nickel frets vs. stainless frets

Discussion in 'Luthier's Corner' started by Low8, Apr 28, 2019.

  1. Low8

    Low8 Supporting Member

    Mar 30, 2014
    I thought this was very interesting...

    James Collins and Beej like this.
  2. bordinco90


    Dec 7, 2011
    SW Louisiana
    I've had basses with both. Tonally, I cannot really tell a difference. As far as feel goes, Stainless feel more "slippery" if that makes sense. It's easier to bend with Stainless frets IMO.
    Low84 likes this.
  3. Beej


    Feb 10, 2007
    Vancouver Island
    A "clinical" test? :rollno: They may have introduced a few controls for the materials, construction and design, but no controls at all for the human element - the part in which nearly all of the bias comes into play. There may be a difference, but this trial doesn't tell much. He knows which is which, and he plays them while having that knowledge. This does not control his bias being introduced into his own playing. A player can subtly change their attack for different tones and good players can do this more readily than novices. I'm not saying that's what's going on here, but it's a consideration that was not controlled in this "test", and could absolutely confound the results. :)
    Spyrosaab, chinjazz and T_Bone_TL like this.
  4. Gilmourisgod


    Jun 23, 2014
    Cape Cod MA
    The greater longevity is probably reason enough to go stainless. My 86' Steinberger frets show very little wear. Ive read stainless is harder to install, not sure why.
    Beej likes this.
  5. dwizum


    Dec 21, 2018
    Granted that I have much less experience installing frets than many here do, but I've used both and the difference when installing is pretty clear. The two basses I started back in the 90's (including the one I finished a few months ago per my "zombie build" thread) had stainless. I've re-fretted a few commercial necks with nickel and I used nickel on the guitar neck I just finished. I think I'm going to stick with nickel going forwards. The stainless frets were just real cranky in comparison. More work to pre-bend to the right shape and very bouncy when driving in, they just want to pop out and be stubborn instead of sitting down into the slot. It's like the difference between a lump of clay and a spring. The nickel frets do what you tell them to do with easy hammer taps. Stainless was a little more effort to file and shape too, I was surprised at how quickly I could level and crown the nickel fretwire in comparison.

    I bet if you had a tool to pre-bend the wire, and a press to install them, stainless would be not much different to install. Or if you were building a couple necks a week and just had the technique down. Maybe I'll try stainless again some time if I get a good set up and/or more experience. But given how much I like the fretless I just built, I'm not sure how much fret work I'll be doing in the future anyways! At least for my own basses.
    ctmullins and Gilmourisgod like this.
  6. Gilmourisgod


    Jun 23, 2014
    Cape Cod MA
    For those of you who have installed stainless frets, what’s your take on it? Harder to drive home? Harder to level and crown? Probably going to use them next build, so I’m curious. Anything special required tool-wise? I use a cheap drill press caul and hammer to set frets, standard safed three corner file for crowning.

    Dueling posts, just read @dwizum post above.
  7. Bruce Johnson

    Bruce Johnson Gold Supporting Member Commercial User

    Feb 4, 2011
    Fillmore, CA
    Professional Luthier
    This is from a post of mine a few years back, about this very subject. I've been using stainless fretwire on all my basses for about 10 years now.

    I personally switched over to using stainless fretwire on all the basses I build about 8 years ago. Just last week, I did a quick fret leveling on one of my basses that was back here for some light work. It's 2 1/2 years old, and has seen some fairly heavy use. Not much real wear showing on the frets, but it had developed a small high spot down near the 14th fret. It just took a few minutes with the Norton stone to level it, and then a once over with the polishing wheel.

    I like the stainless wire better than Nickel-Silver for lots of reasons. Once you learn how to work with it, it doesn't take any longer to install, level, dress, etc. I've found that it actually takes me less time to do a full fret installation in stainless than it does in NS.

    Stainless fretwire is harder than NS wire, but it's still quite a bit softer than the metals used in strings. I estimate that stainless frets will last 3-4 times as long as NS frets. If you play really hard and a lot, you can still wear them out. But, for most players, they will last decades.

    The basses I build usually are fitted with D'Addario Chromes, which are stainless flatwounds that are normally good for 10-20 years. I haven't yet seen any cases of the stainless frets damaging the Chromes, or of the Chromes causing any significant wear on the stainless frets. My own AMB-2, which I play in blues band, is now 5 years old and has done many gigs. The original Chromes are fine, and the frets are just a little extra shiny under the strings.

    I use Jescar's stainless fretwire, usually in the 037 x 080 size. It's a nice workable alloy, easy enough to cut, bend, file, grind and polish with normal tools. Its about equal in hardness to standard 1018 steel. All this silly talk about how stainless fret wire "destroys tools" baffles me. It doesn't. Ordinary files (which are hardened steel) cut it just fine, just like they will cut mild steel. The stainless wire doesn't excessively wear out or "destroy" the files. I use a large Smooth Nicholson file to trim and shape the ends of the frets. I've been using the same one for years with no real sign of wear.

    Same thing with diamond crowning files. They cut the stainless easily with no harm. I personally prefer to use a shaped abrasive stone to crown stainless frets, mostly because it's a finer grit, and it doesn't scratch the stainless as deeply as the diamonds will.

    As a side note, the main reason why people wipe out expensive diamond files is from pressing down too hard. The diamonds are held onto the file by a thin lattice of nickel plating. If you press too hard, you can strip all of the little diamonds off, even when filing a soft material.

    I do my leveling of the stainless frets with a large medium grit Norton sharpening stone. It does a great job, and leaves a smoother surface than you'd get from using a file or sandpaper on a beam. That's one of the keys to working with stainless fretwire: don't scratch it deeply, because it will be more work to get the scratches out.

    The only special tool you need for working with stainless fretwire is heavy-duty wire cutters. If you didn't know it, wire cutters are available in two basic types. Electrical wire cutters have edges ground for cutting soft copper wire. Heavy Duty wire cutters have blunter edges that are ground for cutting steel wire. Electrical wire cutters are okay for cutting NS fretwire, but you'll notch the cutting edges if you cut stainless fretwire with them. You need the Heavy Duty style wire cutters.

    I hope this helps to clear up some of the strange stories that keep circulating about stainless fretwire. Most of the horror stories originate from the Parker Fly instruments (which used a hardened steel wire) or from some of the stainless wire that was on the market 20+ years ago, which was quite difficult to work with.

    The modern stainless fretwire, like what Jescar sells, is very nice and reasonable to install and play. Most of you probably wouldn't notice the difference between it and the classic NS wire, other than the chrome-like silver color.

    Stainless fretwire is gradually becoming more popular. Many of us smaller builders are using it now, and it's starting to appear on some imports. The big guys like Fender and Gibson may eventually switch over for practical reasons, but for now they imprisoned by their own Traditions, as they are on almost everything.​
  8. James Collins

    James Collins

    Mar 25, 2017
    I am definitely a sore thumb in this topic. These tests including those by our members are never designed well. They make a lot of effort, but fail put enough effort into the study design component.
    T_Bone_TL and Beej like this.
  9. dwizum


    Dec 21, 2018

    I wonder if that "wire that was on the market 20+ years ago" is what I had used with the basses I mentioned, because it was definitely real difficult to work with and the timeline is about right. Maybe I'll order some of the Jescar wire and give it a try the next time I have to install frets.
  10. Beej


    Feb 10, 2007
    Vancouver Island
    Mechanical engineering and social science experiment design don't always overlap nicely. :D In this experiment, if the player did not know what he was playing when recording the tracks, that would have at least partially controlled for his bias being introduced (not that he's biased, but technically, it's bias). Even though there is still a lot left to control, it would be best that he not know which neck is which, but even further, he should not know what the experiment is about, what is being tested, or how he could influence the results.

    If he'd just been handed the guitar and asked to play a bunch of stuff, and told that he'd be asked to play it a second time, that would have been better. Then take the guitar, ask him to do a meaningless task (i.e. sort these numbers in ranking order), then handed the next guitar (without knowing it's a new guitar) and asked to play again, and then compare the recordings (no videos) A/B and ask the listener to identify which tracks had more "top end zing". It might have turned out to be "the second guitar" but perhaps not.

    I certainly hear much more top end zing in the video, but then again, it's just been suggested to me that I will hear more top end zing, and so according to over 100 years of solid scientific research using gold standard clinical trials, because of that suggestion, I will be more likely to hear it than not... :D
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  11. James Collins

    James Collins

    Mar 25, 2017
    It would also be nice to have more than one recording of each. If there were for example 10 recordings of each, maybe differences in playing technique would start to average out. But we only get two recordings, one each. So maybe the difference we here is just by chance. If we recorded it again, maybe the opposite would be true.
    Beej likes this.
  12. dwizum


    Dec 21, 2018
    10 recordings of each and 3 guitars with each material! We need to hit the magic sample size of 30 after all.
  13. James Collins

    James Collins

    Mar 25, 2017
    Still need to consider the number of players and listeners!
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