This month, we feature Plek newcomer Ian Weston of Weston Instruments, Ottawa, Canada. Ian is a guitar builder and repair expert, and recently wrote a great article about his view of the Plek machine and his approach to working with it.
We have reproduced the entire article here, with Ian’s permission, and have added a few additional images.
The original article can be read online at http://www.ottawaguitarrepair.com/articles/fret-leveling
by Ian Weston.
As of October 2015, all fretwork at Weston Instruments is performed with the assistance of a Plek Station. After 10 years as a luthier, I had performed a lot of fretwork. I had levelled and dressed the frets of well over 1000 guitars, and performed over 140 refrets. I used to perform all my fretwork under simulated string tension, in an extruded aluminium neck jig, and I was getting very good results. My mission was always to enhance instruments, making them better when they left my shop than they were when they were new, no matter where they were made.
Two things pushed me into investing in a Plek machine. The first is obsession, and the second is health.
I had pushed my fretwork as far as I could go with only manual tools, but more and more high end instruments, which I regularly service, were being made with Plek technology, and I could see that, if used correctly, this machine could bring playability to an all new level. In addition to this, these high end instruments were coming to a point where they needed servicing on the frets, and I was incapable of bringing these instruments back to the point they were at when they were new. In other words, I was no longer able to enhance the instrument, I had to compromise, and that wasn’t my mission statement, which was always to pursue ultimate playability with an almost unhealthy obsession.
The second reason is a bit more personal, its my physical health. I cannot explain the strain that fretwork does to the body, but those who have done a lot of it understand that the human condition eventually limits your ability. I had reached a point where I could only do a limited amount of fret dresses in a week without tendonitis flaring up, and cramps in my hands forcing me to take breaks. This machine takes away the strain that fretwork puts on my puny human body.
So, what is this machine? The Plek is a highly precise and specialized CNC machine, designed to do the following on completed instruments:
- Fret leveling
- Fret crowning
- Nut slotting
- Bridge slotting (acoustic guitars)
- bridge pin locating (acoustic guitars)
- Fingerboard levelling
- Fingerboard slotting
- Fingerboard inlay
This machine is a tool, I cannot stress that enough. Like any tool, it can be poorly, well, and exceptionally well used. It isn’t a magic box into which you place a guitar, and a better guitar comes back out. It is up to skilled and experienced operator to use it in order to deliver the best fretwork available.
Because of it’s precision, it can be used to machine both the fretboard, and the frets into a shape that will give each individual string a different amount of room to vibrate, thus allowing lower, more even, buzzless action. As you can see visually when playing, the low E string on your guitar occupies more space than the high e string. With this gradual variation in relief, a guitars action can be lower, notes ring clearer, and more evenly. It will scan the instrument under string tension, then without string tension, and we can then work in function of all the odd distortions that this tension causes in wood, and end up with a flawless finish.
The possibilities this tool opens up for a builder, and therefor a musician are almost endless. Lets use an example: Lets pretend you have a Strat style guitar with frets that are 0.095” wide and 0.047” wide, and are slightly uneven, and the guitar is a bit prone to buzzing in the higher registers. You not only want the guitar to play more evenly, but you also would prefer your frets to be 0.043” high. With the Plek, I can bring all the frets to that exact hight, build in a gradually more pronounced relief from the treble to the bass side, and add a little more fall away in the high registers to allow the action to be very low, and buzzless.
While refretting a guitar, especially a vintage guitar, the fingerboard almost always ( or, just always ) needs to be levelled. On an older Martin, with no truss rod, the treble side will have developed a stronger amount of relief than the bass side, the exact opposite of that is required for ultimate playability. This is merely a side effect of time and string tension, it has nothing to do with the initial quality of the instrument. With the Plek, I can level the fingerboard properly, with minimum material removal, and refret it to ultimate playability. A job like this would take me as much as 8 hours when working entirely by hand, and was physically demanding. I can now yield better results, and cut down on the time required to complete the job.
Of course, as I already mentioned, a finished guitar does’t come out of the Plek, much work is still needed. The fret ends won’t be done, the fret finishing is still required, the final setup still has to be done the old fashioned way, the final nut height has to be done by hand, the fretboard edges won’t be rolled in, etc. All this final work has to be done by an experienced craftsperson.
Once last thing: It keeps records. For every guitar, the Plek keeps a file, which I classify by Owner, guitar and serial number. So, it can be years before you send in another instrument, and you just want the exact same thing that was done last time. Well, the file is there, I can simply use the same template for your second instrument, even if years have gone by.
So, in conclusion, the Plek is a tool, a wonderful tool, the best thing since the invention of the wheel if you ask me, but it is just a tool. I don’t have this machine in order to deliver a simple “Plek service”. I use a Plek in order to deliver a Weston quality finish.