Stainless Steel Providers
by Geoff Luttrell
I had made Scott Evans, of Snailface, Kowloon Walled City and Antisleep Studios, a brass nut for his Edwards long ago, but he had a problem with the wound strings grooving the bottom of the nut slots, causing tuning instability and general frustration. Out of my endless sense of optimism and possibility came this – “why don’t I just make you a stainless steel nut?” I had never done this, and am not really set up for machining here at the shop, but why not?
My first call was to my buddy Ross, who makes pedal steels and has a mighty machine shop. He advised that I use 17-4 Stainless, as it is a work hardening steel, so that the vibrating strings might actually harden the bottom of the slots. He also mentioned that I make sure my files actually cut the steel on every stroke or it may harden and become unworkable. That’s some critical information right there. Finding that the metal in the last nut slot had become too hard to cut would be a major hassle.
Feeling fairly confident, I ordered my steel from onlinemetals.com, which is a great resource for small specialty metals. The smallest size they had was 1/4″x3/4″, which was significantly larger than my finished size. With a machinist’s vise and angle grinder, I made pretty short work of roughing it in (Figure A). I have done a good amount of machine work and fabrication, so it was kind of frustrating to hack it away like this, but I figure it adds to my “get us off the island” improv skills.
After grinding the blank to a manageable size, I flattened and polished the bottom and front, making the two faces exactly square, so that the nut would fit tightly against the bottom of the nut slot and the end of the fingerboard. This allows for the best sustain, tone, and correct fit. (Figures B,C)
The next step was to work from these two faces and sand the blank to the final size. After the blank just fit into the slot, I polished the back face. This left me with three faces that didn’t need any more work, so I put the blank in the slot and started the sting layout. I set my outer two E strings first, then used the StewMac String Spacing Rule to lay out the inner 4. The string spacing rule produces less space between the wound strings. This gives a more even feel across the neck, without a scrunched feeling on the low strings. (Figure D)
With the string position marked on the top of the nut, I started cutting the string slots to depth. I did this in stages, checking the spacing as I cut, to make sure that the strings didn’t drift. Last thing I wanted at this point was to trash this nut because of an easily avoidable error. The stainless was not too hard to cut as long as I kept a deliberate hand on the files. The strings were now cut to depth, with the spacing proper. You may notice in the picture that the nut overhangings the edges of the fingerboard. That allows some fine tuning of the strings’ location over the first fret. If the spacing is a bit off to one side or the other, I could scoot the nut a bit to compensate. I didn’t need to do that, so I scribed the front and bottom faces to mark the material that would be removed so that the nut ends would fit exactly flush to the neck.
Using the belt sander and a little bowl of water to keep things cool, I sanded the ends of the nut to the scribe lines, and sanded the top of the nut down to leave the string slots the correct depth. So far so good. The fit in the neck was proper and the slots were the right depth.
Now the fun part – shaping and polishing. All the corners were rounded and smoothed, then the nut was sanded using 800 and 1500 grit sandpapers, then final polished using fingernail buffing sticks and my power buffer. The slots were also sanded smooth to be sure the tuning stability was spot on. Mighty fine!
This is one nut that should outlast us all. Not easy, but surely satisfying. Thanks for reading!”