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Guitar Tools From The Hardware Store...

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I was pouring over my Stew Mac catalog and was trying to figure out what tools I could buy from the hardware store instead of the 'specialized only for guitar' tools they have (ya, trying to save some money! :D )

I realize that you shouldn't scrimp on certain things but surely some could be bought locally for alot less.

I'm thinking mainly fretting tools:

Fret hammer - ?

Straight edge - wouldn't a really good steel ruler do?


Fret cleaning tool - couldn't you just use a thick blade or thin screwdriver?


Fret leveling file - gotta be something else?


Fret cutter - this one you might have to buy unless you have access to a grinder?

Fret Crowning files - These don't look too specialized?


If I had the money, it'd be nice to buy all this. I also realize some things ARE guitar specific.

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Fret Hammer - I cut the plastic handle off a large screwdriver (was stripped anyway) , drilled and threaded and then screwed in some threaded rod.

Straight edge - wouldn't a really good steel ruler do?

Yes, thats what I use.

Fret cleaning tool - couldn't you just use a thick blade or thin screwdriver?

Lino knife works well.

Fret leveling file - gotta be something else?

Large bastard, yes bastard :D , file or coarse/smooth sanding stone, gotta be flat.

Fret cutter - this one you might have to buy unless you have access to a grinder?

End nippers, side cutters etc. work well. Gonna file the fret ends anyway.

Fret Crowning files - These don't look too specialized?

Small triangle file with 2 edges ground smooth.

I agree, alot of the Stewmac "specialty" tools aren't necessary if you only build one or 2 guitars a year. Also, their tools are basically idiot proof. Its takes some expertise to use the substitute tools I mentioned.

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I mostly agree with southpa however

For the steel straightedge, I use a ground steel V straight edge, not from stew mac, it's a machinist straight edge, probably more money than if you bought it from stew mac lol but I used it when I was in tool and die so that's where it was justified.

Anyway, you don't need that either, the fret scale ruler straightedge from stewmac is indispensible though. I use mine every single day.

Fret hammer, you can buy at automotive tool places usually, plastic on one end, rubber on the other, I paid I think $2.99 for mine, though it's rare I hammer frets.

For cleaning frets, well, unless they're filled with epoxy or something (in which case you have to resaw them) I just use the back of an exacto knife.

Files, as southpa said, has to be flat, take a straight edge into the store with you and check ALL the files, most are curved a little, either from being dropped, or warping in the manufacturing process.

I use standard side cutters to trim fret ends, but I do grind the backside flat, otherwise it leaves about 1/16" overhanging, by the time you fill all that back you've created so much side load on the fret slot that the ends may pop.

As for crowning files, yeah, you can use triangle files, I don't, I'm not good enough. I've seen many people say they can use them, and their crowning looks like crap. The peaks aren't centered or even. It takes a true old school craftsman to do that. I use the diamond crowning files, I can't recommend them enough.

In all honesty, NONE of the specialized tools are necessary, but they do make life much easier. As I said about the crowning files, you can do all the work with standard tools, but it takes a TRUE old school craftsman to make them work for them. That's like inlaying by hand, I'm decent at it, but guy's like Craig have 100% of my respect, guys like Ron Thorn do amazing inlay, and I have great respect for him too, but it's CNC, Craig is doing it old school with amazing results. Ron started by hand, he's simply evolved into CNC so I still feel he's a true craftsman too, Driskill builds amazing guitars and does incredible inlay, but it's always been by CNC, I still respect it, but it doesn't impress me the way Craigs work does.

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I think I once suggested in the tool section that we have a pinned thread about " Stew-Mac tools from other sources", but I don't think it happened. (probably because it was my idea)

First thing to ask yourself is : What kind of fret-job do you want to end up with ? The less demanding you are about how perfect a fret-job you get, the less special tools you need.

However, if you are interested in the specialized tools, but just want to try to find the same things cheaper, I can relate.

I also have to say, after buying from Stew-Mac for 18 years, I now often try (and sometimes succeed) in buying a better version of their tools from somewhere else, making a better version myself, or buying a better quality tool somewhere else that needs to be modified to do the same thing the SM tool does, even if in it's unmodified state, the tool actually costs more than SM's already modded version.

Straight-edge : I used to use a "regular aluminum yardstick", but feel dumb now when I think about that time. For fret-work, you want to know about .002" dips and rises in the frets and board surface. The straight-edge needs to be *precision ground* flat with that type of work in mind.

If you want to buy something that's not ground flat, perhaps you could have it checked against one that is ground, and if it's a very close match, it could be good enough if you are not so picky.

Nippers: I've had my share


The Stew-Mac ones... been there, done that. For the latest pair, I paid $30.00 , and they were not even ground. I ground them myself


I like them alot. I didn't use a grinder this time. I "ground" the suckers by hand, with cloth-backed, high quality sandpaper double-stick taped to a long metal bar. Took many hours. Running out of 220 German sandpaper, and buying a roll of Harbor Freight 220, kind of " threw a wrench in the works" during the process, but old soapbar always seems to get through somehow.

Fret-slot cleaner. For years, many of us used an x-acto #11 blade with the point broke off to create a more sturdy blade for this task.

But, I have to say, I think the special Stew-Mac blade might be the best tool they have. (if you sharpen it properly )


Here, I'm actually using it on an unbound board, but acting as if it's bound, so I don't disturb the thick finish and filled-in ends on the fret-board edges. The tool works great for digging out dust right up against the filled ends.

Fret-levelers : I had the 16" from Stew-mac. It was not *dead* flat. It was less flat than my Donnell glass surfaced "fret-plane" (big wood one in pic below). So then I found some very flat glass, and made the one on the far right in the pic below. It's 19" long, and more flat than the Stew-Mac one.

Next, I want to get those 1" square metal tubes very flat, because they just feel soooo right in my hand.


I just got done chasing Satan through a corn field with that big 14" file on the left.

Edited by soapbarstrat
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