If you have purchased an older guitar or put in many hours on your favorite instrument your frets may need a little tender loving care.
But sometimes they can be beyond that and need to be replaced altogether.
This is like major surgery in the life of a guitar and the decision should not be made lightly.
There is no magic number when it comes to how many times a guitar can be refretted. The wood of a fretboard can be a fickle mistress. So the skill and experience of the person doing the repair work will affect how many times the frets can be removed without too much damage.
Before going too far please note that although a fret is one piece, it is thought of as two parts.
The crown is the most visible part above the fretboard, which touches the strings.
The crown can be worn down after a lot of use because of the metal-on-metal contact when you play.
The tang is the part of the fret that is submerged in the fretboard and it needs to be a tight fit.
So it is really the condition of the fretboard that will determine the life of your instrument or at least its neck.
Can guitar fretboards become unworkable?
Wood can be temperamental to work with.
The tangs on fret wires have barbs and superglue is often used in installing the frets.
The glue can be softened with heat applied to the frets but you can’t always expect the worn-out frets to come out cleanly; some of the wood in the slot can come out as well or may be damaged in the process.
If the slots become too large for new fret wire to be installed properly or your local guitar repair shop refuses to work on it, then it’s time to think about hanging the guitar on the wall as an art piece.
Is there a limit on how many refrets a guitar can take?
Of course, there isn’t a set number of refrets available but some people think that two to four is a reasonable number.
For an average player, refretting a guitar every ten to twenty years would be “normal”.
However, there are tales of famous guitarists who wore out their guitar necks with too many refrets, either from the sheer amount of use or heavy left-handed touch.
And those players certainly had great luthiers working on their instruments.
The fretboard damage from refretting can be patched with sawdust and glue, chips can be glued back in and even new wood can be grafted in.
Stewmac has some interesting videos on Youtube about refretting a guitar that belonged to Mike Bloomfield (Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, etc.) that are interesting if you have some extra time.
But you can only do this so many times until the fretboard looks like it was made by Dr. Frankenstein himself.
What are signs of a guitar reaching its refret limit?
I think that when your fret slots become too gutted and the frets are being mounted more in glue and sawdust than original wood, you should consider switching to a new guitar.
You should be able to look closely at the wood near the frets and see if it has natural wood grain or if it is glue and sawdust.
I will assume that you are not doing refret jobs yourself and you are taking your instrument to a professional.
So talk to a trusted luthier about the condition of the fretboard or if you are buying a used guitar, inquire about its repair history and hope you get an honest answer.
Is a refret always the answer?
So if you are having issues with intonation, sustain, or fret buzz, there should be enough fret metal left to treat the frets themselves.
You can have the frets “dressed” (smoothed with a file and restored to the proper shape).
Of course, you can only do this so many times before the frets are low and that’s where the refret option rears its ugly head.
Can you go from smaller frets to bigger frets on a refret?
Switching fret shape and size when getting a refret is not unheard of.
The crown of the fret wire sits above the fretboard so there is no reason you can’t change it though you probably need to do a setup afterward.
In fact, if you fear that a guitar can’t be refretted many more times, then a bigger fret crown should give you more chances to get a fret dress instead.
And if you are an avid follower of gear news, then you have undoubtedly heard of the stainless steel frets that are becoming more popular (most guitars use nickel fret wire).
Switching to stainless steel may feel a little different when you play but it doesn’t wear down in the way that softer nickel does.
Can you go from bigger frets to smaller frets on a refret?
If the size difference of the fret wire is only the crown there is no reason you can’t go smaller if you wish.
But I don’t think I would recommend it unless you are trying to restore a vintage instrument to its original specs.
And be aware there can be a slight size difference in the tang of fret wire and I can’t imagine you would ever want to install frets with a smaller tang because it would require more glue than contact with the wood.
These concerns are best left to professionals who have worked with different fret wires so the smartest thing you can do is talk to your luthier and know which questions to ask.
Finally, I’ll bet that most of you have so many guitars that you’re unlikely to wear down the frets of one guitar so many times that it is not repairable.
Hello there, my name is Ramiro and I’ve been playing guitar for almost 20 years. I’m obsessed with everything gear-related and I thought it might be worth sharing it. From guitars, pedals, amps, and synths to studio gear and production tips, I hope you find what I post here useful, and I’ll try my best to keep it entertaining also.