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What tools can you not live without?

Chris G

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Hey everyone!! Now that I am done with my first build and have some ideas brewing in my head for my second build, I need to get some new tools. My last build I tried to use basic tools that were not designed for guitar building. With using those type of tools I ran into challenges that you would not run into with luthier tools. My  idea was not to  spend a few hundred on tools for my first build, because I did not want to buy those tools and not use them again if I desisted to not build another one. Now that I have the fever I am going to buy some good tools. I have a few ideas for some tool purchases, but need some help with fretting tools. What tools can you not live without and what fretting tools do you suggest? 

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Tools I can't live without. Hmm.

  • Vernier calipers (digital suck)
  • 6" steel ruler
  • Incra T-rule
  • Shaker mechanical pencil

This can be boiled down to metrology. Anything for measuring, marking up and confirming dimensions. Most other things can be substituted or done in more than one way. Maybe my fretting saw, which is a gentlemen's saw. I'm pretty fond of my assembly hammer too. I've refaced it a couple of times, and it gets used for anything from assembly to fretting. The HDPE face is perfect for fretwork. My carbide scribe is used a lot for marking up drill centres.

I'd add in my fret press insert to that if I owned my own pillar drill, which I don't. To me it's the best for getting fretwork in consistently. That said, radiusing beams are essential too....

Man, I can't imagine living without these things now.

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There are many ways to get it done, but I'm very happy the one I chose was the StewMac miter box, with templates, and the Japanese fretting saw.

Along with that my two main power tools are my band saw and router. Most every thing else I can make or do by hand.


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I'll second the router and bandsaw desert-island tool requirements.

But then you'll need to spend some money on good quality blades and cutters, and then something for dust collection because it will make a hell of a mess, and then maybe a second router for smaller jobs, and then a third to dedicate to your router table, and you could really use that spindle sander, and you could probably sneak that thicknesser in past the wife without her knowing, and sod it - chuck in that low angle block plane...and a couple of diamond grit sharpening stones...

It's a slippery slope.

Fretting - diamond grit crowning file, Stewmac japanese fret saw with depth stop attachment, fretting hammer, 18" levelling beam, fret wire bending thingamajig, a small selection of needle files, a smooth cut file with the handle off.

I have the matching Stewmac mitre box and a couple of their templates, and while it does a great job you're stuck if you want to make a fretboard with an unusual scale length. I've found that if you can print your fretslots at 1:1 scale and stick the drawing to the timber it's entirely possible to cut well-intonated fret slots by sight as long as you go careully and slowly. Keeping the blade vertical and tracking along the fret line on the drawing can be achieved by clamping down a block of timber to the line on the drawing and riding the blade of the saw up against it.

Auto supply stores may carry small brass or nylon-faced hammers that can substitute as a cheaper alternative to Stewmac's fretting hammer.

Car boot sales, local markets and second hand stores can turn up smaller items like the needle files and the smooth cut file.

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Thanks guys!! The power tools I have are Craftsman 12in band saw, Jet 10in table super saw  (just got it),  Porter Cable router and table ( want to make a table for more surface area), I nice craftsman drill press,  and a few others power tools. I have a dust collector, My house came with a central vacuum system and we do not use it, but works great for saw dust. I want to get a small trim router and build this overhead router jig. I seen it on the luthier facebook group.


Items I want to get not including fretting tools. I going to get a t-planer for the drill press, Robo Sander, more router bits, a small trim router and some other odds and ends. I have a WoodCraft in my area and can get a lot of stuff there around the same price as stewmac but dont have to pay shipping. I know I cannot get everything from WoodCraft and will have to get my fretting tools at stewmac, Crimson Guitars (UK), or other luthier stores.

Fretting tools:

Fret Press: I have a fret hammer and it worked well, but think I would get better results from a fret Press. Here is one for a good price that attaches to the drill press.


I need to get some good crowning fret end files. I got some files local that were not for fretting and worked, but they are not smooth on the ends to protect the fretboard.

Do you all like a fret leaving file or leaving beam? I am not sure which I want to get.

I may do the fretboard slotting myself this time. On the LP build I got the preslotted fretboard from StewMac. If I deside on slotting the fretboard myself I will have to get a good saw and probable the box. I have seen builders make a jig that they can do the slots with the table saw, maybe I will look into that too. 

I think I am on the right track with tool purchases. I do not want to to buy a lot of tools and then not use them.


Edited by Chris G
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Sounds like you already have the larger purchases in hand.

I have the Stewmac fret press and a few inserts of various radii. They work well, but I'd recommend using them in the proper arbor press rather than in a drill press. The drill press flexes quite substantially when cranking down on it enough to seat frets, which from using a tool for its intended purpose gives me the heebie geebies.

I find I get better results using something long to level with (levelling beam, aluminium radius beam), particularly across the lower frets. IME the shorter levelling files are difficult to guide across the larger gaps between the lower frets as there are fewer points of contact, and I personally found it very easy to accidentally take off more in the lower registers and end up with a neck where the fret crowns tapered down towards the nut.

You can grind off the teeth from one edge of a file to create a 'safe' surface. If you already have some suitable files handy this could be a low cost alternative to purchasing a dedicated file from a luthier's supply outlet.


11 hours ago, Chris G said:

I do not want to to buy a lot of tools and then not use them.

If you're a hands-on DIY kind of person I reckon that even if you only build a couple of guitars you'll likely find a use for many of the tools that are geared to luthiers. Levelling beams, scrapers, specialised drill bits, template router cutters, fine pitched saws, Dragon rasps, precision mitre boxes etc are nothing more than standard cabintery tools that have fancier marketing behind them. At a guess of all the stuff I've bought from Stewmac theres only about 4 or 5 things that only get used on guitars.

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  • 1 month later...

The Shop is taking shape. My parents are selling their house and traveling in the Motor home for the next few years. My dad gave me a lot of tools. All I need now is a planer, jointer, and more luthier tools. Here are some pics.





I have a cool idea for a next build. I'm thinking about doing a firecaster all out of firewood. I am collecting now. Here is a piece I found that would make a good top.


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