Stainless Steel Frets? Hmm..

Here is something I’ve wanted to talk about for ages, and I’m glad to have a prime opportunity to demonstrate it.

Stainless steel frets have been around for a number of years now, and because of their extremely hard alloy, the are known for smoothness and durability; supposedly lasting for the life of the instrument under normal circumstances.  It is also widely known that the pros of SS frets benefit only the players, and that luthiers and repair techs universally loathe them. They prematurely wear out and destroy expensive tools like files and particularly cutters. It goes without saying that executing a SS fret job also takes longer. These are the main reasons why all repairmen have an up-charge for working with SS frets compared to normal nickel-silver frets.

Here’s a typical example of what SS frets do to tools, like these flush end cutters that chipped on the first two cuts. These cutters will last the one job, and then will have to be tossed out. Another $30 tool destroyed, that otherwise would have lasted for a long time. :(

Stainless steel strings are known for their bright tone, corrosion resistance and anti-allergenic properties for those who have reactions using normal nickel-plated steel strings. Stainless steel strings, because of their extra-hard alloy, also wear quickly into the softer nickle-silver frets. Bassists (and repairmen!) have known this for many years; they need dressing or refretting every 3-5 years because of huge divots being chewed into the crowns from using SS strings like Rotosound’s. I also suspect that the new Ernie Ball Cobalt guitar strings (being another extremely dense alloy) may have the same fret-killing effect, but this will only be apparent after a good period of time.

So there is some truth that SS frets almost never wear, but this is when using normal nickel-steel strings. When matched with SS strings, they still wear just like any other fret does, just a little slower. Here’s a bass with SS frets, used with SS strings that are already showing wear in under a year. SS frets are indeed VERY hard – but not totally impervious.

On the flip-side of the coin, most guitarists don’t use SS strings. But, what rarely gets mentioned when discussing the merits of SS frets is about the opposite issue: how fast they kill normal, nickel-steel strings, which almost all players use. The photos below show the wear (flat spots in the windings) of strings that are only a little over a day old!  My customer brought in this Carvin DC800 complaining about how fast the strings sound dead compared to his other guitars with normal nickel-silver frets. The cost of keeping fresh-sounding strings was getting out of hand (this can really get expensive here in Norway).

 

So if you want SS frets and prefer crisp, fresh sounding strings: be prepared to go through A LOT of strings.

My customer was so annoyed by this, that he asked me to re-fret it with good ‘ol nickel-silver jumbos. Before de-fretting, there were numerous high spots in many of the centers. You could see some of the frets lifting slightly, suggesting that they were perhaps over-bent in radius prior to installation, and not fully glued in. Upon removal, my suspicions were confirmed – the only glue residue remaining was on the ends of the slots, with none at all in the middle of the frets. When installing frets you normally slightly over-bend the radius of the fret wire and seat the ends first, then follow up with seating the rest of the fret firmly into the fingerboard. You then glue them down so they stay put. Stainless steel wire is very stiff and strong, so it wasn’t surprising that they were springing up out of the slots when not properly glued down.

I was more than happy to oblige 😉

Another aspect that I’d like to address is about the general ‘smoothness’ of bending strings on SS frets. There is no doubt that most SS fret installs, which have been done properly, *do* feel ‘silkier’ than normal nickel-silver. This is mostly because 95% of guitar manufacturers, builders and repair techs don’t put in the extra effort into the extensive polishing that is required to achieve the same feeling results (because labor = time = money, naturally). Most will stop with about 1200gt and follow-up with some #0000 steel wool. This will give you a nice, shiny, and normal feeling fret job; it feels like most new guitars do. But, I like to take the extra time in polishing nickel-silver frets up to a super high 12000gt, followed with buffing compound. This makes them feel like mirrored butter – and they will indistinguishable from new SS frets in feel and appearance. SS frets only outdo them in durability, that’s all.

Here’s the final outcome of my customer’s Carvin DC800 with the new nickel-silver fret job.

So yes, I will do SS fret jobs for you, if you really want them. But keep this in mind:

  • It’s going to cost you at least 30% more for the labor.
  • You’re also going to pay extra for me to order the wire. Nickel-silver fret jobs are included no charge.
  • Unless you use SS strings as well, you’re going to go through strings about 2 to 3 times as fast.