Reseating Loose Frets on a 1960’s Carmelo Catania Mandolin

Carmelo Catania Mandolin 1960's
Carmelo Catania Mandolin 1960’s

Here’s a good repair procedure to document, as used on a mandolin from the personal collection. My father had a friend bring this mandolin back from a trip to Italy in the 1960’s, and gave it to my mother as a gift. It’s beautiful piece with an interesting Asian-inspired pickguard and a bowl back (as we say in Texas, a “tater bug mandolin.”) It hadn’t been played for many years, and consequently the fretboard had dried out quite a bit. And – details later – it led me to learn a trick for reseating loose frets.

The mandolin had a problem getting past the 12th fret, to the point that the octave note simply disappeared and sounded the same as the 13th fret. We were visiting Springfield, Missouri at the time, so I brought it to Tom Wittrock’s shop, Third Eye Music. At first I thought the frets might need dressing, but Tom pointed out that the 12th (and 13th and 14th) frets were rising up from the fretboard. This can happen due to the drying of the wood as an instrument ages. Filing the frets, therefore, is not the right approach at all. Refretting the instrument is an option, but an expensive one.

Carmelo Catania Mandolin
Carmelo Catania Mandolin

So, back home, I sought other options. Turns out there’s a hack for reseating loose frets on a mandolin or guitar. Here are the steps I took:

  • Tape carefully around the fret – both on the fingerboard and neck – with electrician’s tape. Masking tape would probably work as well, but you’ll be using superglue, and I wanted to make sure I kept it away from the wood and finish. Superglue sticks to electrician’s tape like crazy, making it my preferred masking tape for this purpose.
  • Use a sharpened toothpick to flow superglue down into the space between the fret and the wood of the neck. For this purpose you’ll do best with a thin, quick-curing superglue like Bob Smith 101 Insta-cure.
  • Using a wooden dowel or small block (in this case, a leg of a wooden clothespin), press the fret back into place hard and hold it there. Clamping might be ideal, but that’s tricky at the neckjoint. So I held it down for about a three-minute song.
  • Repeat for other offending frets. Remember, a lot of times fixing a fret, whether by filing or reseating, uncovers problems with neighboring frets.
Carmelo Catania Mandolin
Carmelo Catania Mandolin

I kept acetone on hand as a nuclear option, but didn’t need it – the superglue stayed under control. Acetone will remove finishes and leave you with a refinishing job.

What if you’re trying this hack and something goes wrong and you need to release the fret? I haven’t had to do it, but just heat the fret with a soldering iron. The superglue will release and the fret will pop back up, so you can try it again.

As it turned out, I didn’t have to try it again. The frets stayed down securely and all notes were restored. The mandolin now rings clearly up to the highest frets.

The fingerboard was incredibly dry from not having been played for years, but a couple treatments with F-One fretboard oil restored it nicely. Why two treatments? When the wood gets dry enough, it can take more than one treatment to fully penetrate. The mandolin was in exquisite shape for a fifty-year-old instrument – no microscratches – so a simple polish out with Gibson guitar polish brought it back to an unbelievable shine. I’m not much of a mandolinist, but it looks great on my office wall. And it sounds amazingly good on a mandolin-driven take on Iggy Pop’s version of “Louie Louie.” (Really).

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