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Stainless Frets. Guitar debate of the century.

Updated: May 29

..Well maybe not. But it is a wildly discussed topic and has become a controversial thing.

"Should i go for Stainless or not?"

Well.. i think it all boils down to your playing style, both technique and genre.


Some players actually hate them with passion. Many luthiers and techs themselves hate to install them. Well most of them.

I have installed a few by now. Mainly on my own guitars. All of them end up with Stainless sooner or later.

I love stainless because:

  • They last for a long time, and they will outlive you, and maybe your children..

  • A great leveled neck with stainless need no work for long time. Will stay level for years.

  • Bending on Stainless is night and day compared to Nickel. They are butter smooth if they are polished correct and they they will stay butter smooth, compared to nickel which are smooth only when freshly polished. And nickel, as we know it, tarnish over time. Stainless does not.

The thing i dislike about Stainless (Here is the tech and luthier rant)

  • They need lot of time to install. Most of the time is in leveling and dressing and endless polishing afterwards.

  • They ruin you tools if you do not have tools design for stainless works


But the time i spend on istalling, i would say it is worth it. As a tech doing refret for others, it will free up some time if you are one of those popular tech with long lead time. Once you hand over a SS refreted guitar to a customer, you might not see that guy again for a long time.. If that is positive work ethics? Maybe for your long que, not so much for income. But those old-timer luthiers they always are glad to refret SS.. "Here is your guitar son, see you and that axe in 20 years.."


TONE ISSUE?

Basically, this is where the arguments start. There are some out there who cant stand them because:

"They make my guitar bright and it sounds shrill as f**k..YUCK"

"They turned the tone shit and my guitar into junk"

"It made my guitar useless"

I mean, all negative comments about them is written with as much hate and disgust as they can cram in.

They might alter tone.. well

This is where you "might" end up. You may love the bends, but the tone is a little brighter.

You wont like the sound, but bigger chance is that you actually will like them. The haters are in fact in a minority on Stainless.

Well, try and turn down the tone knob a little.. Or put in a higher level capacitor. Might solve the issue.

And there is also VERY few, and i actually know a guy who said this to me, that it is not so much the sound of it, but he absolutely hate the feeling of them. I mean yes, he can feel the difference of stainless under his fingers and that they are harder than NS. For him they are no-go because of that.


SHOULD YOU FOR STAINLESS?

For many its a cost issue. Stainless refret is not cheap. In fact many charge so much for a SS refret that its cheaper to just get a new neck finished fretted with a set from Warmoth. So yeah, it provides a risk. But very few actually returns to their tech to reverse it back to nickel again. At least is what i heard from several luthiers.

So should you try?

If you play with soft touch and do not bend much. I would say no. Not worth it for price alone.

Especially Jazz players, i would vote no. Jazz players want a warm tone. Stainless will brighten up things most likely, and they will notice if they have sharp ears. Jazz players don't bend much. They play scales with soft touch. They wont benefit from what stainless has to offer.

However.. If you are Gilmour extraordinaire, bends every chance you get. Or play with death grip, or play tons of cowboy chords. Why not. Try it.. 80% chance you will actually like it and never go back to NS again.. Like me!


THE RULES OF REFRETTING

Moving on to those who want to try install them themselves. Stainless is a whole different predator to tackle. Stainless is very HARD material. A nickel fret you can bend by hand easy, stainless you can not without hurting your fingers. Its very different. Many who do this for a living acquire a DREMEL machine to cut down time with polishing frets.

A little tech tip to those who want to try Refretting and do it for others. Handy tips before you begin:


TIP NUMBER 1:

  • Upgrade you crowning file, cutters, tang nipper. Medium range equipment wont cut it. They will wear down fast and get ruined. This is the usual complaint from older techs with ditto decades old tools that are not cut out for this job. Take a trip to Stew Mac website and get proper tools. You NEED to invest some money for SS refretting. I been using Hosco Crowning file and fret-end file. They are still going strong after 3 refrets of SS and i can recommend those. But diamond coated files are preferred, but they cost $$

TIP NUMBER 2:

  • If you want to save some tooling. Cut the frets to exact length with a 1-2mm extension before you press them in. I line them up to the tang slots and mark them off and cut them with a regular steel saw to length. You will need to just grind them slightly afterwards if you go this way. A larger decent mid-range metal file will work well on SS and is the only wear-tool you actually don't need to spend to much cash on (Make sure its very fine grit). If you still prefer to cut ends AFTER refret, you need a special designed fret end cutter that can do this with ease. If you try cutting SS frets with a cheaper cutter, you need to use lot of force to cut trough. And if you try this, you will most certainly wiggle the frets out its slot trying to cut trough with sweat and pain. Been there, done that. Don't do it... don't even bother to try.

TIP NUMBER 3:

  • Do after-adjustment after pressing the frets on. If you hammer on frets, do after-adjustment anyway. After pressing or hammering on frets, always go over with a fret rocker and look for high frets not properly pressed in (Some frets will always argue with your press). Find them, and tap down further with a fret-hammer. This is great tip for regular NS too. But for SS, i can not recommend this enough. Eliminate and set those high frets as much as you can. A good luthier and tech require very little fret level after frets are seated on. Nothing is as damned as "leveling down" a high fret, and them SS Frets are a nightmare to crown if you grind off the top too much. Get all frets to best level as possible. Use a hammer and bang them in proper.

TIP NUMBER 4:

  • NEVER level Stainless frets like Nickel frets if you use beam and sandpaper. With this i mean: NEVER go up and down the board. Stainless frets require a full length beam and you must always level stainless frets going side to side. The reason is this: If you go up and down, you created sanding burs that goes the opposite way than the strings. Because you need low grit paper to even do any damage to Stainless. If you get heavy burs, you will create unnecessary work and spend HOURS sanding them away. And you need SANDING paper.. No steel wool is gonna fix it. If you use a very expensive sanding stone leveler or diamond fret level tool. Level away any way you like


See this photo. They are hard to capture on regular phone photo, but these burs needs LOT of sanding to remove them. Bending or doing a vibrato with a string over these feels and sounds horrible. Now, most of it goes away with crowning, but there is always the top and you HAVE to get rid of them.




Level frets this way instead back and forth. You will get sanding lines that goes the correct way and you need less polishing work afterwards. Strings will love you.. If you did iron out those high level frets, you will not need much leveling.




TIP NUMBER 5:

Steel wool or mesh pads will barely dent the very hard Stainless steel aloy on the first stage of polishing. Stock up on 800 grit sandpaper and go over them roughly. Finish off with 1200 grit and then steel wool or mesh for ultimate polish. (Remember, using steel wool generates airborne steel dust that is hazardous for pickups. Cover them WELL with masking tape)

My method of polishing SS frets is like this:

  • 800 grit (Lots of sanding.. work it work it work it. Do not be scared that you might lower the fret, 800 is fine enough to barely remove any material, but coarse enough to remove burs or tooling marks, all frets will get the same treatment so no worries. Use fret rocker afterwards if you doubt this) check against a light source for leftover marks. You don't want any marks on there. Shiny blank frets is the goal. But by experience, they dont need to be 100% shiny. Save a piece of cut off unwound string and try to swipe it over the fret. You will easily feel any defects if any. Re-polish if needed.

  • Then 1200 grit to smooth it further. Quick passover

  • Mesh pad (if i have them ) or steel wool to gain more shine.

  • Autosol polishing cream on a paper, cotton or leather cloth. Rub rub rub rub... then final wipe with clean soft polish cloth. Fret should be nice and shiny by now.


MAKERS


  • First is Jescar. They are the most popular provider of SS frets. Many swear by them and i have used them several times. They are the ones who also makes EVO Gold frets, which is a material hardness between NS and SS.

  • HOSCO. Never tried them, but Hosco is quality. I am sure they are just as good as Jescar.

  • Belarus based Sintom. They make frets in Titanium and other experimental types.

  • One that i have tried once, which i put on the Greco i restored is a set of very inexpensive

  • Black Smith Strings Apparantly made stuff since 1984. From South Korea

  • Musiclily SS Frets. Musiclily is a guitar gear provider from China. They sell a pack of 24 frets and i can easily get them here in Asia for $5 Dollars per pack compared to $22 for precut Jescar. And... they are pretty darn good. Tangs are almost identical to Jescar and the specs are very on point. Works wonders.. Same hardness, same result.

  • Dunlop does not make Stainless frets. A google search says that they do, but i never found any. I believe Dunlop is the NS Fret provider for Fender.

  • Since i am here in Asia, there is tons of seller supplying no-brand stainless for nickel and dime. Never tried them, probably never will. The musiclily ones are good enough for me to even bother.

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