Weekend Project 29th-31st July 2011.
I recently acquired my second Playtech 6 string bass guitar. As was my first, this one was on Yahoo! auctions in Japan. I had seen it change hands a few times and had always missed it. I probably paid up a bit for it this time but it was more or less what I was looking for. This brand is only available on line and through mail order shops.Firstly, I have a Playtech 6 string bass (same model) in a natural wood finish that I bought on the auction last year. I was amazed at the quality of workmanship, especially so since I originally thought this brand was made in China. However, I recently heard that it is a subsidiary company of E.S.P and that the Playtech basses are made in the Fujigen factory. Here and there I hear a couple of gripes such “The through body string retainers are loose” – Yeah so what, bothered! To my mind they are well made, and well finished. For the price they are unbeatable value for money. The first one looks like it has been dropped from a wall in a shop. It has a single crack across the lower wing through to the control cavity (It is a through-neck design). Its a micro fracture and does not affect the sound or sustain. I will get to fixing soon once I decide the fate of this bass remain fretted. refret, or defret.Secondly, I have a nickel allergy and replacing nickel strings with steel only relived part of the problem.It didn’t solve my whole problem. So I am faced with the following. Either go through an expensive hypo-allergenic refret on my favorite basses, or go fretless entirely. The third silly option is to wear a glove when playing, which I know some people do, but I want the sensitivity in my fingertips and the natural feeling in my hand. Therefore this recent purchase seemed ideal. Someone had already pulled the frets, it looked like a reasonable job lower down near the nut, but more damage further near the end of the fingerboard. I have read several reports that this is the same for other people defretting too. I wonder why this is? Perhaps by the 24th fret they are over it and cant wait to get it over with.
Thirdly, I rehearse with a band twice a month we have recently included a couple of songs that require a 5 or 6 string for the low C or low D notes. I have an Aria Pro Integra 805, five banger, but I prefer the string spacings and neck on the Playtech. So, I will be spending most of my time on the 6 string Playtech in the near future until I can afford to buy an Aria Pro Avante fretless 6 string or something similar.
Anyway, the new Playtech is finished in transparent blue (their premium colour) and it has been butchered a fair bit. The pre-amp has been removed and re-wired passively. I have plans to put a Bartolini or similar pre-amp inside at a later date. Control knobs were missing. The nut had been cut too deep and the bridge had been lowered but it appears a previous owner did it with a chisel and did not make a good job of it. Considering its state I had no real fear of making it any worse. It is a project that has provided me with my first experience at the minor woodworking side of bass guitar repair and the experience gained is certainly more valuable than the original purchase cost and additional cost of materials. I wanted to write about it to add to my small portfolio of amateur hobby experiences.
Here are the original fuzzy pictures from the Yahoo! Japan auction.
It was delivered mid week and I didn’t open it until the weekend where I gave it a clean and a wipe and decided whether or not it was a project I wanted to start or not. After general cleaning and oiling the fretboard, I had a quick play of it. (The original strings had that “nickel”glow to them so I decided to go to the nearest bass centre to me which is at Shibuya and bought a set of Zon steel rounds. I came home and strung it up. It was a surprisingly good experience. The B,E and A strings had a nice low action not to sloppy, however this is when I discovered that a previous owner had just cut or filed into the nut to lower the action for fretless. I would have removed the nut and sanded it down and only if necessary take a file or saw to the nut. Alas, the D,G and C strings were too low and a bit buzzy. I decided there and then that this would be a good experience and was going to let a friend of mine a very skilled luthier take charge of the project and pay him for his skills. However, it appeared that he is busy with enough work at the moment so, I decided that these Playtech’s are so cheap, I could buy another and start again. (Well eventually). I read the pros and cons for vaneer versus filler. I doubted myself and my elementary woodworking skills with veneer and so I decided upon filler and sealing the fretboard. I bought both veneer and filler just in case of a change of heart half way through. Afrer a quick visit to the Tokyu Hands store in Shibuya for my basic tools, sandpaper etc, I was set.
I setup a table outside under cover in the garage area. I laid 2 flattened cardboard boxes over a “Workmate” table and laid an old cloth over the cardboard boxes. Then I used nylon string to secure the guitar to the work mate in case of a high wind or earthquake. Sure enough during this project there was an earthquake the early hours of Sunday morning. The bass was secure and safe.
After thinking through with a plan and deciding that this time I would use filler and seal the filler to prevent cracking. Well that is the plan. We will see ho it pans out with humidity and temperature variations and after re stressing the truss-rods when the strings are put back. I was half expecting to have to have to cut out all the filler and redo the whole thing with veneer anyway. So using a box knife I carefully cleaned out each fret slot and if the ends were blocked I would gently cut about 1mm in so that the filler would create a bit of a fret marker on the edge of the fingerboard. I didn’t have an air line so I used good old breath to blow out any debris. The next thing I did was to mask the fretboard using regular paper masking tape. I moved the tape as close to the slots as I could. The idea was to try and prevent the filler from seeping onto the fingerboard to try and make the sanding job easier and to give me a better result. I used a regular general purpose vanilla wood filler from Tokyu Hands store. Its not cheap for D.I.Y. but they have everything in one place so its just convenient. The idea of the vanilla rather than a matching colour was so that there would be to contrast with the fingerboard and to give me a general idea where to put my chubby fingers when I’m playing. The other thing was they only had white and vanilla colours at the store so there was no other choice on this day.
I bought a small butter knife from the 100yen shop to act as my spatula for applying the filler. It was solid but malleable. i added just a tiny drop of water to give it the best chance of seeping into the slots. Once the filler was set I used a small box knife to take off the top layer of filler on each fret position. Then I lightly sanded them down using 400 grit wet and dry type. The masking tape was still in place providing protection for the fingerboard. Next I removed the masking tape carefully trying not to dislodge any filler. Here is a shot after the tape had been pulled to reveal the filler.
I knew I would have to remask the whole fretboard and refill the slots. This time I made the filler a bit more watery to give it a chance to bind with the previous layer and also to get into the tiny corners. It was still my intention to try and limit sanding the fingerboard as it in quite good condition.
In the next photograph you can see the “workbench” and in the one following that you might just be able to see the chisel marks where a previous owner dug into the wood to lower the bridge assembly.
In the next photograph you can see the neck all taped up for the 2nd layer of filler. As I had watered this layer of filler a little I gave it extra time to set. I took a break, went for a walk and came back to it a couple of hours later. After coming back to it I carefully trimmed the filler and lightly sanded it before removing each piece of masking tape slowly, hoping not to pull out any filler that might have become attached to it.
The results were fair but the choice of a lighter ivory coloured filler was probably wrong, not that I had any choice in the matter. Oh, I’ve read in other project blogs that another “disadvantage” of using filler is that it doesn’t absorb colour like wood does. Well I did not experience that as you can see later.
Here is the fingerboard ready for its sanding down. I used 400 and 800 wet and dry soaked wrapped around a piece of flexible rubber sheet about 4″ x 4″. This saved me the bother of finding the radius of the fingerboard and the correct radius sanding block. OK so it was fudge, but it worked. I wiped the fingerboard with a damp rag several times. When it had dried naturally I used some fine wire wool on the fingerboard until it took on a dull shine. I wiped it again, used the wire wool again, wiped it again and left it overnight to dry.
The next day I gave the whole guitar a whipe taking care on the neck. I had chosen an ebony coloured varnish which is water soluble until set. After 3 coats it gets quite dark as shown in the store. I thought that even if the filler takes on a bit of colour it will still stand out after 3 coats giving me some fret markers to play by.
I poured out about 1/5 of the bottle into a plastic container provided with the varnish. I dipped the brush wiping off the excess on the side of the container and worked evenly, smoothly and quickly from the nut end toward the bridge. I had to load the brush no more than about 4 or 5 times. The instructions told me to wait 1 hour and 30 minutes between coats. I waited for 2 hours. It seemed hard and semi shiny like a satin finish. I used the wire wool again until I had just taken the shine off the fingerboard. Then I repainted with the varnish again and waited. I repeated this 3 times. The last time I waited overnight for it to really harden before taking the wire wool very lightly to the surface a final time. Then I wiped it with a clean rag. I left it there while I repaired the nut.
As previously mentioned the nut had been left in place and a small saw or file had been used to cut the slots deeper. I had to cut out the nut with a box cutter blade and removed the plastic debris. Next using superglue I made a laminate of 3 layers of veneer cut roughly to the shape of the base of the nut. Then I glued the veneer laminate to the bottom of the nut. I cut an extra slip of veneer just in case it was needed. I have ordered a new nut from Graphtech online, but I wanted to string it up and try it out that day, so I rebuilt the old one. You can see in the next picture the nut and the veneer laminated shim all being glued together in this picture.
Once the superglue had set I trimmed most of the veneer away using ordinary scissors. Then I rubbed it against 400 grit wet and dry to fit the space on the neck. This was not going to be glued in since I am waiting for the new one to arrive. Meantime it will be held in place by the pressure from the strings.
Well before rushing to throw the strings on it and see how it feels, I gave it a good rub down with a compound I bought ages ago online from the http://www.guitarscratchremover.com/ Their creams do work but need a lot of rubbing. Since there was surprisingly little body damage I just gave it a couple of rubs and a buff over before stringing it up. I normally use the modern car body scratch removers and both work fine. Perhaps you wouldn’t want to use a car body compound on your priceless Les Paul custom. Its personal choice.
Ok so now is the moment, I re-strung it up working in 1st B, 6th C, 2nd E, 5th G, 3rd A, 4th D. This was so as not to put any twisting forces on the neck during re-string. At this point the 2 truss rods were slack and no adjustments to the bridge or saddles had been made. I was able to tune it and play on it but the strings were a little bit high. I lowered the bridge saddles about 1 turn each roughly and adjusted both truss rods slowly about 1 complete turn into their travel. The bass was now at about the same action string height as the natural wood fretted one. A bit more on each truss rod and a bit more adjustment on the bridge saddles and it was looking good. I checked each string and played a note and slid my finger up to the end of the neck to see if I could locate any dead spots. I could not hear any. I set the intonation on the bridge which only needed fractional adjustments and then locked it down.
The fret lines have all but gone. On a fretless you don’t play behind the fret or behind where the fret used to be, you play on the fretline. My intonation is poor and my fingers and palms are small so I had to put small paper markers on the side of the fretboard to enhance the small marks made by the filler. Its a big challenge. 6 string and fretless in the same season. Still it should be fun.
Next time I try this, I will use veneer inlays since I now have more confidence. I am not so disappointed in the outcome. It plays nicely and looks ok from normal distance. Even under close inspection its not too bad.
Links I used in my research:
http://www.bassdefret.com/ You can get their informative pdf by sending your mail address.