Trade Secrets!

When frets don't fit the slot, resize the fret tang


Issue 62 May 29, 2008


When your frets don’t fit, here’s
what to do: resize the fret tang

Dan "Charles Atlas" Erlewine
Bulk up your skinny fretwire!Cartoon
Fretwire parts labeled
When the frets you're installing are too tight or too loose, you can tweak the fit by altering the tang under the fretwire: bulk it up or slim it down.

Make it wider so it fits tighter and so the frets won’t pop up.

Make it thinner so the frets fit in too-tight slots.

StewMac Fretwire
Let me show you how to resize your fretwire. (I’m using a single fret as an example, but these techniques would be applied to all the frets on the guitar.)

Why not just widen the slots? I don’t want remove wood from the neck. That can only weaken it, and it leaves that much less wood for the next fret job.
Using #0149 fretwire

Using fretwire as a gauge
Once the fretboard is leveled and the slots are clean, I test the fit of my fretwire by cutting a small piece and putting a bend in it like a handle. Here I'm using our #0149 fretwire which has a tang thickness of about .020"-.023". The barb-to-barb measurement is approximately .035".



Before bending the wire into a handle, I nip away a section of tang at the bend with Fret Tang Nippers so I can bend it without distorting the tang I'll be using. A file removes any burrs left on the tang.
I hammer or press this into a slot. This gives me a feel for how the fret will seat without having to install an entire fret and then pull it back out.

Why not widen the slots?
I figured you’d ask that! You don’t want remove wood from the neck. You’d only weaken it, and leave less wood for the next refret.

And if your fret slots are too loose, don't depend on glue to hold the frets in. They should stay put on their own. I use glue to fill gaps under the frets, for better tone.
Setting the Fret Barber
Using the Fret Barber

MAKE ’EM THINNER!

If the slot is just a little too tight I'll remove some metal from the barbs, “taking a little off the sides” with the Fret Barber. Here I'm using the .032" feeler gauge that came with the Fret Barber to hold its two files apart.

The barbs’ outside dimension is wider than the .032" gauge, so I tighten the set-screw only enough for the files to barely contact the fret. This gives a very slight cutting pressure as the fretwire is pulled through, and I tighten the screw as I pull. After the first pass, I tighten the set-screw a little so it’s tight but the fretwire pulls through pretty easily.


Fret Barber
Fret Barber
Using Fret Fitter pliers
Tightening the Fret Barber files, I wear gloves to hold the wire down and grab the end of it with pliers to pull it through.

After this sizing session, I take a close look at the diminished tang, measure it with a caliper and test the fit.
Fret Barber
Luthier’s Digital Caliper
Using the Fret Bender
Finish up by rolling whatever radius you need into the fretwire, as I’m doing here with the FretBender. Once radiused, the fretwire can still be pulled through the Fret Barber again; in fact, I prefer to pull radiused wire through because it follows the curved top of the files so well.


FretBender
FretBender

stewmac.com / freeinfo

Fret Hammer
Learn how to hammer frets
The most basic tool for installing frets is the fret hammer, and there’s a definite technique to using it. It’s not like hammering a nail! The hammer needs a non-marring head, and it must be heavy enough to seat the fret firmly. Tap-tap-tapping with a light hammer won’t do, and a carpenter’s hammer is too hard — that’s a sure way to damage frets. Learn more in our free info pages online.
The Fret Fitter

Using the Fret Fitter

MAKE ’EM WIDER!

Often the fret tang needs to gain weight, not lose it. If the tang is too loose in the slot, it won’t stay down without glue; bulking up the tang size cures that. The pressure from the wider tangs puts a back-bow in the neck, helping to straighten it. This is “compression fretting” and it’s useful for guitars with non-adjustable necks, like many Martins.

The FretFitter gives you great control over the fret tang's size. The jaws have interlocking teeth that crimp a zig-zag into a fret tang, making it wider.


FretBender
FretFitter



Essential Fretting Tool Kit
Essential Fretting Tool Kit
Crimp hard repeatedly along the fretwire. After crimping one side turn the wire end-for-end and crimp the opposite way, making the tang equal on both sides. When the crimping is finished, the tang has a zig-zag shape.
Using the Fret Fitter
To make it easier to fit the modified wire into the slot, I remove this zig-zag from the very bottom edge of the tang. I do this with the Fret Fitter, too: using its smooth inner jaws to mash this edge and reflatten it. The main part of the tang still keeps the zig-zag I gave it; just the edge is smoothed for fitting the slot.


Fretting Hammer
Fretting Hammer
The Fret Fitter's effect
Compare the section that I crimped, then reflattened (lower left) with the part that has been crimped but not reflattened: pretty cool, huh?

This gives me a fret that I know will stay put!

Dan Erlewine signature

Problem-solving products mentioned above:
Photo: Stewart-MacDonald Fretwire Photo: FretBender Photo: FretFitter
Stewart-MacDonald Fretwire
18% nickel fretwire available in a wide variety of sizes to suit your needs.
FretBender
The quickest way to properly pre-bend fretwire and prepare it for installation.
FretFitter
A specialized tool for advanced fretwork, the FretFitter resizes a fret's barbed tang for a custom fit.
Buy Now
Buy Now
Buy Now
Photo: Fret Barber Photo: Fret Tang Nipper Photo: Fretting Hammer
Fret Barber
Narrow the tang on a quantity of frewire.
Fret Tang Nipper
Special tools that quickly cut the tang out from under the crown of the fret for bound fingerboard fret jobs a real time saver!
Fretting Hammer
Our fretting hammer is just right for fretwork.
Buy Now
Buy Now
Buy Now

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