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How Fretboard Material affects Fret Finish

December 3rd, 2015

Once G&L started offering tinted satin neck finishes a few years back, they became our “go to” neck finish at UpFront Guitars. After all, they look good, feel nice, and are an attractive combination of looks and price point.

But whenever we got a gloss finish neck in the shop, it was always noticeable that the fret finish on a gloss neck was just that much better. There is a reason for that and here’s why:

A satin finish neck has a very thin finish. That’s part of the reason they feel nice, but it also makes the finish more fragile in regard to hand filing and polishing. A little slip can damage the thinner satin finish. For that reason the workers doing the final fret finish have to be more cautious, and consequently a satin neck may not be as highly polished as other fretboard materials.

Rosewood and even more so Ebony are more tolerant to the buffing and finishing process. Even if a fret file hits the fingerboard wood, it can usually be smoothed out to the point of being unnoticeable.

Gloss necks are unique in that the gloss finish is applied after the frets are installed. After the finish cures, the varnish must be removed from the frets. The very nature of this process smooths and rounds the frets to the highest degree. For this reason, a guitar with a gloss maple fretboard is likely to have the highest level of fret finish. But this finish level is not without a cost, and gloss finish necks have the highest amount of labor content and cost. Even for imported guitars the labor cost of removing varnish is not trivial, which is why you usually don’t see a gloss maple fretboard on a budget-price guitar.

The Take-Away: While highly polished and rounded frets have a visual and tactile appeal, we find that with G&L the level of fret finish on their satin neck certainly gets the job done. However if best fret finish and a maple neck is of primary importance, a gloss finish neck will be more appealing. A rosewood fretboard is a more economical way to get an attractive level of fret finish without springing for the cost of a gloss neck. In the end it comes down to cost, and it’s interesting to learn how the materials and finishes affect the manufacturing process.