My 1999 RainSong WS1000 carbon fiber had never been an exceptionally comfortable guitar to play, with the standard RainSong 20″ fingerboard radius being a bit on the flat side for my taste, and the fingerboard loaded with jumbo fret wire. The guitar had visible fret wear (as a result of my fear of approaching that carbon fiber fingerboard). While I could have replaced 7 or 8 frets with the same wire that shipped with the guitar, I wanted to switch to a smaller wire. With the decision made to fully refret my Rainsong fingerboard (and my mind made up to actually, finally do this) now will be a good time to alter the fingerboard radius.
Did I happen to mention that I intended to use this guitar for an outdoor gig that was scheduled for the following day?
I removed the strings, nut and saddle. I had intended to replace the TUSQ nut and saddle for years, but never got around to it before now. I will fashion a new nut and saddle from bone.
Using low-tack tape, I masked off the headstock to mitigate damage. I set two small steel plates that I bordered with tape on the soundboard next to the fingerboard extension, and secured them with a piece of tape. This is another area of the guitar vulnerable to damage during refretting.
I heated up my trusty electric woodburning pen, fitted with a flat blade. I was not sure what to expect, as this was my first Rainsong refret. In fact, this was my first carbon fiber fingerboard refret. I heated the first fret and carefully worked it loose with a pair of LMI’s Fret Pullers. The fret lifted out extremely easily, as did all 20 remaining frets, with no trouble at all. Why did I put this off for so long?
The guitar was originally fitted with jumbo nickel frets, 0.105″ wide. I wrestled with the idea of using Stainless Steel frets, but opted at the last minute to stay with Nickel, and I am glad I did. Here is my reasoning:
- 1.) I did not expect the frets to release as easily as they did, and I did expect to have some fret slot repair work ahead. I didn’t want to deal with the extra effort Stainless Steel fret wire introduces.
- 2.) I was unsure about the outcome of the re-install, since the smaller wire also included a smaller tang. I didn’t want to waste Stainless Steel fret wire or risk damaging the fret slots, at least not until I had one carbon fiber fingerboard refret under my belt.
- 3.) A 2nd refret with Stainless Steel at a later date would be a relatively trivial undertaking, if I so desired.
I selected StewMac #148 fret wire for the replacement frets. At just 0.084″ wide, it is a much narrower wire than the jumbo wire that had shipped originally with this guitar.
With the frets removed, it was time to address the fingerboard radius.
Using a piece of 220-grit 3M Gold self-adhesive sandpaper attached to a StewMac aluminum Radius Sanding Beam, I carefully modified the fingerboard down to a 16″ radius. The fingerboard cut very quickly.
Note that this approach will result in a dead flat fingerboard, which is not necessarily a problem, but is not what I desire. If I were fretting a more recent Rainsong N2 neck having a dual-action truss rod (useful for adjusting preferred neck relief), I would use that rod to adjust that neck to as flat of a condition as was possible prior to sanding anything. But my earlier Rainsong N1 neck does not include a dual-action truss rod. It is comprised solely of very rigid carbon fiber, so whatever shape I sand it too, be that flat or contoured, it will remain that way under string tension.
I want to see some fall away from the 14th fret toward the soundhole, an area that sees very little fretting and resides directly under the maximum travel of a plucked string. Failing to address fall away usually results in unwanted string buzz, especially for the heavier gauge strings. So, I don't want a dead-flat fingerboard but, rather, a subtle wavy fingerboard having a slight dip around the 7th fret and dropping off slightly at the 14th. Using a straightedge along with a smaller wooden fingerboard radius block, I remove a little extra material in the relative center of the fingerboard, manually introducing a very, very subtle relief. The frets will (should) follow this slight bow in the fingerboard, though we will watch for that at a later step. The fall away already existed (courtesy of RainSong) and required no modification.
I stepped though grit changes up to 800, then swapped out the Gold paper for wet/dry paper. I spritzed the fingerboard lightly and, using a wooden neck radius block, I dressed the fingerboard with 1000, 2000, and 3000 grit wet/dry paper called Finish 1st that I picked up at Auto Zone. (Note: Once the refret is complete, the guitar will make a trip to the buffing wheel where I will polish everything up to a super shine.)
The fingerboard was now ready for brand new frets. The slots had been precision cut to set back from the edges, creating a bound fingerboard effect. This will necessitate nipping the tangs at the ends of the new frets.
After cleaning (a quick wipe with Naphtha) and rolling the fret wire into a curve on my FretBender, I began the refret. I started with a piece of wire cut just a bit wider than the fingerboard. I removed the tang from the very ends of each fret, leaving only the crown of the fret to rest atop the fingerboard at the fingerboard edge. I accomplish this by first nibbling off the tang using a pair of specialty pliers, followed up with clamping the fret onto a small sled included with LMI’s Fret Tang Filer, a device that lets me pass a small sled holding the fret wire next to a stationary file, removing any burrs on the underside of the fret that might prevent the fret from fully seating.
Because I chose to use a smaller wire, it’s smaller (thinner) tang required crimping to help it fit snugly into the wider slot. For this task, I used a specialty plier from StewMac, called a Fret Tang Crimper. I applied a thin bead of black CA glue along one side of the wavy tang, then hammered the new fret home. As careful as I was, the CA glue leaves a visible streak along one edge of each fret. This had me a bit nervous, but read on to see what happened...
Once all the fret wires are in place it is time to trim their ends flush with the edge of the fingerboard. With the fret wires all trimmed, they are now filed flush with the edge of the fingerboard. Care must be taken to not file the neck, itself, only the fret wire.
Next up is to file a bevel into the fret wire ends, sloping them inward toward the center of the fingerboard. For this task I employed the use of StewMac's Fret Beveling File, which holds a file at 35° in a UHMW block. The frets are sized and shaped to fit, but they remain extremely sharp on the ends. Those edges will be smoothed in a later step.
In order to provide for clean fretting of the strings, and to avoided muted notes or buzzing strings, it is necessary to ensure the surface of the fret wires comprise a plane of consistent height, a process known as fret leveling. The fingerboard was flattened with a a slight contour before the fret wires were set into place. Under ideal circumstances, I could simply add precision-cut fret wire and be done with it. But minor variations in overall height can be introduced during the fret setting process, where frets can end up more than a couple of thousands off from one another. Those variations are addressed using sandpaper attached to a dead-flat bar. I use a product from StewMac appropriately called a Fingerboard Leveler. The fret wires are first inked and the sandpaper is lightly run across the fingerboard, identifying high spots. The fret wire cuts quickly, so it is easy to overrun your target depth. I can achieve better results by knowing my fret material and sandpaper cutting speed, adjusting to a finer grit paper as needed, and constantly checking for a flat surface.
You may recall that I had deliberately introduced a slight forward bow into the fingerboard and if I were to force my frets level using my dead-flat leveling bar I would ruin that effort. So, using a technique I learned from Kent Everett, beginning at the 14th fret I file toward the bridge. I then reverse the direction and, beginning at the 5th fret I file toward the nut. Lastly, I carefully file from the 5th fret in the direction of the bridge to the 14th fret, checking my progress with a straightedge. My goal was to maintain that slight relief while creating a consistently high 220-grit paper was sufficient for the task.
The last step is to crown and dress (polish) the frets, absolutely essential for the frets I just marred and/or flattened during the fret leveling step. Crowning restores the rounded shape to the top of the fret and dressing polishes the scratches out. I have several favorite tools for this process, including traditional flat files along with specialty radiused diamond files. When crowning, it is important to respect the effort that just went into fret leveling, as the height of the fret was just determined. Aggressive crowning would easily alter that height.
For this fret dressing I chose to use a series of graduated abrasive grits embedded in small rubber blocks called Fret Erasers. The fingerboard remains taped off all during these steps to minimize any contact with the tools.
To add a high polish to new frets, I prefer to use a miniature buffing wheel attached to a Dremel, and just target the fret wire. As you may recall, I had scheduled to use this guitar for an outdoor concert, and I simply ran out of time. I walked the guitar over to the big buffing wheel and, after spending a few minutes on the fretboard, it looked great, but I knew it could look even better. I would hold off the final polishing until after the performance. With the refret complete, I installed the nut and adjusted the nut slot height. Then I adjusted the saddle height for a buttery-smooth low action. This being a carbon fiber fingerboard, it would not benefit from a light rubdown with fingerboard oil, so we are all done! (At least, for now)
I completed my RainSong Refret the morning of the day I was to perform. It was in the high 80’s (both temp and humidity) so, with sweat dripping out of every orifice I began to play, only to have my fingers begin sticking together (just enough to mess with my fingering). No matter how I tried, I could not slide along the fingerboard without chatter. It was at that moment the horror struck, and I realized I had neglected to carefully remove the (non-visible) residue left from the tape I had removed off the fingerboard. The heat only exacerbated the problem, and adhesive residue ended up all over my left hand. But the guitar sounded good and, more importantly, it played just the way I liked it!
The day following the performance I took the strings off, polished the nut and saddle, and addressed the fingerboard. You may recall the CA glue had left visible streaks after wiping it up during the fret setting step. I wet a cloth with Acetone and carefully wiped up next to each fret. The glue residue just melted away, as though it had never been there! A little time with the Dremel gave the frets a beautiful luster, and a trip to the buffing wheel polished the fretboard to a near-mirror shine. Now that’s a refret!