Cranky's
Guitar and Tube Amp Repair since 1980

I claim the Worlds Finest Refrets. I have been staking that claim since 1999, and so far it has gone uncontested. This page is written for the benefit of my customers, and as a guide for other repairmen. Repairwomen, whatever. Luthiers may take interest in the ideas revealed here as a way of improving their initial quality. I love doing refrets. I take pride, presenting my work as "art for artists". The fretboard is where it all comes down, and there is a profound connection made when everything is perfect.

Love is put into your guitar. Where machines have been utilized to make your guitar, the factories choose people who love guitars to make them. From the factory, you made a connection with your guitar, and since then you have been pouring love into it. The worn frets are a testament to that love. I will honor that, and add my love to it. I will NOT use a hammer on your guitar. I consider it brutish and offensive when frets are hammered in. My frets are precisely made and pressed into a precision slot.

I am going to lay it down here but first a couple of minor points to get out of the way. No stainless steel frets! While they are long lasting frets, the tone is so bright that it cannot be considered "musical". The wear on my tools and my body is prohibitive. Why me? This is a painstaking job that requires a thorough understanding and a great deal of patience, real upper body strength and a bunch of purpose built tools. I stock over a dozen types of standard fretwire to handle every type of repair and taste. I figure if other people cared as much as i do then they would already be doing this level of repair, who else is going to take the time?

At Cranky's, I take the extra steps to ensure that the fret job comes out perfectly, and outlasts all competitors many times. In paying for a refret anywhere, at a minimum you would expect all the notes to play clean, and the fret ends to be fairly uniform and smooth. With such low expectations pitfalls appear; dull notes arise from poor fitment of the fret slot to fret tang, dead notes show up from skimping on fret board leveling detail, and from skipping the fretmill (leveling).

Any painter quickly learns that all the real work is in the preparation, and the quality of the material must be excellent. Failing that criteria the results are poor and additional coats are required (do-overs and repairs). This speaks to craftsmanship directly; the willingness to spend extra effort in all kinds of ways as to avoid ever having to go back and do the job over (from the start), or ever face a disappointed customer.

In one refret example I found the first position frets all worn out on an Ovation. The correct repair was obviously to replace the worn frets only. The new frets would have to match the original fret material exactly. The length of the frets would have to be precise to overlay the binding partly. The angle breaking over the end would stand out unless it duplicated the factory frets next to it. The degree of rounding and smoothing that results from that angle again is not a matter of my personal taste. To hold up to close scrutiny the fret ends as seen from the top would need to follow the neck taper. Unseen, the tang is trimmed to fit the space allowed between the bindings, and needs to come very close to them. Too close and the binding may pop loose when the frets are pressed in, not close enough and the note will sound dead.

Dead and dull spots that some repairmen have to face occur when an area of the fret has a poor grip into the wood. The the tang is the part of the fret that is not visable when the fret is installed - frets are shaped like a T as seen from the side. Frets have a barb on the tang that sets into the wood like a fish hook. The tangs vary in thickness and need to be carefully selected and matched to a precisely prepared slot.

Most often, a fretmill solves the customers concern, and a refret is not needed. This is a cost saving avenue that also increases the longevity of the remaining fret material through hardening.

Standard fretwire is formed to match the radius of your fingerboard, and undergoes the first stage of work-hardening. Repeated bending makes the metal harder and more wear resistant. Most people are familiar with trying to bend a coat hanger until it breaks. The metal starts off malleable - easy to bend, and gets harder and harder to bend until finally it is so hard that it can be broken by bending. This is not weakening the metal, but transforming it from a state where it is "soft" to a state where it is "hard". Hard materials wear longer.

Super glue is being used more and more as a preventative measure against loose fret ends. Not here. It is useless against torsional forces. If the fret slot is improperly made or the match to the fret tang is off then the first small tap on the fret will knock the fret end loose. Now it's prime to get caught on a string or a cleaning cloth and get even worse. Even worse for me, when the fret is heated for removal, a massive toxic cyanide cloud forcefully plumes out. While I still have yet to refret any of my own refrets, I do NOT use super glue in the refretting process.

Frets and fret slots are made to match so that they do not need glue. However, glue is always used. Glue is selected that will not interfere with future fret work, or dampen the tone.

The fingerboard is trued, so that the perfect playing surface below the fret is translated into a perfect fret top playing surface. We're going for perfect, and leaving nothing to chance. There is no need to force frets in to compress one part of the fretboard, which would result in a guitar that does not respond evenly to truss rod rod adjustments. Fret slots are restored to within 0.001" width, and the depth is gauged to make sure the fret will be able to seat all the way down, from one end to the other. There is no one way to do things; on older instruments it's sometimes necessary to shorten the fret tang rather than deepen the slot. This is a hand operation that requires technique, patience and precision.

Imperfections in the fingerboard and its binding are corrected. Maple boards sometimes have paint adherence issues - uncorrected the Maple will turn black with exposure to body oils and will rot. Binding gets loose, cracks, and shrinks over time. The proper glue will slow the process and keep appearances tidy. Rosewood fretboards are rutted in normal use by fingernails. The ruts are filled and sanded when appropriate. On certain vintage guitars it is not appropriate to fill ruts. Filler is color matched using Brazilian or Indian Rosewood dust to match the guitar. At times the sawdust from the guitar being worked on is used to make the filler for that particular instrument. In collecting sawdust special care is taken so that the work area is spotless, and fresh sandpaper is never used so that no abrasives make it from the sandpaper to the collected material. The material is ziplocked, and identified on the back of a business card which does double duty as a tool for getting it out of the bag later on.

Each fret is made to exact individual length. Specification is taken and verified with a vernier caliper, and then visually. The fret is prepared and set aside in a numbered wooden holder. Think of a drill bit index that looks a bit like a thick fingerboard. Adding the fret markers to the holder helps keep things strait and the mind on the work. When it's time to press the frets in the work area is cleared, the correct fret caul is brought up and a heap of warm damp cotton shop rags are made ready. Then a sort of dry-fitting takes place to test the tooling. The fingerboard extension, the neck-body joint. and the the neck all have separate needs when it comes to supporting the work and keeping it level. Nothing can be in the way of the body or the headstock from start to finish. The glue is applied to three slots at a time, the frets pressed in and glue squeeze out is cleaned up thoroughly after each fret. Care is taken not to allow any glue on the hands, the caul, and especially the supports. The frets are allowed 3 days to dry before proceeding. Never take a cake out of the oven while its baking.

In glue times; take whatever the manufacturer states is the time to develop full strength, then multiply it by three.

Fretmill, fretdress. When you're an expert you can make up words! Milling is a trueing or more accurately a flattening operation. A fretdress is the restoration of the rounded top or "crown" of the fret, and restoration of the smooth finish after that - polishing. A fretmill levels the tops of the frets, and a fretdress is always needed afterwards. All of the fret tops need to be even with each other. In preparation, we hope to avoid this. In practice, it has to done anyway and here's why:
1) Perfection. When the frets are perfect and relief is perfect then the action can be adjusted as low as you want with no dead notes and no buzzing. Notes buzz when there is a "high" fret, the next fret above the highest buzzing note and sometimes the octave note of the buzzing one. How low can you go? I did fourteen fretmills for one customer on as many guitars. All of the guitars set up 2/64" treble side and 3/64" on the bass side.
2) Work Hardening - continues. Following the fretmill, the crown shape is restored to the fret tops. This is not done by with fast cutting files or $15,000 machines! This is not a quickie, there are no shortcuts on this path. This is done carefully by hand with specially made hand tools. The process uses multiple grades of sandpapers, requiring hours of hand work - and work hardening taking place again: this time at the surface.

Finally the frets have to polish out like a wedding band. That takes several more fine abrasive steps. Lastly, a proprietary added step. After the last step the final step is to polish the frets using the plain strings - a whole lot of string bending. Again no shortcuts here. Quality is a relentless pursuit.

Obviously I am not telling everything. Attend to my bootcamp if you want the whole of it. For those of you already skilled as repairmen if you are too a craftsman then you may already be set on course with the free information provided above.
Work hardening permanently changes the metal martinsitic state - making it 10-20 longer lasting without changing the tone.

 

 


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