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Fret Job

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Posted (edited)

I finally got around to replacing the frets on one of my hollow body Tele builds this weekend and it seems I had nothing but one problem after another.  

This is a Pick from back when I first assembled it, before I had completed the body finish where the bridge pickup is.  


I had no problems pulling the old frets.  They were pretty thin and I like using higher super jumbo for a scalloped neck feel.   I had held off this job for a couple of weeks till a new brass replacement nut showed up.  I knew I'd need to replace that as well plus I planed on refinishing the fretboard and over spraying the body in the same process.  

This went well enough removing the body hardware, sanding the fretboard. Normally I'd install the frets then apply the lacquer on the neck.  I thought I'd try something different and give the fretboard a cost or two of lacquer to prevent the maple from getting stained from all the fretwork.  I got all the frets in properly except two which weren't cooperating. I had to find my fret saw and cut the slots deeper and that took care of that. I Beveled the fret ends and rounded the ends off.  Then used a 12" radius beam to level all the frets then crowned the frets that needed it followed by ultra fine sanding and polishing with 00000 steel wool. 

When I got done with the frets I could look don the neck and see a perfect level without high spots. Used a rocker too and couldn't find any high spots.  Of course stringing it up is the ultimate test.

All of that went find and then begins the nightmare.  I began with the body and left the electronics in the hollow cavity.  I simply dropped them inside then sealed the openings with duct tape. That worked out fine. I did some light sanding where I had Knicks and figured an over sprat would fix the rest up.  What started off being a simple overspray wound up being a project from hell.  It was a reminder of how much I hate refinishing. 

I did the back and sides first because the original finish was thin and I wanted to do the back with it laying horizontal so I could apply it thicker for a high gloss look and prevent drips and runs.  No problems there, that worked great.  Did the second coat about 11AM and I started having the lacquer turn white.  That happens when the humidity is too high.  I should have quit at that point but I figured I was half done and wanted to get the front done.  ideally it would have been best to do the front horizontal as well but I couldn't with the back just having been sprayed. Even though it had dried its was still too soft to be rested on anything without sticking of scaring.    

So I got a coat hanger out of the closet and hung the body to do the front.   I applied 4 or 5 lighter coats and it wound up having a speckled grain instead of a smooth glass like finish.  I knew I'd be having to sand and buff that to get it looking good.  What started off as a simple overspray was quickly becoming a nightmare from hell.  I spent a good two hours trying to buff that body smooth. Even used steel wool and it didn't do much.  I'll need to try sanding it next.  I'm not overly worried about how it looks, I play that guitar a lot and expect it to see allot of wear and tear, but If I cant get it better then it is I may wind up having to strip it with paint remover and start over completely.  

Second nightmare.  When installing frets I use a rig I made myself consisting of a large wood clamp. I use a short piece of radius block as a cowl glued to one jaw and a piece of foam glued to the other so it doesn't damage the back of the neck.  Its big and bulky but it works for pressing the frets in. I curve the frets with a smaller radius so the ends seem more pressure then glue them in one at a time using CA gel.  Its slow and uncomfortable but I can get all the frets set in an hour.  A drill press or a set of those plyer type fret cowls would be far better for doing frets but I don't do the work for pay and cant justify the cost of those for doing maybe a fret job once a year.  

Anyway The clamp left some marks of the freshly lacquered neck so I had to buff those scratches out before applying lacquer over the frets.  Somewhere in the process I must have gotten some oil,  silicone, or polish on the lacquer because when I over sprayed the lacquer wither withdrew from some of the frets (or got wicked under them) and looks awful.  I can just see myself now trying to sand between the frets in the direction of the wood grain.  

This is where I should have trusted my instincts. I was going to sand the neck, install the frets then Tung Oil the fret board.  I used that method on a refinish job I did for my buddy and it produced an incredible vintage neck look and far more durable then lacquer is.  Now I have to decide if I can get that lacquer looking smooth.  I may wind up having to use a scraper followed by sand paper, steel wool then buffing compound.  It will be slow going and really tough to get looking good but I really like this particular neck, even though I have a half dozen others I could slap on there in seconds.  

At least I know what I'll be doing for the rest of the week. My hands are still pretty raw from all the buffing I did yesterday. I'm less concerned about the body then I am with the neck. If the neck doesn't feel and play well then its not going to matter how the instrument sounds.  Anyway,  I may wind up stripping the whole thing and starting over.  If I do use lacquer I'll wait till fall when the temps are below 90 and humidity below 80% which is what we been having lately.  I think its recommended humidity be below 30% max and temps of 80 or less for ideal results.  I thought I could sneak by starting early but no soap. Maybe If I used a Pro spray gun connected to my compressor then thinned out the mixture using thinner and dryers but that gets expensive quick and again,  I don't do this work enough to justify the costs. I hate doing finishing work to begin with. Anything else when it comes to building I don't mind.  finishing is an art and you need to do it all the time using the right tools to do it well and I simply haven't got the patience,   

Edited by WRGKMC
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Could you overspray again, right over the frets, and redress the frets to remove the laquer like fender used to do?  I suppose that depends on how bad it is. 

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The last coats were an overspray of the frets and that's where I had issues.  I suspect it was some crazy glue around the frets that caused the rejection of the lacquer.

I'm not too worried about it however.  I did allot of buffing last night and its actually better then I had originally thought.  I think I can salvage the finish as is.  There's a few dimples here and there but no big deal.  This is the second re-fret on this neck and keeping a factory clean look isn't easy on a neck that sees the kind of hours this one's seen. 

I did get the nut on, strung up and playable last night. Those high frets feel fantastic. I was having issue bending strings before changing them and now its effortless.

I did get the new nut on and strung up too.  The only thing I still need to do is re-shim the neck angle.  As the Frets wore I was having to adjust the TOM bridge too close to the body so I tilted the neck up in order to adjust the bridge higher. With the new frets I have to adjust the bridge too high now.  My bridge pickup is fully extended and its still not close enough to the strings.  

  I used epoxy putty in the neck pocket as a shim. It transfers vibrations extremely well and can be it applied with a putty knife and molded into a wedge shape which contacts the entire neck heel.  Lowering the neck angle it is a matter of using an abrasive Dremil tip and sanding it down.  I brought it down a little yesterday.  If I take just as much off again it should be perfect.   I simply put a capo on after loosening the strings. The capo holds the strings on the tuners while I unbolt the neck from the body.


 Here's a few pics of the results. You can see a few dimples in the lacquer here.  I should be able to buff those out.  My hands were getting too raw to do any more of that last night. 


This pic shows you how tall those frets are. You don't even touch the fretboard when playing. There are some traces of lacquer on the frets still but I did allot more cleanup after taking these pics. I'll likely use the Dremil with a felt wheel and buffing compound to take care of the rest. 




cant see the body finish too good here but its not too bad.  I need to get some coarser grit Emory paper to get rid of the speckle then buff it smooth.  I have enough lacquer on there where I can loose quite a bit and still come out OK without having to spray it again.  I'd need to get it flawlessly smooth before applying any more lacquer anyway so its the best option at this point besides starting over.  No guarantee the next attempt would be better with the kind of humidity we been having either.   


The back should be fine after some major buffing and polishing too 





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Nice! Thanks for posting this. The new frets look great and I too enjoy larger frets.

Thank you for the documentation of the issues you experienced. I enjoy working on guitars as a hobby and while I find woodworking fun and not too hard so long as I take my time, I find finishing to be a deceptively difficult art. I love seeing perfect finishing jobs but I also appreciate hearing the trials and solutions others encounter - I usually learn more that way. :thu:


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The frets are feeling fantastic since I've had some playing time on it.  Once I did some micro tweaking on the intonation, relief and string height, plus a little more leveling and polishing its tuning is solid and the string flex is ideal. I'm a huge string bender and the high frets help to produce an almost slide guitar fluidity. Chords feel great too. There is no  friction from  the fretboard when changing positions or bending strings, just the strings and frets making contact. Vibratos are exceptionally comfortable too. 

You know for awhile there I thought I was loosing my edge as a player. I was having to use incredible amounts of power to bend strings and keep even pressure on the strings. It not only slowed me down but it caused issues with joint inflammation.  After the new frets its like my hands are back to doing the things they used to effortlessly and for much longer durations. If anything its put callouses back on my finger tips. 

I was down to my last to pieces of fret wire. Two 3" pieces is a couple of frets short for doing an entire neck.  I bought a pound of same Type #150 at Stuart McDonalds with a $10 discount so I got it for $49 with shipping.  They again, list at being the widest and tallest. Unfortunately they must have changed the listing since I bought it last time. The new stuff has a .053" crown height and the old stuff has a .057" crown, yet they are both listed as #150.  I'm tempted to send it back for a refund but the tang diameter is wider which is something I've really needed with the fret saw I use.  The width of the saw was equal to the old fret tangs so there wasn't allot of pressure from the nibs holding them in.  I glue my frets in so its wasn't that big a deal but I've had a couple necks develop with too much relief and too much reliance on the truss to keep them straight.  With fatter tangs the frets will expand the slots more and require less truss pressure to keep the neck straight which leads to better tone and fewer tuning issues. A steel rid is highly susceptible to temp changes and your tuning can drift allot more compared to a neck where the wood takes most of the string stress. 

I'm likely going to re-fret my Steinberger this weekend for these reasons.  I'm having to crank the truss much too tight and Its likely due to the slots being too wide for the tangs, plus those frets have seen 10 years of hard playing so its due for being put back in shape.  . 

s far as the finish goes, I been buffing on it every so often since I reassembled it.  The speckles are beginning to disappear and its taking on a high gloss. I didn't expect this Lacquer bought at Home depot to be so hard.  The last stuff I bought was really easy to buff out, but I did get it to go on smoother so maybe that was part of it.  Most factory guitars use Nitrocellulose Lacquer. They add polymers to make it harder.   This hardware store stuff seems to be even harder then that. Unfortunately the label doesn't list the proprietary ingredients.  

This is my favorite guitar so I hate having it down but I may have to eventually do it again.  i'll wait till the fall when we have cool weather (which is often between 50 and 70 in the winter months here)  The last 3 guitars I built I used Tung Oil as a finish.  Tung oil itself is a slower drying oil finish. The companies like Minwax add varnish to increase gloss, speed drying times and get it to spread evenly.  Varnish has been used on Violins forever and is supposed to have good musical tone.  You can wipe Tung oil on to get a thin unfinished look.    I typically use sponge brushes for applying it and I'm able to get a thick high gloss layer on a guitar body using quick single passes.  You have to watch out because sponge brushes can produce bubbles which dry and look bad.  It does go on smooth when you load the brush up. Better then a normal brush too, no brush lines.  Sponge brushes seem to work best plus they only cost pennies so you can use a new one for each coat. 

The instruments look nearly as good as lacquer and in fact wind up being more durable. The stuff doesn't chip or crack like lacquer does when you bang the body.

Here's some examples of Tung oil finishes.  It does add a slightly yellow tint to whatever its applied to but that can make many woods look even better. I've used it over lacquer too and it doesn't seem to cause any issues. 










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Glad it's working out for you. 

FWIW, I made a fret tang expander out of a set of end nippers like the one below so I could deal with problem slots.  It's pretty easy to do if you are handy with a dremel.   I generally over widen and then squish it back with a pair of flat jawed pliers I install a stop gauge in to control the final width.  Works great.  Of course it's better to choose a wire that fits the slots but that's not always an option if you are picky about the crown dimensions, or material, especially if the guitar is on its second or third refret.  



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Cool....  I love seeing ingenuity at work like that. 

I have a set of fret benders I made using an oddball set of crimpers used for making Twisted pair connectors.  I don't do any networking any more so no need for 2 sets of those pliers so I converted one into a unique set of fret benders.  I'll need to take a photo to show you. They are great for putting a little extra bend on the fret ends when needed. 


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