The Plane Truth

Nice pro fret job, very clean inlays, nice smooth board with no visible wear, perfectly straight neck. Could this have been planed?

I’ve often commented about just how long 50 years is in the life of a guitar. That, coupled with the fact that guitarists are tinkerers by nature and the fact that wood is inherently unstable makes it very likely that someone has messed with your vintage guitar at some point during those long 50 years.  There are a whole lot of bad things that can happen and a whole lot of not so bad things. The big question is “which is which”? An extra bunch of holes from a tuner change bothers a lot of folks but it won’t hurt the guitar if its done right. A missing Bigsby with holes in the top is another one that rankles some folks. Refrets generally don’t bother anyone if done well. In fact, they are often better than the originals. But supposing that the luthier who did the refret needed to do some planing to get the fingerboard flat either due to extreme rutting (rutting season?) or, worse, from a warped or twisted neck. The necks on 335s are generally pretty stable but 50 years is a very long time for a piece of wood under intense force to stay straight. I talked about the effect of gravity on a guitar recently and also covered fret leveling to compensate and a few other procedures but I didn’t talk much about planing the fingerboard. First off, how do you know the board has been planed? Being bound, you can’t really see the edges but therein lies the “tell”. I’ve had perhaps ten 335s come through here that have had planed fingerboards and the easiest way to tell is to look at the side dots. They should be pretty close to the middle of the binding on the neck. If they are right up near the top, then you can be pretty sure than someone took off some wood-especially if they aren’t uniformly spaced along the length of the board. By that I mean that the dots at the higher frets are closer to the top of the binding than they are at the lower frets or vice versa. If the luthier who did the work was really conscientious, he might take the bindings off, plane the board, re-rout the binding area and replace it but don’t count on it. So, let’s say you just took a closer look at your guitar and you knew it was a refret but you never looked that closely to see if the board was planed and it looks like it was. If it’s smooth and even and the guitar plays well, then forget it. I don’t think it diminishes the value of your guitar any more than a refret. But why plane the board? Isn’t the truss rod supposed to take care of the ravages of gravity and time? To some extent, yes but the truss rod can’t fix a twist or a rise that occurs near the body-it doesn’t extend that far and the real action takes place in the middle of the truss-not at the ends. That’s simple physics (and design). If we just threw away all the Gibsons that had humps and dips and twists in the fingerboard, there wouldn’t be a lot of them left. These guitars are really likely to do these things over time. I would estimate that more than 50% of the guitars I see have something other than a perfectly straight neck. A truss adjustment is the first line of defense. As I’ve said before-you play the frets, not the fingerboard and a fret level can very often fix a minor problem that a truss adjustment can’t. A “compression” refret can sometimes fix a back bow but not always. Steaming the neck is sometimes successful but not always.  Planing the fingerboard is a bit like “if ya can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” You are acknowledging that the wood has won. In most cases, once the board is planed, the problem is gone and the guitar plays like it should. The rosewood blanks are pretty substantial, so you needn’t worry about the board getting too thin to hold the frets. The biggest casualty is usually the fret markers-they are pretty thin to begin with and pretty unstable (335 blocks in particular). Sanding or planing them can actually help if the are curling or lifting but there isn’t much there so they may get too thin. Replacement of the blocks is not the end of the world either. The good news is that the wood, having been under stress for 50 years or so has probably stabilized to a great extent and the fix for your wavy fingerboard should last a good long time. Maybe not 50 more years but you can let the heir to your guitar collection worry about that.

I'm going to guess that there was a rise at the 9th that extended to just past the 12th that was planed. Pay attention to how high on the binding the dot at the 9th fret sits as opposed to the one at the 15th. BTW, the guitar plays great. This is the same guitar as the first photo. I think the inlays were replaced.

One Response to “The Plane Truth”

  1. RAB says:

    Charlie, another excellent topic and using the side dots to ascertain potential planing of the board is a good indicator! I request my luthier not to plane the fret boards on my vintage guitars. It may have happened prior to my ownership (or stewardship since we are more care-takers of these vintage git-tars!) but not on my watch! Instead of planing I request they make necessary adjustments via the individual fret heights. Use of a computerized fret milling machine (PLEK) makes this approach more feasible…

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