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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Hey John, the press wouldnt help you in this situation even if you had it! Given your situation, the best route is probably to simply refinish the fretboard and just be super careful when you bevel the fret ends of the new frets so you don't damage the finish on the side of the neck. Tang nippers will help you with that.

I refinish these necks with polyurethane under the new frets. No spray booth required and the owner gets full fret height when the job is done. Every once in a while someone who needs a maple fretboard refinished wants the finish sprayed over the frets, in those situations I sub out the work to a shop in PA with a spray booth that does great finish work.

Here's my finish under the frets routine:

FWIW: These days I apply four thin coats of zinsser oil based poly moderately sanded with 600 grit between each coat.

Nathan, thanks for the info.  I'll have a look at your site.  This sounds promising with the cracking issue.  

By the way, what do you do with an aged nitro finish on a pre-CBS or nitro sprayed newer maple neck?  Is cracking as bad a problem with nitro?  Wouldn't a refinish of one of these guitar affect the value?


Sorry, I didn't see this question earlier.  I don't see how you could go with wider fretwire on anything pre-70's without the lacquer breaking apart.  Even the ones from the 70's are fussy because you have to reinforce the plateaus of polyester with some c.a..

I have refretted pretty cleanly over newer lacquer necks with wider fret wire but in those cases I sanded away most of the plateau first and what remained was not nearly as brittle as the MIJ that I attempted.

I'm a youngish guy so all of my pre-cbs refretting experiences have been with rosewood boards.  I leave those maple necks to the guys who can do nearly invisible touchups to old lacquer or make a refinished neck look like it was sprayed 50+ years ago. 

Beautiful pictorial Nathan.  I always enjoy e-visiting

I think the only anomaly here is the scalloped FB.  I've only re-fretted 2 scalloped necks in my days (thank goodness...they're somewhat disorienting) ..both Fender YJM models.  I pressed in the frets and encountered no chipping (or other) issues.

Am I missing something or did I just get lucky...twice?

Thanks man (:

Paul, agreed, Nathan's website it really fantastic and the work is even better! :-) 

This guitar is one of my personal guitars.  I went on a scallop kick about 14 years ago and a friend had me scallop his rosewood strat neck.  I liked it, and went so far as to scallop my MIJ "60's Reisue" Strat with the not-so-reissue "photo flame" finish.  While I've largely outgrown that phase, I still like them for certain kinds of playing, and that's what prompted me to buy the MIJ Malmsteen strat we've all been discussing here.  As much as I love that 60's reissue neck with the hand done scalloping, I kind of wished I hadn't .....hind sight is twenty/twenty.  At least it wasn't a real 60's neck, LOL!

I'm really itching to make a nice pinecaster soon, but it will NOT be sporting a scalloped neck.  Two is enough! '-)

Hey Paul, it looks like I'm the one who missed something here; I didn't realize it was a scalloped neck!

I encountered this exact same issue on an 80's MIJ maple neck. The customer wanted wider fretwire which is normally not much of a problem. In this case, my arbor press destroyed the finish as in the photos in John's post. I assumed the extra headaches were due to a different, more brittle lacquer formula than the lacquered American necks and lack of adhesion with the fretboard by the frets. In that case, I wound up simply refinishing the fretboard.

I've refretted my fair share of maple necks without refinishing them, including some from the 70's with that awful, super-thick polyester finish. That MIJ neck was the only one to give me that much trouble!

I've run into brittle finishes on MIJ Fenders too Nathan.  I now  treat them like 60 year old nitro. It wonder if they use a more 'vintage spec' formulation in Japan? ARE making progress & that's a good thing.  We all have cases of having to replace "oooops" frets during a refret. It's all just part of the process.

A couple more questions may help us to get closer to a solution:

Are you per-bending & over-radiusing the frets prior to installation? ... and;

Are you using any kind of glue in the fret slot prior to seating the fret?

Take care,


Good questions, Paul.

Yes, I am pre-radiusing the fretwire prior to cutting it up into individual frets.  I use a homemade fret bender made of oak, washers and various nylon bushings and a crank.  I can adjust the severity of the curve as needed.  (picture included)

I have not been putting glue into the frets prior to seating them.  I've read of and sean Youtube videos of guys with their own repair businesses seating the frets, dropping CA glue on the fret ends, letting the fret ends dry before nipping, them, then running a water-thin bead of CA glue along the fret's length with an exacto knife to ensure a good fit.  This was my intention with this guitar, but I'm open to other options if they might work better.

While I've never done it, I've seen videos of guys filling the fret slots with System Three T-88 slow setting epoxy and seating the frets with a press, then clamping the whole thing down with radiused cauls.  I have T-88 glue, but I don't have the radiused cauls that extend the length of the neck like the StewMac extruded aluminum ones that cost and arm and a leg.  * Nathan's approach with the individual cauls and quick clamps seems like a nifty idea though!


Very nice job on the fret bender man!!  As a matter of fact, I'm going to modify mine (also shop made) to include your topside adjusters. 

It certainly looks like you have good wood and metalworking skills.  I think that you only need more experience. Most tech's will tell you, truthfully, that it takes dozens of refrets before it seems to get easier. It's an unending learning curve as each job presents different situations that must be addressed.

Personally, I avoid the use of epoxy for fretting except in extreme situations where it's the only adhesive that will work. My primary choice for slots is gel type CA. I use the water thin CA only for misbehaving fret ends.  But like 'the other 'John said, everyone has their own preferences.  It's best to use whatever works best for you.

It'll all eventually work out(:

If this project is frustrating, there's no dishonor to putting it on the back burner for a few days to give your mind a break.  We all need a break from difficult projects every now & then.

Again, great job on the bender & take care (-:

Thank you, Paul!  The fret bender was a fun build.  Basically I just riffed off of what is already out there for purchase.  Everything there was just sitting around the shop except for the larger nylon bushings and the two fender washers separated by a smaller washer.  I secured the pieces meant to stay put permanently, with an epoxy meant for binding metal.  So far so good.  If that part ever fails, it won't be much trouble to redo it

My Dan Earlewine neck jig rip-off that I made for a scant $75 total, isn't quit as pretty, but it does the job and I feel like my last two fret dressings went much smoother, with more accurate results.  I know that a lot of the old-school guys don't use them, and perhaps I'll grow out of it, but if nothing else, it secures my work and gives me a clear path of focus and I'm not getting in the way of myself.

Regarding the Malmsteen neck: I pulled some of the really troubling frets, and chamfered the top of the slot.  It appears that having chamfered before leveling the fret board removed the slight angle downward!  So I re-chamfered, cleaned, and reset some frets, and while I'm still getting a little rocking of the fret rocker, it's been greatly reduced and it takes a much smaller feeler gauge to get under the fret now.  Before I could easily get a .005" under there in spots, now it's more like .003" or .0025" except for some trouble areas I'm working on.  

Is there any harm in reinserting the same piece of fret wire after it's removed if there is no damage or visible kinks, or is it always best just to start again with a fresh piece?  I've been starting fresh, but I'm running out of stock quickly in this size.


Can you call me at 570-499-1639. I am a friend of Sean Tolans and need a fret job done on my Takemine.



All valuable and perspective broadening information here, thank you Nathan!  

On the topic of the MIJ stuff.  I replaced the "phot-flame" body of my 60's reissue strat, placing the MIJ 60's reissue neck (not the one being discussed in this thread) on a Highway One body with the thin nitro finish, and I swear it sounds better, much more open and woody by comparison to the super thick plastic-like finish on the MIJ "phot-flame" body.  

The Malmsteen strat who's neck I'm working on in this thread, aslo sports that heavier finish, but seemingly not as bad as the 60's reissue one.  


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