The Pros and Cons of a Partial Refret

p>Last time, we discussed what’s involved in a refret and level and that leads nicely to a partial refret.

A partial refret is exactly what it sounds like. Only the most worn frets are replaced and other — good — frets stay in the fingerboard to fight another day.

In theory it sounds like a fantastic idea and a potential way to save some refret cash. In practice, things are a little more involved.

The pros and cons of a partial refret — why it's not always a good idea.

The theory

If you look at the fret wear on a guitar or bass, the worst of the wear will tend to be in the positions where a player frets most frequently. That makes sense.

So, if we could just replace those frets and not touch the others, that’d be great.

Well, sometimes.

The problem (potentially)

While there can be obvious ‘divots’ in the frets where they have sustained most wear, there is usually less obvious wear on some or all of the other frets too.

Remember one important point: The new frets that we install during a partial refret will still have to be levelled to the height of the existing frets (the ones we didn’t replace). If there’s more than just a little wear on those existing frets, we are effectively reducing the lifespan of the newly installed frets. We’re artificially lowering the new frets to match the existing ones and so they don’t have so much height for future wear.

That make sense?

The ideal candidate for a partial refret

The absolutely ideal scenario for a partial refret is a player who only ever played open chords at the first three frets and never did anything else.

If that’s the case, we would probably get away with replacing the first few frets and we’d have minimum wear on those remaining. Brilliant.

That’s pretty rare, though.

The usual situation

Even if someone says they only play open chords, they probably do venture higher from time to time. Or maybe they use a capo sometimes. Or loan their guitar to others during a session.

Most of the time, there’s wear that’s more widespread than the obvious fret-divots might lead you to think.

Let’s assume, though, that the worst of the wear is just up to the fifth fret and there’s some wear further up but it’s not too deep…

So we replace the first five frets.


Now we’ve got to level those frets. This means the new ones come down to the height of the existing ones…

But, as part of the levelling process, the existing ones will have the be ‘kissed’ too. They’ll get a light levelling. Just enough to even out their wear.

Then all the frets have to be crowned.

And all the frets have to be polished.

So, we’ve only removed and replaced five frets but we’ve still levelled, crowned and polished the whole neck.

So, we’ve definitely saved some work but possibly not as much as most people would first assume when they think of a partial refret.

Other possible spanners in the works

It’s very common to perform some work on the wood of the fingerboard itself during a refret. Levelling the board itself ensures you’ve got a clean playing field for your frets.

Sometimes this is optional but sometimes, you can’t actually get a good result without doing it. If there are any humps or twists in the fingerboard, or if there’s an inconsistent radius, a partial refret might be ruled out because of the need to remove all frets to gain access to the board.

The bottom line

A partial refret is definitely warranted in some cases. However, it’s probably not quite as many cases as you’d initially think.

Also, because there’s still a significant amount of work in most partial refrets, the cost savings aren’t typically as much as you’d initially think — if you come into my workshop saying you only need seven frets replaced and expecting the cost to be ⅓ of a full refret, you’ll likely be disappointed.

In my view, most candidates for a refret are candidates for a full refret. And I think that the benefits of that full refret (levelled fingerboard, likely increased longevity) are well worth having. Partial refrets have their place but that place isn’t as large as you might have thought.

My tuppence/two-cents.