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Thread: Refretting

  1. #1

    Default Refretting

    I have two electric guitars, an electric bass, and my F-5 that could all benefit from a refret. Considering that's way north of $1000 to get them all done, I think it's time to get tooled up to do it myself. I've successfully leveled the frets on a few instruments, and understand the procedure to a refret, so I'm not afraid of getting into it.

    I know StewMac tools are on the pricey end, but I like the ones I have, and am in the rare position to afford them at the moment. I've also spent my life doing 6 months of research for every purchase I've ever made, and frankly I'd rather just go to StewMac and buy what I need, then spend the time using the tools.

    The Essential Fretting Tool Set looks like a good start, is there anything that's useless in here, or anything else I should add right off the bat?

  2. #2
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    Default Re: Refretting

    Save some of the money for something else. Their tools are of high quality, but most of what you will need can be bought at the hardware store. Only a handful of the Stew-mac tools are what I would call essential. Of the tools in their "essential" kit, I consider only the fret cutter and the double-edge fret file to be essential.

    You will need:

    1. A good set of fret lifters. Although you can make these yourself, the high quality and temper of the #0619 fret cutter makes it well worth the money. I use it both for lifting frets and clipping ends.

    2. A good crowning file. There is no need to buy a fancy one. I use either the #0685 3-in-one file, which may also be available from other sources at a lower price; or the good old-fashioned #4490 double sided tooth edge file.

    3. You will need a either a slotting saw and/or a jeweler's bit in a Dremel router base for cleaning and deepening fret slots. Although Stew-Mac's precision router base is very nice and accurate, I instead modified an off-the-shelf Dremel base by putting a plexi-glass base plate on it. It's a little harder to accurately adjust it than the Stew-Mac tool, but it works well enough.

    4. Optional, but not essential are the #1645 tang nipper and the #4900 fret crimper. These two tools have been invaluable to me.

    Everything else can be considered to be optional. Tools I have made or modified myself include the equivalent of the #3775 fret beveling file [buy a good file and make your own handle] and a simple 3 corner file with the corners ground smooth for profiling the fret ends. I cut up an old metal ruler to make 2", 3", and 6" rules. I do find the #4871 replacement blade for the fret slot cleaning tool to be useful. It costs a buck, works well in an Ex-acto handle; and you can save 15 bucks by not buying the tool complete with the Stew-mac handle. And their double-edge nut slotting files are very made, but can be bought from Warmouth at a lower price.

    You can buy the levelling tool of your choice at the hardware store. I usually use the fine side of a Norton double sided sharpening stone. Ditto for the hammer of your choice. These are the tools that have gotten me through somewhere around 200 fret jobs over the years.

    Study the articles on fret work at frets.com several times before you get started, even if you have already done some levelling.
    Last edited by rcc56; Aug-02-2020 at 1:58pm.

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  4. #3
    Player, luthier, tech Andy Miller's Avatar
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    Default Re: Refretting

    I find a bag of lead birdshot to be an essential tool for refrets. Having the neck resting on a bag of shot makes all the difference when seating frets, especially if your work bench/area/counter/table has any flex or bounce to it.

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    Default Re: Refretting

    Quote Originally Posted by Andy Miller View Post
    I find a bag of lead birdshot to be an essential tool for refrets. Having the neck resting on a bag of shot makes all the difference when seating frets, especially if your work bench/area/counter/table has any flex or bounce to it.
    I have a board from the bench to the floor where I hammer in the frets to stabilize the bench.
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    Default Re: Refretting

    I assume you are getting the same Stewmac messages that I get but if not they are having a sale on tools, I think it was 15% off on fret tools.
    "Bargain instruments are no bargains if you can't play them". These are the words of J. Garber.

  8. #6
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    Default Re: Refretting

    I will note that Stew-mac's prices on some items have gone through the roof over the past couple of years.

    One example is bone blanks for nuts and saddles. Even though they are currently on sale if you buy in bulk, I can get them for close to half the price from several other well known suppliers.

    My best advice is to check other suppliers' prices, whether an item is on sale or not.

    My habit for procuring tools is to modify hardware store tools when it can be done easily. I buy specialty tools such as fret nippers/lifters from luthier's supply houses because they can make them better than a modified tool I can make myself.

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  10. #7

    Default Re: Refretting

    Maybe a Dremel, I seem to use it everyday for something.....

    I would say beyond the tools, which you can add to as time goes on, I would keep an open mind and know there will be challenges in refretting that are not mentioned in any manual or video. Things like, oops, the tang on this fretwire is way too deep for my fretboard -- and how to handle it. Do I saw the slots deeper or do I remove some of the tang before installing. Those kind of things. I just try to keep a good attitude and keep it fun, while trying to solve the problem at hand.

    In fact, that is how I approach most of my repair work. In our area nobody wanted to do fret jobs and necksets, including myself, 'cause they were too time consuming and detail oriented. Then, it dawned on me, if I changed my attitude to be the guy who liked necksets and refretting -- I would have plenty of work. And, so far it has worked out. I'm basically doing the work the other guys don't want to do.

    Good luck and have fun, Chris!

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  12. #8
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    Default Re: Refretting

    Good luck Chris. Refretting, like most tasks, benefits from experience, but there's only one way to get it. By doing it. It's not rocket surgery, but there are nuances.

    Most people recommend heating the frets as you remove them, in case they are glued in. Minimizing chip out as you remove the existing frets can be a challenge. It' hard to avoid this in older wood.

    I would suggest paying attention to the curve of the fretwire before you install it--it should be curved more than the arch of the fretboard so that as you tap it in the tang of the fretwire will dig into the slot a bit. Of course there's a jig for bending fretwire. Don't tap too hard with the fret hammer, or tap too hard in one place along the fret. I've tried all the press in tools, the "Jaws" handheld press and the heavy arbor press. I've found that using the hammer works as well or better once you have a feel for it.

    Some builders will glue the frets in. I'm sure there are varying opinions about this. I don't have one, I have sometimes glued but mostly not. Having recently built an archtop and consulting Benedetto's book, I did glue frets for that as he advises.

    I agree that a very solid support for the neck helps a lot. By the time you are done you'll be pretty good at it I suspect.
    Jack C.
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    Default Re: Refretting

    As important as the tools, and the helpful guidance from the previous posts, I suggest first practicing on several instruments that are not your favorites, and/or valuable.

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  16. #10

    Default Re: Refretting

    “By doing it. It's not rocket surgery, but there are nuances....“
    Whatever that is, it sounds really dangerous.

  17. #11
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    Default Re: Refretting

    Fret wire can be bent into a radius by filing a couple of small notches into a cheap set of pliers. I use a triangular notch in one jaw to accept the tang, and a semi-circular notch in the other jaw to hold the crown. Insert the fret wire, and exert a little pressure a couple of inches away. I generally radius a foot or two of wire at once before cutting it into individual frets. There's no need for a special radiusing tool unless you just want one.

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    Default Re: Refretting

    I use the small fret puller I made. Simply hold the tang by it and bend the curve working across the fret. I do one at a time. It's simple and as rcc56 says you don't need special tools.
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    Default Re: Refretting

    For my first several hundred fret jobs, including those at the factory, I never owned a fret bender. I filed a small notch in my workbench where the tang would rest and then I'd just rub a two foot section back and forth until a nice gentle & even curve was present. I finally bought a fancy fret bender once I started using EVO & stainless steel fretwire as that is more difficult to work with for tight radius mandolin fingerboards.

    The fret tang nippers are just a basic Klein tools nibbler slightly modified that can be purchased at Home Depot for $15. I find them useless, as they do not produce a perfect bottom. You still need to file every fret clean or you will end up with an imperfect surface that will not seat correct and will look visually amateur at best. With small mandolin fretwire, they also tend to bend and distort the wire.

    I do like the fret crimper / flattening pliers. You can make a flattener easy with a $3 set of pliers and a Dremel cutoff wheel, but the crimpers are something proprietary and worth every penny when you need them.

    A $7 set of Home depot cutters slightly ground on one end turns into a $30 set of SM fret pullers; the same with fret cutters.

    A small diamond fret crowning file is very helpful, but remember that the $90 Stew Mac tool is actually a $5 Japanese fishing hook file that can be easily found on ebay in dozens of different shapes and sizes- see attached photo!

    Of all the SM specialty tools, the vice grip style Jaws is one of my most favorite, but it is of little use on a mandolin and only works for the first 10 frets on an acoustic guitar. For a strat or tele style neck, they rock! The $150 fretting arbor press can be found for approx. $20 in many of the import tool catalogs; you only need to purchase the $50 arbor set.

    About 50% of the Stew Mac tools are just commonly available affordable tools that have been slightly modified to meet our creative needs. When SM was sold to that huge corporate investment entity last year, they took on a massive amount of debt that explains why their prices have skyrocketed and you are constantly bombarded with pop ups and spam to try to regain it before they attempt to sell the company off in 3-5 years....
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  21. #14
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    Default Re: Refretting

    Good luck with them trying to reduce their debt by selling bone blanks for $8+ a piece. They won't get it from me. Even LMI sells them for half the price.

    My home ground fret pullers chipped several times over the years. I found it worthwhile to get the well tempered Stew-mac pullers.

    The old fashioned double sided crowning file that I bought 40+ years ago still works pretty well. No bells and whistles or fancy design or materials. It has held up remarkably well. I do wonder whether a single stainless steel fret job would kill it, though. So far, I've avoided installing stainless frets.

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    Default Re: Refretting

    I make my own fret pulling pliers, but I cut the fret with a side cutter, it is hardened and designed to cut. I simply cut the tang and bend the fret and it snaps right off. Since I will cut or file it to fit I don't worry about how smooth it is as it sticks out past the fingerboard anyway. Bound fingerboard I use the SM fret nipper, but as J. Condino says you need to file the fret to make it flat. Thought about a nibbler, but too old to invest in new tools unless they are really necessary.
    THE WORLD IS A BETTER PLACE JUST FOR YOUR SMILE!

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    Default Re: Refretting

    Yeah, I'm resisting buying a new set of nut files, even though my old ones are about worn out.
    I could probably study re-tempering metal and make a couple more good pullers, but the nice one from Stew-mac has held up wonderfully and paid for itself long ago. Of course, when I bought it many years ago, it was a lot cheaper.

    Using the tang nipper [or a nibbler] is a whole lot faster than the old ways of doing it, even if you include the extra time it takes to hand-file the burr out.

  25. #17
    Registered User j. condino's Avatar
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    Default Re: Refretting

    Allparts sells the same bone nut blanks for $2 each.

    I actually like the nut files. I have a full set, all the way up to bass sizes and wondered why it took me 20 years of improvising with other things to get them. The first paid job I used them for covered the cost. Nuts tend to be pretty easy on tooling compared to fretwire, so they are a lifetime purchase for most of us, even professionals.

    OTOH, jumbo guitar or bass fretwire in stainless seems to destroy about $100 in tooling per fret job and it galls files almost immediately. I'll use it for new builds since I install the frets before the board goes on the body, but for refrets.... no fun....EVO is a nice compromise and I like the tone better. SS frets always seem to sound like Albert Collins playing a telecaster with nothing but the treble pickup and a quarter for a pick played through a cranked Fender twin reverb. I met him several times and always enjoyed the shows, but that is not the voice I'm after! Albert was a monster guitar player, but also an incredibly nice man to hang and laugh and pick a few tunes with, especially when I brought my hot girlfriend backstage with me....

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    Default Re: Refretting

    I bought the SM fret puller/cutter, many years ago when it first came out. It chipped on the cutting surface and was useless so I make a few sets of my own that have lasted for decades. I don't use them to cut frets tho, only pull them out. Same here on the nut files, after 20+ years of use they still work, but better if I use them toward the end I hold than at the far end. They are getting a little dull. Since I worked on violin family instruments I got the bass files long ago too. Less expensive since they are only 3 round files. I also have tapered needle files, but don't use them much. They were for violin, but found out the guitar nut files worked easier and did the same thing.
    THE WORLD IS A BETTER PLACE JUST FOR YOUR SMILE!

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    Default Re: Refretting

    I used to think and say, guitar repair isn't rocket science: but after having to undo or redo numerous inept, bungled 'repairs', I began to think, ...maybe it is rocket science!

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  31. #20
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    Default Re: Refretting

    If the bunglers would take time to study and practice instead of going off half-cocked, there would be far less rocket science involved.
    Excellent information on sound repair techniques is easily available.

    Anyone who is going to do major work on a string instrument of any kind should study Hideo Kamimoto's "Complete Guitar Repair," the excellent repair articles at frets.com, and read a book or two on violin construction and repair.

    Then, they should practice on cheap candidates for the scrap heap before they ever put a tool on a decent instrument.

  32. #21
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    Default Re: Refretting

    +1 on the nut files. I should probably replace the narrow ones I've got, not because they're dull but I've snapped them off and the thinnest one I have is only about 3" long. It still gets the job done, but...
    I do love the fret nibbler. Mine is 20 years old and still works fine. This one actually cuts the tang completely off, no filing necessary.
    I like the fret roller tool that does the radius. If you do a lot of fretwork, it's a good investment, at least at the old prices.
    Arbor press is a must if you're building and fretting fingerboards before they go on the instrument. They can be had cheap and as said, then you only need to buy the cauls.
    The fret pullers- I make my own by just grinding flat a set of end cutters from the hardware store. I still get some chipping even with heating. My best luck at pulling frets is something that is probably pretty dangerous. I take two 1" wide chisels, very sharp, bevel down, facing each other on each side of the fret and slowly work them under the fret making sure that I'm pushing them toward each other and not attempting to lever them upward. That sharp bevel edge flat on the fingerboard minimizes chipping because it's holding the wood down, at least fairly well. But if you slip, you will hurt yourself, maybe badly. The neck has to be in a vise. Welding gloves aren't a bad idea. But you still don't want to slip.
    I didn't know SM had been sold. That explains the skyrocketing prices. I just need to restock on some bone nuts and saddles and looked at their prices and about fell over. Even with free shipping (I bought the membership for a year and it's great to be able to order anything with no shipping charges), but I went to LMII because they were still cheaper. Hadn't thought of AllParts.
    Diamond crowning files are a must if you're going to work EVO or stainless.

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  34. #22
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    Default Re: Refretting

    Allied Lutherie has good prices on bone.

    The sale of Stew-mac to Champlain Capital Partners II L.P. was announced September 22, 2019. They are an investment group with offices in Boston and San Francisco.

  35. #23
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    Default Re: Refretting

    Quote Originally Posted by j. condino View Post
    Allparts sells the same bone nut blanks for $2 each.

    I actually like the nut files. I have a full set, all the way up to bass sizes and wondered why it took me 20 years of improvising with other things to get them. The first paid job I used them for covered the cost. Nuts tend to be pretty easy on tooling compared to fretwire, so they are a lifetime purchase for most of us, even professionals.

    OTOH, jumbo guitar or bass fretwire in stainless seems to destroy about $100 in tooling per fret job and it galls files almost immediately. I'll use it for new builds since I install the frets before the board goes on the body, but for refrets.... no fun....EVO is a nice compromise and I like the tone better. SS frets always seem to sound like Albert Collins playing a telecaster with nothing but the treble pickup and a quarter for a pick played through a cranked Fender twin reverb. I met him several times and always enjoyed the shows, but that is not the voice I'm after! Albert was a monster guitar player, but also an incredibly nice man to hang and laugh and pick a few tunes with, especially when I brought my hot girlfriend backstage with me....
    I can't decide if I'm more envious of the picking with Albert Collins or of having a hot girlfriend. Probably depends on how hot...

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  37. #24
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    Default Re: Refretting

    Quote Originally Posted by j. condino View Post
    OTOH, jumbo guitar or bass fretwire in stainless seems to destroy about $100 in tooling per fret job...
    James, have you ever done mandolin fretwire on a bass? Lee Sklar has used it for years and swears by it. Loves the feel he says. I’ve been anxious to try it.

  38. #25
    Registered User j. condino's Avatar
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    Default Re: Refretting

    Quick answers:

    1) VERY HOT!!!

    2) Yes, I have used EVO mandolin wire on an electric bass. I also used it on one of my small custom 3/4 Les Pauls and it is fantastic- amazing how low and quick the action is but you still have great intonation. But- keep in mind that it allows you to feel the wood of the fingerboard and have a light touch; not so great if you are into that '80s scalloped fingerboard butt rocker thing....

    I think it is great on an electric bass, but I also play fretless and most of my time is spent on the double bass, so I am used to easy glissading. I use Thomastic flatwounds, not big round wound strings.

    The major issue is that bass frets generally have a giant tang on the bottom and mandolin frets have a tiny little tang, so doing it retroactively is difficult- small post in a large hole type complexity. For new builds- no problem. Basses tend to eat up frets pretty fast, especially if you slap and are a rough player, so I don't think I would do it with something like the old paperclip sized Gibson wire- too soft and too small. EVO would be fine and last along time. To me, the significantly lower mass of smaller frets gives them a different tone- more smooth and woody vs more brightness from a 1/4 pound of giant fretwire. Hit me up and I'll build you a new one....'probably one for myself too!
    Last edited by j. condino; Aug-05-2020 at 5:00pm.

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