Steve Lynnworth’s 1985 ES-335 and Thoughts on the Cost of Fret Repair
This beautiful 1985 Gibson ES-335 belongs to local musician and guitar instructor, Steve Lynnworth. He brought it to us wanting a nickel refret, a new bone nut and to have all of the wiring updated. We also thought we would use this blog to delve deeper into not only the process of refretting an instrument but, also the costs of the tools and materials involved. We have been hearing more and more stories of people trying to do their own fret work, and having bad results or causing damage to their instruments, and then bringing them to us to do it correctly. This blog will help demonstrate why it is best left to the professionals and will also serve as an informative journey for ourselves, to see how much really goes into fret repair. Since we do not typically use an entire bottle of glue, roll of tape or package of sand paper or razor blades for one repair, we will estimate cost of all disposables at around $20 for one repair.
Something we noticed early on with this guitar was the 5th fret marker. You can see that towards the right of the marker, it looks a bit discolored. This is the result of sanding done during production that wore away some of the material. While this doesn't affect the playability of the instrument, the sanding we will be doing will only wear this marker down more so, we will be replacing it during this repair.
The first set of tools we will talk about is the Erlewine Neck Jig Workstation ($746), Consisting of the Erlewine Neck Jig, an angle vise and the Erlewine Shop Stand. The neck jig is a device that allows us to hold the guitar in a fixed position and simulate the affects of string tension, without having any actual strings in the way. The angle vise allows us to tilt the guitar into playing position when necessary and, the shop stand provides a stable base for the jig and vise that is height adjustable, while also taking up as little room as possible.
One of the first things we do, is check the current fret height. We place a straight object over two of the frets and use feeler gauges ($20) to see that the frets are currently 0.026" tall, most likely starting at 0.036" from the factory. The fret wire we will be using starts out at 0.047".
Here, we have the guitar strapped into the neck jig. Now, we will use the jig to measure the neck under string tension, remove the strings, and reintroduce the pressure on the neck to continue working.
To measure for string tension, the jig is adjusted so the pressure gauges are just touching the neck but registering no pressure.
Once the strings are removed, the neck will bend back, introducing pressure to the gauges, seen here.
we then adjust the posts under the headstock and neck to simulate the string tension. Once the gauges read no pressure, we can start.
The next thing we do is remove the old nut. Sometimes this can cause problems as older nuts may be broken or crumble as you try to remove them. This one caused no trouble, though. We use fret cutters ($31) to remove the nut.
In the next few images, we will be using a notched straight edge ($90) to show some of the imperfections in the neck of this guitar. The tongue extension, shown here, falls away from the strings across the width of the neck, leaving a gap between the straight edge and the fret board.
On the bass side of the neck, the straight edge meets with the fret board (Seen to the left in the previous image) and then pulls away again towards the middle, shown here.
Continuing on, the straight edge then meets the fret board again towards the lower frets. This all indicates that the bass side of the fret board has something like a wave shape to it.
However, where the bass side was pulling away towards the middle of the neck, the treble side has contact with the straight edge, seen here.
Then, towards the lower frets, the treble side pulls away, indicating that this side of the neck has a hump in the middle.
To correct these imperfections in the fret board, we sand it. This is done by attaching an adhesive sand paper to a sanding beam ($42) and sanding the length of the neck. The radius of the neck is able to be followed with the beam, while the sanding just works out the imperfections. This guitar also had binding nibs that would cover the ends of the frets but, it was decided that these would be removed so the frets would extend over the binding, rather than sit inside it.
Once all of the loose debris is removed from the neck, we address each fret slot with a fret cleaning saw ($34). This helps clear out any particles hat may be stuck inside and prepares the slot for the new frets.
After the sanding and cleaning has been completed we noticed a small portion of the neck that had been untouched. It can be seen here, near the neck pickup on the treble side of the neck. This is the result of shaping done at the factory where too much material had been removed in this portion. However, the areas where the frets will sit are still tall enough to properly seat the frets. Since this is such a small portion of the neck, and wont affect the frets themselves, we will leave it as is.
We use Jescar fret wire for all of our fret jobs here. There are many size options for nickel or stainless steel but, for this job, we are using 0.104" x 0.047" Nickel fret wire ($46/lb).
We use a fret bender ($131) to set the radius of the fret wire as a whole, before cutting it to smaller pieces. Because this neck has binding, the fret tang (the portion of the fret that holds the fret in place) needs to have the ends trimmed off so it can sit in the fret board without touching the binding. We use fret tang nippers to do this ($125).
We then use a Dremel with a sanding wheel ($108) to work down the under side of the fret to ensure it will sit as flush as possible against the binding.
Before installing the new frets, we want to address the 5th fret marker, mentioned before. We apply heat to loosen the glue, using our soldering iron ($130).
Once removed, we re-drill the hole with our drill press ($500) to accommodate the full depth of the new marker and provide a better gluing area.
Once the new marker is glued in place, we glue in the new frets as well. Gluing in frets is one of the extra steps we take here to ensure the absolute best result in a refret.
Once the frets have all been properly seated, we use our fret cutters, mentioned before, to cut the excess fret wire.
Now that the frets are in in place and cut to size, they need to be properly shaped for use. We start by using a fret beveling file ($55) to bevel the outside edges of the frets. This removes with sharp edges left by trimming the frets while also providing a sleeker look to the finished product.
We then use our sanding beam again to level the tops of the frets to a consistent height, again using the radius of the fret surface and frets as a guide.
We check the height of each fret with a fret rocker ($28). This tool is a piece of metal with 4 sides that are all different lengths. these 4 sides allow the tool to sit across any 3 adjacent frets on the neck. If it rocks back and forth, we know that the middle fret of the 3 is too tall.
The final step in shaping the frets is done with a diamond crowning file ($123). These files helps to smooth over any remaining edges left by the previous shaping processes and reintroduce the rounded shape to the tops of the frets.
On the left is a fret which has been started with the crowning file. The one in the right has not been addressed yet.
We then remove any of the excess dried glue from the fret board. On this particular guitar, we are also re-shaping the binding to have a rounded edge, rather then the angular one it came with.
We then begin the finishing process of the frets. The finishing process essentially makes the frets as smooth as possible across the width of the neck for the best playing surface. We start this by placing fret guards over each fret ($13), and working them with sand paper and steel wool.
We then tape off the entire neck and fret board so that only the frets are exposed and buff them out ($80). This is the final step that gives them that great looking shine.
Now that the frets have been completed, we need to fashion a new nut. The old one is used to sketch the shape onto a new nut blank ($3). We then work the shape into the blank on our sander ($1,000).
The new nut is then installed into the neck and a string spacing rule ($22) is used to mark where the string slots will be. We use nut slotting files ($55 for a set of 6) to cut the slots into the nut.
Steve also wanted us to redo all of the wiring in this guitar with high quality parts. Strings are attached to each piece before they are uninstalled. Guitars like this do not typically have a panel that can be removed to work on the electronics. Any time a repair needs to be done, the parts need to be removed through the f-hole or, in some cases, the bridge pickup cavity. Attaching these strings allows us to pull the new pieces back in place much easier once the work is completed.
After all of the wiring has been completed, we string it up and perform a full setup on the guitar. (Around $40 worth of tools used). This guitar is now playing and sounding great and is ready for another 30 years of music! Now, at the end of this repair, estimating the costs of disposables at around $20, we used $15,647 worth of tools and supplies for this repair! And that is not including the cost of the electronics portion. While some people may be able to justify the cost of these tools and materials, keep in mind that we also have years of experience doing this type of work and results that speak for themselves. So, instead of dropping close to $16,000 and then hoping nothing goes wrong, consider that we only charge a few hundred dollars for a refret (depending on the material you choose) and it will be done right the first time. If you're interested in a refret, check out our Fret Services page for more information on pricing. If you're unsure about us, check out our review page to see what people are saying.