Fender Strat: Round Laminate Fretboard Neck Refret
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This strat has the worn out original factory frets, a mild neck twist and not quite enough relief while under string tension. Time for a refret.
Often referred to as the “round laminate” fretboard, these thin rosewood fretboards don’t really have enough thickness for the usual sanding that allows us repair folks to remove neck twists and add or remove neck relief during a refret. Here is how I refret the thicker, modern rosewood fender necks.
These frets were low to begin with so there’s not enough fret height to do a fret level crown and polish. In this case, it’s best to remove the old frets, leave the fretboard alone and sand the new frets in order to create a level playing surface void of low spots.
There is all sorts of wear in this fretboard from over 40 years of use. The rosewood has also developed a nice patina. I’ll preserve the patina and wear.
A sharp razor blade will prevent chipping as I remove the frets . The frets were installed from the side of the neck at the factory, not pressed down into the neck from above as is Fender’s current practice. I’ll remove the frets by pushing them out sideways.
Creating a divot in the fret end with an awl will make it easier to keep the awl centered as I remove the fret. I’m holding the awl at a rather steep angle over the center of the fret end.
A couple of taps on the awl from a hammer created a deep divot that I’ll use to keep the awl centered.
I’m tapping the awl with a hammer to drive the fret out of the neck sideways. I’m holding the awl at a relatively low angle and resting the tip of the awl in the divot. I’m holding the neck firmly in my guitar repair vise. The fret slot is aligned with a .022” wide kerf that I cut into the center of the urethane padded wooden jaw.
A kerf in the vise jaw prevents the edge of the fretboard from chipping as the barbed-tang pushes across the end grain near the edge of the fret slot.
If the edge of the fretboard did chip it would be a simple repair to glue the chip back in place with medium ca and some linted masking tape.
Beveling the fret slots will prevent chipping of the surface of the fretboard during future fret installation and removal.
The kerf of the slots on this guitar are .022” which is a tight fit for the tang of the jumbo stainless steel fretwire that the owner of this guitar has chosen for the refret.
Thinning the tang of the fretwire with stew mac’s fret barber tool will allow me to achieve a good mechanical fit with the new frets without unnecessarily compressing the neck. Next I’ll precut each fret and remove the last little bit of tang.
I’m using the jaws tool with a universal clamping caul to clamp down the frets. A bead of yellow glue applied in the fret slot prior to pressing will help keep the new frets seated. Super glue would also work well.
Trimming the frets flush to the side of the fretboard prior to final clamping. Keeping the opening of the jaws of the flush ground end nippers parallel to the fretboard eliminates the risk of mauling the frets; creating little “vampire teeth” in the ends of the crown of these .108x.051” stainless steel frets.
Beveling the fret ends in the usual fashion with a course file, a mill file and a short sanding beam with 400 grit PSA followed by 2000 grit sandpaper wrapped around the short sanding beam.
Rounding the fret ends with a crowning file prior to taping off the fretboard.
Taping off the fretboard with linted masking tape will protect the rosewood from the abrasives I’ll be using to sand and buff the frets. I cut the tape flush with the edge of the fretboard rather than wrapping it over the edge of the fretboard where it could accidentally pull free some finish when the tape is removed. Next I’ll attach the neck to a surrogate body, string up the neck and tighten the truss rod to make it a little convex.
Leveling the frets under simulated string tension in the Erlewine neck jig levels the frets more accurately than would be possible without the use of a neck jig or plek machine.
I’m using a 3 sided file with the edges ground smooth to re-establish the profile of the fret crowns that required a fair amount of sanding. This step is unnecessary when the fretboard is sanded during a refret.
Spot crowning with a 300 grit offset diamond crowning file prepares the frets for final sanding.
Recrowned frets have a narrow plateau down the center of the fret’s width. Stainless steel frets will take and hold a narrower plateau than do nickel silver frets which break down more quickly.
Sanding the frets with 600, 1000 and 2000 grit sandpaper gets rid of the crowning file marks. Some thick card-stock is a good sanding block for the edges of the fret crowns as I sand with the grain of the neck.
Holding the sandpaper around my finger smooths the crowning file marks from the top of the frets. 2000 grit sandpaper wrapped around the short sanding block will get rid of any remaining sanding marks from the leveling process. I’ll sand with the 2k on the short bar across the fret tops from side to side.
Buffing the frets with red and white Menzerna buffing compounds brings the frets to a mirror shine. Each wheel is dedicated to a specific grit of buffing compound and the neck must be thoroughly cleaned of the red compound before it can be buffed by the fine white compound charged buffing wheel.
Stainless steel frets take and hold a very fine polish for a smooth and slippery feel.
Rounded fret ends are comfortable on the left hand. On a newer guitar I would also buff the fret ends but this would have removed the patina from the edge of the fretboard which I was unwilling to mask with tape. These 2K grit sandpaper marks are visible under magnification but are essentially invisible to the naked eye.