Refretting a Fender USA Strat

I recently acquired a Fender USA Stratocaster. There were a few things that really stood out to me, both positive and negative. The neck was incredibly comfortable in the hand but there was significant fret wear all along the neck. The pickups sounded stunning but Fender chose not to install a TBX tone control. Also, the setup was all over the place and I would not have been happy to walk out on stage at Glastonbury to 100,000 people with it (my acid test for deciding if a guitar is ready to go or not).

So this was the ideal opportunity to blog about what’s required when re-fretting a guitar and changing the electrics. There may be a few bumps in the road along the way but we’ll deal with them as they crop up.

The slide shows below highlight each step that was taken and I’ll try and give you a good idea of what’s going on in each slides caption. You can always contact me if you have more questions etc.

Okay, let’s start with the neck:

The Fender USA Stratocaster neck

The Fender USA Stratocaster neck - We're going to check it over to see what work is needed.

Checking the headstock

All the tuners check out ok

Signs of fretwear

Here we can see some signs of fretwear. I also noticed that the rosewood was a little on the dry side.

More fretwear

Here we can see more signs of fretwear, in fact it's pretty much all over the neck. Also, the rosewood 'feels' dry so I'll deal with that as we go along.

 

The rosewood on the neck felt very dry and I was worried that it was going to turn to powder during the work I would be carrying out:

Oiling the neck

Here I've added some lemon oil to the first five frets so you can see what a difference it makes.

Cleaning the oil off

Now I've rubbed the oil off we can see how much richer and healthy the rosewood looks.

Oiling the rest of the neck

Time to oil the rest of the neck

 

Next comes removing the frets:

Fret removal tools

They may look a little medieval but I'll be using these to remove the frets. If all goes according to plan I'll only have to use the pliers.....

Another important tool

I'll also be using a soldering iron to warm the frets thus loosening any glue that may have been used to secure them. Notice how it's a 30w iron? I really don't think you need anything higher than this for the vast majority of jobs.

CAREFULLY heating up a fret

The first fret will tell you pretty much everything we need to know about how the rest of the fret removal will go. This is one of those stages that you just can't rush.

Crunch time!

This is the point in the show where I very, very, very carefully start trying to lift the fret. This isn't for the faint hearted and takes years to get the technique right.

Continuing along the fret

Very slowly and very carefully I'll walk the pliers along the fret lifting it carefully. I'll also continue to apply heat via the soldering iron.

Nearly there!

We're over half-way now and so far, so good.

The end is in sight!

I often find that the start and end of removing a fret are the toughest parts of the job. I really can't stress how careful you need to be when removing a fret.

Phew!

The first fret is out! There's virtually no wood loss (a real danger when dealing with a rosewood neck that's dried out) so I'm happy to move along the rest of the board.

Checking the fret slot

After every fret is removed I'll check each fret slot and clear it of any debris.

Half way there!

This is a 22 fret board so I've got to fret 11, removed that and now it's time for a cup of tea. Maybe even a biscuit or six.

 

We’ve picked up a few casualties along the way. This is pretty normal with a rosewood neck so let’s take a closer look:

Bad chip!

Here we have a classic example of what happens when a fretboard dries out. This chip occurred when the final part of the fret was removed.

Super-glue to blame?

The last fret to come out left a lot of lifting etc when it was removed. I suspect that at some point this fret was lifting so someone used super-glue to keep it in place.

The tools we'll need to fix those chips

Ok, we're going to need a file, a block of rosewood, teflon strips, a razor blade, 00 wire wool and a sheet of paper. We're also going to need some super-glue!!

Contact adhesive aka super-glue

Never, ever, ever, ever use 'normal' super-glue. It's way too strong and will cause a billion issues in the future. This is 'thin' CA i.e. watered down. It'll grip but it'll be more manageable during future work.

Dust!

I've filed off some sawdust from the block of rosewood on to a piece of paper.

Inserting a Teflon strip

Ok, lets deal with that major chunk of missing wood. Here I've inserted a Teflon strip and we can really see how bad the chipping is.

Pile up the sawdust

I've made a really heaped pile of rosewood sawdust on the chip and against the Teflon strip.

Time to compact

Using a scalpel blade I've compacted in the sawdust getting as much as I can in the the chip.

Super-glue time!

Depending on the size of the repair I'll drip one, maybe two drops of thin super-glue on to the sawdust

Moving on to the other fret slots

Right, lets look at those other dodgy fret slots. Same process, insert a Teflon Strip.....

Add dust....

....add sawdust and compact it down.....

Add glue......

......drop in one, maybe two, drops of thin super-glue.....allow to dry. Let's return to that first chip we looked at.

Remove the Teflon strip

Right, I've very carefully removed the Teflon strip (some call it a dam) and it looks like we might be well on the way to getting this fretboard usable again.

Time, care and attention.

Using a lot of time, care and attention plus a razor blade and some 00 wire wool I've got that chip pretty much back to where I want it. There will be a little bit of tidying up to do when we come to refretting.

The three amigos

This is all I used to remove the dried super-glue/sawdust excess. You'll almost certainly recognise the wire wool and razor blade but the furry looking round thing in the middle is a magnet that attracts all the wire wool 'dust'.

 

It’s time to start installing the new frets:

Sizing it up

We now need to find out what radius neck we're dealing with. Never assume anything and always double check. These radius gauges will help me suss out what other tools and parts I'm going to need.

Finding the correct radius

Looking at a bright light source helps us find the right radius. If light shines through either the middle or the ends of the gauge then I have the wrong one. Looks like I got it right first time here.

Double, triple and quadruple check!

I'll check the radius at four or five points along the board. It may have been re-profiles in the past. In this case I'm happy that it's 9.5" all the way along the board.

Fret wire

Getting the right fret wire is critical. I get most of my fret wire from Jescar in the USA. It arrives pre-cut and pre-radiused and is of very high quality meaning it should last for years. On this Strat I'm installing jumbo fret wire.

Yet more tools

Another selection of tools needed to make sure the fret installation goes smoothly.

Using a fret press

Because the neck is removable I'll be using this fret press to speed the job up a bit. If the neck is fixed e.g. like a Les Paul or and acoustic then I'll use either a hammering method or an alternative press set-up.

Installing the first fret

The first fret is gently pushed in to the slot. There's a lot of alignment that's needed before pressing the fret in to make sure the barbs of the fret wire make contact with as much wood as possible.

Half way there! (Again)

Fret 11 has just been installed. I haven't had to use one drop of glue to hold any of these frets in place which is very encouraging. Time for another cuppa (it's been about three hours since the last one at this point).

All the frets are now installed

Ok, all 22 frets are now installed. The frets need a lot more work however so lets crack on....

Industrial nippers needed

I'm going to use these hardened steel cutters to take the excess fret wire off.

Trimmed and ready for tidying up

All the excess fret wire has now been removed but the neck is still unusable. In the next slideshow we'll look at tidying things up a bit.

 

Adding new frets is a multi-stage process. Let’s get those frets tidied up now:

Bad fret ends

As things stand at the moment every fret has a razor sharp edge from being trimmed back earlier on. These would shred your hand in a second so lets make them safe.

That's better

That looks a bit better. Every fret has now been filed and angled. They still need levelling and then I'll crown and dress them.

Looking good but still a long way to go.

So, the frets are new and have had their ends tidied up a bit but I now have to level then crown then dress the frets.

Always use protection!

Here I've protected the rosewood with masking tape leaving the frets exposed. You'll see why shortly.

Magic markers

I've used both my eye and a laser cut fret rocker to determine where I think there will be extra attention needed. I've also coloured every fret with a Sharpie pen. You'll see why in a mo.

Using a fret levelling file

This is a fine diamond coated fret levelling file. When all the frets have had the ink removed I'll know they're all level. Don't try this at home!! Well give it a go, it's fun but it takes a steady hand and lots of practice to get right.

Levelled frets

Ok, so I'm now happy that all the frets are level. The issue now is that they're as rough as a badgers backside so we need to polish them up.

Some frets have had more material removed than others

You can see here that some frets have had more material removed than others. This highlights why you still need to perform a full fret level even after fitting new frets.

Polishing up

Using a radius sanding block I'll now use wet and dry paper to polish up the frets. In all I'll be using around 12 grades of paper to polish up the frets. Still a long way to go though.

Getting there slowly

Ok, we're about halfway through the polishing here. There is one issue now with the newly installed frets, they're flat! Frets need to be curved otherwise there will intonation and buzzing issues.

That's better (again)

By using a lot of elbow grease, time, patience and a huge bucket of skill every fret is now crowned.

Almost done

The frets are now level, polished, crowned, polished again (there's a good reason for that) and now just need their ends dressing.

Today's word of the day is 'delicate'

This is a very fine dressing file. I'll use it to dress the ends of the frets. The object of the game is to make them like silk.

Done!

Ok, that's the fret ends sorted. Each one is now dressed and feels gorgeous. Can't wait to get some stings on this guitar now!

Ready to go

Another fine Tonefinder refret job. I've also reconditioned the rosewood so it'll last for many years to come.

 

I really do think this guitar would benefit from a TBX tone control. Let’s add one:

Adding a TBX tone control

Ok, let's turn our attention to the body of the guitar. The only thing I want to do here is replace one of the tone pots with a Fender TBX Tone Control (TBX = Treble Bass eXpander).

Inspecting the electrics

All the electrics look good to me. Nice and original! Fender chopped and changed their mind when deciding when to fit a TBX to their USA Strats. This one hasn't got one so I'm going to rectify that.

Here's the kit

Fender kindly supply a TBX pot with the required resistor and capacitor in one handy kit. Thanks Fender!!

Initial wiring

It's far easier to add the resistor and capacitor before installing.

Final installation

The TBX is now in place (replacing the middle pickups tone pot). It will look after the bridge and middle pickup and really add a wealth of tonal possibilities.

Reunited!!

The neck, body and scratchplate are now all back together again. It's almost setup time but there's one more thing to do.....

 

Sadly the old nut has to go. Here I cut and fit a new one:

Original nut?

I suspect that this is the original nut that was fitted to the guitar. It's served its purpose well but it's too low now the frets have been replaced. Some people would shim the nut to make it higher. Not me, I think that way lays madness.

Let's remove that old nut

Ok, I've masked off the fretboard to protect it. I tried to gently pull the nut out with a pair of bull-nose pliers but it wouldn't budge. I suspect glue has been used but that ain't a bad thing so long as it was watered down PVA glue and not any type of super-glue.

Gently does it!

Because the pliers didn't work I'll now try a very, very gentle nudge with a centre punch. That did the job!

The new 'blank'

Here's the new 'blank' that I carved from a larger piece of bone. I made a boo-boo here and forgot to take a photo of the original blank. I'll make up for that later.

Using the old nut for spacing

The old nut had perfectly good string spacing so I'll use that as a basis for the spacing on the new nut. I'll only rough it out to start with to make sure I'm happy with it.

Using a pull saw

Let's use a very fine pull saw to make the initial cuts to the nut. This is a 0.010" pull saw and cuts like a hot knife through butter so I have to be really, really careful not to remove too much material.

Spacing = fine - height = stupid

I'm happy with the initial spacing but the string height is a touch high (read unplayable). Let's get that sorted.

The Final Cut

Using a radius plate and feeler gauges to protect the neck and stop me cutting too much material away I'll now use various sizes of pull saws and nut saws to cut the slots for each string.

Cut and shaved

Ok, all the string slots have been cut to the correct height and I've filed/shaved a lot of the excess nut material away. The corners of the nut are now too pointy and will hurt! Lets correct that.

That'll do nicely

The nut is now smooth and will not inhibit playing in any way, shape or form.

The original 'blank'

It was at this point that I realised that I'd forgotten to photo the original 'blank'. This is roughly the same size bone blank that this new nut was carved from.

 

Now the new nut is installed I can now proceed with setting up the guitar. This will involve checking neck relief, string height, pickup height amongst other things. Suffice to say that the guitar is now a joy to play. Here is the finished article:

All cleaned up

Cutting a new nut is a very messy process so the headstock and first few frets have been cleaned up.

Gotta give Fender credit where it's due

There's something about a Strat. This one is now a joy to play and sounds incredible.

Look at it!!!

Gorgeous!! Go on, tell me you don't like it!!!!!

All polished and ready to go

The guitar is now all cleaned up, set up and ready to gig! Doesn't it look gorgeous?!?