Vintage Refretting 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.

What’s a Bar Fret, anyway?

It’s exactly what it sounds like. It’s a fret… made out of a bar.

When you picture a metal flat-bar, that’s exactly what a bar fret is. Whereas modern fret wire has a sort of T shape in cross-section, bar frets are just bars.

Bar frets vs. modern fret wire

Although they were used on other instruments, I’ve only ever come across bar frets on Martin guitars and, even then, you have to go back quite a ways. Bar frets began to be phased out in favour of the new T-shaped frets around 1934.

What’s the Difference in Bar Frets and Modern?

Well, they’re both generally made from nickel silver. However, that’s where similarities end.

T-shaped frets are typically easier to fit and level (more below), and they feel a little different to play on. T-frets have a more gradual ’slope’ to the top where bar frets tend to have high straight sides and then a rounded crown.

Modern T-shaped frets can not be retro-fitted into bar fret slots — the slots are far too wide.

Bar frets are generally left higher than modern frets, too. This can mean an adjustment for some players, especially those used to pressing hard on the strings when they play or those who use capos.

And, bar frets are trickier to work with when fretting or refretting.

Refretting Bar Frets - Removal

It begins with removing the old frets.

With modern fret wire, you can get your fret-pullers under the wide crown section and gently step it along the frets length. This series of ‘lifting’ actions usually extracts a fret without too much pulling or levering required.

That’s not possible with a bar fret. You need to grip the fret and ‘lever’ it out.

Of course, you don’t want to use your 80 year old rosewood fretboard as a fulcrum so fingerboard guards are a must here.

Removing bar frets from a guitar neck for refret

It can be a difficult business, extracting bar frets, Go slow, apply heat with an iron and expect to fix any chipping as you go.

Nothing about bar refrets is fast so have patience.

Refretting Bar Frets - Fingerboard

After addressing any chip-outs, do whatever board levelling you need as usual (although bear in mind you’ve got a vintage fingerboard here so don’t be too invasive if you can help it).

I’ll often use a triangle file to ramp the edges of the fret slots a little on any refret and I do it for bar frets too. It’s important to remember, though, that the edges of the slots are visible with bars installed — there’s no modern fret ‘crown’ to cover the slots. Don’t go overboard.

Refretting Bar Frets - Fret Preparation

This bit’s no fun. Before installing frets they should be radiused (bent into a curve). This isn’t too much hassle on modern fret wire but it’s a pain in the fretting-butt with bar frets.

Example of bar fret stock. I've already radiused this. 

Persevere. And wear work-gloves.

Actually, it used to be the case that bar fret stock arrived like a box of spaghetti. In the bad old days, it had to be straightened/flattened out before being radiused for installation.

TJ Thompson now sells a selection of bar fret stock in two-foot lengths. You can get it in a number of gauges from .045” to .060”.

Oh, yes, I should have mentioned that. Because bar frets have no tang, they rely on a solid compression fit. To complete a bar refret, you might need a selection of gauges to fit particular slot widths (or to ‘over-compress’ the neck but more on that next time).

Fun, eh?

We’re only getting started…

Refretting Bar Frets - Installation

If you’ve installed frets before, you’ll know the basic technique. Select the right gauge fret for the slot, tap in each end, and then tap the fret home.

Installing bar frets is pretty similar to modern frets but a bit more of a fight

Bars can put up a bit more of a fight, and the deeper slots and tighter fit means you’ll likely be hammering a bit more than usual.

You’ll want to watch out for any frets that ‘tilt’. That’s a sign you’re probably not addressing them well and are knocking them over a little as you hammer. Correct it as you go or remove the fret and start again.

Go slow (again with the slow — I know) and keep checking. With a modern fret, it’s easy to tell if the fret is evenly seated along its length because the crown contacts the board all across. You don’t get this easy visual check with a bar fret so inspect the height carefully and try make it as uniform as you feel it needs.

Check that the fret is tight. Give the ends a bit of a pull. If all’s well, cut the ends off.

Adding a Fake Tang

If you’re having trouble getting a fret so stay seated, you could try giving the fret a sort of improvised ’tang’. Giving the fret a series of taps with a cold-chisel and hammer along its length can ‘splay’ the bottom slightly and this might be enough to get it to grip in the board.

Improvised 'tang' in bottom of removed bar frets

Of course a little glue (and clamping as it cures) can help too. I’d go with hide or fish glue on an instrument with bar frets. Steer clear of anything modern.

Refretting Bar Frets - Levelling

Ah, levelling. This is the part where you’ll curse the bar fret. And the bar fret’s family and friends. And anyone who ever met the bar fret. 😉

Because they are generally quite high after being installed, there is usually a lot of levelling required to get the frets to a playable height.

Given that there’s probably no truss rod, you’ll want to jig the guitar or, otherwise, take into account that you’re levelling towards a particular relief when it’s strung to pitch.

And then level.

And level.

And level. And, well, you get the picture.

Where possible, begin with a good levelling file as it’ll hog off more metal more quickly (although ‘more’ and ‘quickly’ are relative here).

Checking height of bar frets during fret level after refret

Stop every now and then to check the fret height and to shake your fists at the heavens as much as your tired arms will allow.

Then start levelling again.

When you’re getting close to your final height, switch to a levelling beam and sandpaper. Start paying more attention to your radius to ensure you can get it where it needs to be.

Now that we’re pretty much at the required height, you can bevel the fret ends here. There’s no point in doing it before now.

As I mentioned earlier, bar frets are typically a little higher than most acoustic guitar frets. I usually leave them somewhere around the .050”–.055” area. It’s possible to bring them lower, of course, but given the extra work (and therefore cost) of a bar refret, it’s nice to give some additional scope to level out future fret-wear.

Refretting Bar Frets - Crowning and Polishing

Not much to say here. Crowning is pretty much the same as on a modern fret although, it’s nice to spend a little more time on the fret ends here. Because of the bar fret’s shape, a little more rounding on the ends can help prevent them feeling so severe.

Phew, It’s Finished

It’s always nice to string up a guitar that now plays as well as when it left the factory eighty or ninety years ago.

Bar frets are hard to work.

If you’re the one doing the work, remember that you’ve got a valuable and venerable patient on your work bench. Don’t start this unless you know you can give it the respect it needs. It takes integrity to pass on a job that isn’t the job for you. Don’t fret yourself into something you can’t get out of. 😉

And, if you’re the one paying for the work, remember that there’s a lot of it involved in a bar refret. And that work requires experience, time, and effort. Expect the cost to reflect that.