November 2016 | Benchpress Newsletter

Make a Gibson Great Again

Things seem to come in waves around the shop. On my bench recently, has been a series of vintage archtops—a few 40's Synchromatics, an original Loar L5, and some D'Angelico's. Recently, this beautiful 40's Blonde L5 came in.  When repairing rare, high-value vintage instruments, you need a clear vision for the final outcome, and also to be a few steps ahead mentally at all times. This is both to avoid mistakes, and to ensure the job will turn out great.  I always have a great result as the goal, but the pressure seems a bit greater on instruments with significant historical and monetary value.  Although a refret may seem pretty routine, I had to use all my tooling and tricks to get the result I wanted on this one.

This L5 is an amazingly well kept and beautiful guitar, but the fretboard and frets were in sad shape. The prior refret was done poorly, and I could tell by looking down the neck that the fingerboard was wildly out of spec. That’s to be expected on an old guitar that has been worked on, but this guitar had a few additional challenges.

There are a few things I want in any refret - tightly seated frets, uniform fret height, ends tight to the board with no gaps and a nice, straight line when looking down the fret ends. This neck had a widely varying and uneven radius, which would make seating the frets evenly a challenge. It had humps and dips, so even fret height would be impossible. The binding had been severely rolled, almost to the side dots, so seating the ends would be an issue. The side dots were barely below the top of the binding, so too much material removal would expose them, which is impossible to fix. Lots of impediments to a great job, but that’s what the assessment is about, finding the problem areas so you can make a plan to work around them.

To confirm my visual assessment, it was time to scan it in the Plek. With the scan information, I can see exactly the fingerboard condition, both in the relief curve, and in the radius. With this info, which shows me exactly how much material I will plane off the board, I can decide if the inlays are too thin, or the side dots too high, to allow the needed amount of removal.

The scan showed that the first fret radius was around 8", with the 12th fret radius at 11.5", and the body end of the fingerboard on the low E had a large kick, combined with a hump mid neck. With the side dots almost at the top of the binding, I couldn't take any material off the bass side of the neck, and the inlays were of unknown thickness, making it impossible to perfectly true the board.

With this in mind, I decided to go old school and bust out the neck jig.  I felt that since I wasn't going to be able to make the fingerboard perfect, the jig would be accurate enough, and it would allow me to monitor my progress very closely as I trued the board.

Considering the condition of the board, I decided that an accurate radius was the most important thing to achieve. With an accurate radius, I could get beautifully seated frets. The fret heights would be a bit uneven to compensate for the inconsistencies in the board, but not enough to notice while playing. Balancing the considerations mentioned above, I decided I could get the board to a 9.5 radius without ruining anything. After strapping the guitar into the neck jig, I used a long 9.5 radius beam to knock down the biggest humps in the board, then a short 9.5" block to bring the radius in. It really brought back memories of the old days using the jig. I almost never use it, but when I need it, it's a great tool to have.
Back on the bench, I Dremeled out the fret slots, which had a bunch of old glue in them, and prepared the frets, which consisted of radiusing the wire, cutting it to length, undercutting the fret tangs to fit in the binding and filing the underside of the crown smooth. The original frets were about .085" wide, so I decided to use Jescar 5590 wire, which is just a touch wider, but is quite tall. The height would allow me to compensate for the unevenness in the board, while still leaving enough fret height for good playability. I didn't expect to have more than about a .005" difference between the highest and lowest frets, but small numerical differences in fret height can be quite noticeable with low frets, so a bit of extra height would help hide that. With the Plek, I can program any height, so it's easy to zero in exactly.

With the frets prepped, the next was to press them into the board. Using a 9.5" radius pressing caul on my trusty Shopsmith 10ER, I pressed the frets into the neck, up to the body joint, then hammered the last few on the fingerboard extension. The press can apply enough pressure to crush a guitar, so any area of the guitar that is weak, or can't be well supported, does not get pressed. A hammer allows enough pressure to seat the frets well, while giving me the ability to moderate the impact. I then wicked thin super glue under all the frets to be sure they would stay seated for many years to come. Finally, while holding the frets down with the pressing caul, I gently tapped the ends down to close up the gaps a bit at the ends. The binding was so rolled I couldn’t get it perfect, but it helped.

The ends were then bevelled and polished, then back into the Plek for the fret dressing. I didn't know what to expect, but the fretplane was much better than I anticipated. The jig work was pretty good, so I only ended up with about .004" difference between the high and low frets. I cut them to an average height of .043", which is what a new "vintage" type wire would be. That's probably a bit higher than original, but you can always cut them lower! It's pretty hard to put fret back on... I rounded the ends and polished the frets. I love new, shiny frets. The last step was to fill a few gaps under the ends. The binding was so rolled over that, even though I hammered the ends down, some of the ends didn't quite conform. I used white medium superglue and filled the few gaps, leveled the fill, and buffed it smooth. After a setup, the guitar played and sounded great.
When you've been doing this as long as I have, sometimes a refret just doesn't seem like a big deal, but then something like this shows up and reminds you that luthiere is a constant learning process. If I would not have had the experience of using my neck jig before I got my Plek, I'm sure the job wouldn't have come out nearly as well as it did. That said, it's the accuracy of the Plek's fretwork, and the ability to use it to assess an instrument before any work is done, that made this possible. This beautiful old L5 deserved every bit of my skill and effort, and I'm glad to have had the opportunity to bring it back to life.