Removing and replacing a fretboard – sounds terrifying, doesn’t it? Yes, it can be complicated, and it needs to be done with extreme precision, but it isn’t a scary of a project as it sounds. I recently completed a giant project on an old Silvertone acoustic guitar, which had previously been rehabilitated elsewhere. The neck had been set on to the body incorrectly, which caused a HUGE hump in the fingerboard at the body joint; and the neck had so much relief that planing it flat would have blown right through the fret slots (it doesn’t have a truss rod). It also played horribly out of tune, because the fret slots were all in the wrong place! All these problems pointed to one solution: remove and replace the fingerboard.
First, I needed to take the neck off. I began by applying heat to the tongue of the fretboard and melting the glue between the board and the guitar’s top, and carefully sliding a palette knife under it. The glue was so weak that not only did it come loose almost instantly, I decided just to go ahead and yank the entire fretboard off right then and there. I was going to take the neck off first, but hey – might as well make hay while the sun shines.
Normally one doesn’t get to see a neck’s dovetail joint from the top, but I can tell you that they should look a lot better than this one. This isn’t going to be fun to reset. Yikes!
Since the dovetail had HUGE gaps in it, it was pretty easy to get some steam in there to melt the glue and pull the neck off. This was to be the last easy part of this job…
I cleaned up the glue residue on the neck to prep it for a new fretboard. This seems easy, and it is – but one bad move can reshape the neck’s edges and kill the edge so it wouldn’t mate perfectly with the new board. As a general rule, I strive to stay about 3mm away from the neck’s edge when I’m doing glue cleanup like this.
Next was the fun part: making the fretboard. Since the neck and original fretboard were made out of fairly flimsy wood (I’m guessing pine), I opted to make a new fretboard out of rosewood, which would hopefully stiffen it up to hold against string tension. Before I had removed the old fretboard, I had measured it to determine that it was exactly a 622mm (24.5″) scale (by measuring from the nut to the 12th fret and multiplying by two). I started the new fretboard with a fresh rosewood blank, and set it up in my miter box with a scale template. I had originally bought the miter box for some of the microtonal mods I do to my own instruments, so this was my first time to use it as it was actually intended! Here’s how it works: the board is taped to a scale template, which has notches along the side corresponding to the fret locations. The template locks to a pin inside the miter box, so it makes making perfectly placed, perfectly square, perfectly parallel fret slots bone simple. Pretty neat.
Now that the board was slotted, I had to cut it to fit the taper of the neck. This is definitely one of those times where “measure twice, cut once” comes into play: I did not want to mess up all my previous work. Once I was happy with my measurements and had marked it out, I carefully cut it down on the bandsaw. I purposely made oversized it by just a smidge, so I could shape it flush by hand.
It would be a shame to have spent all that time making sure that the fret slots were parallel just to install the fretboard on the neck all wonky, so I measured out the center line on the neck and drilled two holes in the center, right under the 1st and 11th fret slots. I did the same on the fretboard, and then pinned the board in place. This was to make absolutely sure that the fretboard was in the correct position, and that it wouldn’t slip when glued.
Now it was ready to be glued up. I coated each piece with Titebond (not too much, not too little), and wrapped the whole thing with surgical tubing. Even though this was plenty to hold it in place, I wanted to guarantee adequate downward cohesion, and a little bit of overkill with some extra clamping never hurt nobody.
Two days later, I shaped and sanded the fretboard’s sides to be perfectly flush with the neck’s sides. Now that the neck was done, I rebuilt the dovetail joint and reset the neck back on to the body (which, let’s just say, wasn’t very fun on this particular guitar). Now I was able to string it up, and see how stable the neck was with the new fretboard. It was better, but still had too much relief, so I planed the board to build in the proper amount of relief (I simulated string tension on the neck using my custom neck jig – this would have been impossible without it), and shaped the fretboard to a 30cm (12″) radius. Then I refretted it, made a new nut and saddle, and gave it a complete setup. Now it plays beautifully, is much more stable, and looks better to boot! Huzzah!