There are many different styles of electric guitar fretboards, frets, and necks. Each style of electric guitar will have a slightly different process for fretting the neck. Obviously in before you fret an electric guitar, you will need to remove the frets in the fretboard. For instructions on how to remove electric guitar frets, see the electric guitar fret removal page.
Fretting electric guitars with maple necks or maple fretboards is different than fretting other electric guitars. Maple fretboards are usually finished with a coat of clear lacquer. Many manufacturers have made electric guitars with lacquer on the fretboards over the years including Fender and Reichenbacher. The finish on the fretboard gives the guitar a unique look and feel. Most of the time these fretboards are sprayed with the lacquer finish after the frets have been installed. The frets are then "sealed" underneath the lacquer. Replacing frets on a lacquered fretboard requires a little more work and patience than re-fretting an unfinished neck. Here are some instructions and tips to help you fret an electric guitar with a maple neck or fretboard.
After the frets have been removed from the fretboard, you will need to clean the frets slots. Take a fret slot saw like the one shown below (picture coming soon) and lightly saw out the glue that is left in the fret slot. Notice that the saw has a gap in between the two saw blades. This gap is left in the saw for the binding on the fretboard. A traditional saw would cut straight through the binding. As I said, lightly saw out the dried glue. You don't want to make the slot any deeper; you just want to clean it out. Once you have cleaned the slot with the saw, you can take a curved X-acto knife and scrape out the sawdust. Be careful not to saw or scrape into the fretboard binding. If the glue is extremely tough, you can use a dremel tool with a small .023" bit to route out the excess dried glue. If your maple fretboard does not have binding, you can still clean the frets the same way.
Once you have the fret slots cleaned out, you will need to figure out what style of frets you want to install. Choosing electric guitar fret wire can be kind of complicated. If you are installing frets for the first time, you probably want to install the same style of frets that you just removed from your guitar. You may also want to change the fret wire that is on your guitar to better suit your playing style. Either way, you will need to know a little background on fret wire and what is the best size and style to use. I have written an entire article of choosing fret wire. Please see the how to choose electric guitar fret wire page for more details.
First, you will need to measure the radius of your fretboard. You can do this by taking a radius gauge and placing it on you fretboard. The correct radius gauge will sit flush on the top of the fretboard and not allow light through the gap between the gauge and the fretboard. Second, take a fret wire bender and bend the fret wire to a radius slightly tighter than the radius of the fretboard. If you make the radius of the frets a little tighter than the radius of the fretboard, the frets will be able to dig into the fret slots better. Run the fret wire through the fret wire bender and check the fret wire with the same radius gauge you used to check the radius of the fretboard. Slightly bend the fret wire with each pass through the fret wire bender until it has a slightly tighter radius than your fretboard. You don't want to bend the fret wire too much. It is difficult to unbend. For more information about how to bend fret wire, please see the how to bend fret wire page.
Using your end nippers, cut each piece of fret wire to about 1/4" bigger than the fretboard where it is to be installed. You want the fret wire to have about 1/8" extra on both sides of the fretboard when you install it. After you cut a piece of fret wire for a particular fret, label it. You want to cut the fret wire for specific frets. Each piece of fret wire will be a little different from the rest. I like to use a numbered fret block. Please see the example below (picture coming soon). I have drilled and numbered holes in a block of wood for the fret wire to sit in. The fret block helps me keep my custom fret wire in order easily.
Note: you only need to nip the fret tangs if your maple fretboard is bound.
There are several ways to nip the tang off of your fret wire. The easiest way is to buy a set of fret tang nippers. You can easily place the fret wire in the tang nippers and the nipper shear off the tang perfectly. If you do not want to spend $50.00 on a set of fret tang nippers, you can just file off the tang. Personally, I would just buy the tang nippers. They are a good investment. If you plan on doing any work on frets, they will pay for themselves with the time that you save using them. Learn more about fret tang nippers on the fret tang nipper page.
Nip the tang off of one end on each of the pieces of fret wire about 1/8" in from the edge of the fret wire. Then place the fret wire back in the fret block keeping the fret wire in order. Start fitting the frets that are closest to the body with their fret slots. To fit the fret wire to the fret slot, take a piece of fret wire and place the side of the fret wire that has the tang removed into its fret slot. Push it snuggly up against the fretboard binding. Mark the other end of the fret tang where it needs to be nipped. You can use the studs on the sides of the fret tangs as a guide for how much tang needs to be removed. There should only be between .025" - .050" gap from the end of the fret tang to the inside of the fretboard binding. DO NOT cut the tang too short. This will cause loose fret ends in the future. If you accidentally cut the tangs too short, use that fret for a smaller fret closer to the nut. Once you have nipped the fret tangs to the appropriate length, place them back in the fret block, keeping them in order.
Whether you use a pair of fret tang nippers or you file the fret tangs down with a safe file, make sure that all of the fret tang is gone on parts that you nipped off. You want the bottom of the fret bead or crown to be smooth and fit flush on the top of the fretboard binding.
Now you are ready to install the frets on your guitar. I have written an entire article about installing frets on an electric guitar. You can see the how to install frets on an electric guitar page for instructions on fret installation and before you finish the rest of this article.
Once the frets are installed in your fretboard, you can mask off the neck with painter's tape. Make sure you do not use highly adhesive tape. The tape can rip or crack the finish on the back of your neck when you go to remove it. I like to use blue painter's tape. You will want to mask off all the way around the neck up to the edges of the fretboard as well as the headstock or peghead. The masking protects the rest of the neck from lacquer over spray when you finish the fretboard.
After the neck is taped off, you can clean the fretboard if needed. Use a razor blade or X-Acto knife blade to scrape the dirt off of the fretboard.
There are many different kinds of lacquer and finishing product that you can use to finish your maple fretboard. I like to spray nitrocellulose lacquer for a variety of reasons. It is easy to work with and has a fast curing time. It is also organically based. Many guitar companies use nitrocellulose lacquer like Gibson. You can learn more about lacquers and finishing products on the finishing your electric guitar page. I will just finish this article explaining how to use nitrocellulose lacquer.
You can either buy an arousal spray can of lacquer, or you can buy a spray gun and air compressor. They both essentially work the same way. The spray gun will obviously give you more control and a cleaner finish, but the arousal can is affordable and can get the job done. Hold the can or spray gun about 8-10 inches away from the fretboard and spray in a nice smooth motion. Start and stop the spray off the neck and fretboard. Do not start spraying the can or gun while you are pointing at the fretboard. This will cause lacquer build up and most likely lacquer runs. Spray the fretboard with 8 light coats of lacquer. A light coat of lacquer is basically one or two quick passes with a spray gun. Allow a minimum of 30 minutes in between coats. Once the 8 light coats of lacquer are on the fretboard, let the lacquer dry over night.
After the first 8 coats of lacquer have cured over night, you will want to rough up the lacquer in order to make the top coats or finish coats stick better. Take fine Scotch Brite pad, usually red, and rub the surface of the finished fretboard. Once you have roughed up the lacquer, you can blow the dust off of the fretboard with a compressed air hose.
Make sure that the fretboard is cleaned off. If you use a dry rag to wipe the dust off of the fretboard, make sure that no fuzz is stuck on the fretboard. Take your spray gun or arousal can and spray three more coats of lacquer on the fretboard. Again, allow a minimum cure time of 30 minutes between each coat. For the final coat of lacquer, reduce the clear nitrocellulose lacquer to a 50/50 mixture and spray the final coat. Let these coats cure over night just like you did with the first set of coats.
After the lacquer has had at least one night to cure, remove the masking tape. Be careful removing the tape on the edges of the fretboard. It can be easy to chip or crack the lacquer. Once the tape is removed, you can take a file and file downward on the corners of the fretboard. This will remove the sharp lacquer edge and help prevent lacquer chipping. Lightly wet sand the fretboard with 1,000-grit sand paper. For more instructions on how to wet sand a guitar, see the how to finish an electric guitar page. After you have wet sanded the finish, you can lightly buff the fretboard until it matched the shine of the rest of the neck and guitar. For more information about how to buff the fretboard, see the how to buff the finish on an electric guitar.