Why do frets and fretboards sustain wear?
The oils and dirt from a musician’s fingers build up on the strings and fretboard of a stringed instrument in short order. As the instrument is played, this build up of gunk (often referred to as smut) acts like fine sandpaper slowly digging away at the frets and fretboard causing pits to form. In order to avert this unnecessary wear the fretboard should be regularly cleaned and sealed (most easily done during a string change). Lemon oil, butcher’s wax and mineral oil are some examples of common sealers but there are many other popular sealers widely in use.
For purposes regarding filing and pliability the most typical fretwire in use is 18% nickel silver. This type of fretwire is a comparatively soft material because fretwire must be able to conform to the radius of a fingerboard and be easily cut, filed and sanded. Because of this, an instrument played often or one subjected to large amounts of dirt and oils will quickly develop worn frets.
How is fret wear repaired?
Fret wear may be rectified by dressing or leveling the frets. The frets are sanded and filed until no pits exist, then they are recrowned and polished. This process can also correct any bowing or twisting of the neck that is not rectifiable by adjusting the truss rod. After the frets are leveled the instrument requires a set up (adjustments in action and intonation) to compensate for the change in overall fret height. If the frets are too worn or low the instrument must be refretted.
How is fret board wear repaired?
Most pitted fretboards may be repaired. The method we prefer here at Finger Lakes Guitar Repair was developed (as best we can tell) by San Francisco based guitar repair man Frank Ford. This method involves cutting deeply into the fretboard in the worn areas in order to create thin wood fibers. We prefer doing this repair during a refret because the repair comes out less visibly when the frets are not present during the repair. We then raise the fibers and pack wood dust of a matching color in between the fibers. We wick glue into the the fibers and wood dust then level and polish the repaired area. When complete this repair is difficult to detect. If the wear is too extensive it is sometimes more advisable to replace the fretboard.