Replacing Nut Advice

Discussion in 'Luthier's Guitar & Bass Technical Discussion' started by fontenel, Jan 25, 2012.

  1. fontenel

    fontenel Member

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    Hey all,

    I've been reading a ton on TGP and elsewhere and I think I have a pretty firm grasp on how to replace the nut on my MIJ Strat. I've had it for a few months now and I've always had some weird tuning and buzzing issues and, after researching and doing the measurements, it seems some of my nut slots are cut too low. What's more is, after closer inspection I've noticed the nut in there now was never really sanded/sculpted... it's sticking out of both sides and is jagged. Seems like someone just slugged one in there in a hurry... so a good reason to have a learning experience and just replace the whole thing I think.

    At any rate, I'm going to get a pre-slotted Tusq nut and go from there. My question is, I know those nuts are pre-slotted to give you a jumping-off point, but they aren't going to be perfect off that bat. That means I need to file the slots myself or take it somewhere. Since I may only do this one or two more times in my life, I haven't been able to justify buying expensive files... that said, if I have to take it somewhere to get the nut slots worked on, shouldn't I just as well have a tech do the whole thing? (Although that totally defeats the DIY goal here).

    I guess the other alternative is finding some capable, cheaper tools, although that seems to be a bad idea and I haven't really seen any specific nut files that cheap anyway...

    Thoughts?

    Thanks!
     
  2. m-m-m

    m-m-m Member

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    What I tend to do with pre slotted tusq nuts is copy the bottom of the nut I'm taking out and make sure I leave enough so that the bottom of the slots are still taller than the old slots. If you take your time, and check against the old one often you can get oK results. If you screw it up your only out $20 or so (cost of a new nut), and you've learned from your experiences.

    OTOH, if you want it done the right way the first time, pay someone.

    Shims under the old nut, paired with a bit of shaping, may get you where you want too.
     
  3. fontenel

    fontenel Member

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    I see what you're saying re: the nut height/depth, but what about the width? Are the Tusq nut slots cut wide enough to accommodate 10-46 strings out of the box?
     
  4. Floyd Eye

    Floyd Eye Member

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    Use guitar strings to file the slots.
     
  5. fontenel

    fontenel Member

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    ?? Does that actually work? It kinda makes sense, haha.
     
  6. Iceman6937

    Iceman6937 Member

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    You should go for it. It is a very rewarding experience. I just put a pre-slotted Tusq XL nut on my Epi ES-339. I had to sand the width and thickness just a bit but the nut slots and the nut height were fine (for 10's).

    Be sure to follow all the instructions that come with the Tusq, especially scoring the finish around the existing nut with an Xacto knife to keep it from breaking when the nut breaks away.

    Take your time and good luck!
     
  7. fontenel

    fontenel Member

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    Awesome! That's encouraging... And yes, I've read those Tusq instructions twice already! Haha. I think I'll give it a go. I was really just concerned about having to work a lot on the actual slots themselves, but if those nuts are pretty close for 10s already then I'm sure I can take it from.

    Thanks a lot!
     
  8. m-m-m

    m-m-m Member

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    I typically don't work too much on the slots. Filing with the string works slowly, but well enough for the wound strings, but doesn't do anything for the plain strings IMO. I have folded a piece of 600 grit in half in the past, trying to slightly widen a slot, but not even sure if that did what I wanted it to. The binding ended up being at the string tree.
     
  9. TimSt.L

    TimSt.L Member

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    I replaced one on a les Paul of mine once, and it is definitely a reading experience. You can get real precise and feel like put a vital piece into your guitar by yourself. Once I did the first, I ended up doing it to all my guitars. :)
     
  10. lownslow58

    lownslow58 Member

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    I just installed a tusq nut on an mij strat the other day and it was just about perfect out of the box for 10's. It was too wide for the nut slot and a little long on the sides , which is not a big deal with a flat surface and some sandpaper so be prepared for that, but other than that it was a non event did'nt even have to do anything to the slots. Good Luck...
     
  11. TimSt.L

    TimSt.L Member

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    BTW, I used some cheapy precision files from the hardware store and they worked great. There's packs you can buy that have a dozen or so different shapes and sizes.
     
  12. fontenel

    fontenel Member

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    TimSt.L, I actually thought about grabbing some of those kinds of files just in case... I may have to stop at Ace tonight!

    lownslow58, that's great to hear about the 10's! Also, your reply brings up another question I had: what grit sandpaper is best for shaving off the sides and bottom (if needed) and what's grit is best for polishing up the sides when the fit is perfect?

    Thanks again all!
     
  13. m-m-m

    m-m-m Member

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    I tend to use multiple grits. It really depends on how much product you want to remove. There's times when I start with 180 and then I move to 220 and then 400 and 600. I think I've seen videos of Erlewine go as high as 1000 at the end to give bone nuts a nice polish. I'm happy with the matte finish I get on my nuts. (that sentence sounds funny, and I don't think we need to go any further than that, do we? :bonk )

    The hardware store files your refering to are generally called "needle files" or "hobby files". I have 3 sets. They are very useful in nut shaping, but I wouldn't try to shape nut slots with them. Maybe string slots on a bass guitar, but those files can't do a plain string slot on an electric. Luckily, preslotted graphtech will do just fine for a set of 10's.
     
  14. fontenel

    fontenel Member

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    Haha!

    Gotcha... and I think I've seen that video now that you mention it. Grabbing a few different levels is a good idea.

    Woot!
     
  15. blong

    blong Member

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    Once you cut one nut right you will want to do it on your other guitars. You will also buy new guitars and the nuts always have a little extra height to teh string slots. You will want to get them perfect, so I recommend getting the right files. Just order the right ones from StewMac and pay the money. If you want to try to use inexpensive tools it could result in "dirty" work and look bad, as well as not function properly. I end up redoing a lot of nuts people try to cut on their own with the wrong tools.

    If you do want cheaper tools, get needle files and go to a hardware store and ask for "welding tip" cleaning files. They come in a little set in a metal case and have some very small diameter files in there. For the low strings (fat ones) you can start with the needle files mentioned in a post a few above mine and then switch to the torch cleaning files. I found some years ago at Home Depot.

    Here's how I do it. It's lengthy, but detailed.

    Loosen the old strings but leave 'em on the guitar. I use some velcro pieces from a hobby shop (or Wal-Mart in the crafts section) to pull three strings off of each side of the fingerboard and run the velcro over the strings, behind the neck, and then over the other three strings to hold them off the board. You could also use masking tape, but that's only on healthy poly finishes. This keeps the strings out of the way. Score around the old nut using an Xacto knife. Be careful not to let it slip. Steady pressure, but be careful. Some people tape off the fingerboard and headstock here to protect them from the knife slipping. Then take a small dowel (I use an old #2 pencil and cut it flat on one end and use the eraser against the nut so I don't ding the fingerboard or headstock), hold it at an angle against the fingerboard and nut and give a gentle tap on the other end with a small light hammer. Then repeat on the headstock side. Go back and forth until it jars loose. Some people like to put masking tape on either side of the nut to protect the fingerboard and headstock finish. I do this, and cut a small stip of one of the flexible cutting boards and tape this onto the tow or three layers of masking tape already put down. I once dinged the finish on my own guitar with a file that pierced the masking tape when I first tried this at the age of 13 (29 years ago). The nut on your guitar was not put on properly, so it will probably just fall off if it wasn't glued. Take a good straight edge (like a small level about 6 inches long, I use a StewMac Fret Rocker) and lay it across the first three frets. Use feeler gauges from an autoparts store to measure the distance between the frets and the fingerboard and write it down nearby. Take this # (usually somewhere around 0.030 to 0.040, depending on the frets) and add about 0.007 to it. Find that measurement and stack the feeler gauges to equal that. If the frets are say 0.037 tall, then you want the slots to be about 0.044 high off the fingerboard to account for string thickness. I stack and tape the feeler gauges that measure the proper height together on one end with masking tape to prevent them from slipping around when I do the job.

    Now place the new nut in the slot. You may want to remove the tape you put down to protect the fingerboard at this point.

    For filing down the sides, put the nut in the slot where the strings are properly aligned and then mark the sides where it meets the neck/headstock with a fine tipped marker (pencil can rub off when you handle it). Then trace the line of the fingerboard with a pencil to give you the radius.

    Next, take the nut out and put it in a vice. If the vice has teeth, you may want to put some double-sided tape on the teeth and cut a piece or thick paper (resume paper or card stock), or buy some flexible cutting boards from Wal-Mart, about $3 for 3. I use one to dump screws onto and then roll it up and funnel 'em back into the small parts drawer. The other I cut up and use for protecting guitar finish when I level frets. Some like to use old pickguard material, but the flexible cutting board lets me bend around the body and tape it into place to protect the finish from files and sandpaper. I also use it to line the teeth of my vice when cutting nuts. If the other nut is a good height, I use double sided scotch tape, put it on the old nut just below the string slots, then set it on the end of the fingerboard and line up the bottom of the other nut with it and stick 'em together. If the string slots wer ok as far as distance apart and from the sides of the neck for proper string alignment, I mark the location of the string slots on the new nut using the string slots of the old one as my guide while they are stuck together. I use a fine tipped marker for this. Then put 'em in the vice and start my string slots with an Xacto knife or a needle file that has one sharp edge (the wedge shaped one in the set. I use regular old bastard files (the big ones) to start filing down to be close to the top of the old nut, trying to follow the radius. Then I file the sides very close to the lines I draw. Always file the nut slots a little deeper when you get close to filing them away as you file down the height of the nut.

    I then switch to the needle files as they remove less material and allow you to do a little more fine work. When you get close, take the two nuts apart (separate your nuts, haha) and put the new one back into the slot and use the nut files to file the slots down to the proper height. The best way is to put it in the slot and tighten one or two strings to hold it in place. Then slide your taped together feeler gauges under those strings, up against the nut on the fingerboard side. Press them very hard down against the nut and fingerboard. Remember to protect the headstock. Now use the proper sized files to file down the slots until you hit the feeler gauges. Remember to file at a downward angle towards the headstock to get a proper break angle. It's just a few degrees, so just a slight angle is fine. You want the back of the nut (agains the fingerboard) to be the highest point the strings rest on for proper intonation. As soon as you hit the feeler gauge you should be at the right height. Then go to the next slot over and repeat. You will have to loosen the two strings holding the nut in place and tight to other strings as you move across the neck. If you lay the feeler gauges on the fretboard then you will be following the radius of the fingerboard, also. So that keeps the nut slots the right radius for your frets. Now remove the nut and using fine needle files slowly remove the excess material a little at a time, alternating sides. When you get close, put it back in the slot and feel the edges. If there's still some overhang, take it out and remove a little more.

    When you are done, use the torch tip cleaning files to clean up the bottom of the slots. String up with the old strings, tune to pitch, and test your work. If it's right, put a little Elmer's white glue on the bottom of the nut and string to pitch. Let it sit overnight, test it again, then put on new strings and enjoy your handy work. When changing to new strings lube the nut slots. Put some chapstick in the slot with an old piece of string ( I use the remains of an old 0.010 string). You may have to adjust bridge saddle height a little, but it should give you perfect string height and lower action than you currently have. You can polish the nut and the string slots (before you put in chapstick) if you like with some 800 grit or higher sand paper wrapped around an old string of smaller diameter. I usually just run an old string of the same gauge through the slot a bunch of times (about 20 or so) to polish the slot but not to deepen it any. I glued some old string remnants to the edge of a popsicle stick for this. That was a pain in the ass but worth it for as much work as I do. Plus, if you're gonna do it, might as well do it right.

    I would buy the proper files from StewMac, #'s 4541, 4542, and 4543 for most jobs.

    You can buy feeler gauges at an autoparts store for about $5, sometimes they are in the automotive section at Wal-Mart. I also buy masking tape, sandpaper (automotive department there), flexible cutting boards (kitchen supplies), velcro (crafts area), and double-sided tape from there.

    I hope this helps. Sorry it is so lengthy, but it has been working perfectly for me for over 25 years.

    Email me or feel free to call my # in my signature if you have any questions. It is a rewarding experience and invaluable if you buy more guitars. The first thing I do is recut string slots on new guitars b/c they always have a little extra height in them. I like action as low as I can get it.

    Bob
     
  16. fontenel

    fontenel Member

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    Wow, Bob! That is some SERIOUSLY awesome info! Thanks a ton, really.

    I actually went out last night and bought most of what you mentioned (feeler gauges, x-acto, tape, etc.) so I'm glad I'm on the right track.

    I'm hoping to get started tonight or tomorrow so I'm going to read thru that again before I start and I'll definitely email you if I have any questions (thanks for that invitation, btw!).

    Thanks everyone, this has been a great help.
     
  17. 9fingers

    9fingers Supporting Member

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    Nuts and or nut blanks are pretty cheap. If you are just starting I would get 2 or 3 so if the first does not come out just right you don't have a long wait to get another part. Nut work is a very important part of how a guitar plays & stays in tune (or doesn't).
     
  18. fumbler

    fumbler Member

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    Good luck, it's not so hard and don't worry if you ruin a nut or two. They're cheap.

    If you have more than one guitar it is totally worth getting the tools and learning to do this yourself. It really does make a big difference to the way a guitar feels and its tuning precision.

    +1 on starting with pre-slotted nuts from graphtech. Make sure you know if your guitar has a flat-bottom or curved-bottom slot (you said MIJ strat which I THINK is curved-bottom but check first). Flat-bottom nuts can EASILY be dialed in for height by sanding the bottom, curved-bottom not so much.
     
  19. blong

    blong Member

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    fontenel,

    If you have any questions, email me or PM me. You can also call me at the cell # in my signature.

    Bob
     
  20. fontenel

    fontenel Member

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    Awesome, thanks all. This has been a great help!

    I started last night, got the new nut out pretty easily after scoring it and some gentle taps. fumbler, it's curved just like you thought... the Tusq I had already bought was the kind that was curved with a tab, so it works curved if you file the tab or flat if you don't. Good there!

    I sanded the new nut down a bit to fit. Fits nice and snug, but still easily removable.

    That's as far as I got last night... more this weekend!

    Thanks again!
     

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