My 1999 RainSong WS1000 carbon fiber had never been an exceptionally comfortable guitar to play, with the standard RainSong 20” fretboard radius being a bit on the flat side for my taste, and the fretboard loaded with jumbo fret wire. The guitar had visible fret wear (as a result of my fear of approaching that carbon fiber fretboard). 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 fretboard (and my mind made up to actually, finally do this) now will be a good time to alter the fretboard radius.
I intended to use this guitar for an outdoor gig that was scheduled for the following day, so the pressure was on...
The strings were old enough to simply discard. I had intended to replace the TUSQ nut and saddle for years, but never got around to it before now. The saddle simply lifted out, but the nut required a light tap before it released. I fashioned a new nut and saddle from natural bone blanks.
Having never encountered a carbon fiber fretboard before, and having no idea what I might be in for, I opted to apply a low-tack tape everywhere, including up onto the headstock. Should I get any chip-out, I can capture the pieces as they adhere to the tape. I set two small steel plates that I bordered with tape on the soundboard next to the fretboard extension, and secured them with a piece of tape. This is another area of the guitar vulnerable to damage during refretting.
To minimize chip-out on a wooden fretboard, where fragments of the fretboard splinter away from the surface as a steel fret is pulled from it's slot, I will apply heat to the fret, just enough to soften any glue that may otherwise act like a shard of glass. This was my first carbon fiber fretboard, and I wasn't sure what to expect in the way of potential chipout, so I opted to start with the same process. I heated up my electric woodburning pen, fitted with a flat blade (A soldering iron can also do the job, as will dedicated tools such as a fretboard iron heated on a hotplate, a small laundry iron, or even a hair dryer). 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. I suddenly wondered why I had 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:
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 fretboard radius. I removed all the tape from the fretboard.
Using a piece of 220-grit 3M Gold self-adhesive sandpaper attached to a StewMac aluminum Radius Sanding Beam, I carefully modified the fretboard down to a 16″ radius. The fretboard cut very quickly.
Note that simply sanding a fretboard along its length, focusing solely on addressing the radius across its width will result in a dead flat fretboard. 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 first adjust that neck to as flat of a condition as was possible prior to sanding anything, and proceed to sand the neck perfectly flat. But my Rainsong N1 neck does not include a dual-action truss rod; it is comprised solely of very rigid carbon fiber. If I sand the neck flat, the only relief introduced is determined by the relationship between the stiffness of the neck and the tension of the strings.
Additionally, I want to see some fall away (a slight downward slope) 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. In summary, I don't want a dead-flat fretboard but, rather, a subtle wavy fretboard having a slight, gentle dip around the 7th fret and dropping off slightly beginning at the 14th fret. Using a straightedge along with a smaller wooden fretboard radius block, I remove a little extra material in the relative center of the fretboard, manually introducing a very, very subtle relief. The surface of the installed frets will (should) then follow this slight bow in the fretboard, though we will watch for that at a later step. The fall away already existed (courtesy of RainSong) and required no modification.
The Rainsong originally came with a satin-like look to the fretboard. I had always wanted to shine it up, but that required removing all the frets, first. Now was my chance! I stepped though grit changes up to 800, then swapped out the Gold paper for wet/dry paper. I spritzed the fretboard lightly with water (hooray for carbon fiber!) and, using a short wooden neck radius block, I dressed the fretboard with 1000, 2000, and 3000 grit wet/dry paper (using a product called Finish 1st that I picked up at Auto Zone). 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 fretboard was now ready for brand new frets. The slots had been precision cut to set back from the edges, creating a bound fretboard effect. This will necessitate nipping the tangs at the ends of the new frets.
After cleaning (a quick wipe with Naphtha) and rolling the straight lengths of 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 fretboard. I removed the tang from the very ends of each fret, leaving only the crown of the fret to rest atop the fretboard at the fretboard 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, the smaller (thinner) tang required crimping to help it fit snugly into the wider slot. For this task, I used a specialty plier from StewMac, cleverly named a Fret Tang Crimper. After crimping 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 to apply the CA glue sparingly, it did squeeze out, leaving 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 fretboard. 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 fretboard. 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 avoid muted notes or string buzz, it is necessary to ensure the surface of the fret wires comprise a plane of consistent height, a process known as fret leveling. Under ideal circumstances, one could simply add precision-cut fret wire to a perfectly leveled fretboard 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 typically addressed using sandpaper attached to a dead-flat bar. On a neck having a dual-action truss rod, the neck would have been adjusted to dead-flat prior to any radiusing or flattening.
(see my article titled “Truss Rod Alternative” for more information on truss rods)
After fret installation, if the plane formed by the fret wire was less than perfect, the frets would then be sanded dead-flat in a plane parallel to the fretboard. If desired, string relief (a deliberate, though very slight, forward bowing of the neck) would then be introduced by adjusting the truss rod.
But, as I mentioned earlier, this neck has no truss rod and a deliberate slight contour was introduced to the fretboard before the fret wires were set into place. I use a product from StewMac appropriately called a fretboard Leveler. The fret wires are first inked using a wide-tipped permanent marker and the sandpaper is lightly run across the fretboard, identifying any 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 fretboard 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 luthier Kent Everett, beginning at the 14th fret I file toward the bridge, addressing that fall away. 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 maintaining a consistent fret height. 220-grit paper was sufficient for the task.
The last step is to crown and dress 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 radius 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 fretboard remains taped off all during these steps to minimize any contact with the tools.
To add a high polish to new frets, I like 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 fretboard and not wood, it would not benefit from a light rubdown with fretboard oil, so we are all done! (At least, for now)
NOTE: Learning Opportunity - I completed my RainSong refret late in the morning of the day I was to perform. The performance was outdoors - and it was in the high 80’s (both temp and humidity). With sweat dripping out of every orifice of my body 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 fretboard without chatter. It was at that moment the horror struck: I realized that in my haste I had neglected to remove the (non-visible) residue left from the LOW TACK tape I had removed off the fretboard! While I had sanded the surface of the fretboard, wiped it clean and even applied new frets, I had not taken the time to thoroughly wipe down the SIDES of the neck where the tape had been. That nasty stuff was now everywhere. The hot day had 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 removed the strings, polished the nut and saddle, and addressed the fretboard. You may recall the CA glue had left visible streaks after the frets were hammered in and any squeeze out was wiped away. 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!