You may have heard of the PLEK machine, you may have even been offered a PLEK service when purchasing a new guitar. But what exactly is it?
In this KillerGuitarRigs guide you’ll learn
- What is a PLEK machine?
- How does a PLEK machine work?
- How does a PLEK setup better than a master luthier setup?
- Are there downsides to a PLEK service?
- How much does a PLEK service cost?
Before moving on to the guide, take a look at these fast facts:
- PLEK machines require skilled operators
- PLEK services do not always require fretwork
- PLEK services cost around $200 on average
- What is a PLEK Machine?
- How Does a PLEK Machine Work?
- Is a PLEK Setup Better Than a Master Luthier Setup
- How Much Does It Cost to PLEK a Guitar?
- Are There Downsides to a PLEK Service?
- Final Thoughts on PLEK Machines
What is a PLEK Machine?
A PLEK machine is a CNC type machine designed and built in Germany, and it is designed to analyze the condition of your guitar’s neck and frets, and then perform an ultra-accurate fret dress job. It operates to miniscule tolerances; in fact, the accuracy is rated to 0.001”!
The actual CNC machinery is controlled by an extremely advanced piece of software that can allow experienced technicians to even perform virtual fret dresses to see what the effect would be if they performed a variety of hypothetical actions before ever touching the guitar with a tool.
PLEK claim that their system is “so much more than a machine”, instead referring to it as an “entire process environment that helps you to achieve optimum playability for your instruments”.
How Does a PLEK Machine Work?
In order to use a PLEK machine, your guitar has to be mounted in the device in playing condition, that is, in its normal setup with strings on and in tune. Once the operator starts the machine it sets to work on the first stage.
Stage 1 – Initial Scan
On the first scan, the PLEK machine’s probe finger measures the entire fretboard from nut to bridge. At this stage the machine is taking measurements of string length, string spacing, string position, string gauge, fret height, fret wear, fret profile, height of action, fretboard profile, and contour in order to get an extremely accurate picture of the overall condition.
Stage 2 – Analyze Initial Data
With the first scan, the computer will show the operator if, and where, there are any high frets. This initial scan provides a lot of other data, too. For example, by analyzing the fret height at the same fret on each string individually, the system will reveal even the slightest amount of neck twist.
At this point the operator will use their best judgement to decide whether fretwork is even necessary. For example, the fix may be as simple as a truss rod adjustment. This is why it’s critical that an experienced guitar tech who can confidently perform a manual fret dress is operating the machine.
Stage 3 – Rescan Without Strings
If the operator establishes that fret work is necessary, they will remove the strings and scan the guitar again without them on. This second scan is much faster as the system has all of the reference points already. From this second scan, the operator learns the condition of the fretboard without tension, and from there calculations can be made that will determine how much milling needs to be performed and where.
Stage 4 – Milling the Frets
The PLEK machine will not do anything automatically. Using the recommendations of the scan, the operator sets the machine to make adjustments based on their judgment. Once all parameters are set, the PLEK machine goes to work, accurately filing down any high frets to exact accuracy. The machine also recrowns the frets afterwards, too, restoring the rounded top profile
Stage 5 – Final Scan
Once the frets have been milled, the strings must be reinstalled and tuned. The guitar will then once again be set up in the PLEK machine and scanned to ensure that all modifications have been successful. If not, further adjustments may be necessary follow by further scans.
Stage 6 – Hand Finish
Once the operator is happy that all of the frets are at the correct height, and that the action is at the perfect height for the requested setup. It will be removed from the PLEK machine and unstrung once again. Now the frets will be hand polished before the operator presents the newly PLEK’d guitar back to their customer.
Is a PLEK Setup Better Than a Master Luthier Setup
Better is a subjective word in this case. A PLEK machine can make 3D models of your fretboard to within 0.001” accuracy, something a human can absolutely not do with traditional tools. However, a luthier or skilled tech can hear things with human ears, something the machine cannot do.
When it comes to shaving the perfect amount off of a fret wire, again, this is something that the machine is programmed to do absolutely perfectly. A human with hand tools is unlikely to be able to replicate this, however, even after a PLEK service, a hand finish of the fret wires is still an essential step to ensure that the guitar is playable. So, in essence, a PLEK setup isn’t necessarily better than a master luthier setup, but it can allow a master luthier to get your guitar as well set up as is physically possible.
How Much Does It Cost to PLEK a Guitar?
PLEK machines are serious investments, for any luthier or repair shop, coming in at around $250,000 per unit. As such, a shop that goes to this expense will have to charge in order to recoup their investment. Prices vary, of course, but $200 is about average for a PLEK service.
If you’re wondering why it’s so expensive for a machine to do this job, think about this – at $200 per service, it will still take the store around 3 and a half years to pay off their investment if they sell a PLEK service every day of the year, and that’s not even counting the wages of the operator.
Big box stores do sometimes offer a PLEK service for free on some of their high end guitars, and some manufacturers have begun to use these machines with every guitar they make, Gibson, for example. So there are ways to get a PLEK service without paying!
Are There Downsides to a PLEK Service?
As with anything, there are always bound to be reasons for and against doing anything, especially when it comes to letting scary looking robots near a guitar with cutting discs. Of course, a PLEK machine is not a fully automated tool. It requires an experienced luthier or guitar tech to analyze the readouts from the measurement scans and make decisions about what to do, so if a shop has gone to the extreme expense of installing a PLEK machine, there is a good chance they aren’t leaving it to the shop floor sales staff to operate.
A good PLEK operator will talk to you about how you want the setup and should advise you of some of the potential drawbacks. For example, if you are already working with worn frets, the machine will take off more fret wire, further reducing their lifespan. Even worse, if the fret wire is too thin to begin with, there’s a strong chance that the cutting disk can actually impact and damage the fretboard wood. If you aren’t in the market for a refret, and you don’t want to run the risk of damage, a full PLEK fret dress may not be for you, although you will almost certainly still benefit from a scan.
Final Thoughts on PLEK Machines
PLEK machines should not be thought of as a luthier replacement, they should be seen more as a next generation tool that allows a skilled guitar builder or technician to get the most accurate mathematical model of the guitar as possible in order to create the perfect setup. Whether you trust a machine to do this or not, there’s no denying that this is an advanced piece of equipment that has the ability to transform the way you play.
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