Making a guitar nut from scratch

It’s a great day to be a guitar tech in New Orleans. While it’s raining cats and dogs outside, I’m in the shop working on guitars – it’s a pretty sweet gig. Today, I made a bone nut for a Les Paul.

Making a guitar nut from scratch separates the men from the boys – it’s probably the most difficult thing to learn and perform consistently. Most of my other guitar work is rooted in science, and every aspect can be measured and defined – but making a nut is closer to an art than a science. It’s essentially sculpture, and as every guitar is different, every nut is different. This is why you can’t just buy a nut off the shelf and expect it to be any good – it has to fit the nut slot exactly, be shaped to follow the contours of the neck, each slot has to be precisely cut, and it has to look fantastic.

The guitar’s nut is one of the most important, and most overlooked, aspect of the instrument. It’s the root cause of most tuning problems: if not cut correctly, the strings will bind and catch in the nut slots, and the strings won’t stay in tune (if you’ve ever heard that high pitched pinging sound when you’re tuning your guitar, it’s most likely the string catching in the nut). If the nut slots are cut too high, the guitar will play stiff and run sharp in the lower registers; if they’re too low the open strings will buzz. These things have to be EXACT.

Here’s the nut that the guitar came in with:

aftermarket bone nut

While not terrible, it’s not perfect either. The D and G slots are slightly angled away from the strings trajectory to the tuner, and the walls of the nut slots are too high, the spacing isn’t perfect, and it’s not perfectly seated in the nut slot. It was giving the guitar’s owner some tuning problems, so we opted to make a new one.

I start by removing the old nut and squaring the nut slot, using a special nut seating file I picked up from StewMac. Then I carefully measure the nut slot and cut a piece of bone to match using my belt sander, and then seat the bone blank:

squaring the nut slot

seated bone nut blank

Next I calculate how high the top of the nut should be, which is to come up to the halfway point on the string – just enough wall to hold the string in place, but not so high that it causes the string to bind up. I mark this point on the blank, and it’s off to the belt sander again to cut it down:

marking the nut blank

Once the nut’s top is shaped, it’s put back into the guitar, and the outer two strings are installed. I like to have as much space as possible between strings in the lower register, so chording is easier. I set the outer two string in from the fret bevel by 2mm, mark the nut, and cut their respective nut slots:

outer string spacing

With the outer two strings in place, I use a StewMac nut spacing ruler to determine the exact location of the remaining four strings. This is a great tool – each slot is ever so slightly wider than the previous space, which gives the thicker strings a little bit more space between them, making the guitar easier to play. I mark the nut using the ruler, and cut the nut slots with their respectively gauged nut file:

nut spacing rulernut spacingWith each nut slot perfectly cut, now it’s time to do the final shaping. I carefully score the nut with a razor, following the contours of the neck, and again head back to the belt sander to cut it to fit. While I’m on the belt sander, I do a rough shaping of the top and corners:

scoring the nut

rough cut

Now the nut is ready for final shaping and polishing. Unfortunately, it’s impossible for me to take pictures of this process, as it takes two hands to do – perhaps one day I’ll have a shop monkey to man the camera, but until then, you’ll just have to use your imagination. I first use a file, then some medium grit sandpaper to remove file marks and belt sander scratches, and finally polish it with a finger nail buffer. Then I glue it into the nut slot (just a tiny dab of glue is all that’s necessary), touch up the nut slots, and polish the nut slots with a fine grit sandpaper to keep the strings from catching.

And that’s how I make a guitar nut. Here’s how it turned out – what’cha think?

completed guitar nut

completed guitar nut 2

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