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Gibson ES-335 Refret

1/7/14

This article shows the process of refretting a vintage Gibson without disturbing the Patina of the fretboard or inlays.  For more info about rebuilding or retaining binding nibs check out this article.

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1. A 1966 Gibson ES-335.  This guitar has a slightly twisted neck and could use some new frets.  A refret will allow for low action without fret buzz. 2. Patina.  The thin pearloid inlays are shrinking and some are beginning to come loose from the fretboard.  The customer has opted to refret without sanding the fretboard in order to avoid inlay repair/replacement and keep the patina of the fretboard and inlays.
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3. Binding Nibs are the small, raised sections of binding at the fret ends of bound Gibson necks.  Most of this 335’s nibs have worn away, probably from previous fretwork and lots of playing.  The customer is not interested in nib retention or repair so I will simply fret over the binding. 4. Removing the Nut will get it out of the way during the refret.  I score the finish around the nut before breaking it loose with a wooden punch, mallet and center punch.  After the fretwork is done, I’ll cut a new bone nut to accommodate the taller height of the new frets.
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5. Removing the Frets.  I use my modified flush-ground end-nippers and a modified soldering gun to heat the frets as I slowly force them up, out of the fretboard.  This method virtually eliminates chipping of the fretboard.  I protect the pickups with an emf shield.  6. Beveling the Fret Slots.  I lightly chamfer the top of the fret slots with a small file.  This reduces the likely hood of fretboard chipping should the guitar be refretted again in the future.
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7. Cleaning The Fret Slots.  I pull a modified exacto knife blade backwards through the fret slots.  Where necessary, I will use a small pull-saw to break-up any debris such as old glue. 8. Preparing the Frets.  I pre-bend the fretwire to 12″, cut each individual fret to rough length then file the tang from the very end of each fret-end with LMI’s fret tang filing tool.
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9. Fret Tang is the sub-surface part of the fretwire that holds the fret in the neck.  Filing the tang back allows me to bring the fret crowns out over the binding where the nibs once were.  I want the tang to fall about 1/16″ to 1/32″ short of the binding. 10. Installing the Frets.  I use a dead-blow mallet to tap the frets into the slots while the neck and body are backed by a sandbag.  These are size 6105 Jescar EVO-Gold colored frets, chosen by the customer.
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11. Gluing the Frets.  With the truss rod nut disengaged and the fretboard freshly oiled with stew mac’s fretboard finishing oil, I apply super glue next to a fret. 12. Clean Up.  I use a small square of paper towel lightly dampened with acetone to clean up the excess glue.  I don’t touch the inlays with the paper towel.  The acetone won’t mess with the fretboard’s patina but it will lightly melt the celluloid inlays leaving a tell-tale haze.
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13. Clamping the Fret with the jaws fret press tool as the glue cures.  Once the jaws tool is engaged I apply a small amount of super glue accelerator next to the fret.  I repeat this process for frets 1 through 8. 14. Universal Fret Press Inserts.  Vintage Gibson fretboards typically vary in radii throughout the neck. These fret press inserts are self-adjusting and work with any radius 6″ or flatter.  Thanks to Walter Wright for sharing this idea with the lutherie community.
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15. Trimming the Fret Ends.  I use a large flush ground end-nipper to trim the frets nearly flush to the side of the binding. 16. Pressing the Upper Frets.  The drill press with the universal fret press inserts does a great job clamping the upper frets as I glue them.  I strap the guitar into my modified Erlewine neck jig which gives the neck and neck block added support for this operation.
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17. Beveling the Fret Ends.  I file the fret ends with a course file, then a single cut mill file.  I then sand with 400 grit self adhesive sandpaper (PSA) with a short bar, followed by 2000 grit wrapped around the bar.  I reproduce the bevel angle of the original frets in order to not disturb the binding’s patina. 18. Adjusting the Truss Rod.  I adjust the neck as straight as possible.  I put the guitar in the neck jig and tape off the fretboard with linted masking-tape.  I do not apply the tape to the side of the binding.
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19. Leveling the Frets in the neck jig with a long aluminum sanding beam with a 12″ radius.  I sand up to 400 grit with the long bar, then lightly drop the last few frets over the body with a few passes of 400 grit on a short radiused sanding block. 20. Recrowning.  I use a 150 grit file to rough in the crown of most of the frets.  I use a 300 grit offset diamond crowning file to dial in the fret crowns and dress the fret ends.  If a fretboard is sanded prior to a refret, I have to do little to no recrowning and only use the 300 grit crowning file.
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21. Sanding and Polishing the frets.  I sand with 400, 600, 1000 and 2000 grit sandpaper.  I polish the frets on the buffing arbor with the red menzerna compound charged wheel followed by the wheel with white menzerna buffing compound. 22. Polished Frets.  The EVO Gold frets are very shiny but the pearloid and rosewood still have their original patina.
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23. New Nut. 24. Fret Ends are rounded and smooth to the touch.  Their bevel matches that of the original binding nibs and fret ends.
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25. New Frets are a big improvement for the playability of this guitar.