Fretting Like A Crab

Sideways fret - refret '70s Fender Strat

Sideways fret - refret '70s Fender Strat

What's going on here? A nice maple neck from a nice 70's Strat (yes, many of them are very nice—don't tar everything from that decade with the same 'seventies-Fenders-are-crap' brush). However, thirty-and-a-bit years of playing have worn the frets to the point where a refret is needed to get it playing cleanly.

But what's going on with that fret?

Well, from very early in its history, right up to 1982, Fender usually installed its frets 'sideways'. Instead of being hammered (old-school) or pressed in from the top of the board, Fender used a weird jig that allowed them to slid the fret in along the slot from the side. This actually gave a pretty level installation along the board which meant less levelling after the frets went in.

When it comes to refretting, however, it's important to know about this Fender quirk. If you pull these frets out the top of the board as you normally would, you're likely to take chunks of fretboard and lacquer with them. This is because the fret-tangs didn't make a 'path' in that direction as they went in.

Refret Seventies Fender

Refret Seventies Fender

The cleanest (and easiest) way to remove frets on an older Fender is in the same direction they were installed. As this was sideways, along the fret slot from bass to treble side, tapping them out along the same bass-to-treble path is the best way to go.

I have done it the other direction too and it's not generally a problem but the preference is to keep the fret moving in the direction it went in. 

The fret is tapped out (carefully—very carefully). It's sometimes necessary to make a small divot in the fret end (see photo) to act as a 'grip' for a thin nail-punch. It doesn't take a lot of pressure to get the fret moving and (as the fret is heated like in a normal refret), it generally comes out very cleanly without any lacquer damage. Hurrah for sideways fretting.

Some older guitars have had a refret put off again and again until there's essentially just a bit of tang stuck in the board and almost no fret-top left. Those are a little more challenging but his one was straightforward and required minimal swearing.

UPDATE: Working The Board

I was asked, in the comments, whether I'd be cleaning the fretboard on this guitar as I refret. I'll try to give bit more information about that.

Fender Maple Neck Refret

Fender Maple Neck Refret

In an ideal world, I'll be able to keep a maple fingerboard as 'original' as possible during a refret. As luck would have it, that was possible with this one. Other than a little clean-up while knocking back the lacquer 'ramps' from the original frets, I didn't need to do much with this neck.

This image shows, roughly, the area shown in the first photo above. The frets have been replaced (although not levelled or polished). You can see, most of this neck's 'character' is still in place, even if it's lost some of its finger-gunk.

It's worth stating that this isn't always possible however. Some considerations:

Chips and lacquer damage can happen, even to the most careful refretter. These can usually be touched-up pretty discreetly. Likewise, for various reasons, it sometimes occurs that 'sand-throughs' happen, also requiring touch-up.

In many cases, though, it's necessary to go a bit further with the work and to modify the fingerboard itself to correct some original or age-induced issue. For example, it's quite common for older Fenders to develop a 'hump' at the high end of the board. This guitar has a very small hump—small enough to need no correction at this time—but larger ones can affect the playability and need to be corrected during a refret. If that's necessary, the original fingerboard finish is generally a casualty.

As I've said, we've been lucky that this neck didn't need too much more than some nice new frets. If the finish or the board needs work, though, don't shy away from getting it done. A good repair guy will have some tricks to prevent a vintage guitar looking like it has a spanking new neck and it should breathe new life into your old guitar.