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Gibson Refret: Saving Binding Nibs


This article shows the process of refretting a Gibson without disturbing the binding nibs, which costs more than eliminating the nibs.  A more cost-effective approach is described here.

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1. A Gold Top Gibson Les Paul.  This one was built in 1969 shortly before the design changes of the Norlin era, making this a somewhat valuable guitar.  The original frets are worn out; time to refret. 2. Patina.  The fretboard and inlays have darkened with age and still retain tool marks from the factory.  The owner doesn’t want to lose the patina so I wont sand the fretboard.  The customer has chosen jumbo frets so there will be plenty of fret height for leveling.
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3. Binding “Nibs” are the small, raised sections of binding that cap the fret-ends on bound Gibson necks.  I will also preserve the nibs.  “Nib-retention” is expensive, the added labor can double the cost of the fretwork. 4. Removing the Frets.  I use a modified soldering gun to heat the fret up so the flush ground end nippers won’t chip the fretboard as they force the frets up.  I protect the pickups with an EMF-shield.
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5. The Nibs.  This one has a small nub from the glue at the factory.  I clean up any fret-seats with this sort of issue with a sharp chisel.  All but one of the nibs made it through in tact.  I’ll repair the nib damaged by the soldering gun later. 6. Cleaning the Fret Slots.  I pull an exacto knife blade through the fret slots backward.  I also use a small, modified back-saw to break up any clumps of glue or other obstructions in the fret slots.
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7. Filing the Tang.  I use LMI’s fret tang filer to remove the last bit of tang at the fret ends.  The customer has chosen Jescar’s .110″ x .057″ nickel silver fret wire for this project. I will bend the frets to closely match the various radii of the fretboard. 8. Pre-Grinding the fret end with the disc-sander.  I work near the center of the disc which sands the fret slowly.
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9. Sanding the Fret Ends.  I use 2k sandpaper on a flat granite slab to get rid of the disc-sander marks.  I lightly chamfer the edges of the fret crown end. 10. Rough Cutting the fret to its final length.  I push the pre-shaped fret end against the binding nib, I cut the fret wire a little proud of the inside edge of the nib.  I  grind the fret end on the disc sander and sneak up on a snug final fit with 2k sandpaper.
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11. Installing the Frets.  A few light mallet taps seats frets pretty well.  This fretboard has an inconsistent radius throughout its length so each fret must be pre-bent a little differently. 12. Gluing the Frets.  I use thin super glue to help hold down frets.  An application of stew mac’s fretboard finishing oil prevents the super glue from staining the rosewood.
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13. Cleaning up the Glue.  I use a small square of paper towel lightly dampened with acetone to mop up the excess glue.  I won’t touch the pearloid inlays with the acetone. 14. Clamping the Fret.  I use the Jaws tool while I apply a small amount of super glue accelerator to the side of the fret.  The self-adjusting brass inserts will work with any radius that’s 6″ or flatter.
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15. Clamping the Frets over the body.  I use the drill press and the modified Erlweine neck jig to safely clamp the upper frets during gluing.  The modified neck jig provides added support to the body and neck by the neck joint. 16. The New Frets are installed and they nicely rest against the nibs with no visible gaps.  Unfortunately, I damaged two of the smaller nibs while installing the frets.  I’ll go ahead and rebuild the damaged nibs to closely match the surrounding nibs.
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17. Binding Butter.  I soften a scrap piece of matching vintage Gibson celluloid binding by soaking it in acetone to create binding butter.  The acetone in the butter melts the butter to the existing binding on the guitar.

18. Rebuilding Nibs is no big deal, but it is time consuming.  I tape off the binding and fretboard surrounding a damaged nib with pin-stripping tape to protect the neck from the butter which I liberally apply to the remnants of the old nib.

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19. Shaping the Rebuilt Nib.  24 hours after application, I trim away most of the excess nib with a razor blade.  After I bevel the fret ends, I use a small scraper (a bent razor blade with a burr) to fine tune the nib so it looks like it’s nib neighbors.

20. Beveling the Fret Ends with a file.  I will file the fret ends to match the bevel filed into the binding by the factory.  This will maintain the original look of the fret ends and nibs without damaging the binding or nibs.

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21. Leveling the Frets under simulated string tension in the Erlewine neck jig.  I use a long aluminum sanding beam with a 12″ radius and psa sandpaper.  Because I was unable to sand the fretboard straight, I’ll start leveling the frets with 80 grit PSA, followed by 180 grit and finishing with 400 grit.  I hand sand then polish the frets with the buffing arbor.

22. Recrowning the Frets and Dressing the Fret Ends.  The fret ends need to be slightly rounded over because the frets themselves are wider than the nibs.  I prefer to use stew mac’s offset diamond crowning files for both tasks.

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23. Original Nib.  This binding nib appears as it did prior to the refret, even under close inspection.

24. New Nib.  This is one of the nibs that I rebuilt with binding butter.  Under close inspection it’s difficult to tell that it’s not original.

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25. The Patina of the fretboard, inlays and binding are intact and appear as they did before the refret.

26. Nib Retention.