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Nut Making
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Author:  Hesh [ Sat Dec 12, 2015 8:11 am ]
Post subject:  Nut Making

As promised here is the toot that I did some years back which is being reposted at the request of our friend Max.

First though we run a very busy and successful repair shop in Ann Arbor, Michigan and as such we have lots of opportunity to have our methods evolve over time. Since I wrote this tutorial and in respect to nut making some of the methods that we use have evolved and I will note same when that is the case.

The guitar used in the tutorial is one of my early Heshtones and was specifically selected for the toot because the moron who made it, me.... :D at the time that I built it had not yet begun doing repair work.... As such my headstock shape does NOT lend itself to making an eloquent nut. Of course this changed with later guitars but I selected this one because it's a harder nut to blend well with the headstock shape and I thought that this would be of some value to others.

Also I'm having difficulty remembering how to post pics in the narrative where I want them so I will be doing many posts instead of one large post to get the tutorial done and this may take me a few hours to complete the toot on-line throughout the day. Please bear with me this will be a work in progress.


Learning to make a proper nut for your guitars is an important part of ensuring that your guitars come off the bench sounding and playing great. The good news is that it is something that anyone can learn to do and learn to do very well with practice and patience.

This tutorial is how I am making nuts these days. The tips and techniques that I will detail here came from David Collins and I thank David very kindly for all that he has shared with me. This method for making nuts is also taught in our set-up classes that we offer.

The first step in making a nut for a guitar is to clean and true up the nut slot. No matter how careful we are when building our guitars nut slots often are not uniform in size…

Today we are working with a guitar that I built 8 years ago. It has had a lot of use lately and I decided to make it my primary guitar at least for a while. I have just completed a fret dress and now I want to make a new nut to improve on the original string spacing and make it more to my own personal liking.

The old nut was removed which is very easy to do and can be accomplished by placing a block against the nut face and lightly tapping the block with a small hammer – I used my fretting hammer. The nut will break free and begin to lean backwards. Working it carefully forward and aft and the nut will soon release all the way.....usually.....

Here we see the nut slot on this guitar:

Author:  Hesh [ Sat Dec 12, 2015 8:13 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Nut Making

I have already used some small, sharp chisels and files to true up the slot and to remove the dried glue from the last nut. I would have taken a picture of this process but hey a guy only has two hands you know…

This nut will be a bit more difficult in as much as the nut itself has to conform with the curves of the headstock. This is a look that I personally do not like and I am no longer building guitars with curved nuts. But it is a good mule for our purposes today.

Here is another shot of the nut slot now cleaned up and ready to start fitting a new nut blank:

Author:  Hesh [ Sat Dec 12, 2015 8:15 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Nut Making

Currently we are sourcing our bone nut blanks from Chrislin Trading Company:

Author:  Hesh [ Sat Dec 12, 2015 8:17 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Nut Making

The packages contain bleached and unbleached nut blanks and I am very pleased with the quality, service, and pricing of Chrislin Trading Company. I should mention too that I needed some oversized blanks for a special application and I could not find what I needed anywhere else. Chrislin Trading had the goods I am pleased to say.

Regarding bone nut and saddle blanks often you will find both bleached and unbleached blanks available. The difference is the whiteness of the blanks and it has also been said that bleached blanks, all things being equal, can be slightly softer than unbleached blanks.

Today I am selecting an unbleached blank to match the unbleached original saddle on this guitar AND because I personally like unbleached, natural looking bone. If it’s true that unbleached bone is harder that’s a bonus.

The very first thing that I do is to true up one face of the bone blank to designate the face of the nut. In addition I am looking to remove material from the blank to get it close, but not all the way, to fitting in the nut slot. A nut should fit well in a nut slot and not have any slop or ability to move forward or aft:

Author:  Hesh [ Sat Dec 12, 2015 8:20 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Nut Making

Again I am not looking to remove enough material at this time to make the nut blank fit in the slot but I am removing the obvious excess and getting the nut blank to be close to fitting.

What you see below is a piece of tubular aluminum that both faces were worked on a certified, large surface plate covered with 120 grit sand paper. As such this “beam” is now nearly perfectly flat on both faces and comes in very handy for a number of guitar building tasks. These beams also make an excellent surface to true-up anything that is small enough to fit on the surface of the beam that you wish to make near perfectly flat. In this case once the beam was trued on the certified surface plate I have placed 120 and 240 self-stick sandpaper on the two respective sides.

My newly designated nut face is now flattened on the 120 side of the beam:

Author:  Hesh [ Sat Dec 12, 2015 8:22 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Nut Making

Next I will make pencil marks on the face of the nut blank so I can visually see as I am flattening the blank:

Author:  Hesh [ Sat Dec 12, 2015 8:24 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Nut Making

Anything that you have available to you and that you know is very flat can be used for this step.

Now we will turn over the beam and sand our newly designated nut face on the 240 side of the beam:

Author:  Hesh [ Sat Dec 12, 2015 8:25 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Nut Making

Once this is completed we now have a flat and smooth nut face and a pencil is used to mark this surface for future reference. The nut face will not be worked again and will be as it is now when the completed nut is installed on the guitar:

Author:  Hesh [ Sat Dec 12, 2015 8:27 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Nut Making

Moving along… the next thing that I do is to sand in the headstock’s set-back angle into the bottom of the nut blank. If you do not locate your nuts on the angled back headstock this step can be substituted with simply flattening as we did above the bottom of the nut blank AND making sure that the bottom is 90 degrees to the nut face.

For this guitar the nut is located on the set-back headstock so this will require a 15 degree angle on the bottom of the nut blank. Be careful to place the angle in the correct direction in respect to the newly designated nut face…

I adjusted the table on my belt sander to 15ish degrees and sanded this angle into my nut blank.

UPDATE: These days it's old hat so I simply free hand the set-back angle and it's quick and easy.

Author:  Hesh [ Sat Dec 12, 2015 8:29 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Nut Making

Once this is accomplished it time to start fitting our nut blank to the guitar’s nut slot. Once again we intentionally left the nut wider than the nut slot so that we could sneak up on the fit and get it right the first time. You can see the nut in the slot and it will only fit at this point if not seated and angled back. This is exactly what we want for now:

Author:  Hesh [ Sat Dec 12, 2015 8:39 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Nut Making

Next we will be removing material off the back side (toward the headstock) of the nut blank until we have a snug fit. The sanding beams are great for this step too.

With very little practice you can learn to read your nut blanks by trial fitting and noting where material needs to be removed. Using the sanding beam and adjusting your fingers to concentrate on the area of the back of the nut blank that needs to have material removed will help you zero in on a good fit.

A good fit is when the nut blank can fully seat but not move forward or aft. Since nut slots are rarely perfectly true sliding the nut blank from side to side in the slot can also yield a better fit in certain positions.

Once the blank will seat AND the face it perfectly 90 degrees to the fret board you are nearly there.

The 15 degree set-back angle is not always 15 degrees either. So now it’s time to hold the blank firmly down with your thumb and check the fit from both sides to be sure that the angled bottom of the nut is making contact with the nut slot. If not remove the blank after noting which edge is high and use your sanding beam, or what every you have, to concentrate on the high side of the nut bottom frequently trial fitting until the nut is fully seated:

Author:  Hesh [ Sat Dec 12, 2015 8:40 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Nut Making

Once our nut blank fits well in the nut slot it’s time to use the half-pencil to transfer the fret height onto the nut face. The half-pencil is exactly that, a pencil that one half of it has been sanded away on a belt sander. The line that we make, though not required, is helpful to me when initially cutting the nut slots in as much as it provides a reference line to not exceed.

Author:  Hesh [ Sat Dec 12, 2015 8:41 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Nut Making

It’s very useful for many things that we do to be able to draw a line that we can see but to also have the line be very thin and precise. You can easily and quickly sharpen even a mechanical pencil with some 220 sand paper:

Author:  Hesh [ Sat Dec 12, 2015 8:43 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Nut Making

Once you have the ability to draw thin and precise lines while holding the nut blank firmly in the nut slot use the sharpened pencil to trace the contours of the fretboard, neck, and headstock overlay onto the nut blank:

Author:  Hesh [ Sat Dec 12, 2015 8:46 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Nut Making

At this point I know from experience that I can remove some material and height from the nut blank. I have drawn a line to not exceed and used the trusty belt sander to remove excess material. If you are wondering why I don’t transfer the radius of the fret board onto the nut blank top read on we will address that later:

UPDATE: These days my line that we just drew wants to be taller, the width of the low e on one end and smaller, the width of the low E on the other end. Reason being I'm lazy..... :) and this way there is less material to file though, the file binds less, and time is money or so they say....

Author:  Hesh [ Sat Dec 12, 2015 8:47 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Nut Making

The nut blank is now placed in the nut slot in the exact position in accordance with the lines that we have drawn on the nut blank:

Author:  Hesh [ Sat Dec 12, 2015 8:48 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Nut Making

One additional step at this point with the nut blank in the slot and positioned correctly is to trace the head stock overlay where it contacts the back of the nut blank. A line is made on the back of the nut blank for future use:

Author:  Hesh [ Sat Dec 12, 2015 8:50 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Nut Making

The shape of one’s nuts can vary widely… and I am sure that we all have shapes that we will find pleasing. For me I like to remove some material off the top and back of the nut blank and this is now done free hand on the belt sander. One of the advantages of doing this step now is that when you are cutting the nut slots with your nut files you will have less material to cut through:

Author:  Hesh [ Sat Dec 12, 2015 8:51 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Nut Making

Here is where things get interesting… The nut blank is properly located, NOT glued, and the low and high E strings are installed on the guitar. These strings will hold a well fitted nut blank firmly in place for what comes next:

Author:  Hesh [ Sat Dec 12, 2015 9:02 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Nut Making

UPDATE: String spacing can give lots of folks problems. From players unhappy with their nut spacing to builders who either space too wide or too narrow I wanted to address string spacing a bit here too.

Nut string spacing is a function, or should be a function of a number of things. Convention certainly plays a role in so much as what folks are used to playing is important to keep in mind. The degree of bevel on the fret ends will narrow or widen possible spacing as well in so much as we never want nut spacing that will permit a string to slide off a fret while playing. That's too wide!

The radical bevels that we see on f*ctory instruments came about over time because simply beveling the hell out of the fret ends is way cheaper from a manufacturing point of view than the semi-skilled labor required to address each fret end independently and file them to a pleasing and comfortable, never sharp shape.

But this does not mean that as builders we have to mimic all things f*ctory... and instead we should be shooting for superior work and value over f*ctory instruments, always. Personal opinion? You bet!

Now some facts. It's not unusual for us in our commercial repair shop to be asked to refret a pro's instrument because the radical bevels that the f*ctory excreted... don't work for the player. Be they a weekend wedding grease ball player or a pro jazz player who has played with some of the greatest guitar players in history we've had clients ask for refrets without the radical, f*ctory bevels. They are willing to spend big bucks for MORE fret top surface. Something to keep in mind when doing your own fret work.

Now back to our regularly scheduled tutorial....:)

Author:  Hesh [ Sat Dec 12, 2015 9:04 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Nut Making

The tape that you see on the head stock is optional. My method for stringing a guitar benefits from some protection to this part of the head stock in as much as we don’t want to scratch anything now do we…

In the photo above we see the low and high E strings on the top of the nut blank. The string spacing in terms of the distance of the E strings from the edge of the fret board is now determined and marked. Dan Earlywine does this by eye using his years of experience. Personal preference may also come into play here too. Some folks use 1/8” as the standard, others use something else. I like a bit less than 1/8” and using an engineer’s scale I have positioned the strings where I want them and using my sharpened mechanical pencil I have traced each side of the strings onto the nut blank top:

Author:  Hesh [ Sat Dec 12, 2015 9:07 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Nut Making

Here we see some of my nut files and the specific files that I like to use for the strings that I prefer. Most of my files are a couple thousandths wider than the respective strings that they will be cutting the slot for. Experienced Luthiers are able to reliably cut a nut slot nearly any size with a much smaller file.

It's always a good idea when cutting nuts slots to make them suitable for the next size up in strings as well should the player wish to say switch from 12's to 13's, etc.

Author:  Hesh [ Sat Dec 12, 2015 9:08 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Nut Making

At this point I am going to rough in the nut slots for the two E strings. While initially cutting your slots I find it easier to use my thumb as a stop on one side of the nut file as I move the file slowly forward between, hopefully…, the lines. If you are off a bit you can tilt the files in either direction and “walk” the file into the proper position.

Be sure to note your files orientation too. It’s very easy since we are standing on only one side of the guitar to cut nut slots that are not in the plane and direction of the neck. But again at this point we have lots of material to cut through and most mistakes can be corrected if noticed early enough:

Author:  Hesh [ Sat Dec 12, 2015 9:10 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Nut Making

Now it’s time to space out the rest of our strings. The Stew-Mac nut spacing rule is excellent for this task and highly recommended.

When using this tool be sure to note the “bass and treble” designations on the rule and use only the scale that these designations properly correspond with.

A place on the rule is found in which the two E strings appear in the slots and 4 (count them please…) additional slots in the same set of slots are available in between the two E strings. Don’t laugh – I have marked out a 5 string guitar before by mistake…

Author:  Hesh [ Sat Dec 12, 2015 9:11 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Nut Making

With your sharp pencil make a mark on the nut blank’s top where the remaining 4 strings will go:

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