Nut height and fettling

Edited: September 14, 2018, 9:13 AM · On almost all string instruments there's an obsession with the height of the nut action, so I'm guessing it's the same with the violin and its family? Sure I feel my fiddle probably has a highish action, but I don't think I'll risk filing it down.
Or do people do that kind of thing to a fiddle routinely?

Replies (13)

Edited: September 14, 2018, 9:56 AM · String height is maybe a bit more complicated on a violin- it's based on a relationship between nut, bridge, tailpiece, neck, and fingerboard. If you lower the nut, but not the bridge, then you'll have to press harder with the 3rd and 4th fingers than with the 1st and 2nd. It will probably adversely effect your sound as well.

If you're a fiddler, as in old time/bluegrass/etc, they usually don't worry about the nut but play with really flat bridges.

Edited to add: These are not repairs that lay people typically do. Yes, I know there are DIYers who do, but they rarely get good results and can do damage to their instruments that far exceeds its value, meaning they trash a decent fiddle.

Edited: September 14, 2018, 10:14 AM · A commonly recommended rule is that you should be able to slide a business card between the strings and fingerboard right up to the nut. But if the space is much larger than this, the nut is probably too high. If you file it down yourself you may need to make new grooves for the strings (or deepen the existing grooves). For this job you will want an appropriate nut file or set of files from a luthiery supplier.
September 14, 2018, 10:26 AM · Isn't this backwards?
Wouldn't you file the grooves down to the appropriate height, and THEN trim the top surface?
Like a bridge.
September 14, 2018, 10:53 AM · Yes, people do this on a semi-regular basis, and that is one of the many things that keeps my shop doors open!

Excepting the E, I usually go for about 1/2 of the string diameter above the fingerboard. Higher for gut strings and agressive players, lower for steel and fiddlers. The shape of the groove is important because: 1-if it is not round and smooth it will cause strings to break and unravel(think your EVAH P. A string that always comes unraveled at the nut) and 2-if the shape is not correct the string will buzz in the groove when you play the open string.

Scott is correct. When I do this I file the grooves until the string height is correct, then use a flat file to shape the top of the nut, being careful to not eliminate the groove or leave the string too deeply imbedded in the groove, which can dampen the sound and cause the string damage. You then will need to shape the nut to get rid of the sharp edges and polish it up.

Worst case if you screw it up is a new nut:$75. I can sometimes pop the nut off and glue a 0.5mm shim of fiber to the bottom and reshape the nut, but on many, if not most, Cheaper Chinese instruments, the nut is so strongly glued on that it breaks apart when removal it attempted and you end up having to make a new nut anyway. For the record, the nut is secured with a small drop of glue.

September 14, 2018, 11:15 AM · Loved that title!
Edited: September 14, 2018, 1:08 PM · 'Scott Cole
September 14, 2018, 10:26 AM ยท Isn't this backwards?
Wouldn't you file the grooves down to the appropriate height, and THEN trim the top surface?'

Believe me, I was not providing step-by-step directions on shaping a nut, I was just pointing out that a specialised tool is wanted to either make new grooves (in an extreme case of a very high nut) or deepen existing ones. The point was to help Andrew make a more informed choice between DIY, in which case the tool cost should be factored in, or taking it to a luthier. For instruction I would refer him to Michael Darnton's chapter on set-up, which he has generously placed online.

Edited: September 14, 2018, 1:08 PM · Well, my fiddle only cost $50, so if I ever wanted to experiment, now's the time! I've got some diamond files. But if you say don't, I won't.
September 14, 2018, 4:28 PM · Did you try the business card test or Duane's 1/2 string diameter guideline?
September 14, 2018, 4:28 PM · Andrew,

While I'm not a luthier, I will say DON'T!

I handle about 80 instruments of young musicians every week and do a lot of bridge placement and alignment work, and replace the occasional broken string - anything beyond that I give a note to the parents and refer them to the local luthier or their music store (yeah, we have those) to get their instruments repaired.

FWIW: at the start of every season I get handed at least one instrument to tune that is not properly setup - bridge too high and/or backwards, improperly spaced notches on the bridge, strings wound in the wrong direction or peg, et cetera. When I ask where they purchased the instrument the answer is always: "Amazon." I've also had parents (mostly fathers) who have glued the bridge down "because it was loose."

Edited: September 15, 2018, 8:13 AM · @duane and Guglielmus

The business card test more or less works - maybe there's a tiny clearance, but getting the camber right and moving it at the same time is tricky. I didn't try it before as I hadn't slept much for 3 days and thought you meant a credit card, but I didn't understand why you didn't call it that!

September 15, 2018, 8:29 AM · Ok now check the distance between the other end of the fingerboard and the strings. This is commonly 3.5mm at E and 5.5mm at G or thereabouts. Some people will like lower, and string type can factor in here, but if your string heights are much higher than these numbers then you might consider lowering the bridge.
September 15, 2018, 8:35 AM · 4mm e and 6mm G is what a lot of professionals want, its mostly amateurs that want low action.
Edited: September 15, 2018, 9:03 AM · I'm happy with it now, considering. Even if the nut action were a little high, that only really matters with frets, where the intonation can be awful.

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