Nut Case

Better tools than I deserve: The Stew-Mac Essential Nut Making Tool Kit

Not something I’d recommend to everyone, but…

…as part of an ongoing series on mongrel/hybrid Strats, I’ve built a new Strat from parts to house all the cool little tricks and quirks I stumbled upon during the series. (Wait till you hear the “Obsessive/Compulsive Capacitance” tone control!) I’ll be doing a post on the guitar next week.

Anyway, lazy slob perfectionist that I am, I usually take my instruments to my local guitar tech/genius Gary Brawer for setup work, especially for carving and fine-tuning the all-important nut. But feeling brave, I ordered a few blanks from Stewart MacDonald and tried making a nut from scratch.

Numerous times, actually.

The first attempt was, of course, an unmitigated disaster. The second one was a little better — I’d call it a mitigated disaster.

Only a poor craftsmen blames his tools, so I blamed my tools. I sprung for Stew-Mac’s Essential Nut Making Tool Kit, with all the proper files, saws, feeler gauges, and a nifty little vise. And it actually did help — thanks to some great instructions from the ever-reliable Dan Erlewine, which you can find here. (Understand that my workbench skills are a joke. I’m the kind of guy who grabs a screwdriver to pound a nail rather than take 30 seconds to fetch the…whatever the hell you’re supposed to use.)

Anyway, I saved a fortune! My new nut cost less than ten bucks — plus $200 in tools and about $2,000 in labor.

Am I bitter? No way! I learned a ton, and the next time I need a nut, whether it’s made by me or someone competent, I’ll have a much better idea what to go for. I kept comparing it to making one’s own shoes — not something most of us are dumb enough to try, but man, you’d sure learn a few things about the contours of your feet!

I’m not posting a pic of my work because it looks really nasty, and Gary Brawer might see it and laugh at me. But ugly as it looks, my third home-cut nut actually feels and sounds great. (BTW, I tried working with both real bone and the simulated stuff from Tusq. Both materials have their staunch advocates, but I can’t claim to perceive all that much difference in tone or workability.)

Anyone else tried this at home? (I’m not talking to you, pro luthiers — I mean regular people!)

20 comments to Nut Case

  • Derick

    I’ve not done a nut but I did do a saddle a few weeks ago. Took forever. Sand a little, check, sand a little, check… for hours. It worked though. 

  • Dan

    Here’s a trick that works, but will make luthiers roll their eyes. If you happen to file a slot too deeply on a nut, you can fix it by dumping some baking soda in the groove and hitting it with super glue, preferably CA, just something really strong. it sets up pretty fast and then you can start over and refile. Probably not something you want to do if you have to time to start with a fresh blank, but, if for some reason you need a quick fix, this is, well, a quick fix.

    • joe

      Great tip, Dan. Erlewine suggests something similar, but with bone dust instead of baking soda. I had to use that method, which seemed to be going great, till I somehow got graphite powder in the Super Glue. Urgh.

  • Chris Bery

    Another trick is after all the final sanding with about 1500 grit paper, give it a good rubdown with Flitz!  Awesome stuff.  Will shine like chrome afterwards if you smoothed it out enough with the 1500 is paper first.  Be sure to clean all of the flitz out before stringing though.

  • Nick

    I made one from a blank once years ago just using a set of feeler gauges. Took my Dremel tool and cut teeth into one side of the gauges I needed and went to town sawing. Took a while, and it was ugly, but it worked. I didn’t want to pay some guy $60 for the job, or 3 times that for the tools needed…which I now own and purchased from the same place you got yours, Joe. 

  • Travis Shire

    The bone dust trick does work….although you need to layer it for it to work right. Thin layers until you overshoot the required height by a little, then recut the slot. Some accelerator is a good idea to make sure its fully cured.

  • dan

    nuts are nuts. on my lap steel guitars i use 3/4 x 3/4 angle brass stock for the nuts. i cut them with a hacksaw blade then file for width of slot. lap steel nuts are different because the TOPS of the strings must be on an even plan so the tone bar hits all the strings when fretted on the 1st fret. i cut the nut then after i string the guitar i do small adjustments. takes about 15min. now for my 12 strings, well that can take some time. all 12 strings must be on an even plan. nuts are nuts but as my friend Frank F. says “right is right”.

  • My old tech (who, sadly, has passed away) used to file them so that each string “broke” to the front or back of the nut, giving him an extra bit of intonating space, which he found particularly helpful working on Gibson scale guitars.  My intonation has not been the same since he left us…

  • Gavin

    I’ve upgraded to bone nuts a few times with various guitars I’ve owned. In my experience it does make a definite improvement to the sound versus a cheap plastic nut.
    These days I tend to buy pre-slotted nuts from Guitar Fetish or any number of eBay sellers. You can pick them up for loose change. Oh, and go to your local hardware emporium and purchase a set of needle files – they are a good size for nut work.
    After installing the nut I just fine tune the slots to my preferred string gauge with said files and bammo!
     

  • Only one I ever did on a guitar was on my 1968 Jaguar in 1978. I put in a brass nut and used a set of files meant for some kind of engine work. It was OK and lasted a while but I had my luthier buddy put in a bone nut a few years back. My only preference in nuts is tuning stability, I like the slick ones that allow the strings to move easily. Unfortunately my luthier buddy moved away for retirement so I either need to find someone I trust or do it myself. Since  I mainly play slide the nuts don’t need to be super critical just fairy accurate, I use the slides that have a radius in their length to match the curvature of a fret board. I have a couple of guitars with zero frets that work really well for slide.
    I do make brass nuts for my electric cello tho’ but they are sort of giant size compared to guitar nuts and AFAICT are only there to start the strings in the right place.

  • Oinkus

     Tried to do a nut and saddle for this awful Washburn 12 string that was left on my porch some years ago. Long story short no bench or tools to speak of it has never recovered.

  • Steven

    Anyone check out http://www.zeroglide.com/ ?
    Here’s a picture of it used on a Strat.
    http://www.zeroglide.com/img/gallery-2.jpg
    Seems like an interesting solution to a number of issues.

  • Scott

    I just did string nut replacements on three of my guitars recently using Dan Erlewine’s instructions for scoring and hammering out the old nut and using Stewart MacDonald’s slotted unbleached bone nuts as replacements. They carry slotted string nuts for Fender’s, Gibson’s, and Martin – http://www.stewmac.com/shop/Nuts,_saddles/String_nuts/Slotted_Unbleached_Bone_Nuts.html
    I replaced problematic string nuts on my Gibson Flying V and SG and the black plastic nut on my Epiphone Dot. The replacements worked out great and the nuts cost about $15-$16 each! 
     

  • Oinkus

     The Tusq XL nuts are in the vicinity of 12-15 bucks , have replaced a few of them with very little actual work on the nut itself besides sizing it to the neck.  Many popular sizes ie: strat,tele,LP and etc…

  • Dave

    I made my own nut for my Jazz back in the 70’s.  I used a piece of brass that came from a copying machine – all I used was a bench grinder and some jeweler’s files and the old one to use as a template.  The result, while not much to look at, did fit and gave the bass a little more sustain.  Fortunately, I had a job at the time where I had access to these tools didn’t really have anything else to do in the afternoons, so labor wasn’t really an issue.

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