What is a PLEK machine? What does a PLEK machine do? Is the PLEK machine worth it? There are many questions about this machine and even more bad answers. Who would think misinformation would take over the Internet in 2021? The PLEK machine is a complex tool and I will try to dispel some of the mysteries surrounding it. Nothing works here!
A PLEK machine is quite simply a tool. Its main function is fretwork: fret leveling and crowning, planing and centering of fingerboards, along with a host of other functions. It also works as a diagnostic tool because it can “see” things on your guitar that the human eye cannot and can help us diagnose problems. It’s a fantastic machine that we can use to set up your guitar with extreme precision. (We describe the PLEK process in detail here and here.)
BUT! The PLEK machine isn’t an easy oven to bake – you can’t just throw an instrument into the PLEK, press a button and a perfect guitar comes out. What happens before the guitar comes in the PLEK and what happens after the guitar comes out of the PLEK arguably more important than what happens while the guitar is in the PLEK machine. The PLEK’s contribution to the guitar setup is critical, but the involvement of the guitar technician on the instrument is critical.
A little story: Aaron and I have worked on thousands of guitars and have years of experience with fretwork with and without a PLEK machine (at San Francisco Guitarworks, Fodera Guitars and now in our own shop). We only did fretwork on a bench which requires a lot of skill and intuition as there is no explanation of how the neck moves when it is under string tension. We also have years of fretwork experience with our own neck jigs, which is a more accurate way of working, but still doesn’t take into account how a neck moves when the truss rod is adjusted.
After handcrafting thousands of guitars, we were ready to invest in our own PLEK machine. And I tell you: the PLEK process is superior in every way. It’s more accurate, more controlled, and eliminates the need for guesswork. It knowingly levels the frets exactly the shape of the neck under string tension. We can program in a perfect radius or compound radius and even determine how much waste we want in the upper registers. It only removes the minimal amount of material from the frets. Our fretwork may have been impeccable before the PLEK, and now it’s without question even better.
But we don’t just sit around, drink coffee and let the machine run. The PLEK is a process and we are involved in every step. Every incoming guitar is thoroughly examined and based on our many years of experience we can tell when a guitar needs to be sawed. Once the guitar is in the PLEK, the machine no longer does everything for us: We take careful measurements, adjust the truss rod, diagnose problem areas, make well-founded decisions and program the PLEK so that it corresponds to our wishes.
And yes, we do struggle with problems from time to time. Sometimes the guitar is too far out of specification and cannot be processed by the PLEK. The neck can be excessively warped, the frets can be too low, the truss rod cannot work, the frets can be loose and incorrectly seated, and the scale length can be incorrect. The PLEK is not (yet!) Sensitive, so it takes an experienced luthier to make judgments. What initially seemed like a simple fret level can turn into a major ordeal at times. We wouldn’t have been ready to deal with these issues if we hadn’t worked on so many guitars before we got the PLEK machine.
It can only take five minutes to get the guitar ready to use in the PLEK, and sometimes it can take half an hour. Every guitar is different and each presents unique challenges. Even though it’s physically demanding, I’m glad we spent so much time working on guitars by hand because that makes us better PLEK operas.
Once the guitar is prepared and the machine programmed, the PLEK process is usually pretty quick: between five and ten minutes.
After the PLEK is leveled, the skills of the guitar maker really come into play. The frets have processing marks and must be sanded and polished. Then the guitar needs to be set up properly based on the parameters the operator previously entered into the PLEK and the customer’s preferred action. An inexperienced person could very easily render the PLEK completely pointless: it could ruin the accuracy of the fret leveling by improperly grinding / polishing the frets or setting up the guitar poorly. What is the point of the PLEK process if the actual process Part is botched?
We take great care in our work according to the PLEK. We have developed an efficient and accurate method of sanding and polishing the frets, and our setup work is rigorous. We usually spend about an hour on your guitar after it comes off the PLEK. We have done this thousands of times and each time we take careful measurements and test every guitar to make sure you are getting the best guitar you ever got your hands on.
THAT is the secret of the PLEK machine: It’s not just a machine – it’s a process. As a guitar technician / luthier, I can tell you that it is absolutely worth it. It’s a far better way of doing fretwork – I’ve made more frets and frets by hand than I can count, and the PLEK process is infinitely better. (There is simply NO way a technician can do their job as well by hand, no matter how skilled they are.) Sure, it’s faster too, but the total time we spend on your guitar, from putting it in the PLEK to It usually still takes about two hours to complete the setup. As a player, it’s a huge step up. Notes sound clearer, large bends don’t stifle, and yes, the instrument sounds better when properly set up with flawless fretwork.
Is the PLEK process worthwhile for you? Most places in the US charge between $ 200 and $ 300 for a PLEK fret level and setup, which I think is a small price to pay to tweak your instrument. EVERY guitar can benefit from getting PLEKed, even if it is a super expensive custom shop guitar. Many guitar factories make hundreds of guitars every day, and there is simply no way to get the fretwork to within 0.01mm (0.0004 in) that the PLEK machine can. Whether your guitar is a brand new Gibson Les Paul or a battered pawnbroker Squier, your guitar will play a million times better with a PLEK level and the right setup.
The PLEK machine is a complex tool that cannot be explained in detail here. But we’re happy to answer all of your questions and, if time permits, we’d be happy to demonstrate. Have a look at the shop at any time and see for yourself!