Problem: lacquer racking along fret slot on maple neck re-fret


I'm working on a re-fret of my made-in-Japan Fender Malmsteen Strat,  I've removed the frets without issue, used a triangle file to put a slight bevel to the top of the slots, cleaned them thoroughly, and stared to set the new frets.  I'm three frets in, and I'm noticing some cracking of the lacquer along the fret slots!  

Am I doing something wrong, or is this to be expected?  

Is this something more common with MIJ Fender necks than others?  Is this a halmark of poly coats vs nitro coats, or something inherent of both?

Furthermore, I've stopped work on the guitar until I figure this out, but what, if anything, can be done to keep this from happening for the rest of this job and others to come?

Please see attached pix.

Many thanks for your help!


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The issue here is that the new frets are bearing down on the lacquer edge which is slightly raised from running up the side of the original frets - my guess is that you are using a wider fret than the ones removed and they are simply crushing the lacquer edge as you insert them.

Occassionaly when pulling frets out of maple necks they come away cleanly (scoring or cutting the lacquer edge between the fret and the fingerboard face with a sharp hobby blade or an specialist blade helps to get a clean break) and with a bit of care you can refret into the neck without a problem.  But, this , in my experience of both sideways and vertically seated frets, is rare. 

When it goes pear shaped as it has for you the most simple and effective fix is to strip and radius sand the fingerboard lacquer facing, shoot a couple of skinny coats and refret from there - you will then need to match the lacquer type and shade and I always finish the entire neck with the refinish that way avoiding the naked edge that would be left with a edge to edge lacquer line where the fingerboard meets the back of the neck.   The peghead facing can be blended at the edge as it already has a lacquer finish and that way the original peghead appearance on the face remains.

As the instrument is not a rare there is little harm that can be done given that the task is started anyway and is not reversible.  Simply trying to fill the divots and cracks after the refret and then locally leveling and sanding/buffing etc is a waste of time and always apparent.   

The Stewmac Trade Secrets books have a lot on this subject and there is a complete book/dvd/cd on refretting by Dan Erlewine which covers the subject comprehensively - but full maple neck refrets and refinishes  come in at the difficult end of the scale (for me anyway) and may take a few to get good at.    I won't bore you with the first CBS neck I did where the whole poly finish came away as I was extracting the frets (the poly finish had lost adhesion to the maple and was just sitting there like a case...just waiting for me!).

Good luck bro,


Well, it looks like I'm a bit stuck.  I understand what you're saying here, but unfortunately, I don't have the equipment and facilities to do spray work.  

Would it be best in this case, to widen the slots significantly so the frets barely grab in the wood, fill with System Three T-88 and let the epoxy do the work?

I'm still an amateur working, slowly, toward a professional level, and the work I've done for myself and for friends has been out of my apartment.  Until such time as I can establish a real shop, would it be best for me to refuse re-fret work opportunities on lacquered maple necks? 

Do you (and others here) charge more for re-frets on lacquered maple necks than, say, rosewood, ebony or oil-finished maple necks?


(Russell) Ouch!

Hi John.

Rusty gave you great info.

I's only like to add that the scalloped FB is most likely exacerbating the problem.  When you're seating the frets (presumably with a hammer), there is nearly nothing distributing the force of the the rest of the FB between the frets as with a conventional neck.  There's a concentration of energy that has nowhere to go.

You could try using a system that presses the frets in, like a Jaws type of device or the ubiquitous arbor press. If a pristine FB is required, you'll likely need to refin the top of the FB.

I'd also like to echo Rusty's advice to radius/level the FB before pressing in the new frets.  In my book, it's a "must do" step in the process of fretting/re-fretting.  It also allows you to correct any existing anomalies, visible or not.  It's the things you can't see at a glance that can come back to bite you (:

Oh ya, my money is on a poly finish.  A call to Fender can get you the needed info.

The very best of luck,

Paul (:

Indeed, I am using a dead-blow hammer from Woodcraft and using a bag of buckshot under the neck.  I've looked into the fret presses of various sorts, but they are too expensive for me right now.  

The more I get into all of this, the more discouraging it is.  I've invested so much money over the past two years, and still feel like there are more high dollar items to purchase before I can even consider hanging out my shingle and get real money flowing in.  I cannot do spray work either.  I can do a little bit of small, isolated spray can lacquer work, but it has to be outside with wind blowing, leaves and junk off of the trees getting into it and I just can't work that way for serious work.  Catch 22, it seems.

Fortunately, this is my own guitar, so if it looks less than perfect on account of the chipping, I can live with that, but I was hoping this could be a good learning experience to improve my skills and edge me closer to 'profesional' status.  It appears from the sound, logical and highly experienced responses, that I'm out of my element here with this and similarly lacquered necks. 

Thank you all so very much!

Hi John,

I know how you feel at the moment, most of us who have gone on to do this as a job or a business or a ambitious hobby have been a the point you are now. 

It is a very unsettling point that requires you to make a commitment to work towards higher capabilities and skill sets while at the same time accepting (as we all must do) that all of us have technical or financial or time available restrictions - the dreaded "limits" that constrain us in our endeavors. 

Given your situation I think you are wize to suggest that, for the time being, you restrict your range of services to the things you do well.  This keeps up your spirits and enthusiasm, maybe generates a bit of cash flow for re-investment in tools and equipment and gets your name know for doing good work on the repairs you do OK.  At the same time it gives you the scope to study and learn how best to take the series of little and big steps we take as repairmen.

Secondly, keep your eye out for low/no cost junk guitars and practice on them to the point of destruction - it doesn't generate money but it sure doesn't cost us big time when we make errors in learning and applying techniques. 

Regarding spraying outside: it's natures spray-booth and you can now buy spraycans of premixed nitro and poly finishes from all the guitar suppliers.  I haven't used them because they are DC (dangerous cargo) to ship and when I was starting the only option was to buy spray gear and learn how to shoot lacquer and which lacquers worked - took years and cost a fortune.  but, now quality spray bombs are widely available I understand they do a reasonable job.  

Spray outdoors in the shade, in the published temperature and humidity range and dampen the area widely around where you intend to spray with a water spray to settle the dust.   A little bit of a breeze simulates the laminar flow of a spray booth and then be prepared to de-nib and sand back until you get a good clean lacquer build.  Did this for years - works fine - but it seems you must endure a lot of disappointment to become a good re-finisher and you will have set-backs (its normal - keep reading and learning when they occur).

Hammering fets into scalloped neck is part of your current problem - the other quick fix option is to radius sand the narrow "plinths" that the frets sit on to remove the lacquer that is so fragile on these narrow strips of maple. Be careful and slow and use good grade paper (I use 3M Freecut for just about everything) such as 220 through to 320 so as to not to damage the lacquer in the scalloped parts and to provide a good key for a lacquer touch up after hammering in the new frets.   I'm a fan of pressing in frets and enjoy the security and precision of this technique so yo may wish to take up the option some time down the track.

John, it seems everything we do in this trade is difficult - but, if it was easy everybody would be doing it - it's a challenge and it's fun.

Good luck and ask away when you get stuck.



Thank you for your encouraging words!  I very much appreciate it!  It seems like there is a fine line between the pride one feels when accomplishing something well done with less than ideal equipment and  situation and just plane ol' fighting one's tools.  I know full well both sides of that coin. Ha!  

I like this idea of radiusing just the "plinth" part of the neck in this situation, and I would only have to spray very minimally with the rest of the neck and fingerboard masked off.  I know you mentioned above that isolated spray repairs can be obvious, but would it be so much so if it was just the narrow tops around the frets in this case?  I can imagine that the finish edges could be blended in with sanding and buffing out...or is my imagination venturing into fantasy land? :-/  I do have the 3M papers you mentioned.  Just got 'em, actually.

Also, John's idea about tipping the triangle file back and forth to expand the sanding range of the lacquer might be worth a shot too.  

I do have a fret tang expander/minimizer, so I can try and squeeze the tangs a bit before trying to install the rest.  

Like I said, I'm only three frets in, so I could try the triangle file idea on a couple and see how that goes and if it doesn't pan out, I can switch to the radiusing of the plinth area your referred to.  

Is this cracking more of a problem with the poly finishes compared to real nitro?  I just can't imagine someone with '56 Esquire opting for refinishing his/her maple neck on a refret job.  What would one do in that case?

Again thank you all!

Before je pressed the frets in, you should take a long enough piece of new wire, grind the tang thin so it pops directly into the slot (snug of course) and score the lacquer with that dummy fret in place. I'd guess you installed slightly wider frets than were originally put in and therefore they sit on the edge of lacquer. This can be rather fiddling and it might be better to do a total respray as you already have some cracks.

Beveling the slots with a triangle file should have prevented this. (the triangle file I use has the edges ground smooth.) trying leaning the file left then right to get a shallower angle and smooth the edges of the lacquer  You could use ca glue to wick under the finish. That will help when you go back at shallower angles with the triangle file.

Years ago I was refretting a 68 Japanese reissue and the finish started lifting in a significant way, it was a manufacturing problem. I ended up stripping the finger board and the back of the neck and refinishing in tung oil. At the time this was a common modification. Many players didn't like the thick finishes on the late 70's Fenders.

I'll give this triangle file technique a shot first, and I'll try and squeeze my fret tangs a bit.  I recently got those specialty, bank breaking pliers from Stewmac, so I can give them a go.  Thanks for the tip!

Hello again John.

Man, Rusty always beats me to the punch, but that's Ok because he's one of the guys on the forum whose posts are ALWAYS spot on.

I hear you about affording/acquiring tools & equipment.  I hammered in frets for decades before It hit me that the the next fret job I do, I'll dedicate all the labor costs to buying a fret press system.  Although I more or less broke even on the job, it rewarded me with tools that made my refretting life MUCH easier and it's "paid for itself" over & over.

Stew Mac's arbor press is kind of pricey.  However, discount tool businesses (like Harbor Freight in the USA) sells them for a song.  All you'd have to buy is the caul holder, the cauls & the neck rest from Stew Mac and those, fortunately, aren't that expensive.  Plus, all of those things will last forever. 

Don't let this one incident discourage you.  Refretting a scalloped FB is difficult  regardless of your skill level.  It even makes the most pro of pro's curse out loud...& often.Fretting, to me, is the brain surgery of guitar work.

Oh, and yes...I upcharge for refrets on finished FB Maple necks by about $45.  Some folks don't.

Rusty, I had the same sort of adventure with a 25th Anniversary Strat a few months ago, except the finish came off in 1 piece on the side of the neck.  It was bout 5cm x 1cm!  Often, CBS/Fender quality leaves a lot to be desired. Even the post CBS Fender had a few abominations, but I won't single-out the trem system on Smith Strat's (;

But keep on keepin' on John.  You're amongst friends and we've ALL been where you are now.  It's worth the frustration & learning curve.  Heck, most of my current processes evolved from the realm  of:  "Boy, I gotta remember not to do THAT again" (-:

Enjoy your week,

Paul (-:


Thank you for your encouragement!  I can see now that hammering the frets has it's limitations.  All the jarring probably doesn't help a brittle finish.  I'll look into the resources you mentioned, that might be a good option for me. 

It makes sense that some jobs tend to go for a bit more when, on the surface, they might appear the same.  Good to know.

I've only done two refrets so far.  The first was on rosewood and it went quite well.  The second was on another all maple neck for a Frankin-Strat belonging to my cousin.  That didn't go so well and I posed about it a few weeks back.  That neck had to be abandoned as it had been thinned 'shredder style' prior to a hack-job refinish and the previous modder compromised the skunk stripe wich crushed in with only a gentle push with my thumb!  So, it was replaced.  In that case I did do a reradiousing of the neck prior to the fret job, and sprayed lacquer outside.  I had to sand it out and reapply due to some runs, but it was better the second time.  I did have to fight the wind a bit though.  This is why I'm a bit gun shy about spraying.  I feel much more at home sanding, buffing and polishing a finish than applying it.  

Anyway, I'll take to heart all suggestions here and take it slow.  I'll report back as things come along.  ***All of this makes me want to opt for an oil finish to a Tele neck in a future pine-caster I intend to build.***

Thanks!!!  Hope everyone has a great week too! - John


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