws to hold removable necks while tapping in frets.
I donít need a support under the guitar when Iím tapping frets into the fingerboard over the neck block but Iíll support the fingerboard with a heavy lead ballast weight inside the body where possible. This is a hunk of lead a little over 1 x 2 x 3 inches that weighs about 4 pounds including the handle. I melted the lead on the kitchen stove and poured it around a 1/2 inch square steel rod handle in a small wood box lined with aluminum foil. Itís a tool I made for my very first guitar in 1968. (Seems we werenít hearing so much about heavy metal toxicity back then.) Iíve used it on every flat top guitar fret job ever since:
Backed up with this heavy mass, I can hit a fret over the body as hard as I can swing the hammer without endangering the top of the guitar. Iíll tip the rectangular weight to get the flat surface or just the front or back edge positioned exactly under each fret as I work my way to the end of the fingerboard. If there is a brace under the fret, then I back up the brace with my weight. Most of the time, I hold the weight from underneath, and the handle just serves as a reminder not to lose the weight inside the guitar. Think of what might happen if I picked up a guitar with four pounds of lead loose inside. I have enough troubles without that! A sandbag laid on the face of the guitar keeps down the vibration, and noise, too.
I donít like to glue frets, so I always tap them in without glue or lubricant. For me, the major problem with epoxy & clamped frets is that the job is too cumbersome: it takes too long, and is too messy to clean up. All my work is on acoustics, so I donít use the fret pressing techniques because of the difficulty over the body. If the frets fit a bit too tightly, Iíll mash the barbs on the tang a little with my cut down long-nose pliers::
This tool gives me incredible leverage, and I can easily squish the tang completely flat if I squeeze hard.
If the fret ends or individual frets are too loose Iíll widen the tang with my special little ground fret tang expander pliers:
I made this tool by grinding a pair of end nippers, using my Dremel with the 1Ē diameter carbide cutoff wheel. With this tool I can make little zigzags on the fret tang to make it grip the walls of a wide fret slot:
I can even use this tool to widen a full set of frets to grip the walls of slots previously widened to .040 for the glue-and-clamp fret method. Thankfully, I donít encounter that need very often. See the article on Making the Fret Expander Pliers.
These techniques are especially useful in refretting because all the slots are not necessarily uniform or identical. Many instruments have had partial fret replacement that left some of the slots wider than others. Naturally, if I misjudged the wire entirely, Iíll just start over with a different size. With my fret expanders, I can make a fret grip reasonably well in a slot that is nearly twice the ideal width. Following up with a dose of superglue run under the fret, I have confidence that the fret will stay in place.
I think itís a good idea to make as many of your own tools as you can. You not only get the tool you need, but in the process youíll invent tools, modifications and improvements that will help you work. Youíll also limber up the old brain a bit and reexamine some of your techniques along the way.
Iíve been using my homemade fret tang pliers for over 20 years and theyíve bailed me out of some nasty fret troubles.
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