How To Fix Fret Dots

So, I’ve been building a guitar on commission, and I made a really dumb mistake. Can you spot it?

I was happy with these dots, UNTIL…

Yeah, I inlaid the double dots on the 9th fret instead of the twelfth. And then I didn’t catch the error until three days later!

It’s really unfortunate to scrap a whole neck just because of a few little dots, so how can this be fixed?

I cut the neck after I had already glued the fingerboard to the neck blank, so it turns out that I still had some scrap with a bit of rosewood fingerboard material laminated onto it. I thought it would be great if I could cut some little plugs from the scrap wood and use them to fill in the erroneous dots on the 9th fret. For the 12th fret, I planned to inlay a couple of smaller dots to the left and right of the center dot, which would be an easy fix.

But how do you cut really tiny wood plugs? It’s relatively easy to get plug cutters, but not cutters that are small enough for this application. So I devised a plan to make my own.

Here’s how I did it.

First, I found a set of brass tubing at the local hobby store:

The set I found contained three sizes of tubing. The middle size was perfect for cutting a 3/32″ plug.

Since my dots were 3/32″, I needed to use the middle-size tube. These brass tubes are really soft, though, so it was kind of tricky to cut little teeth onto the end of them.  I ended up using my Dremel tool with a cutting disk to make the teeth, then I cut off a section of tube long enough to chuck into my drill press.

Because the tubing was so bendable, I decided to reinforce it by inserting a shorter length of the smaller tube inside. The reinforcing tube should be long enough to impart some rigidity but not so long as to interfere with the ability to cut a plug of the correct diameter.

Here’s what I ended up with:

It’s kind of blurry in this photo, but that tube has some tiny little teeth cut in the end of it.

Cutting the plugs is easy enough, but I had to proceed slowly and occasionally blow the sawdust off of the piece in order to let the cutting teeth do their work.

Here is a picture of the scrap of neck that I used for the plugs:

This photo shows how plugs are cut from the scrap wood. I had to cut a fair number of plugs from my scrap wood in order to get just the right ones.

Once I got my plugs cut out, I carefully drilled out the old dots in the fingerboard and filled in the hole with the new plugs. Here is the completed repair:

In this close-up picture, you can see the plugs pretty clearly. I’ve inlaid a new dot in the center, where it was supposed to be in the first place.

To the casual observer holding the piece at arm’s length, the repair isn’t very noticeable unless I point it out.

I still wish I hand’t made that mistake, but I’m satisfied with the repair.

On Mistakes

I guess everyone has their own philosophy about mistakes. There are undoubtedly those makers who would have thrown this piece out and started over, and perhaps there are customers who would not be satisfied with mistakes where the repair might be noticeable to them. Once you know it’s there, sometimes it can bother you.

In addition to obvious mistakes like the one I made above, there are other deficiencies in workmanship. For instance, some luthiers might not be that great at inlay work but really good at another aspect of the build. There are deficiencies that are characteristic of the maker, but don’t really affect the utility of the instrument. Where do we draw the line with regard to when a something needs to be refined, repaired, thrown out, or left alone?

Ironically, the most consistent, error-free work comes from assembly lines and is found in machine-made instruments. People are more likely to be used in a quality assurance role, to examine each piece for defects and to throw out the ones that got chipped, or cracked, or mangled in the machinery. Sometimes people are employed for specific tasks along the assembly line, doing repetitive work that can be easily mastered and reproduced. But the mechanized equipment itself has the advantage of a deterministic program that is never affected by too little sleep or by other human distractions and imperfections. Right out of the box, the computerized CNC router is as experienced as it will ever be! Well, until v.2 of the software, anyway.

And so, in a sense, the cheapest, mass-produced commodity work is also the “best” work. That is the irony, as I see it.

I view instrument makers on a continuum between art and engineering:

<—–More Organic                      More Mechanical—–>
Artisans                                                                      Engineers
Imprecision                                                                 Precision
Intuition                            VS                                       Experience
Interpretation                                                               Definition
Interesting                                                                   Predictable

Highly technical makers tend to be perfectionists, and they are more likely not to tolerate mistakes and to consider even small deficiencies in workmanship as unfortunate tragedies. They have a good grasp of the rules and methods and believe that the closer you follow them, the better the instrument will be. Music is, after all, a type of reified mathematics.

On the other hand, artisans see mistakes as a potential opportunity for art, and they are liable to take their work into extravagant flights of fancy outside of established norms. They sometimes see rules as superfluous or things that are meant to be broken. Music is, after all, an often spontaneous form of human creation and communication.

I clearly fall on the artistic side of things. Sure, I start out with my plans and checklists, and I totally understand that there are just some things that can’t be left to interpretation (some measurements are critical to get right, for instance). Typically, however, I end up ignoring my lists and rules and just winging it. I have this internal feeling that I know how this is supposed to turn out, and I follow where it takes me (usually through a mistake or two). I’ll start the day with an organized workbench and end it in chaos, wresting with an unruly instrument on the floor of my shop.

In the end, things usually work out just how I like them, if not exactly how I planned… It’s the variety of possibilities that keep me interested in this work, and I like to see the how things develop along the way.