View Full Version : Tool Failure or Tool Abuse?

03-11-2015, 10:04 AM
I was using my relatively new (and expensive) fret nippers to cut back fret tangs for a bound fretboard when on the third fret, the edge of the nippers snapped off. I was able to complete the job using the other side when it too began to disintegrate.

Was this a case of steel failure or use of a tool for a job for which it is not designed to do? I realize that there is a tool available to do this particular function, but I don't want to buy them ($$$). The tool has performed the job of cutting off frets flush and there are no signs of edge failure in the center of the tool. Yet.

I'm not going to name the supplier (reputable) as they may be blameless. The fretwire was standard stuff and not stainless steel. Any of you tool experts/engineers care to comment? Should I make a claim or chalk it up to using the wrong tool for the job?


03-11-2015, 10:25 AM
Are you cutting the frets on the edges of the tool, like where it chipped or are you cutting the fret in the middle of the cutting edge of the tool? It looks like you were just using the outside edge of the tool which could cause it to fail. Cut in the middle of the tool. In the middle, the tool is supported by the whole cutting edge. If you cut on the edges, outside edge of the tool, like what it looks like you have done, the outside cutting edge is not supported and can chip. I get similar cutters from the ACE hardware in town and grind the ends flat to get he tool closer to what I am cutting. I don't cut the fretwire before I tap it in but afterwards and I want to get as close as I can to the edge of the fretboard. Less fret end filing. I've done 40 ukes, a bunch of dulcimers and cigarbox instruments plus repairs with the same cutter. And, it's relatively inexpensive.
Those little chips are like bullets when they chip off of there too. Hope this helps!

Michael Smith
03-11-2015, 10:51 AM
I use a similar tool to do the same thing and have nipped thousands of ends without chipping. Therefor I think you have a tool with metal too brittle for the job you are putting it to.

03-11-2015, 11:01 AM
Yes! thats an example of a high carbon steel tool thats been Hardened but not Tempered back .. sort of thing you'd expect from cheap foreign tools..Demand a replacement.

03-11-2015, 12:07 PM
Are you cutting the frets on the edges of the tool, like where it chipped or are you cutting the fret in the middle of the cutting edge of the tool?

I was using the edge of the tool because I was cutting back the tangs on the fret ends, not cutting the whole fret. Hope that makes sense.

03-11-2015, 12:57 PM
Makes sense and like the others said, pretty brittle. There's a fine line between being able to hold the edge and too brittle.

03-11-2015, 01:47 PM
I have experience in heat-treating steel and can tell you that it's the manufacture's error. Tools made overseas can be all over the chart when it comes to heat treating. Their either too hard (which is a liability for them because a chip can end up in someone's eye) or too soft, making the tool useless. I would buy from manufactures like Channel Lock who still make their stuff in the U.S.A.

03-11-2015, 02:21 PM
Buy gear made in Sheffield England UK ..and you'll get the good stuff ;)

03-11-2015, 02:22 PM
If you break an old tool, it's your fault. If you break a new tool, it's their fault because none of them are as good as the same tool was 30 years ago.
Similarly with the tool department help.
I asked the staff at my local "hardware store" if they had any hand planes, and then had to explain what a hand plane was.

-Vinnie in Juneau

03-11-2015, 06:28 PM
The following is a bit of a rant, and I apologize in advance, but I'm not a happy camper and you can move on if you like...


It is easy to blame cheap Chinese steel and manufacturing for these sorts of tool failures. But really, doesn't the blame come down to us, the consumer who demands the cheapest price for our commodities? The Chinese manufacturer is only too happy to supply these shoddy tools if we are willing to pay for them? And who can blame them?

I've worked as a finish carpenter with nails that wouldn't drive and bent, saw blades that dull immediately and wouldn't cut, cutting tools that snap off or won't hold an edge. I worked around it. However, luthery demands that our tools and the steel that they are made of be of the very highest quality. Our tolerances are extremely small and the tools that go into shaping them should be of the finest edge and the finest steel that can hold that edge. Cheap steel just doesn't cut it when it comes to making musical instruments. The following are my suggestions:

1) Only buy tools that are made by quality tool manufacturers who take pride in the quality their steel. Here, that means buying American. Be willing to pay extra. Happily pay extra.

2) To lutherie tool suppliers: Sell only tools manufactured by quality tool manufactures even if the price is higher. Use this as a selling point. Don't always look at the bottom line. Emphasize quality. We already pay a premium for specialized tools (a huge premium by the way), at least sell us tools that actually do what they are supposed to do. We will happily pay extra. Really.

3) Demand of your politicians that they protect domestic manufacturers from countries that flood the market with cheap crap and drive them out of business. These are called tariffs. Vote. Also vote with your buying power and don't patronize suppliers that sell cheap crap to hard working ukulele makers.

There. I feel better. I could go on and on, but I am done now. Will anything change? Probably not.


Michael N.
03-12-2015, 02:33 AM
Depends on the particular tool. Some (the vast majority) cheap tools are a complete waste of money, the odd one being an exception. That one being my fret nippers. They are Chrome Vanadium, induction hardened cheap Chinese (or Indian). I've cut thousands of fret ends with them and they are still perfectly good!
They weren't quite flush cutting when I bought them but a few minutes on a hand grinder soon sorted that.
Oh and my cheap chinese fret hammer is brilliant. Not that it was sold as a fret hammer, it's just a cheap ball pein hammer that I mirror polished the striking surface.

03-12-2015, 04:01 AM
3) Demand of your politicians that they protect domestic manufacturers from countries that flood the market with cheap crap and drive them out of business. These are called tariffs. Vote. Also vote with your buying power and don't patronize suppliers that sell cheap crap to hard working ukulele makers.

I think problems cheap tools and their relation with the world economy goes much deeper than this, and no effort by an individual or group of people will change that. I you're serious about this, I recommend finding a local blacksmith to make your nippers (here's a place to start: http://abana.org/. If it chips, then you can go knock on his door to complain.

03-12-2015, 04:39 AM
I have the Stew Mac cutters with the same problem. Mine chipped in the middle though. I think they take regular wire cutters and grind the face back for a flush cut. I think it was a quality tool to start with....beefy steel, smooth tight hinge, nice grips. They probably got it too hot on the grinding wheel and ruined the heat-treatment. Any steel can be ruined on a grinding wheel (even the good stuff from Sheffield!!).
If yours is Stew Mac you can probably get a replacement. They're pretty good for customer service. I didn't return mine because the chip doesn't bother me in the middle, and it hasn't grown

03-12-2015, 06:36 AM
Grinding won't make the clippers brittle .. Just the opposite...There is a good artical on heat treatment see here http://www.blog.turnedwoodenbowls.com/?page_id=366
I use standard electricians side cutters to clip the fretwire with no problems. A very good manufacturer of clipping type tools in the US is "Knipex" http://www.ebay.co.uk/itm/KNIPEX-6801200-68-200-END-CUTTING-STEEL-FIXERS-NIPPERS-CUTTERS-/360967446693?pt=LH_DefaultDomain_3&hash=item540b5620a5#ht_2117wt_1141...And if you want some really cool clippers try surgical ones like these http://www.ebay.co.uk/itm/TC-CNS-Double-Action-Pin-Wire-Cutter-9-Orthopedic-Surgical-Instruments-CE-/150819459718?pt=LH_DefaultDomain_3&hash=item231d8a5286#ht_676wt_1190

03-12-2015, 07:09 AM
I agree about the grinding not making them brittle. If you grind and start seeing oxidation colors on polished straight carbon steel you're probably safe up to yellow or bronze color. These steels will start loosing their hardness past that point (blue to grey). This good to know for when you're sharpening your tools. Alloys like M2, S7 and H13 can actually stay good up to faint red color.

03-12-2015, 03:57 PM
FYI, you can make a tang nipper for cheap, by using a dremel cutoff wheel to grind a slot into the face of a sheet metal nibbling tool. Here's one http://www.amazon.com/Parts-Express-Nickel-Plated-Nibbling/dp/B0002KRACO

And here's what mine looks like with the slot:

03-12-2015, 05:50 PM
Thanks Dennis. That is an idea.

03-12-2015, 10:24 PM
Grab a cheap nibbler at your local Radio Shack that is going out of business for at least half off. I modified a Klien, but the Rat Shack ones will work.

03-13-2015, 10:18 AM
I use a Channelock end cutting plier, made in USA, ground flush at the end.
So far so good, but I've only made about 6 ukes so far.
I suspect it doesn't make as flush a cut as the stew-mac one, but it suffices.

-Vinnie in Juneau