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Asher Guitars WD Music Products Amplified Parts Mod Kits DIY Nordstarnd Pickups
Asher Guitars WD Music Products Amplified Parts Mod Kits DIY Nordstarnd Pickups

Cheap(er) Nut Files?

Discussion in 'Tele-Technical' started by Anchoret, Apr 25, 2010.

  1. Anchoret

    Anchoret Friend of Leo's

    Sep 18, 2004
    About a year ago, I saw a post somewhere, I think here, from a guy who had found a set of small round files of the approximate sizes needed for guitar nut work and they were very cheap relative to $tew-Mac (who isn't?). They were for some other kind of hobby use, but the details slip my mind. He even had a picture.

    Anyone remember this?

    As always, thanks for any useful info!

  2. David Collins

    David Collins Tele-Afflicted

    Sep 28, 2009
    Ann Arbor, MI
    You get what you pay for. I've tried and used about all the nut files or other files often used for nuts you can imagine, and if you want good results, get good tools. If you're okay with mediocre results, mediocre tools will do.

    Sorry for the rant, but it absolutely blows me away when people say StewMac is too expensive. That's like saying tools at Lowes or Home Depot are priced off the charts because you think Harbor Freight should be the benchmark. Actually my experience with StewMac is actually that you often get more than what you pay for. Perhaps with occasional specific exceptions, they are very competitively priced. If anything I feel they have had to cheapen up their tools a bit too far in order to meet the large hobbyist market. This often makes finding truly professional grade tools much more of a challenge for those who truly want or need them.

    If you're only cutting a few nuts, you'll typically be better off just paying a professional to do it for you who already has the proper tooling, and more importantly the experience. If you plan on doing more than that, it's worth getting the right tools, and the nut files StewMac sells are about as good as you're going to find for the money. I received some samples of some from a new manufacturer they are looking in to carrying, which I feel are actually quite excellent, but most of their current versions at least range from adequate to very good.

  3. Anchoret

    Anchoret Friend of Leo's

    Sep 18, 2004
    Apology accepted. ;)

  4. David Collins

    David Collins Tele-Afflicted

    Sep 28, 2009
    Ann Arbor, MI
    Thanks for understanding - :lol:

    I just recently went through a testing and survey of at least 8 or 9 different makes and types of nut files, looking at issues like accuracy, durability, looking at the shapes of the slots they cut under a 20x scope, and results can vary quite significantly.

    I'm obviously picky about the details, and feel I have become that way for good reasons of experience. Perhaps someone will come along with a cheaper file that may get you by okay, but my 2 cents - if you're going to do it, it's worth doing right.

  5. PennyCentury

    PennyCentury Poster Extraordinaire

    Apr 16, 2009
    New Hampshire
    I read that the dressing files for welding tips *might* work as nut files, as they are gauged by decimal inch, but I've never actually used a set.

  6. Ronsonic

    Ronsonic Tele-Afflicted

    I've used fine drill bits in a pin vise to touch up and finish slots. It'd be painful slow going to do a whole nut like that but it does work. Good use for cheap harbor freight drill sets.

  7. mellecaster

    mellecaster Former Member

    Once again...David states it very well.

  8. lonewolf

    lonewolf Tele-Meister

    Dec 27, 2008
    San Antonio Texas
    Remember also, that for the average guitarist, it's probably a once in a lifetime investment. You will use them over, and over again. Those notches you just cut correctly, will get tight again in a year or three, as the strings cut their own path through the material. You'll need those files again. Will you own more than one guitar? I don't think I've ever met a guitar player that only owned one, so you'll need them again! They will slowly wear out it's true, and won't they won't cut as fast as they did when they were new; but you may come to be glad of that also, after the first time you cut a notch too deep! I have a brand new set of files waiting in the wings, but I'm scared of them, and I find my self using the old "slow but sure set" as long as I can.
    Gene Warner

  9. fraser

    fraser Tele-Holic

    Sep 8, 2007
    Hamilton, Canada
    yup, exactly.
    a set of nut files and a good fret crowning file are essentials really.
    i figure those 2 are the only specialized tools that a guitarist need purchase, and they will last a lifetime. they may seem pricey now, but they wont once you get used to having them.
    to the OP- where those files called 'norman'?
    i recall something like that- a company selling them on ebay.
    a google search turned up a bunch of stuff on them-
    they get mention here-

  10. Vizcaster

    Vizcaster Friend of Leo's

    Sep 15, 2007
    Glen Head, NY
    There are some people selling feeler gauges that have been roughed up enough to make them into files but it's not the kind of thing that's going to last for very long.

  11. 930vet

    930vet Tele-Meister

    Apr 22, 2008
    I'm not sure my post is the one you're talking about, but here's the link to it:

    Review of Welding Tip Cleaner as Nut Slot Files

    I continue to use them a little bit, and they still work. Wish I had real files, but my wife just got laid off, so that ain't gonna happen soon. I need to cut a graphite nut, so I'll see how it goes.

  12. David Collins

    David Collins Tele-Afflicted

    Sep 28, 2009
    Ann Arbor, MI
    For those interested, here's some pics I took not too long ago of various nut files and the slots they cut. The files are shot through a 20x scope to get a clear view of the teeth and cutting/clearing patterns. The slots were cut in bone, which was painted black on the front for capturing clearer images.

    All slots were cut with the file resting against a right angle block with the bone clamped in to ensure a straight and honest cut of the file. This does not always represent the potential final cut of the file, as often times a slight rocking action is intentionally used, but it at least provides for a consistent view of the shape the file actually cuts. All these files can potentially cut smoother and rounder slots than photographed here if you know how to use them carefully. Though fairly consistent pressure was used, it was certainly a bit heavy-handed, and these cuts were honestly made a bit course with more chipping than usually found in real application. Hence one reason I'm just throwing it out on a forum. It was a quick and crude comparison, and it doesn't quite make the grade for publishing as a well controlled revue.

    First here are the import files commonly sold in a set of 8 from suppliers like AllParts and others. Not bad, rake angle is a bit strong leaving it prone to wander, but this can be controlled. Durability is fairly good, and they can cut quite clean slots in real use when carefully used with light pressure in final setting. Shape of the slot is fairly good as well. Overall, I'd give them a B-.


    Here are some StewMac files purchased about 5 years ago. Again, the rake angle is a bit excessive. Durability is okay, but I've found a lot of inconsistencies in the tooth pattern and edge shape along a file's length. I would probably give them a C+, though since I don't believe they are being carried any more it's probably a moot point.


    Here is one of StewMac's gauged files purchased about a year ago, certainly different from before, and I believe the ones they are currently selling. The rake angle is lessened quite a bit, which I like. Still enough to avoid chatter and cut a smooth slot, but not so much to create serious concern for wandering. The shape is good and consistent, and they cut rather well when new. Durability seemed their biggest issue, as this file pictured is probably not much over a year old. Granted, I use my nut files every single day, but these seemed to wear much faster than any others I've used. Still, they cut a clean slot and are rather efficient when new, so for hobbyists I would probably give them a B+. For professional use though, I think their durability would quickly drop them to a C+


    This is a Grobet joint round edge file, which have been my preferred file for about 20 years. StewMac used to sell them, but the push from the cheap WalMart hobbyist crowd have driven them and many others to seek cheaper alternatives. It's a shame, and I'll have to make sure I stock up on enough to last me a lifetime before they become impossible to find (thanks, cheapskates :rolleyes:). They clear quite well and cut a smooth slot, guide fairly smooth, and durability is excellent. I have no problem worrying about premature wear when notching brass and steel saddles with these. The biggest drawback is that they are available in only limited sizes, leaving some gaps to be filled in to make a complete professional set. Overall, I'd say an A-.


    Now StewMac is sourcing files from other suppliers, and I got some samples of one they are looking at which seems very promising. I don't believe they are being stocked yet, but I do like them from what I've seen so far. This file is brand new, and it cuts very aggressively. They are touted to be of very good hardness and durability, and I have no reason to doubt that, though I honestly hope to see them wear a little bit to cut just a tad slower in the near future. Good rake angle, good chip clearing, and a fairly smooth slot which I expect to improve when they are a bit more broken in. The bottom of the slot flattens out just a bit, but not bad really. I think I'll end up liking these a lot, and for the time being give them at least a B+.


    Moving on from gauged files, here is one of StewMac's double-sided files, made to cut a different size on each side. These are an economical alternative, fewer files for more sizes. their durability is great, but the straight teeth with no rake angle leave them rather prone to causing chips and sometimes chatter. The biggest flaw however, is simply that they cut a rather flat bottomed slot with tapered edges. I don't use them for much of anything these days, and would have to put them down as a C-.


    And just for giggles, I thought I'd throw in some of the common alternatives. Here is a Norman-Style kerfed feeler gauge. I should have taken a picture before I tried cutting any bone with them, as the edges of the teeth were much more square when first cut. You can see how rolled they are in this photo, which came from cutting (or at least trying to cut) a few slots. Shape is excellent, and I suppose you could cut the slots on the gauge with a bit of an angle to avoid chatter and chipping, but durability is not there at all, and even if it were they would not cut efficiently at all. The design of a flat surface with kerfs is just not amicable to cutting. You need at least some break angle behind the cutting edge for it act as an effective file. The slot you see cut in this picture took forever to make that deep, and it certainly wouldn't be appropriate for cutting full new nuts. For fine tuning one or two guitars, I'll be generous, and give this design a D. Any ambition to use it more than that on anything harder than plastic, and it's a solid F.


    Just for fun, I made another file from a feeler gauge by actually peening teeth in to the edge, then hardening it, and giving it a nitric acid bath for a bit of extra sharpening. This amounts to the equivalent of a nut slot rasp, and it cut like a chain saw. Of course it chipped like a chain saw too. Practical use, little to none. Have to give this one an F (for Fun).


    And finally here is a welding tip cleaner. As you can see by the design, it is engineered specifically not to cut, but rather clean a welding tip with slots to clear debris without enlarging the hole at all. I had to work hard to get any slot to photograph, using heavy pressure and an awful lot of strokes. If you're making nuts from soap, they'll work fine. Beyond that, these will have to go down as an F as well.


    Of course having good nut files is just one step, and the easiest at that. Learning how to actually cut proper nut slots is by far one of the hardest things to master in setups, and often takes people a long time and a lot of experience before they can even develop the ability to distinguish between good and mediocre when cutting the slots.
    CFFF likes this.

  13. KevinB

    KevinB Doctor of Teleocity

    Mar 4, 2007
    New Jersey
    Great post David. A picture (or 9 of them!) is indeed worth a thousand words.

  14. 930vet

    930vet Tele-Meister

    Apr 22, 2008
    Interesting stuff. Somewhat inconclusive for the tip cleaners, though. I'll see soon (soon for me means within the next few months) how they do for cutting a nut from scratch, but I think their true usefulness is for widening or deepening a slot in an already cut nut while maintaining a hemispherical shape at the bottom of the slot, a common requirement for dialing in nut performance on moderately and lower priced guitars. The recommended method for using them to cut a new nut is to cut the slot first with a razor saw and then shape the slot with the tip cleaners. You have presented excellent experimental evidence that tip cleaners should not be used the way that no one ever suggested they should be, but that's not to say that I expect them to be just as good as better nut files for cutting new nuts, even when following "best practice" for using them.

  15. Vizcaster

    Vizcaster Friend of Leo's

    Sep 15, 2007
    Glen Head, NY
    Mod' should lock this up as a sticky before it gets derailed. hard to argue with someone who's tried all these tools - and given photos - but somebody will anyway...

    Thanks for the explanation and all the work with the photos, David. Useful advice as usual. even if you didn't include a fish-scaling knife in your tests...

  16. flyingbanana

    flyingbanana Poster Extraordinaire

    I bought a set of Norman Nut Files on Ebay last year. These are still the best I've used. They are accurate and haven't dulled at all. I'm actually going to buy another set now just to have them. I've used a magnifying glass to look at the slots afterwards, and to my eyes, they look pretty smooth.

    They aren't cheap, but I have done around 10 nuts or so without an weird string problems like that irritating ping sound when plucking a string. Of course, I've learned to angle the back of the slots down a hair to make the transition of the string up the back of the slot more forgiving.

    Sorry I got off track. ; )

  17. David Collins

    David Collins Tele-Afflicted

    Sep 28, 2009
    Ann Arbor, MI
    Thanks, I'm fully open to other views though. 930vet's comment about using a slotting saw before final shaping with the tip cleaners is certainly a valid one. I have some real concerns and counter-arguments regarding practicality both in terms of hassle as well as consistently maintaining precision, but that would involve getting in to a whole lot of deeper details of nut slotting, and opening several other cans of worms (and a lot more typing). So it's not entirely invalid method without any merit at all, just one that I disagree with, and feel contains flaws which can impede one's ability or likeliness of achieving ideal end results.

    Oh, and I forgot about the old fish scaling knife. I used to have one of those, probably still lying around in a drawer somewhere. If used well and rocked appropriately, I'd probably end up giving those somewhere around a C+ (not so low because they don't work well, but just because they are less convenient and require a bit more skill and judgement to get good results). And though I used an old set of Ibanez files for years, I didn't have any around for this test. Those work okay, but are still a bit limited, somewhat like the StewMac two-sided files, but with a bit smoother teeth and slightly better shape. Probably a C+ or so for those as well.

    The Norman nut "files" I still just have to write off as a complete waste of money. They are just so flawed in both design and material (and price), and perhaps they can do an okay job on plastic nuts, but those edges just won't hold up on bone (or brass, or saddles, or all the other things you can use good nut files on). Even if they work for a few nuts, the price/quality ratio just doesn't add up to a fair value. $50+ can get you a set of Norman files, or you could throw in another $15 or $30 and get a set of 5 or 6 gauged files from StewMac. If you know how to use them, and rock as needed to appropriately widen the slots, you can even get by just fine with a set of 4 (something like .013", .024", .035", & .046"). The files I have pictured above I have cut thousands of nuts on. Why spend $50 on something that might do a so-so job on a dozen or two nuts, when you could throw in another $15-$30 for something that will last you a lifetime and do a better job on all sorts of materials, I just can't understand.

    If you're looking at buying a Les Paul, I can understand choosing an Epiphone version if it costs $300 and the Gibson is $3000. Buying the Norman nut files however, seems more to me like a used Epiphone with loose frets and no warranty for $300, if there were a perfectly fine new Gibson LP right next to it for $450. Maybe you only play once in a while, and maybe you only have $300. Still, if it's worth buying at all, with a difference like that I think it would be worth saving up another $150.

    To emphasize again though, if you think you can buy a set of nut files and go to town making your guitars just right, it just doesn't often work that way. When I teach nut making (and I have taught many), I don't expect many students to get one perfectly right out of the first several, maybe close to one perfect out of the first dozen or so, but certainly not capable of achieving consistently ideal results for quite a while. This is a skill that takes time and experience to learn to do well for most people. Not at all discouraging people from trying, but for many, if you are only going to be doing this on rare occasion, it can prove easier and cheaper in the end to have a competent professional tech do the nut slots for you (assuming you have a good one near by, as even many "professionals" do not exactly strive for perfection here).

  18. udimet720

    udimet720 Tele-Holic

    Feb 26, 2008
    Tustin, CA

    Thanks for your pics. Even though they are rough, I think they are helpful and illustrate your point pretty convincingly. Even true nut files are not all equal. I'm guessing that nut material will also vary the results.

    For what it's worth, I have cut 3 nuts from scratch using the welding tip cleaners. They are very slow to work with, as you suggested. My procedure has been to clamp them into a coping saw. This allows me to use them under tension and have reasonable control over the "file". They still do deflect under pressure, which I know is not ideal. But, after some time, I can cut a decent slot (to the naked eye). I'm interested to go back and see if I can get some magnified pictures of my nuts.

    By the way, these nuts were all cut from corian. As I understand it, this is a bit sifter than bone. So, that may have contributed to being able to cut functional slots with the WTC's.

  19. MrSeaMonkey

    MrSeaMonkey TDPRI Member


    Thanks for the excellent post on the various files! I’m about to try adjusting my first nut and your pics have well convinced me to get the StewMac files.

    I’ve never done much for guitar setup before, let alone trying to file a nut. But my new MIM Standard Tele nut binds the 2 highest strings something awful. Just tuning the high E and B doesn’t go so well- twist the tuner and nothing changes until *ping* and it’s overshot. That’s with the skinny strings that came with it (9’s) and I’ll soon go slightly thicker (to 10’s).

    I’ll probably just buy files for the 3 highest strings (.013, .016, .020) and see how that goes. The 3 lowest strings seem to be OK. Thanks again.

    Here’s a link to the StewMac files:,_s...Slotting_Files.html?actn=100101&xst=3&xsr=561

  20. Commodore 64

    Commodore 64 Friend of Leo's Ad Free Member

    Mar 1, 2010
    Kent, OH
    I read one of the threads linked here that said a casual nut slotter can get away with 0.016, 0.028, and 0.042 to do all of your nut slotting. I'm going to start there myself.
    Nope likes this.

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