Making a brass nut

The nut on your guitar is often overlooked, yet it is one of the most important lynchpins in making your instrument play it’s best. Since every neck is slightly different, one can’t just buy a nut and expect it to fit – they have to be made from scratch, every time. We make a lot of nuts here at Strange Guitarworks – most of them made of bone, but occasionally we make them from fossilized mammoth tusk, water buffalo horn, and brass. Making a nut cut from a rough blank is more art than a science, and we are a bit OCD in creating a nut that fits perfectly to each guitar. Recently, our friend Robert brought in a 1970s era Fender P-bass and requested that we make a brass nut for it. We thought that this would be a straightforward job, but once we got into it we realized that ain’t nothing ever simple in our line of work.

We often joke that we offer guitar repair repair. No, that’s not a typo: we’re constantly fixing other people’s work. Somebody along the way really made a mess of this bass:

The nut was a disaster: the string spacing was whack, it didn’t fit properly in the nut slot, and it was broken and “fixed” with Gorilla glue. Worse, somebody had mangled the nut slot:

The nut was no longer square, so any new nut would roll forward under string tension. Plus, the rosewood had been cut down to the maple underneath. This era of Fender instruments originally had a nut slot that followed the radius of the fretboard, so perhaps somebody thought it would be easier to make a flat bottomed nut instead of carving the bottom to match the curve. This didn’t sit well with me, so I decided to rebuild the nut slot before making the new brass nut.

First, I re-carved and cleaned up the nut slot, making it perfectly square:

Then I made a block of rosewood and maple to fill the nut slot. Since the rosewood fretboard had been cut down well into the maple neck, adding a bit of maple on the bottom would make the repair a little less obvious.

I test fitted the rosewood block, cut it down, glued it in, and then carved it to match the curvature of the fretboard:

The new rosewood didn’t quite match the old wood, but it didn’t matter: I planned on cutting almost all of my new block away anyway. Since the original nut slot was so mangled up, I needed fresh wood in there to cut perfectly square so the new brass nut wouldn’t roll forward under string tension.

Then I loaded the bass into our PLEK machine, and programmed it to cut a new nut slot from the block I had just installed. To return the neck to it’s previous spec, I programmed the PLEK to cut the nut slot following the fretboard radius. This would make more work for me carving the brass nut, but anything worth doing is worth doing right.

All that work for only a quarter millimeter of wood! Totally worth it – the nut slot was absolutely perfect, and finally ready for the nut.

Making the brass nut was a fairly straightforward affair compared to all the prep work on the slot. We fit the nut on all four sides, using a series of files and then sandpapers, so that it seamlessly blends in with the neck. Once the blank is fit, we program our PLEK machine to cut the string slots, using a hybrid string spacing scheme, and precisely setting the depth based on the first fret height. This ensures that the strings feel comfortable in your hand, and that it takes minimal effort to depress the strings in the first position, yet leaving them high enough not to buzz when playing open strings.

Very shiny! Another guitar repair repair is complete, and this brass nut will last far longer than a plastic or bone nut. As far as tone of a brass nut vs. other materials, who can say? We say it looks great, and we’ll leave the subjective tone debate up to you.

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