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Ukulele Building with Bob Gleason



Handtools For Luthiery

by Bob Gleason

  I had planned this column to discuss the general topic of handtools used in luthiery. When I sat down to write it, I realized that the topic was just too broad, so I will concentrate on some of the newer tools that I have found useful.

  If Stew-Mac was in charge of manned spaceflight wed already be playing ukes on Mars. There seems to be no end to their inventiveness and many of their new tools are excellent. For the past 20 years Ive used a set of nut files very similar to their metal handled double edge nut files. I am glad to see them reissued by Stew-Mac. For most uke nylon string work, the .036/ .042 file works great. The .026/.032 one is also useful. Youll find yourself mostly using just the tips of these files. When the tip wears out you can clamp it in a vise with the dull end protruding, throw a cloth over it, don your armor and smack it once sideways with a hammer. The file is tempered so as to be very brittle and will break cleanly, leaving you with a nice new file. A little touchup on the grinder or sander will take away the sharp edges. You can do this with any file to create specialty small files. Beware though, without something over the file end that you break off, these babies will launch themselves at a high velocity.

  Their new nut seating files are also very useful for building as well as repair work. They come in 1/8, 3/16, and sizes and each has both a fine and coarse file pattern. Instead of having to chisel out the finish or old glue from the nut area, these files make a cleanup quick and leave a nice square edge. They are also great for removing sharp corners from nuts. And, because these files have flat sides with no file pattern on them, I find they make many small touchup jobs a lot safer.

  Lastly, I have come to really enjoy using their diamond fret files. I was very skeptical about these at first. They are expensive and seem like one of those unnecessary tools. Once youve used them though, theres no going back. They work very quick, smooth, and leave no chatter marks. They are also easy to control and I find they have less tendency to slip off the frets than other files Ive used. I would recommend both the 150 grit and the 300 grit. I see that the new ones in the catalog are even longer than the ones I own, which should give them a longer life.

  So much for the Stew-Mac ad. I dont really work for them, theyre just friends. Some of the best new file type tools to hit the market are the Microplane shaping tools. Available in most any catalog, or at Woodcraft, these are incredible for shaping necks. They do have a limited life, but are cheap enough that it is easy to replace them. I also find that sometimes I like using the dull old ones. For most neck work the large flat file is the most useful. After that, the various sizes of round cutters are also helpful. They are very comfortable to use and easy to control. The cut is also clean and does not show the deep bruising of the wood that normal rasps cause.

  Closer to home, everyone should own a pair of the 12 long $5.00 tweezers available at Ace Hardware. Great for picking hairballs, picks, and cockroach casings out of instruments. Also very useful for repair work.

  A little company called Micro-Mark makes an assortment of tools for model makers. Many of these tools fit the bill for our work . A favorite of mine is their stainless steel super glue applicator. It kind of looks like a large 6 sewing needle. The open eye end is great for picking up drops of super glue and transferring just the right amount to the work. When it gets clogged up, the glue can be burned off with a match or lighter. I wouldnt be without this tool.

  I just received a new tool from Luthiers Merchantile International that seems very promising. A design of the late builder Richard Schneider of Kasha bracing fame, the Schneider plane is great for brace shaving. Most planes, even the small finger planes have their blades inset quite a ways from the sides of the sole. Because of this, they are not very useful for rounding over bracing already attached to a top or back. The Schneider plane was designed to correct this problem. It easily the shaves the sides of braces. On top of that, it is a very well made pretty little tool!

  For sanding, the bane of the luthier, we can use all the help we can get. I  really like a tool called a sanding stick that I got from the Klingspor catalog. They have a nice pointed nose that lets you get into tight places, like around neck joints. I find that the little moveable belts last a long time. These have a great advantage over sticks that we make and glue sandpaper on because of the ability to renew the sanding surface instantly. The size works great for me and I have 3 sticks so that I can have all grits easily available. Its one of those tools that you dont use a lot, but when you need it you really need it!

  The last tool, though it may not exactly fit the topic of hand tools, is the step drill. These bits, sold under the name of Unibit, are just the right bit for many jobs. Used in an electric drill, they excel at drilling the hole for the endpin jack in pickup installations or holes in sides for knobs. The shaft is a little short for going through some tailblocks, but if you chuck them near the end they work just fine. Many luthiers use them for drilling their tuner holes in cases where the front and back of the headstock need a slightly different size hole. I use the 1/8 to one with 13 steps in it. They will cleanly drill a hole through a finish without any lifting of wood.  If you are interested in any of these tools and cant find the source, just e-mail me at and Ill help you out. Im also interested in ideas for future columns. Happy building!

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