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 Paul, did you use wider fretwire on those two MIJ scalloped necks, or did you use wire that fit within the old nut seat?

I doubt that luck had anything to do with it, more likely a practiced hand determined the favorable outcome of those jobs you did.

Hi Nathan,

I used Stew-Mac #149 fretwire on both with a tang thickness" of .023. I also widened/prepped  the fret slots using their slotting pull-cut handsaw saw with a matching .023 kerf.

I know that everyone has a preference in the brand of FW they use, and I find S-M's wire/tool "system" to be easier to manage than having to stock different sizes of wire with different tang thicknesses and saws with varied kerf sets.  Of course, unique situations may require me to shift my approach, depending on the challenge and desired results. You know how it goes(:

After 35+ years, I still get anticipatory butterflies when doing a fret job.  The same thing that intrigues me about fretting is the same thing that instills that "at the apex of a roller coaster ride" terror in my gut: Each job is unique and there may (will?) be unexpected issues to be discovered & addressed.  In the end, it's always a rush (:

Thanks for the kind words but now I'm convinced that luck was with me on those jobs.

Take care man (:

Udate:  Well, I added three more frets to the three I had previously set after trying to broaden my triangle file technique to remove more of the lacquer.  This didn't go so well, so I opted for Rusty's idea of re-radiusing the neck (or the top most part as this is a scalloped neck) and that solved the problem of cracking without a doubt.  Things seemed to move along pretty well and I didn't have any bent fret/crimped fret problems and they all seemed pretty well seated. Then, I adjusted the truss rod just a tiny bit to get things reasonably straight with the new frets in, and went to work marking the frets with a sharpie as I tested each fret with a fret rocker all the way across each.  Boy, was there a lot of ink!  Then, I began to use the deadblow hammer to try and drive those raised areas down more.  I was able to help the situation, but several frets just would NOT go down further.  The slots are plenty deep enough and thoroughly cleaned, I used a fret tang expander to ensure they dug in good, but I didn't go crazy and I checked my slot thickness and tang thickness with feeler gauges/calipers (respectively) and saw fit to expand them a tad.  The neck was firmly pressed by hand and arm against the bag of buckshot but I still hat trouble on many of them no matter how hard I whacked them.  On at least 8 frets, I can run a .005" feeler gauge under parts of these problem frets and the fret board!  

Even with all of my hammering, I didn't appear to have dented the frets, which is good.

I did try and remove some of the really tough frets and reset them with new frets, some with no fret tang adjustment and some with more.  There were a couple that benefitted successfully by this but others remained fraught with trouble.  What a nightmare!

What am I doing wrong?  Would a fret press (hand-held or arbor style) solve this problem? 

I'm at a loss.  

John I've been putting in frets with a hammer for years, it's my preferred method although I've pressed them in too. Putting in frets with a hammer is a skill and it has to be learned, I still have frets that give me grief sometimes. I like a smaller nylon faced hammer (I have several deadblow hammers that I use rarely) it's important to let the hammer do the work, no wrist just the hammer falling. You're going for small repetitive hits.

The frets need to be over radiused but not so much that they spring up in the middle, this is a trial and error and experience thing the size shape and hardness all have an effect on the amount of curve you put into the fret. Softer lower frets will seat easier than tall hard ones. If you have to hit them hard they are not fitting properly either because of the amount of radius or the size of the slot. The reason I prefer a hammer is that I have a better feel for what going on when I use a hammer. There is nothing wrong with a press in a perfect world you'd learn how to do both well and make a decision from there.

I repair guitars for a living and sometimes you just have to get the job done so if there are a few frets that won't seat I'll glue them with ca glue and clamp them. If there a many that won't seat than there is a bigger problem that needs to be dealt with. I suspect that many of your problems are just technique and it will get better. The bag of buck shot is great but you'll find that when you get closer to the end the frets will seat better if you put the flat part of the neck right on your bench  protect it with a piece of leather let the headstock hang over the end of the bench. I could talk about how to do a refret all day long and still not tell you half of what I know about it not to mention that in a room full of guitar techs someone always has a better idea.

The best advice I can give you is that it's not about the tools, it's about problem solving. Identify the problem come up with a solution.


John, thank you!  I appreciate your comment here. 

I have one of the nylon hammers, a Stanley in fact, and the 10 oz. deadblow is new to the collection. I purchased the deadblow thinking it would improve my technique and help prevent dents with the softer head.  This is not the one that Stew Mac sells with the brass addition.  This is just the regular Z E-30 10 oz. from Woodcraft.  I was starting out with moderate tapping, but as things got harder, my tapping got harder.  At a certain point I was really going at it and stopped realizing that with that kind of whack and no resolve, there had to be some mystery trouble at play.  

I woke up wondering if A. my frets were too extremely radiused, though they seemed in fair keeping to photos and videos I've seen, but like you said, different alloys can have different properties and i didn't think about that.  What I'm using for this job is Stew Mac #148.  And B. perhaps I didn't widen the tang enough to grab....or perhaps I made it too wide on some frets and it just wouldn't go in all of the way.   

One thing of potentially important note here, I barely had enough fret wire to do this job, so as I had to remove and replace a couple I grabbed a coiled stock of fretwire from a hook nearby, used my calipers to check the size of the tang and crown (length and thickness and all of that) and they were virtually indistinguishable, so I cleaned and radiused that stock (I believe from Luthiers Mercantile) to get me through.  As they seem the same, I don't know now which ones are which, but I can't tell any difference, nor can my calipers.  Anything to worry about here?


No, I wouldn't worry about it.  Have you checked the depth of your slot and the length of your tang?  Hammering frets in is not this complicated and troublesome as long as things fit.

Thanks!  I discovered at least one problem and I'm working it out now.  Apparently when I chamfered the top of the slots prior to leveling, I removed the chamfer as I leveled, and this lack of chamfer was causing resistance (I think?).  So, I reset some of the most offending frets after re-chamfering the slot tops and they started sitting better!  I can still get a little rocking from the fret rocker on some areas, but nothing as bad as before, and in some spots the rock is gone.  

I am also seing that in most cases I can no longer slide the .005" feeler gauge under those frets.  It's more like a .003" or .0025"  Is that acceptable?  Or should I be looking to achieve zero gap?

I'm not hearing dead spots when I tap those frets with a screw driver handle like I was, I understand that that is a good sign.  

I'm not sure of the steps you're following.  I don't pull out my fret rocker until I get a buzz when things are setup and done.  The process I follow is chamfer slots (important for good seating), hammer/press in frets, set truss rod to make neck straight, level (I use a file) frets, re-crown, polish/clean frets  and fret ends.  String up, adjust rod, check for buzzes.

What he said. ^ ............there should be a "Like" button in this forum. 

Hi Glen,  

My process is pretty similar to yours, actually.  There have been some instances in the past where I was learning to level and dress, and I didn't realize that a fret was sitting proud of the others (either because it was loose and sprung up, or was never really set well to begin with like on a cheap guitar) and I ended up removing fret metal that never needed to come off had I just tapped the fret in a little more or set it with some glue.  

With the neck I'm working on now, the problems of having not re-radiused the fret board enough, and having chamfered before re-radiusing, were causing me to have frets stuck up all over the place.  I've pretty much licked the problem now, and with the neck set straight (without tension) there are hardly any high spots, so leveling and crowning should be easier and I presume less material will need to be removed.   

As far as the feeler gauges are concerned, I just decided to use them to see just how much of gap I was getting in the problem areas.  I don't know if anyone does that or not, but it helped me isolate some of the trouble areas along with the fret rocker

I've also seen a youtube video where a professional repairman will take a screwdriver, or something similar, with a hard plastic handle and gently tap the frets all the way across to see if he hears a dead 'thunk' instead of a nice crisp 'plink' sound to test for dead sounds where a fret might not be properly seated but hard to see as having a problem.  I did this test last night and it sounds good and my fret rocker is hardly rocking at all, so I think I'm ready for the leveling an dressing stage.  

You should be able to see if the frets are seated when you put them in, the fret rocker and the feeler gauges may confirm something but you shouldn't need them. I clip the fret ends as soon as I put the fret in.There are a number of good reasons for this,  the end of the fret will lift a bit sometimes when it's clipped and it holds down better if you tap it again after it's clipped... When all the frets are in I bevel and flush file the ends.

At this point I put the strings on and tune it to pitch. There is no tool that will tell you how a neck will work that is better than putting strings on. 

On a really good day you're pretty much done, on a pretty good day you can mark the places that need work and dress them out. And sometimes you have to dress the whole fingerboard. The more of them you do the more really good days you'll have. 

Tapping the frets with a screw driver handle isn't a technique I'd recommend, just look at them and trust your eyes you can see much better than you think.

You'll learn far more from doing the work than you will researching it. Good luck John 

Thank you again, John. 

Everyone's comments have REALLY been helpful and though it's often a brain full, I try to retain as much as I can.  

Agreed, there is no substitute for doing.  I'd be doing more on cheap finds, but my trusting guitar playing friends keep handing me really tough stuff and usually on something valuable like a 30's Gibson L-3, a C. 1900 Bay State, and a Gibson L-00 from the 30's!  I've managed to get through them all with success, and I have you guys to thank for helping me through the kinks along the way!

I'll be finishing the Fender maple neck tomorrow and report back.  I think it will be just fine now that I finally found the cause for my troubles and have rectified them.  Again, many thanks!



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