I used to work for a company that made high-end woodworking tools and I couldn't agree more with you in regards to your assessment of the QC concerns with the Plek. It's just not the way one goes about it, is it?
I'm also just a humble restorer and maker, so I have to agree with the financial restraints for someone in a similar position as me. As Frank noted, perhaps if one just pumped out set-ups..a LOT of set-ups, then it would be feasible...but it's just not my thing.
Maybe it's the old phrase "it ain't the tool, it's the carpenter" that sticks in my mind when I consider the Plek. I've been fortunate over the years to work on the instruments of some truly great, professional musicians. In all honesty, I have never had a professional musician inquire about the Plek. Folks who could practice more however..now that's another story. Somebody wanting to sound like Hendrix but can't fumble through "twinkle-twinkle" is not going to be helped by a Plek'd instrument...
Hey Doc! I'm chuckling here because I could not agree with you more and on all points too!
In our Lutherie business we do a lot of volume so I deal with the public often. I can't tell you how many times I think to myself when someone is considering changing this or that that perhaps if you went home and actually learned to play the thing your problems would be solved....:) Of course I don't say that but I sure do think it, often....
Same experience here as well and out of over 3,000 clients in the last couple of years plus only one has inquired about the PLEK. Of course what we told them was very much what I posted here and their responses was OK, and they left their guitar for our manual methods fret dress.
Not exactly a ringing endorsement for a $100K investment that needs to be running 6 hours a day every day to begin to pay for itself....
Thanks for your thoughts Doc, much appreciated.
Hesh & Doc,
I've thoroughly enjoyed your technical & humorous points on the justification for a PLEK machine.
It's been quite a while since the subject has come up, but this time, the device has been in service for a while and we've all seen the best & worst of it's "talent". Doc also shares my observation that even though an instrument is new and has been PLEK'd, MOST instruments need a "refined setup" before they're ready to roll.
Hesh.... One thing you may want to add to the list of associated expenses is the addition of a staffer who is dedicated solely to the feeding & upkeep of the machine. I don't think a salary of less than $50K a year would attract the "qualified" hardware/software experts needed to run, maintain, feed & water the beast.
Doc.... It's great and SOOOOOOOOOOOOO refreshing to have you on board. In addition to your experience & knowledge, I especially appreciate your reinforcement of the fact that most players should invest in lessons and instruction than fancy gear if they wish to 'improve' their talent. I personally am committed to the theory that 90% of a guitarist's "sound" is in their hands.
I tell my customers to spread the word that their instruments have had the PLAC system employed. In my case, it stands for: Paul's Level A Crowning. See what I did there? ;)
Thanks for the info & grins, guys :)
Thanks for those very kind words Paul. I hope to be of some help on this board and certainly eager to see what else I can try and get my brain to retain.
One thing I've immediately stared to consider is the actual documentation of work I do, along the lInes of the very usefull photo essays I've seen here. I have notes...lots of notes and scribbled diagrams but few photos. Some shops didn't permit stuff like that but mostly, I suppose it's just never popped into my brain..hard enough to keep just focused on one task I guess ☺ Hopefully he old noodle will remind me to snap a few pictures as I go. I have a few resets in the shop right now so maybe I can add some photos of the neck/body joints to the gallery.
- I like the sounds of that PLAC system...HA!
Hey Paul and happy New Year to ya my friend!
Dully noted and great point on the human required to feed the PLEK beast too. That does add a lot of costs as well as all other things that can come with that human, some good, some not so good...:)
I like your naming convention too for your precision fret work but if I employed your naming convention it would likely not serve me well: Hesh's A Crowning or HAC....:) Or how about in G*bson's case in honor of Henry: Juszkiewicz employed repair criteria or Jerc...:)
Whoops.... I better go lawyer up..... Thankful for the fist amendment here too...:)
We believe that we can obtain better results with our manual methods.
Here's what's wrong with a PLEK from my perspective. First it's a proprietary machine running proprietary software and completely dependent on the mother ship, PLEK for updates and routine maintenance. If PLEK goes teats up.... and that is always a possibility, everyone with a PLEK is SOL unless someone else takes on the IP (intellectual property).
Next the same tooling that a PLEK uses to do the actual work it also uses the same rails for the QC checks to check itself. In machining it's a cardinal rule that all quality checks have no dependency on the tool(s) doing the actual work. It's amazing to me that something taught in machining 101 was not factored into the design.
We have been offered a machine for free and declined.... Why? Because if we take on a methodology that is again dependent on a mother ship, annual maintenance, and thousands of dollars that need to be spent annually to maintain the machine AND receive updated software it's not a fixed cost by any means.
Not to sound arrogant but some years back we searched for a PLEK that would agree, not the machine mind you but the human associated with it... to a duel. Our manual methods against the PLEK. We could find no takers and those friends of ours who have PLEKs thought that they might harm their relationships with PLEK if a couple of guys in Ann Arbor out performed the $125K machine.
I agree that in a production environment it can be a pretty cool way to go. But it also depends on if you let it do it's job fully and not be like Gibson who leaves ugly tooling marks all along their frets in an effort to use the PLEK to a very minimal extent.
But again as someone who was involved with enterprise software all of my life and the roll-out of same any proprietary system is only as good as the financial health of the company standing behind it. Add in a software component, the lack of user manipulated/defined functionality and instead running canned programs written by folks who may not understand what we do and why and it's likely to be a disaster, a very expensive one at that too.
I priced them a couple of years ago and one could be had for less that $100K but add in the annual maintenance contract, a must.... and initial training which they charge for too and Frank's $125K number is what I figured as well.
Lastly I know a bit about why some shops succeed and why some fail... Debt is our enemy in any business with growth limited by the actual physical abilities of the folks working the biz. Fixed costs are your friend, mine too... With this in mind taking on this huge commitment of funds, time, etc. and it could financially sink an otherwise profitable Lutherie business.
And really lastly do the math for yourself and decide how long you want to amortize that $125K for the Mr. T starter set Plek over time. Next add in annual maintenance contracts, training, replacement parts and then determine how many fret dresses and refrets you need to do daily to just break even.
I could not make the numbers work for us and that's that.
Well said Ian!
Hey all, posting from the future, and I wanted to share my own opinions on the Plek machine and process.
So I'll start out by saying I have personally ran those machines for the shop I currently work for, for over 5 years now, and I still run them from time to time when I'm not steaming a neck off, or glueing a brace back down (the fun stuff). My experience was exactly as most peoples ("I can do it just as well much cheaper"), and I can fully and confidently say this is not the case. Let me explain.
A hand fret level is often a easy and quality job for most shops, and a skilled repairperson will do a job well enough for most picky customers. But the plek machine takes it a step further, past what most humans would be able to do.
The first and most important advantage over hand work, is the resolution. Being able to see a deviation in the fret level on the scale of 0.0001 is very helpful to judge the best possible work. Essentially we can "prove" that a fret is high without the any possible speculation. If you want the best possible work with the best possible transparency, there is nothing better than a plek machine. Our shop often provides scans, like an alignment shop. And customers appreciate the data we can give them.
Another feature that I see as a clear advantage over hand work, is it can set compound relief and fallaway. So for instance if one were using a un-radiused level bar, one could set 0.005 relief on the bass, and 0.002 on the neck, but this is much more of a hassle. Plus you would often have to guess how much fall away you want, if any. Now some might ask "why set compound relief" and the answer is simple. Bass strings move more than the treble strings. This is why we set action higher on the bass than on the treble. And with the plek, we can again, finely set the relief to exactly where we need. Same with fall away. If one wanted to set a ton of fallaway on the bass side, and leave the treble side stick straight, this can be done quickly without question. These action on a plek machine can be done repeatedly much more consistently than one would be able to do by hand. Its possible to do this, but I've found most luthiers don't even consider these things. "flat enough is good enough" even in some of the experienced builders our company has hired.
The other thing about a plek is its amazing ability to do things other than fret planing. The plek has options to cut nuts. So for me, a skilled luthier with over 15 years building experience, and thousands of hand cut nuts, there is no way in the world I can cut nut slots as quickly as the plek machine. A few years ago, plek rolled out a feature called "nut precutting". This allows one to fit the nut sides and width, glue it in, and without string tension, cut the slots and top in one program. So my record for a perfectly spaced and depthed nut is 15 minuets. 5 to fit the nut, 5 for the machine time, and 5 to shape and polish. Now, some luthiers can do this. But the guarantee that you can't possible cut it wrong in the machine is a life saver. Literally not once have I seen it cut a nut badly outside of poor data input. For nut cutting, that's all I do if I can get away with it. It saves so much time and hassle.
Another wonderful feature that our shop uses often, is the saddle slot cutting feature. Imagine being able to cut a perfectly flat and wide saddle slot, with no fixtures, in under 5 minuets. You can do it by hand, but I've found even when you set up a good fixture, its just not as accurate as when you have 2 tons of steel and aluminum holding tight a sharp carbide down cut bit spinning at 50k rpm. Simply put, a saddle slot is cut faster and more accurate than any hand work possible. Maybe someone out there can do a full cut on a new bridge in under 10 minuets, but I doubt most luthiers can do this. I certainly can't.
That also brings up another issue people complaint about. "I just had my guitar pleked and now I'm getting high frets!" I've found often this is human error. Its either that the frets were not seated well, or the guitar has experienced some sort of shock/tempature change. The plek often can't be blamed for bad prep or wood work. You dont blame the tire shop if you hit a pot hole, or someone at the factory under-built the suspension.
The final thing that I feel is an advantage over human work, is that the guitar is scanned under STRING TENSION. And this is the most important thing to take into account. Almost no neck ever moves in a consistent curve when moving from no tension to some tension. Especially cheap guitars. Sometimes guitars naturally have S-curves, or move differently on the bass and treble side when the rod is adjusted or strings are changed, or they don't work at all/have no t-rod! The main reason I think the plek is superior is that you adjust the "plek fret profile" to string tension, and then without tension the machine measures the high of each fret and recreates that profile in the cutting path. So if a vintage guitar comes in and we cannot straighten the neck, and the neck is very backboned when not under tension, the ability to take off just the right amount of material really saves certain jobs. And this ensures that any weird movement can be taken into account and fixed right away. Where as doing this by hand can be a guessing game. Anyone trying to plane a long fretless bass with a thin neck that loves to move, knows how difficult it is to set a good plane. But with the plek, its easy and very accurate. Yes, the plek doesn't just cut fret slots, we use it to plane boards in between refrets.
You see this more on long neck guitars, but if one were for instance plane a long board under no string tension, you can very easily assume that this flat plane you set in the board or neck, will just devolope a consistent curve under tension, but this is not the case. This was the whole idea of the stewmac fixture, but the plek takes this to another level of accuracy. Necks are simply not consistent. So the transparency and accuracy of the plek makes these issues sit easily in the back of the luthiers mind.
And speaking again from experience, our plek machines paid for themselves in less than a year... So the cost up front is high (90k for a plek station [plek pro is over 200k], if I recall right, don't quote me on that..), but the pay out is much higher than cost if you use it wisely. Plus most places charge about the same for a hand level as some do for pleks. So the customer cost is the same in most cases. I know our shop does this, and the pricing is fair to the hours and quality we input. (We mainly do hand levels for scalloped frets and multi-scale. Guitars the machine cannot work on).
So to summarize, the plek can see more, do more unique operations, and in most cases, do them quicker than any human., tradition is important, and every good luthier should be able to do it by hand to a close quality standard, but there is zero doubt in my mind that the plek is superior is nearly every way and well worth it for any shop that can afford it and properly market it. I encourage everyone to visit a shop and check it out for yourself. Plus all the servos and motors are kinda cool to listen to. =P