There is only a handful of Plek stations in Australia and largely they are based at guitar manufacturer’s factories. The Fret Set machine is available to the general public. Some information is to be found below and you can view the highlights of the fun day had moving the thing into the shop in the gallery at the bottom. If you want your instrument setup to be the very best it can Derek Chan plus the Plek machine is your answer.

What the Plek is

The Plek machine is a high precision scanning and fret milling machine. What that means is that it is a tool which allows a skilled luthier to get the lowest, cleanest action a fretted instrument can have in far less time than could be achieved by hand tools alone. For a set action, every note on every fret will ring clear and consistently. It can do this to a level of accuracy that is simply ludicrous.

How it does it

Ok this might get a bit technical, so bear with me. Using the preferred strings of the owner, the Plek scans the exact height of each string over each fret and the height of each fret relative to the fingerboard. It does this over the whole neck while the instrument is tuned to pitch. The luthier then examines this information and decisions must be made about whether frets have enough height to be milled or if the neck is straight enough for a clean action.

The strings are then removed for the Plek to mill the frets, and this is where the real power of the Plek comes in to play. It uses the data from the scan to “remember” how much fret to mill relative to the fingerboard and strings when the instrument was tuned to pitch, even though all the string tension has been removed. It is important to note that the neck moves under tension of the strings, so its shape can change depending on whether its under tension or not, even with the truss rod adjusted to compensate for the lack of tension. It can then mill the frets to the desired height. It can also cut string slots in the nut to the desired height and the correct width for the preferred string gauge.

The Plek takes into account all the idiosyncrasies of each instrument. Some frets are worn more than others. Some necks have humps and twists in them when tuned to pitch but not when the string tension is removed etc…the Plek takes all this into account and mills the fret to .001mm accuracy, which is, let’s face it, more than enough accuracy for the job required.

The role of the luthier

The Plek is amazing at scanning and milling frets, but it is still just a tool. You can’t just put an instrument in it and expect a perfect result without a skilled luthier controlling it and dealing with the frets after the instrument comes out of the Plek. The luthier needs to assess the playing style of each player and the best set up for them. Decisions need to be made as to whether some frets are too worn and need to be replaced, or if the fingerboard/neck is too twisted or lumpy for an acceptable fret mill and so on. The frets still need to be dressed and polished after being milled. I have done many refrets before I got a Plek, so I know the whole process without this incredibly accurate machine. No Terminator Skynet in charge here, just us luthiers.

Words of caution

There are physical limits for scale lengths and sizes of instruments that the Plek can accommodate. It can deal with scalloped fingerboards, but not fan frets (yet). It can mill frets on a ukulele, but only below the 13th fret on a mandolin because beyond the 13th fret the frets get too close together (most mandolins have a fall away that starts there anyway). Acoustic basses might just be too darn big to fit. Sitars are meant to, um, sitar anyway, aren’t they? Then there’s them banjos….with a 5th string that starts partway down the neck. Banjos can be accommodated in the Plek.

Nearly all fretted instruments are made from wood (there are a small number of exceptions made from carbon fiber, plastics and metals etc), and wood is hydroscopic. This means that wood instruments gain or lose moisture from the air in their environment. As the environmental conditions change, so will the moisture content in the instrument, causing expansion and contraction. The more stable the environment, the less expansion/contraction the instrument will undergo. This movement can affect the action on an instrument. Plekking an instrument means it will have the optimum setup in the conditions in the shop that are monitored and maintained, but if you take that instrument from Melbourne and, say, spend a month in the tropics, it WILL affect the action.