Stay in Tune vol# 118
By Luthier Patrick Podpadec
Last week all I was getting in the shop was top cracks. Although I still have a few left to finish it seems that this weeks special repair is the basic good old setup. This is the "bread & butter" of most guitar repair shops. I can't speak for all repair shops, but most of the repair people that I have spoken with in the past have lead me to believe that when they "setup" a guitar, they usually don't include a fret leveling and crowning into the procedure. There is usually a separate charge for this type of service. Many music stores will offer a "tuneup" on your instrument which might include a truss rod adjustment, maybe raise or lower the saddle for better "action" or check and reset the intonation (on electric guitars), clean and polish and send you off with a new set of strings. The price range for this service can usually run from 40.00 to 75.00, depending where you take it or where you might live.( of course the bigger the city the bigger the price, unless you have a special relationship with your local music store)
Generally the service of leveling and re crowning frets has become a separate service that many places charge up to 100.00 for. Understanding the fact that it takes some serious skill and knowledge to perform this task successfully, I can understand the reason for the seemingly high price for the service. It is very easy to cause some terrible playing issues (buzzes, flat spots, ) not to mention the various tools that need to be involved, such as a good re crowning file and the proper knowledge and experience that it takes to use these tools. The only thing that I take issue with is that I cannot understand how you can properly set-up and instrument without starting off having a level and true fingerboard to start with. I know that the repairmen adjusts the truss rod, but how can they get it right when there might be one, two or more uneven frets along the length of the fingerboard. This has always bothered me . It seems to me to be impossible to "Professionally" set-up an instrument if the fret leveling and crowning procedure is not the first thing to be done! There is no sense in doing all of the other work if your frets are not checked for height differences, reseated, leveled and then re crowned. After that is when you start the "tune up" on the guitar. Anything less is just a "half of a tune up".
This is why I add the leveling & crowning procedure as a main "feature" of the setups that are performed at the Wood-n-Strings repair shop. Although I do not charge the high price that most repair shops charge for this service, I am a firm believer that it should be done this way. It sets me apart from the other guys. My setup service, starting July 1.2014 for an acoustic or electric guitar is now 85.00 For the types of electric guitars that are equipped with a locking tremolo system the charge is 105.00. do to the extra work involved in setting it up properly. Anyone who owns one of these types of instruments knows what I'm talking about. At first this price may sound a bit on the high side, but considering that you are adding a service (fret leveling) that many places don't or cannot provide you with, and will charge extra for, it is a good investment for your instrument.
After countless set-up jobs I have been able to reduce the amount of time that it takes to do the fret leveling process. Having all of the proper tools and experience to "read" a fingerboard I have been able to perform this task as a intricate part of the set-up and also make it cost effective for me to do it.. I spend at least 1 hr and many times up to 2 hrs on each instrument that I set-up.
The procedure goes like this:
1) evaluate the existing playing condition of the instrument when I receive it. I check the current action height, the neck relief. This is measured between the 5th and 9th fret to determine weather or not it needs a truss rod adjustment. Every player likes a different feel. I check for any obvious buzzes , loose frets, loose screws along the headstock and tuners. I check all of the other hardware on the instrument to determine it's condition whether it needs to be replaced or not.
2) Remove the strings and then thoroughly clean and tighten all loose screws I then remove the nut, which in itself can cause problems, such as breakage or finish chipping, or both. I then will "straighten" the neck by adjusting the truss rod without the string tension on it. I use a precisely ground, perfectly trued straight edge along with feeler gauges to determine where the pesky frets are. Often the frets are worn considerably through out the "first position" (frets 1,2,3,4) These existing grooves must be filed down to remove the grooves that are present from constant finger pressure. This is where the experience steps in. It can be difficult to determine how much to remove before the fret becomes useless . It's important that you measure the fret height (the height from the fingerboard to the top of the frets) before you begin filing. Frets that measure less than .030" should be replaced. On maple fingerboards the spaces between the frets must be taped off so that you don't cause damage to the finish with the files. I use a very straight 10" bastard file that has a block of wood epoxied to the back of it. This gives me precise control over the motions that I use to file the proper radius on the frets. All fretboards have a radius ( except some classical & fleminco guitars)You must maintain this radius through out the filing procedure. This also takes experience and the use of several different radius gauges through out the filing process.
To explain the the proper procedure in detail there are several more steps that must be taken. Unfortunately there is not enough room on this page to do that. Please "Stay in Tune" for the next edition of the Voice so that I may continue explaining all of the details that are involved in setting up an instrument for proper playing. This is a life long passion of mine so please be patient and I hope this is all making some sense to all of you faithful readers.
Patrick from Liam Guitars/ Wood-n-Strings