Refrets and fingerboard binding

We’re continuing our fretwork journey and taking a look at bound fingerboards. Bound fingerboards need a bit more attention during a refret. As with so many things in life, the right tools will certainly help but, let's start at the beginning…

 
 

On a regular, unbound, neck, the wood of the fingerboard runs from edge to edge along the neck. This means that the fret slots also run from edge to edge. So, if you look along the side of your guitar or bass neck, chances are you’ll see twenty-something little slots that were cut into the fingerboard. And, if you look more closely, you’ll probably see the ‘end’ of each fret — the tang will be visible in the slot.

Fingerboard binding

When the fingerboard is bound, there is a thin strip of binding (probably plastic, vinyl or wood but other materials are/have been used) that runs along either edge of the fingerboard. This hides the edges of the fingerboard wood and, therefore, the fret slots.

Why have fingerboard binding?

Well, while there are some benefits claimed for ’sealing’ the edge of the fretboard, the main reason is decorative — it just looks nice. And that’s fine.

Refretting a guitar with a bound fingerboard calls for some additional care. With the right tools, it’s bit more work but nothing too excessive.

Refretting a bound fretboard

So the obvious thing to address is how to fit the frets.

Obviously, a standard fret has a tang that runs its length. You can’t just hammer this into a bound fingerboard as the tang will mar, mash, or generally ruin the binding.

The frets have to be ‘undercut’.

A section of fret tang must be removed when refretting a neck with binding

Cut the frets roughly to size and then remove a small section of tang on each end. The remaining tang fills the slot as normal and the overhanging fret ends sit over the binding.

Care is needed not to cut too much tang off as you could easily end up with fret-ends without enough purchase to stay seated. That’s a recipe for buzzing frets and even cut hands. Bad news.

How to remove fret tang for binding

There are a few ways to do it. The cheapest and most straightforward (although not the fastest) is to file the tang off by hand. This is pretty time consuming and you have to take care not to file into the fret crown — then you can just bin the fret and start again. However, it’s quite possible to do if you’re patient.

Some luthiers and repairers have fashioned various jigs to help speed and improve the accuracy of this filing. And, as you might expect, you can buy jigs and tools like these — something like this Fret Tang Filer jig from Luthier’s Mercantile, for example.

Another method is to snip or ‘nip’ the tang off. A tool similar to (or identical to in some cases) a sheet metal nibbler can do the job. Oddly, a good one of these tools can be weirdly hard to acquire. A search for ‘fret tang nipper’ will probably give you a lot of options. Some will be good and many will be awful.

I’ve had mine for ages and haven’t seen one exactly like it for a long time. I had to replace some of the pins in it a few years back and I’m dreading the time when it gives up the ghost.

There are alternatives such as the Summit Fret Tang Cutter and the Sintoms Tang Nipper. I haven’t used either of these but I have used others of Summit’s fret tools and they’re typically pretty good. When my own nipper eventually shuffles off its mortal fretwork coil, I suspect the Summit tool will be first on the list of replacements.

Stew Mac also has a Fret Tang Nipper but, at the time of writing it’s not in stock. Like I said, nippers seem weirdly difficult to source lately. Not sure why.

A good nipper will generally give a clean tang removal but always check. Even the good ones can sometimes leave a little edge or burr behind that should be cleaned up with a file.

Other considerations fretting bound fingerboards

Pretty much every refret calls for some cleaning of the fret slots. Sometimes this is just some ‘excavating’ or scraping out of sawdust and general detritus but, often, the slots will need some more heavy-duty work that requires a saw.

So how do you saw when there’s binding on each end of the slot.

Well, I have seen some awful things where someone’s just sawn through the binding as if it wasn’t there/didn’t matter. Yikes! To do it right, though, you need a ‘refret saw’ or a ‘fret slot cleaning saw’.

Fret slot saws. Often vital for a sound job when performing a refret over fingerboard binding.

Essentially, a small section of saw blade mounted in a handle and saw-back, a refret saw lets you clean the fret slot of old glue and packed-in crud while working between the binding.

The traditional refret saw from Stew Mac and others will do the trick nicely but I prefer their newer Japanese fret slot cleaning saw which I feel is faster and more controllable.

A Dremel-type tool with an appropriately-sized dental-burr bit can also be used to clean out fret slots if you’re careful.

A note on Fender’s Channel Routed fingerboards

If you’re not familiar with Fender’s interesting ‘channel routed’ necks, they’re rather nice looking.

Thanks to the precision of modern CNC machinery, it’s entirely possible for Fender to shape a neck a little deeper than usual and then rout a fingerboard-shaped recess in the top of that neck. The process leaves a narrow strip of the original neck wood that — once the fingerboard is ‘inlaid’ into the recess — effectively becomes a wooden binding strip.

It debuted with some slightly dubious tonal claims but, that aside, it does look pretty cool.

I haven’t refretted a channel bound neck yet but see no reason the process will be any different than a regular bound neck. Well, except for the fact that you can’t really replace the binding so it probably makes sense to be extra careful.

What about removing the binding before fretting?

No.

No.

Don’t need to do that. Just undercut your frets and work away.

Don’t remove the binding. Not unless you like the idea of a lot more work, trouble, and time. Not unless you’re happy with, at least, some reasonably extensive touch-up and at worst a neck refinish. Not unless you want to pay more for what will almost certainly be, overall, a much worse end result.

Step away from the binding.

The bottom line

So, when you’re talking about refretting a guitar or bass with a bound fretboard, there are some additional considerations.

Most of the time, this will not cause too much concern to someone equipped with the right tools. If there are any snags in a refret, a bound neck will sometimes amplify them and the swear-factor can increase slightly. Some luthiers and repairers charge more for a refret on a bound fingerboard. Personally, I don’t but I can see why someone might.

So… With the above tools and details in mind, the bound fingerboard refret should end up being straightforward.

Unless it’s a Gibson.

Then there’s a bit of a niggle…

More next time. Oh, the suspense.