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When You Cheap Out- A Low Cost Fret Nipper ?


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I guess i have the tool building bug this month. Went down to my friendly Harbor Freight store to see what they had. I looked at a set of end nippers and a HD Cable cutter (not shown, used for cutting fret wire as well, rough cut only). The cable cutter was on sale for $5 the nipper was $6. even though I have a set of nippers, I said what the heck I can always use another pair.

My original nippers I bought already ground from Stumac. The Channel Lock 356.

The harbor freight nippers needed a bit of work to grind, now the jaws met and are almost flat on the top. I recommend not using a grinder for this procedure but a belt or disk sander.


Looked great, 30 minutes of work and a new pair of nippers, I was so proud. So I pulled out a piece of fret wire and had a go, after several tries with marginal results this was a bust. Tried the Channel Locks and they cut easy. What did I do wrong?

I knew why I and other members always recommended Channel Locks, the tool steel. So they cost $20 not $6 they will last longer everyone said. This is still true. Now I have another more important reason, "these nippers will not cut fret wire properly"! OK I heard that, no I'm not nuts and yes they are nippers just like the Channel Locks. Lets just look at the two cutters side by side and I will explain.


The first thing I noticed is the the head is very big on the HF Pittsburgh Brand. Even if it did cut properly this may be a difficult fit trying to nip fret ends against the fingerboard. I may be wrong here since this is day one with the tool.

The second and most important issue is the inside grind. Look closely at the two tools, you can clearly see the wide sweeping grind of the Channel Locks and the narrow tight grind of the HF nipper. This is a major problem cutting fret wire. As you cut, the fret wire is pinched in between the two jaws long before it is fully cut. So now in addition to cutting the wire it needs to be mashed down in order to finish the cut. Not so easy. I was also using a medium gage wire, imagine a Super Jumbo wire.

Maybe some of you are saying "Thats why I have so much trouble cutting fret wire". :D

So this is why it is not always easier to go the cheaper route. Now I have the tooling to grind down the inner bevel, I will do it just because I want another nipper even if I only use it to rough cut fret wire. But grinding down the inside is no easy task, figure another hour of work with the proper tools. Now if I bought the Channel locks and I didnt mess up the grind I would have saved $8 over the Commercial fret nippers. Not a huge savings.

Have a look at the current Stumac Nippers. Looks like they are using a different brand now as well. Notice the wide angle below the cutter which allows the wire to clear the cutting jaws.


Hopefully this helps some of you.

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I have those same nippers too. They might cut fretwire if you grind them and then develop some elaborate system of pulleys and levers and maybe use of some type of mallet. I think buying a good pair is probably the better way to go.

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Strange, I use those HF nippers and they work great; even on stainless. My only complaint is the size of the head.

Cut off a piece of wire and look to see if the wire is being mashed by the nippers before the end of the cut. Its possible you have a different grind but I honestly doubt it. If you have never used another pair of nippers you have no comparison. Also if your hands hurt near the end of the fret job thats probably a sign its mashing.

One of the problems I did not mention is if you are struggling to cut the ends of the fret wire on a fingerboard you run the risks of popping up the ends of the wire and ruining your nice fret job.

Again the solution is to grind it down heavily on the inside so these nippers can work. I am going to try a small drum on my drill press see how that goes. If not it's back to my 1 x 42 belt. Probably a container of water as well to keep it cool.

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Even from the tiny picture of those nippers in the HF catalogs, I always thought the angle of the jaws looked very wrong, so I never went near them.

I'm surprised if they are tough enough to handle stainless.

I watched a DVD where a guy uses Channel lock brand nippers (at least that's what they looked like) to cut stainless fret-wire, and man , his nippers were getting trashed.

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My Channel Lock show some minor nicks just from normal nickel silver wire. Cant imagine what Stainless will do.

OK I have finished the nippers. They work as well as the Channel locks at the moment since I have not tried them for any thing other than testing. I will say that this project is beyond the scope of most novice builders unless you have a great bond with your tools or your skill level is high and you have lots or patience. Grinding the top was the easiest part. The inside of these nippers are very rough from the store so some honing will be necessary as well but wait until after all the grinding.

First I went straight to my 1" belt sander and a metal cutting Zirconia belt. The 1" belt allowed me to flatten the inside so the nippers now resembled a giant V. Better but still not good enough for wide fret wire.


Next I tried my drill press and my smallest 3/4 sanding drum but was marginally successful at opening up the inside wider. So off to use a tool all of us own, or should own, my Dremel and a small drum sanding attachment. With this I was able to grind a hollow near the tip creating a narrower and smaller profile that will cleanly cut fret wire.


This profile worked as well as I expected the nippers to work in the first place. I took the liberty to grind the top profile a bit so the sides were angled down and away from a potential fingerboard. I could do with a bit more grinding time on that one. I also narrowed the sides a bit as shown, The nipper are very wide (side to side) and I could stand to remove even more material there as well.

The final top face. I can see it needs some adjustment along the cutting edges. Or rather a great honing to make sure each edge is straight and sharp.

I also went back and looked at the cutoffs from the fret wire in my initial test and they were very mashed up, didnt even resemble fret wire. The saving grace for most users of an improperly modified tool is that the cutter did not deform the wire behind the jaws.


Hope this info helps. If you must grind do it right. If you are smart open your wallet and splurge for a better pair of nippers or buy them already ground. At the very least buy a pair of nippers with a proper cutting angle for frets.

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