Hi Guys, 

I have a question for professional techs out there. I recently relocated out to Los Angeles from Brooklyn, NY and have opened up a new shop here. I previously had a small shop in downtown Brooklyn that was quite successful but my landlord sold the building and I decided to move to California for some sunshine.

Well my first customer has come in and brought two guitars an SG Classic for a setup and a Heritage H535 for the same thing. The SG setup fine and he was happy with it. The heritage was brought in when he picked up his SG so I am in the middle of working on it. The neck on this guitar had a ton of relief as well as a poorly cut nut(I guess Heritage learned from Gibson how to cut their nuts). I told the customer that I'd setup the instrument and dress the nut so, the first thing I do is dress the nut and polish the slots to alleviate the pinching at the nut. Long story short I go to setup the instrument only to find out the neck has a a serious issue that needs to be corrected. When the truss rod is tightened the neck develops a a buzz on the first three frets most notably on the high e while the rest of the neck still retains some relief. On top of that the radius of the fingerboard is all over the place and no where near the 12" radius that it should be. I know that without question there is no way to setup the instrument to my satisfaction without planing the fingerboard and re-fretting it. 

So my question is, how should I go about this? The cynic in me is telling me that this guy is probably going to think that I'm new in own and either don't know what I'm doing or trying to taking him for a $300+ ride. I will have him come in so I can show him what's going on, but I generally feel that people have a lack of trust for individuals in any repair profession and really want to make a good impression with my first client.   



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"Am I dishonest to let the client know that the thing had many other issues that create limitations that a simple set-up would not address? Hell no in my view, my honesty and professional opinion was welcomed by this client"

Of course that is not dishonest and completely understandable if there are middle men involved. But any seasoned pro who takes the time to evaluate a guitar and give an estimate for set up work should know to look for neck and fret issues before issuing the estimate. Otherwise that repair person could be perceived as dishonest, lazy or incompetent. Plus the extra phone calls and paper work for a second estimate is a waste of everyones time.

In the example that I provided the gutiar was taken in by sales people.

But I have to respectfully disagree that seasoned pros are not going to miss something at times.  We are all human and the plethora of things that may slip by us upon an initial triage of the instrument are likely infinite...  For example what about the all-too-common ski ramps on Fender style bolt on necks.  We all know they are there but if this limitation is going to prevent a proper set-up when we are speaking of perhaps .010" that the extension frets may be too proud - how can we know that a fret dress is absolutely necessary until some attempt to set the thing up to the player's liking is done first?

Another case in point that I can think of, and there are many things that I can think of that may not be caught upon the initial inspection is the Martin 15 series with that incredibly stupid glued mortise and tenon neck joint.  The joint commonly fails and we are left with the only thing holding the neck on, and not very well, is the single bolt that was designed only to hold the neck in place while the glue in the ill advised joint cures. 

Do we tell the client that it will likely need a neck reset when perhaps, just perhaps, simply removing the wooden plate hiding access to the bolt and tightening the bolt will pull the neck back into the proper geometry?  Or, as is often the case, the upper bout has distorted and even cranking the bolt will not provide a proper neck angle and the gutiar really does need to have the neck reset.

How can one know at the time of inspection/intake without further exploration and/or actually doing most of the work?

Again my examples of other service providers who may uncover more serious issues during what is seemingly a routine job comes to mind.  In my opinion we are not immune to this either and my guess is that many of us fairly frequently find issues that were not brought up by the client or caught in the inspection.

Until such time as how guitars fail becomes infinitely predictable and clients are more knowledgeable and in some cases more forthcoming with information... whomever is estimating the work and the need for the work may miss something that cannot possibly be caught upon an initial inspection.  Does this make resolving what ever other issues pop up on us?  Not in my thinking...

On the other hand - this is the business that we decided to be in and to me this means that I simply have to deal with the possible pitfalls as best that I may.  Not complaining here and so far I've only had to eat the effort and cost of a couple additional set-ups on a strat with 12's on it.  What eventually happened with this strat with 12's after complaints of buzzing/rattling about 1 hour into practicing was showing the player how he was getting tired and no longer pressing the frets hard enough after an hour or more of struggling with 12's.  It took me a month to figure this out and when I set up a demonstration that proved my hunch the client moved to 11's, recognized that he was no longer a young man...., and all was and remains well.

But how could I have possibly caught this while taking the instrument in - the idea that the player had a set-up that they were not capable of playing for extended periods of time?  It turned out that the guitar was fine but the player could not deal with the set-up for long periods of time.

In this case I even bit the bullet and took the guitar (with permission) to another Luthier for a 3rd set-up and second opinion - it still rattled and buzzed about an hour into playing it.... but only for it's owner and not for us.

So at the end of the day we do the best that we can and then some.  I personally bend over backward to help resolve my client's issues with their instruments and unfortunately lose some sleep over it from time to time too..  I'm willing to seek a second opinion too when stumped because the goal, the important goal, is to fix the instrument if at all possible.

So I clearly don't agree that "any seasoned pro" who evaluates a guitar is on the hook for anything that may be missed and subject to being considered "dishonest, lazy or incompetent."  This is a standard that is simply not realistic and far too black and white for me to accept.  It's also a very bad way to set a clients expectations as well because it just does not sync with the reality of how these things go in the real world.

There is a reason why estimates are called "estimates" and not the "final price...."

"So I clearly don't agree that "any seasoned pro" who evaluates a guitar is on the hook for anything that may be missed and subject to being considered "dishonest, lazy or incompetent.""

I didnt say "anything that they missed", I said a neck that needs to be refretted.

When I take in a guitar that could use some fretwork I basically say "well, the neck and frets have some issues so I wont be able to dial the guitar in. I'm happy to set up the guitar without doing the fretwork but you might not be happy because of fret buzz. If you are fussy or particular, then you should get the fretwork done, if you aren't picky about some fretbuzz it's a $(price of some set up work) gamble to put off the fretwork for a later date".

When this happens and a customer chooses to forgo the fretwork, I write a quick note stating it could use fretwork to be truely dialed in in the notes section of the work order or estimate. I do this for both my records and theirs.

Another thing I sometimes do after the conversation stated above, is spend about 10 minutes talking to the customer to get a sense of who they are and what they want from their guitar while I adjust the truss rod and bridge (on electric guitars) so they can get a fair idea of what a set up without fretwork is going to be like. Then I get back to work on whatever repair I'm in the middle of while they play their guitar for a few minutes and decide if they want me to complete the set up without fretwork, have the fretwork done, take it elsewhere for a second opinion or home to think on it. So long as I feel comfortable foregoing fretwork on a particular guitar any of those options are fine with me and I tell them so.

Nathan my friend we may have been posting at the same time and my post below was not in response to your post immediately above. 

I like your approach of letting the client have a try of what you can do with the limitations of the fret work not being addressed.  Good idea and a pretty good way in my view too to demonstrate that a simple set-up is no solution for frets with issues, divots, or in need of leveling.

Your example is very specific and rightly so assumes a pretty good inspection and some time being spent with the client too.

What I am attempting to address is the things that may get missed in the inspection and are in fact often missed in an inspection AND the sorts of things that can't rightly be caught in an inspection but will come up during the work being done.

In one of my jobs where sales folks take in the instruments I often do what you do too and that is to note on the invoice that the thing could benefit from a proper fret dress, refret, what ever.  It's my way documenting that I could have done a better job if the known limitations of the instrument were addressed as well.  It's also a way to provide even greater value to the client who may not know that frets are not supposed to be grooved all the way to the tang.... ;)

So if you don't mind me saying so I think that you have an excellent way with your clients in that your assessments are "participative" where the client has the opportunity to see for themselves what to expect.  This is always a good thing - setting the expectation as correctly as possible.

But I am not sure if you are willing to agree with me that there are some things that will not be caught even on a good day in a simple estimate and that when this happens honesty, further advising the client with an updated estimate is preferable AND not dishonest over simply doing the extra work and eating the cost and the "opportunity cost" of not being able to work on a different job all the while.

If you don't agree and your personal standard is that you either catch what ever is wrong at all times or it's on you are you keen for an outsourcing arrangement with me?  ;)  Please note smiley face!

Hesh, I hear what you're saying.  Sometimes you encounter a surprise, but after a few years in the trenches, you know from lots of signs when you are most likely going to find a surprise before you even type up the estimate.  That's when you triple the estimate, turn down the job or write up the work order as time and materials.  

Now that's easy for me to say, because I have a long list of guitars that I either won't touch or won't do certain repairs to because:

1) they were not built to be repaired (yamaha, ovation, etc...) or

2) require too much specialized knowledge/experience to do well for the number of them coming my way (Parker guitars, the violin family, banjos and dobros just to name a few).

So for you guys who do a wider range of repairs to a wider range of instruments, I totally understand how you are going to have to exceed your estimates more often than someone like me who has a more limited scope.

As a well known repair guy once told me "The fewer [types of] repairs I do, the more money I make!"

Nathan I think that this is excellent advice and thanks for sharing it too!

We often run into a situation where the repair is $120 and a new Uke is $130...

Seems too like Ovations have a universal meaning to Luthiers everywhere in so much as we shift gears into vampire protection mode when ever we see one...;)

Most of all though you gave me an idea for what might be a very useful discussion for some of us including me and that is to discuss how to ward off the stuff that is known for unservicability and scope creep.  In addition to your list above parts guitars can be a very long walk on a very short pier too at times, not always but they can bite ya at times.

Anyway if you ever want to start a new thread that I believe would be helpful to many of us perhaps start a thread with a title addressing how Luthiers can shield themselves from the jobs that just seem to suck way more often than not...

I don't know that any list I offer up will be all that helpful.  I'll bet that everyone's list of time wasting work is going to be different because of who they are and where they come from.

Instead, I think that building on your strengths and interests is probably the best way to get the sort of work that you want to do.

I try to work on the type of guitars I want to work on, doing the type of repairs I want to do for the type of people for whom I want to work.  If for no other reason, those situations have become profitable because of repetition.

Having a website has also been helpful for me although I suppose any medium would work: a newsletter, a youtube channel, teaching a repair class at a technical school, a facebook page, a column in a guitar magazine, etc...  Just using some sort of medium to get the work that you're enthusiastic about out there is going to get people who have that kind of work to respond to your enthusiasm.

I know what I don't want to do based on previous repair experiences and I try to politely yet, firmly side step those opportunities as they appear.  Telling someone you don't want to work for them and or work on their particular guitar without hurting their feelings can be a challenge.  I like such phrases as:

  • "I don't really know how to level the frets on your Rickenbacker because I don't have much experience working with that ratio of varnish to fret crown."
  • "Ovation guitars are using techniques and materials that are too far ahead of my skill set."
  • "I don't have much experience working with laminates so I think there are better candidates out there for restoring your vintage Yamaha."
  • and if all else fails "I'm just so backed up right now, I think your best bet is to call so and so."

In these situations I try to give the customer a referral to another repair person who is a better match, that way I've at least helped the customer in some small way.

A few minutes later it occurred to me that it may be helpful to some to better understand my point of view that we are not always responsible for not catching something in an initial estimate if I shed some light on why this is my thinking and belief.  I'm also aware that this is a personal opinion on my part and as with everything else I might certainly be wrong here too.

In a prior life I worked for what was once the largest company in the world, this is before the days of Apple and Walmart...

Job one for the 375,000 employees of this company was NOT making money!  Job one was shielding the corporation from liability.... Job two was making money...;)

We were trained and trained and trained in watching out for the pitfalls of doing business in such a manner that might expose the greater corporation to liability.  Our reality was that if we were ethical, honest, and true the company would back us up 400% at all times.  And in my experience this was indeed the case.

Conversely if one was unethical, did something dishonest, the company would drop them like a hot potatoe.  And yeah I know there is no "e" in the word potato unless one may live in parts of Indiana (no offense to Indiana residents implied...). ;)

Additionally where most of the training focused was with the idea of setting the initial expectation of the clients correctly and this often included disclaimers and/or a stated, written range of possibilities too.  We were covering our arses to put it simply but also providing a realistic portrayal of how in our experience these matters may go at times. 

One of the places that I work now I work with other Luthiers who at times struggle with this very question, as do I.  Are we on the hook for a bad estimate?  This is why this is a very good thread in my view and an excellent, real world and all too common dilemma that some of us may benefit from exploring the ideas and thinking of others.

A month ago we had a visit from one of the acknowledged top repair guys in the world.  One of our many discussions during this two day visit was something that this Luthier brought up and that is the idea of "rubber necks..."  A rubber neck is a neck that moves far more than we would wish it to and as such is a moving target for issues associated with fret work, set-ups, etc.  Our visitor told us a bit about how the issue of rubber necks has haunted him at times and that there was no way to tell if a rubber neck was going to be a limiting factor until AFTER the work was performed.

Or in other words this issue, a rubber neck, is not something that really can be caught during an initial inspection but it will come to light once the work is completed and issues still remain.

As such if we were to only rigidly adhere to our estimates and place an unrealistic expectation on ourselves that if we don't catch the issue at once and initially that we suck as repair people AND we have to eat the cost of making the sick instrument whole, what ever this entails, this is not a business that I would want to be in....  Nor could any of us make a successful economic go of it either.  the potential liability would be too great...

And at the end of the day what most clients in my view really want and deserve is to have their instruments repaired using best practices, serviceable methods and glues, and for us to do no harm either.  As demonstrated by the OP the client welcomed resolution of their instrument's issues even if there is an additional cost to bear.

Ever hear of a "bench fee" or more specifically what we will likely see when ever getting electronics such as amps repaired?  The fee is not a guarantee of a fix by any means but it is a statement that further exploration is required, on the client's dime...., before a proper estimate and/or assessment may be forthcoming.  It's reality in that business and at times it's our reality too.

Where one could do a horrible job of shielding themselves from potential liability is to maintain that any estimate provided cannot at a later date and time be superseded by a corrected estimate based on what they discover well into the repair.  If this was the case this would be a very dangerous business to be in, fewer folks would succeed in this business, clients would have fewer choices including some choices where folks simply do not understand the liability that they are bringing onto themselves.

Is it a mistake to miss something on an initial estimate?  Sure, at times but not always and that is my position here.  We simply cannot be expected to know everything that we need to know about an instrument based on an initial assessment no matter how carefully done. 

I'll add too that what we do is a service, an important service even in this age of disposable instruments.  Folks bond with their instruments at times, they may have a family heirloom and the need for Luthiers to continue to provide our valued services without being held to a standard that is so very high that many of us perish in the marketplace because of the assumed liability.

It's easy to take the concept of unwanted liability too far too and not wish to get any on us....  But for the most part if something is not caught initially but will remain an issue that needs to be addressed an honest conversation with one's client setting realistic expectations all the while which may include an updated quotation is how I address my own business responsibilities.  And so far so good.


Eric I am opening a "brick and mortar". As a matter of fact I'm open. Just trying to get a few of my instruments built for stock and doing so "marketing". 

Well this neck was a bit tricky to evaluate because with the amount of relief that it came in with. The problem at the first fret wasn't visible until I made a truss rod adjustment. I have in the past tried to do some initial adjustments while talking with the customer but I really didn't expect a problem like this on a relatively new heritage. 

Here are a few pics before and after leveling the board. Keep in mind that in the pic showing the fall away, the rest of the neck is straight. This board took enough leveling that I had to replace a dot or two. 

Here are those pics.


By the way Gary, I just want to say that I don't think you did anything bad or dishonest and I'm really happy to hear that the situation worked out for both you and your customer.  Sounds like you have a great customer there, hold on to him!


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