Saving vintage guitars with clever refret techniques

Saving vintage guitars with clever refret techniques

Correcting excessive relief or neck-bow is easy with an adjustable truss rod. What about those vintage guitars made before adjustable rods were fitted, though? Are those wonderful old instruments never to be played because there's too much bow in the neck?

No way. Find out how to use levelling and compression fretting to save these guitars. 

Vintage Refretting With Bar Frets

Vintage Refretting With Bar Frets

Getting vintage-nerdy with bar frets…

I only get a few bar fret jobs a year here. And, when I’m levelling them, I generally thank the fret gods for that fact. Bar frets are a bit different to modern frets but, if you’re playing, dealing, or repairing vintage instruments, you’ll likely come across them from time to time. 

So, let’s get to know them. 

Setup a Compound Radius Guitar

Setup a Compound Radius Guitar

While most guitars have a single radius along the length of the fingerboard, a compound radius instrument has a radius that gradually increases/flattens as you go further up the neck. 

Some players find these a godsend but they do require some different methods to set them up and to perform fretwork on them. 

Unusual Acoustic Guitar Bridge Repair

Unusual Acoustic Guitar Bridge Repair

Ok, so you’ve got to admit that's a little unusual. 

What we’ve got is a tailpiece installed on this Takamine. It’s anchoring the strings which pass through the (pinless) bridge and up over the saddles. 

Whatever else, it’s an inventive solution to some sort of problem. 

Thing is, it’s not the best solution. The tailpiece is resting against the top of the guitar with isn’t the best for getting a good tone. Also, the guitar’s designed to have strings couple to the bridge for good transfer to the top. 

Fretwork Scars and Integrity

Badly fitted and finished fret

Protect your fretboard when doing refrets, levels, polishing, etc.

The Problem

I worked on these guitars in order to put right the work that someone* had attempted and done a less-than-stellar job on. One had a lot of poorly seated frets that caused buzzing all over the place and the second problem is more 'visible'.

The first required a full refret and the second needed a fret level and some fret-glueing (although I'd dearly have liked to be able to refret again so I could do more with the scarring/scrapes). 

The Tip

As you can see, one of the problems is that the fingerboard has been scarred. This happened when the previous guy failed to protect the wood before working on the frets (with files or sandpaper). This stuff's not rocket science—you can buy fretboard-guards all over the place online but even a bit of masking tape will do the trick in a pinch. 

If you're ever using anything abrasive on your frets, protect the wood they live in. It's not as tough as the metal frets so spare it a thought. 

The Rant

*The person who did these jobs wasn't the owner having a go at some DIY. That'd be just fine. Nope. Someone charged for this work. 

This is something that gets me really, really riled up.

Weird, right? I mean, since it means more business for me, other repairers making a mess of things should make me happy.

It really, really doesn't, though.

Seriously—someone took a guy's guitar, mucked up a refret, and then charged for it. I can't get on board with that. Forget about running a business, life isn't about what you can get away with while hoping nobody notices. 

Integrity, dammit! Have some damned integrity. 

Turns out, there are tons of 'integrity' quotes on the web but I decided to go with mine. 

The middle word wasn't 'damned' in the first version.  ;-)

Integrity is what you do when nobody's watching. Or something. 

My hand-lettering needs some more practice. Letterers among my readers should feel free to run with this one. Let's call it 13% royalties for me. ;-)

Luthier Tip: Speed Up The Erlewine Neck Jig

Fair warning: There’s a slightly limited audience for this one but I know that there are a number of repairers and builders that pop by or get my mailings so this may be useful to them.

The Erlewine Neck Jig

If you work in—or have an interest in—the field of guitar repair, Dan Erlewine will need no introduction. Dan has been teaching players and repairers how to maintain and fix their instruments since the ‘80s (and working on them for twenty years before that).

Dan’s work in developing his neck jig has been massively useful to people like me. The Erlewine Neck Jig from Stew Mac lets a repairer simulate neck tension on a guitar neck. This makes for much more accurate fretwork, with less chance for weird necks to cause problems.

The neck jig is fantastic. I love it.

However, as soon as I began using it, one thing annoyed me.

The guitar body is held on a number of ‘levellers’—threaded posts with a swivel head. Depending on the guitar, four or more of these posts are placed in particular positions and at particular heights.

Swapping between different shaped guitars means moving the posts. That means unscrewing four, four-inch posts and re-screwing for height. That’s fine once, but after the fiftieth time, it gets old.

Levelling Post Mod

I grabbed a few pan-head philips bolts and cut off the heads (it’s important that the head be a smaller diameter than your threaded levelling post).

Then I just epoxied the bolt heads to the bottoms of the levelling posts.

Epoxying a bolt-head onto the threaded levelling post.

Adjusting guitar body height in the Erlewine Neck Jig

Now I can use a screwdriver bit in my cordless drill to quickly unscrew and re-screw the posts.


That’s it. Sorry that this hasn’t been for everybody but I reckon there are at least a few readers that will love this.

Dan’s New Jig

I have an older model of the neck jig. There’s a newer, snazzier one available at the moment that looks like it does away with the need to actually remove the levelling posts so they can be placed somewhere else. This will probably reduce the amount of screwing/re-screwing but they still need to be raised and lowered so I reckon this mod will help out even if you’ve got the newer model.

Incidentally, that newer jig looks even better than mine. I want one. Guitar repairers have to deal with Tool GAS as well. ;-)