If the frets of a guitar are very worn and uneven it may not be possible to set up the guitar without working on the frets - but here a decision has to be made. Replacing or reworking the frets may completely change the feel of the guitar, so if it's a much cherished instrument it might be better to accept its peculiarities. Refretting is definately a job to practice on an old guitar. Dressing the frets requires some skill and patience but with care can restore an instrument to good playing order.
Before working on the frets, check that the neck is not twisted - a bad twist will be visible if you look down the length of the neck. If there is a bad twist it's probably not worth investing a lot of work in (unless it's a neck with 2 truss rods that can straighten a twist).
With the action set low, (i.e. bridge lowered so that the strings are close to the frets) play each string in every fret position, listening for dead notes, or excessive buzzing. If only a few notes are bad it may be possible to restore them without a major overhaul of the frets.
If you find a dead note at fret 12 on the top E string, you will only have to work on the frets above that on the top E string - as in the red box.
If the fret producing the dead note is notched or very flattened on the top you may need to restore its profile so that it is smooth and rounded - NOTE: it's ok for a fret to have a narrow flat strip on top
a worn fret
An ideal fret
Protect the wood of the fingerboard with masking or insulating tape. With a small strip of fine 'wet and dry' abrasive paper (from a car spares shop) or 'emery cloth' carefully smooth and round the fret in the effected area, finish by polishing with fine wire wool. Only work in the direction of the fret - across the fingerboard. With the dud fret restored you can move up the neck to the next fret- slowly reducing the height of the fret until it no longer touches the string when the lower note is played. The fret above that may now be found to be giving problems. Keep working up the neck until all the notes play reasonably.
Remember, the less you remove from the frets the longer you're guitar will last.
Resurfacing the Frets
Having a guitar refretted in a shop will cost around £120, having the frets dressed, around £40 to £50. If you own a good instrument that needs this kind of attention - my advice would be to leave it to an expert. On the other hand, if you're on a tight budget you might want to have a go yourself.
A fine oilstone, as used for sharpening plane blades and chisels.
Fine 'wet and dry' abrasive paper
Fine wire wool
Fine warding files
If possible, a fret file, which has a narrow, concave edge.
Make sure the fine side of the oilstone is flat. This can be done by putting a piece of fine wet and dry abrasive on a flat surface. With plenty of oil, grind the stone in a figure 8, checking to see when the whole surface of the stone is making contact. You may need to repeat this while you are working on the frets.
1. Remove the guitar strings.
2. Cover the pickups - the magnets will attract metal filings.
3. Mask the wood of the fingerboard with masking or insulating tape.
4. The job is easier if you remove the Top Nut - see Setup Page 1 though it's not essential.
5. With the guitar firmly supported work the well oiled stone lightly up and down the frets from end to end of the fingerboard. Remember that the fingerboard gets wider towards the body, but the profile curve of the fingerboard remains the same.
Don't do too much at a time, you can always remove more later. After a few passes along the length of the neck, gently work the stone across the neck, gradually working your way up and again allowing for the radius of the fingerboard.
Regularly examine the surface of the frets. Ideally every fret should have a dull flat strip on top where the stone has ground it.
6. The frets now have a flat strip on top, a narrow flat strip is ok, but reworking the frets will make them too flat. This is where a fret file is useful.
A fret file section
The concave edge is ideal for restoring the curved profile to
the top of each fret, but remember - the flat top of the frets represents the
accurate work you've just sweated over, so however you restore the curve on
the frets leave a little flat strip in the middle. While a fret file makes the
job easier and quicker it's possible to manage without one. Using fine warding
files and abrasive paper takes longer, and there's more risk of marking the
fingerboard - but it can be done.
7. Smooth and polish all the frets with fine wire wool working across the fingerboard. The frets should be smooth and free of scratches.
8. Clean-up the guitar, restring it and follow the procedures in Setup Page 1
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