Volume 16 - Making a Bone Nut

Written by Patrick Podpadec on . Posted in Northcoast Voice

                                                        Stay in Tune                                             vol #16
                                                                              By Luthier Patrick Podpadec

     I always seem to wait till the last minute to do the things I know that I’m supposed to do. The thing that bothers me about that is that I cannot for the life of me figure out why I do that? I don’t like working under pressure. I enjoy pondering my next move.  Maybe I’m taking to long to ponder. Or maybe there really isn’t enough hours in the day. I don’t know. I just know that I have to “Get “r” Done”.

     I want to tell you a little bit about some of my favorite types of repair. If  I had to pick one I would say that making and adjusting the “nut” on the guitar is on top of the list (at least this week). It was one of the first things that I learned how to do. It is a very common repair that can make a huge difference in the playability of the guitar.  I use bone as my material of choice. It has all of the characteristics that I look for regarding tonal abilities. It is hard enough to sustain a note, and it easy enough to cut and shape, either by hand or machine, and it is “All Natural ”.It also ,by mine and many other accounts , has a very warm , but precise feel and tone.

      Many new suppliers are claiming that the new “man made “ materials such as “Micarta”, Corian” , “Tusc”,  or “Graphite” are manufactured to have more consistent density to be able to transfer tones better than the natural bone because the bone can have natural defects that can effect tonal responses. In my opinion, that is a bunch of crap! Yea that’s right, I said it, “a bunch of crap”. It’s true that there is a bit (although extremely small, and hardly audible) of a tonal difference between the different materials, I Just don’t’ like the idea of taking some chemicals, mixing them up and compressing them into a semi-hard substance, very akin to many other types of “plastic”, (all the time polluting the environment) and claiming they perform better than bone, ivory, or any other natural materials. Musical instruments have been built for many generations using these natural materials. It’s true that was all that was available at the time, but I feel that with all of our new technology that as of the present time, we have not yet produced a material that is “over the top” better than what is naturally available, inexpensive, and environmentally friendly. I’m sure that I haven’t heard or worked with all of the products that are out there, but I still believe that bone is the better choice. I’m sure there will be many that disagree with me, (and I due hope that you respond so that we can carry this discussion further) but, I like using it.

      I didn’t want to expand so much upon my choice of nut material as I would like to try to explain the process of actually making one. Of course I always start out with a blank piece, not the pre-shaped kind that already has the string slots cut for a particular string spacing. I find that each guitar has certain features about the headstock and fingerboard that dictates where the 1st and 6th string should lie in reference to the fingerboard, You never want to be too close to either edge because it’s easy to push or pull the string right off the edge.  The distance is approximately 1/8” from either side ,but can be adjusted  slightly due to customer preference. I always start by asking the customer if he or she is comfortable with the “feel” of the current string spacing of the nut I’m about to replace. You never want to drastically change that “feel” (unless it’s completely wrong in the first place) because you don’t want your customer to spend weeks trying to get comfortable again playing the instrument that you just repaired .

 The three things that I strive to accomplish while making a new nut is the fit. This should look and feel like it just “grew” on the guitar. I like the nut to fit into it’s slot without the use of any glue or any other type of adhesive. You should be able to turn the guitar over without the nut falling out of the slot. Of course it should be final finished by sanding it down with at minimum 220 sandpaper. Often times I will polish it down with 400 and even 600 paper. This leaves the finish very smooth with no visible scratches. The next thing is to get the proper string spacing. I do this after I have meticulously fitted the nut to the guitar. I will start by marking the 6th and 1st string in about 1/8’ in from the sides of the fingerboard on the top of the nut. I then take an index card and place the 6th mark (or the low “E” string) on a line of the card and then angle the nut blank on the lines of the card until the 1st string mark that is on the top of the nut is lined up with the 6th line on the index card. Are you confused yet? This will give you a consistent spacing between the strings. Of course when you cut the slots for the strings you have to take in account the diameter of the string so that while you are cutting or shaping each string slot that you are getting an accurate spacing between each of the respectable string diameters. Not only does it have to “feel” right it also has to look right. The last thing that is very important is the height of the strings from the fingerboard. This is really the most crucial because it effects the playability and “action” of the guitar (or any stringed instrument for that matter). The general rule here is to get the string slots cut to there proper diameters without going to deep . If you cut it too deep the string will buzz very badly when you play in the open position. And if you don’t file the slot to it’s proper string diameter it can bind and can cause problems tuning the string that is binding. The way that I determine the depth of the slot is by laying a straight edge (a small machinist 6’ metal ruler works fine) across the first few frets and measure ( a set of feeler gauges work good) the distance between the top of the fingerboard to the bottom of the machinist ruler and record that measurement. I then take another .008 to .010 and add it to my previous measurement and stack my feeler gauges up against the nut. I then will carefully file down till the file (or whatever tool I choose to use ) touches the stacked up feeler gauges.  I only hope that whoever is reading this is being able to visualize the procedure as I have no visual aids , such as pictures or such. I must warn you up and coming repairman that this procedure is just one of many methods of performing the task of building a nut. It also takes yrs. Of practice to get any of the procedures that you may read about to get them right. Please always practice on inexpensive instruments until you master the techniques, We do not want to start having any unhappy customers. The labor cost for this type of repair can cost 25.00 to 35.00 for a 6 string guitar and 40.00 to 50.00 for a 12 string or mandolin. Keep in mind that this repair can make  a huge difference in the sound and playability of your instrument . It’s a cost that is in many cases is well worth it. Any more questions on any repairs or cost can be answered by emailing me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. Until next time… Stay in Tune!

                                                                                                                   Thanks Again!
                                                                                              Patrick from Wood-n-Strings