Restoration Stories - Fretboards

Normally there's not much to say here, except that most fretboard problems are not nearly as bad as people fear.

Wear on the frets is normal, starts as soon as you start playing, and is not normally an issue unless the frets start to become very worn. Symptoms of overly worn frets include an inability to fret clean notes, poor intonation, and/or fret buzzing when playing at a well worn position.

Mild issues including loose or uneven fretwork can be treated with a fret level and dress: this is the first step in any good setup, and involves milling the top of the frets perfectly level, and then reinstating the crowned shape of the frets by using a specially shaped file. In more advanced cases it's possible to replace just the first few frets, and when things get really bad, then a full re-fret will restore the instrument to absolute tip-top condition.

Here's an example of a fret that definitely needed replacing: in fact the divots in the frets were down below the level of the wood! A new fret on the left shows how things should look:

This example came from this nice old archtop guitar, with a neck reset and a full re-fret it definitely looks and plays the part now:

Things get more interesting when there is mother-of-pearl involved. This old Neapolitan mandolin had a full mother-of-pearl fretboard which had become uneven with age.

Normally this is non-issue: you just pull the frets, level the board off, and then re-fret. In a situation like this though, the pearl is wafer thin: much too thin to be levelled in-situ. The only way forward was to carefully lift all the pearl, level the board below it, and then put everything back where it was:

This lovely old Vega mandolin had a similar issue, with engraved mother of pearl attributed to master craftsman Icilio Consalvi , the brief from the client was to preserve the engravings at all cost:

However, making the instrument at all playable again, would require removing the frets and getting the board level again. The solution adopted was to carefully lift the pearl, level the board, and then deepen all the inlay pockets just the right amount so the pearl could be reinserted. This is necessarily an imperfect solution as the pearl won't be quite perfectly level with the board: when this was done “back in the day”, the board and the pearl would have been sanded level and then the engraving done afterwards. It did turn out a nice solution though:



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