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Gibson F-5 Mandolin
© Frank Ford, 3/19/00; Photos by Ken Torke, 3/00

As you look through the pictures in this photo essay, you might want a little more clarity on the fret tools, or some of the process. Please check out some of the other FRETS.COM articles on refretting, including
Refretting Technique, When Frets Go Wrong, and My Refretting Tool Kit.

Well, the need is pretty clear. Just look at the divots in those frets. This instrument has been played by a very active musician who simply wants his 1991 Gibson F-5L to handle as it did when it was new.

Whoops! The first thing I noticed as I took off the strings was a little separation under the fingerboard. I'll be sure to attend to that right away.

The fingerrest had to come off so I could get good access to the fingerboard.

As you can see in the photo above, the nut is set level with the bottom of the fingerboard and peghead veneer, so I had to make a little relief incision behind it. I used my thinnest saw, a fine X-acto that makes a .010" kerf. I cut downward through the entire thickness of the veneer, right against the back edge of the nut.

With that little bit of relief behind the nut, I was able to tap it, breaking the glue joint, so I could lift it right out.

Now, to take care of that loose fingerboard. The fingerboard was so tight against the neck, I chose the thin viscosity cyanoacrylate glue. Its viscosity is so low that it runs into tight cracks by capillary attraction. Once in the crack, it is catalyzed by atmospheric moisture, forming a very good bond.
Some low tack wide sign maker transfer tape works well to protect the body as I work on the fingerboard.

Here's my fret heater. It's just an ordinary Weller 80 watt soldering iron, the kind they sell for stained glass work. I have the tip filed to a chisel point, with a little groove in it so I can balance it on a fret without fear of it slipping.

Gibson mandolin frets are so skinny that my fret pulling end nippers won't work by simply "biting" under them. In fact, after the fret is good and hot, I grip the end of the fret with the cutter, and rock the handle outward, basically prying the fret up at the end.

Mandolin frets are so short that they're rather stiff, and as I rock the fret upward, the entire fret lifts. It really pays to get the fret HOT during this process, and I keep the iron on the fret as long as it takes to get the fret out.

The little short frets actually get pulled out sideways by this rocking technique.

Well, here's how it's supposed to look. All the frets came out without chipping the fingerboard. I take that as a sign that I got them hot enough as I pulled them.

Time to take off the truss rod cover.

And the truss rod nut. If possible, I'll usually take off the truss rod nut and apply a little lubrication to the threads. I've seen more than one rod broken because the nut seized on rusty threads.

Once the rod is lubricated, I'll typically tighten it to produce just a slight backbow in the neck

I'll sight down the neck as I tighten the rod to get a feel for its action.

And, I'll check it with a straightedge. The idea is to produce a very slight backbow, so that when I sand the fingerboard flat, I can loosen the rod to produce a forward curve, and tighten it to make the neck bend backward. That way I'll have the best range of adjustment when setting up the mandolin.

I cut some sandpaper to fit my jack plane body sanding block. After all these years, it's still the only sanding block I use for leveling fingerboards and frets.
Supporting the neck as broadly as possible with my left hand, and with my forearm resting on the bench, I hold the instrument so the peghead "floats" off the bench.

Starting, in this case, with 100 grit, I sand the fingerboard to straighten its surface from end to end.
See how the sanding reveals a hollow area right where the neck joins the body?
I run through all the sandpaper grits available, in sequence: 100, 120, 150, 180, 220, and follow with 320 for a fine shine.
Everything is starting to look level now, with only a tiny edge area still showing its original surface.
This is a flat fingerboard, but I still "roll" the sanding block over the edge just a little on each side.
Notice the sanding dust packed into the fret slots at the edges. By brushing the dust out after each grit, I can keep an watchful eye on where I'm sanding. Here, the idea is to sand the edges just a tiny bit.
The idea is to produce a very slight radius, which I can check with a small steel rule. I find that a flat fingerboard can have a tendency to look concave if it is truly flat, and that it will look a good deal more "healthy" if it has just a few thousandths of an inch crown or radius.
Once the fingerboard is nice and straight, and sanded smooth, I bevel the top edges of the fret slots just a little. That's to reduce the chances of chipping in subsequent operations.
The most dangerous step now awaits. This nasty little tool is the Stewart MacDonald fret slot cleaning hook. I keep the leading pointy edge razor sharp.
So I can drag it firmly through the fret slot to clean and deepen if necessary.
Speaking of which, here's how I check the depth. It's a little trick I learned from local banjo guru, Larry Cohea. I just take a piece of the intended fret wire, and bend a little leg like this, and file the tang very thin.
Then, all I have to do is drag the little end through the slot to feel any high spots at the bottom. Pretty neat, huh?



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