Disclaimer: this one is really just for guitarists…
I was doing some basic guitar maintenance on my Fender acoustic this week, when I noticed that one of the plastic washers on my tuners was cracked and broken (see picture above). I’ve broken these before. Until now, I’ve always just replaced them with washers from an old set of tuners (aka “machine heads”) that I salvaged from a broken guitar. But this time, when I checked my salvage tuners, I found that there weren’t any left to steal. I’d used them all.
Thinking that they would be easy to replace, I visited a famous local music store. To my absolute surprise, the dude in the guitar repair department had no idea where to find these. He even told me something to the effect of, “I’ve been trying to find a source for those for 25 years. I know they must make them somewhere, but right now every time I need to replace them I just buy a whole new set of tuners.” This seemed absolutely ludicrous!
Purchasing a whole new set of tuners (which can run up to $100) in order to replace a 3mm-wide piece of white plastic seemed absolutely insane. They must make them in a factory somewhere, because they come with every set of tuners! Incredulous, I visited a hardware store in search of these tiny plastic washer things. I bought a small bag of miscellaneous small washers, thinking that it was likely that one of them would fit. No deal. To my dismay, not a single one of them fit properly; they were either to small to fit over the tuner screw, or so big that they stuck out awkwardly and looked ugly.
It turns out that sourcing these little buggers is a bit of a quest for guitarists and hobbyist guitar makers everywhere. Not only are they hard to find, but they are pretty essential to this whole design of machine head: without them, there is nothing to prevent metal from grinding on metal, which will eventually lead to metal fatigue or cracking. Without them the machine head might not tighten properly, making it impossible to tune the guitar.
After googling in various musician forums (which seems to be the realm where these kinds of dark guitar secrets are hidden, for some reason), I finally figured out that these little washers are available on two websites: one where they are referred to somewhat generically as “plastic guitar washers” (which is hilarious because the name doesn’t tell you what they are actually for), or by the somewhat more helpful “guitar tuner button washers”. Mystery solved. But the fact that you have to do so much digging, and that even experienced guitar fixers have trouble finding them, seems completely stupid to me. There should be thousands of these things in every single guitar store in the world. But instead, you have to actually pay around $3.00 (plus international shipping) and order from a wholesale website, for something that probably costs a fraction of a cent to manufacture. So I think I’ll order about a million of them so that it’s worth while, and so that I never have to go on this inane search ever again!