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View Full Version : Uke Nuts, why was/is wood used?



Graham Greenbag
08-21-2018, 08:23 AM
I’m in the habit of replacing plastic nuts with bone ones and it’s always been (or should that be seemed) a good move until the last time. With the bone nut the open strings sounded louder and had a longer sustain than the fretted ones and that made the played chords sound ‘wrong’. The plastic nut was reinstated, balance returned and all was well again, or as good as it’s going to be.

That episode set me thinking about Uke nut materials and I recalled that wood was used originally and still is on the Bruko’s. Why was/is wood used and are particular types of wood better to use than others?

Beau Hannam Ukuleles
08-21-2018, 09:05 AM
wood was used cuz it was cheap- every workshop has 1001 scraps of ebony that could be used as nuts. Violins and lutes all use ebony.

mikeyb2
08-21-2018, 09:21 AM
I've never quite understood why a zero fret isn't used on more instruments. Perfect balance tonally and great action.

Jim Yates
08-21-2018, 09:48 AM
I'll second MikeyB2's question. All strings vibrating off a metal fret should be more balanced.

My wife has a 1921 Martin OO-18 with an ebony nut.

Ukecaster
08-21-2018, 10:35 AM
Does a zero fret also eliminate all potential nut slot issues?

jupiteruke
08-21-2018, 11:38 AM
Yup, with a zero fret the 'nut' is just a string spacer, the depth of the slot does not matter, as long as it is deep enough that the string rests on the fret, not the 'nut'.

Beau Hannam Ukuleles
08-21-2018, 12:03 PM
I've never quite understood why a zero fret isn't used on more instruments. Perfect balance tonally and great action.

A zero nut is what some factories (used to/still) do to minimize labor costs= hence it is associated as such.
This isn't to say that great instruments don't have a zero fret (some of the worlds best guitars have them), it's just historically associated with factories trying to save 30 mins labour.

Graham Greenbag
08-21-2018, 10:00 PM
wood was used cuz it was cheap- every workshop has 1001 scraps of ebony that could be used as nuts. Violins and lutes all use ebony.

Thank you for the information Beau.

My thanks too to everyone else who has contributed to the thread so far. My belief now is that Ebony was used because it was both there in the workshop and hard enough to do the job, perhaps it was considered decorative or distinctive too. I believe that Bruko use(d) Rosewood for their nuts on their No 5 and 6 models, perhaps for similar reasons to above.

I used to think that zero frets were an ideal solution to problems with nuts, but I’m no longer sure about that being so. IMHO both options have their merits but there will be many good reasons why most Ukes come fitted with nuts.

I’m convinced that bone is the best material for saddles (well better than any man made material that I’ve tried) but I wonder how hard a material needs to be to make a good nut? What other (nut) woods or materials work well?

Beau Hannam Ukuleles
08-22-2018, 03:54 AM
When i use black horn for nuts and black Tusq Xl for saddles, it always looks great.

Bone and Tusq (my standard) are both excellent materials for both nuts and saddles.

You might be interested in this video

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qw2J59I8eMw

Dansimpson
08-22-2018, 08:36 AM
I made a brass nut once for an acoustic guitar. Didnt change the sound in the least, but it looked cool.
Tried a brass saddle on the same guitar and you could cut glass with the sound :-)

Michael N.
08-22-2018, 09:24 AM
I've used Ebony and Lignum - actually African Lignum which isn't quite the same as the more famous Lignum vitae. It's very hard and dense and is perfectly fine for nylon strung instruments. It's up there with some of the hardest woods known to man. I intend to use it on a very small 6 string guitar that I'm making - a little larger than a guitalele but not much. I've done a side by side comparison with a bone saddle (two mini saddles side by side, two strings at same pitch). I couldn't hear a difference.
This (big) guitar has a nut and saddle using the Africal lignum, otherwise known as knobthorn.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s843AhAVTDE

Beau Hannam Ukuleles
08-22-2018, 11:12 AM
I have a custom uke with a Corian nut. Not sure what impact it has on the tone, but I don't think I have to worry about wear.

I've never used corian but i hear it's a good material for nuts (and maybe saddles?)- Chuck Moore used to use it a bit but not anymore...or he just doesn't mention it anymore.

Graham Greenbag
08-22-2018, 12:16 PM
I've used Ebony and Lignum - actually African Lignum which isn't quite the same as the more famous Lignum vitae. It's very hard and dense and is perfectly fine for nylon strung instruments. It's up there with some of the hardest woods known to man. I intend to use it on a very small 6 string guitar that I'm making - a little larger than a guitalele but not much. I've done a side by side comparison with a bone saddle (two mini saddles side by side, two strings at same pitch). I couldn't hear a difference.
This (big) guitar has a nut and saddle using the Africal lignum, otherwise known as knobthorn.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s843AhAVTDE

I find that an interesting insight on material and, IMHO, the instrument is beautiful both to behold and to listen to.

At some point, as an experiment and for interest, I think that I might try making a nut out of some ‘mahogany’ type hard wood that I have knocking about in my store/workshop. It will be a bit small and fiddly to make and I only use hand saws and planes too which will make it more difficult. I don’t do enough wood work to warrant the cost of power tools and the space required plus using them feels like cheating somehow; it’s also surprising what you can do with some sharp hand tools, careful use and a bit of effort.

sequoia
08-22-2018, 05:43 PM
I made a brass nut once for an acoustic guitar. Didnt change the sound in the least, but it looked cool.
Tried a brass saddle on the same guitar and you could cut glass with the sound :-)

The other day I used a cheap Chinese plastic nut as a place holder to set the action before I made a proper bone nut for a new uke. Well guess what, I forgot to change it out until much later. Those plastic nuts look pretty good. I replaced it with a bone nut and guess what? It sounded exactly the same! As I said before, the nut is highly overrated in influencing sound....Ancient, fossilized mammoth tusk nuts anyone? Low, low prices. Act now! Before it is too late!

Michael N.
08-22-2018, 08:53 PM
I find that an interesting insight on material and, IMHO, the instrument is beautiful both to behold and to listen to.

At some point, as an experiment and for interest, I think that I might try making a nut out of some ‘mahogany’ type hard wood that I have knocking about in my store/workshop. It will be a bit small and fiddly to make and I only use hand saws and planes too which will make it more difficult. I don’t do enough wood work to warrant the cost of power tools and the space required plus using them feels like cheating somehow; it’s also surprising what you can do with some sharp hand tools, careful use and a bit of effort.

Don't worry, that's how they did it for 400 years. I still use hand tools for top nuts and saddles. Your 'mahogany type' will probably be OK although I suspect it will compress a bit and will wear faster. Better still will be any of ebony, rosewood, oak or beech.

Graham Greenbag
08-22-2018, 09:20 PM
Don't worry, that's how they did it for 400 years. I still use hand tools for top nuts and saddles. Your 'mahogany type' will probably be OK although I suspect it will compress a bit and will wear faster. Better still will be any of ebony, rosewood, oak or beech.

Thanks for that and the confidence boost :-) . Now all I need to do is research wood type recognition.

Once I start looking through the store I’m sure to come across some other real hard stuff too, stuff that’s been there ‘seasoning’ for many years - being a tight northerner I throw nothing away.

Ken Franklin
08-22-2018, 10:14 PM
One other reason I can think of for not using a zero fret has to do with compensation. Just as the saddle can be compensated for more accurate intonation so can the nut. For those using a template system for slotting their frets, the nut slot that would be for a zero fret is just about wide enough to move the nut forward for in-the-ballpark nut compensation and more can be had somewhat easily. I suppose you could move the nut slot forward by hand that same .012" and get the same result. Easy on a CNC machine I guess. Some instrument makers such as Greg Byers compensate the nut individually for each string. That would be difficult with a zero fret.

Those getting a different sound from a different material could be due to the way the nut is slotted. Good nut slotting technique can affect the sound quite a bit.

I agree with Dansimpson that the saddle material will make more of a difference in tone than the nut material.

Timbuck
08-22-2018, 11:04 PM
Compensating nuts ?...Bone nuts ? Ebony nuts ? Zero frets ? only applies with open strings Am7...all out of the game as soon you fret a note.

Graham Greenbag
08-22-2018, 11:48 PM
Compensating nuts ?...Bone nuts ? Ebony nuts ? Zero frets ? only applies with open strings Am7...all out of the game as soon you fret a note.

I can’t dispute that - though others might - and thanks for joining in the discussion. When fingerpicking I guess that the only vibration paths for a fretted string are through the fret board and the saddle, but when playing chords then a lot of the time some strings are open so then nut material would be a factor to consider (well that’s my amateur experience as noted in the original post). By way of open string chord examples the A and the F chords fret two stings and the C chord frets just one, but you know that already and I don’t want to seem ungrateful for your comment (‘cause I’m actually very pleased that you decided to comment at all :-) ).

Timbuck
08-23-2018, 12:33 AM
I can’t dispute that - though others might - and thanks for joining in the discussion. When fingerpicking I guess that the only vibration paths for a fretted string are through the fret board and the saddle, but when playing chords then a lot of the time some strings are open so then nut material would be a factor to consider (well that’s my amateur experience as noted in the original post). By way of open string chord examples the A and the F chords fret two stings and the C chord frets just one, but you know that already and I don’t want to seem ungrateful for your comment (‘cause I’m actually very pleased that you decided to comment at all :-) ).
Nowadays I use ebony all the time with no problems...in the past I've tried alsorts of materials on nuts and saddles including brass and aluminium ...couldnt hear any difference with blind testing..but something that can make a big difference is string choice.

Graham Greenbag
08-23-2018, 03:24 AM
Nowadays I use ebony all the time with no problems...in the past I've tried alsorts of materials on nuts and saddles including brass and aluminium ...couldnt hear any difference with blind testing..but something that can make a big difference is string choice.

I’d considered Alloy but it’s a bit heavier than wood and Brass is much heavier, I didn’t think that adding mass onto a surface that is supposed to vibrate would be a good idea.

On my cheap laminate Ukes replacing the existing saddles with bone has made a vast positive difference. Of course my experience might not match what others find and higher quality Ukes might have more tolerance for other materials ....... I just don’t know. I agree that strings do make a vast difference too, however selecting the best strings for any Uke seems to be an art. Martins seem to suit my Kala brand Ukes, they sound great on my Concert and very good on my Soprano.

Anyway, back to nuts, I recon that the best we can hope for is to pick something hard, like Ebony, that also matches the vibration path through the fretboard. Something that gives a balanced sound (between fretted and not) and looks good too. Now next time when I change a plastic nut for something better it will be a question of whether to try one of the bone ones that I have in my stash first - they usually work fine - or to just make and fit a hard wood one instead. At least I now know what to make one from and why wood both was and is used.

TjW
08-23-2018, 04:13 AM
Compensating nuts ?...Bone nuts ? Ebony nuts ? Zero frets ? only applies with open strings Am7...all out of the game as soon you fret a note.

Don't think of nut compensation as changing the length. Think of it as changing the tension required to make the open string in tune. The nut may be "out of the game" on a fretted note, but the tension the string started with isn't.

Is it worthwhile on such a short scale instrument? I don't know. But there isn't any reason nut compensation can't have an effect on fretted notes.

mmn
08-23-2018, 07:42 AM
I've never used corian but i hear it's a good material for nuts (and maybe saddles?)- Chuck Moore used to use it a bit but not anymore...or he just doesn't mention it anymore.

I've used it quite a bit for both nuts and saddles on my own guitars. Easy to work with, no cost (you can get scraps for free), great longevity, and I can't hear a difference. Convincing customers to try it? Not so successful...!

sequoia
08-23-2018, 09:43 AM
Easy to work with, no cost (you can get scraps for free), great longevity, and I can't hear a difference. Convincing customers to try it? Not so successful...!

All of the above true and I couldn't hear a difference. However, mine was a sort of fish belly light gray color and a chalky mat appearance. I did not like the look personally. Below a couple of pictures of a corian saddle on an uke. Doesn't show it well, but it just didn't seem to fit esthetically wise.

111438 111439

Timbuck
08-23-2018, 10:08 AM
I found corian to be brittle and it broke easily on the thin Martin style saddles that I use 1/16" thick.

Beau Hannam Ukuleles
08-24-2018, 04:00 AM
I found corian to be brittle and it broke easily on the thin Martin style saddles that I use 1/16" thick.

I've never understood those really thin saddles- I find 1/8" saddle to be JUST enough to intonate a tenor uke- i use all 3mm of that saddle to specifically intonate each string.

Timbuck
08-24-2018, 04:56 AM
I've never understood those really thin saddles- I find 1/8" saddle to be JUST enough to intonate a tenor uke- i use all 3mm of that saddle to specifically intonate each string.

I do it co's it's in the spec on the drawing Beau..I don't design these ,I just make e'm :)

spongeuke
08-25-2018, 08:50 PM
Martin ukuleles used Maple on the nut and saddle before 1920. There should be lots of hard maple left over from tear downs of bowling alleys or even the broken pins.

Jim Yates
08-27-2018, 07:11 PM
One other reason I can think of for not using a zero fret has to do with compensation. Just as the saddle can be compensated for more accurate intonation so can the nut. For those using a template system for slotting their frets, the nut slot that would be for a zero fret is just about wide enough to move the nut forward for in-the-ballpark nut compensation and more can be had somewhat easily. I suppose you could move the nut slot forward by hand that same .012" and get the same result. Easy on a CNC machine I guess. Some instrument makers such as Greg Byers compensate the nut individually for each string. That would be difficult with a zero fret.

Those getting a different sound from a different material could be due to the way the nut is slotted. Good nut slotting technique can affect the sound quite a bit.

I agree with Dansimpson that the saddle material will make more of a difference in tone than the nut material.

I have read about compensated nuts, but the concept eludes me. It would only work on open strings. I would think that once you fret a string, or put on a capo, whatever you've done to the nut would make no difference.
Could someone explain the concept to me?

stevepetergal
08-27-2018, 07:50 PM
I’d considered Alloy but it’s a bit heavier than wood and Brass is much heavier, I didn’t think that adding mass onto a surface that is supposed to vibrate would be a good idea...the best we can hope for is to pick something hard, like Ebony, that also matches the vibration path through the fretboard.
When you say "a surface that is supposed vibrate" do you mean the nut? "Vibating path through the fretboard"? Do you expect the fretboard to vibrate?? I'm lost.

Graham Greenbag
08-27-2018, 09:30 PM
When you say "a surface that is supposed vibrate" do you mean the nut? "Vibating path through the fretboard"? Do you expect the fretboard to vibrate?? I'm lost.

Sorry for any misunderstanding. My post responded to another and there is a degree of implied context, but I’m sorry for any confusion you found. I was referring to use of metal as a saddle material and the soundboard which is a surface that is ment to vibrate. I believe that the saddle, bridge and soundboard all move (vibrate) together in unison - effectively as one item - but if someone thinks different or thinks a high mass saddle is desirable then I’d be interested to hear why. I hope that that clarifies things.

My original post (which started this thread) was about nut materials and historic use, it seems to have drifted a bit to include saddles too. The drift content is interesting to me in that the same material is sometimes - and sometimes not - used for both those items. My suspicion is that material choice was pragmatic: the materials used were considered at least good enough for the purposes intended, were readily available and didn’t have significant costs.

Whilst adding this response I’d like to thank those that have added information to the thread. It’s very kind of you to share your knowledge and typical of the way the people on UU support each other.

Beau Hannam Ukuleles
08-28-2018, 04:28 AM
I would describe the top as vibrating.

I wouldn't really describe the saddle or bridge as vibrating, although of course they do just by being there but it a secondary vibration of sorts.

The saddle is the conductor of the string energy (physically known as vibration).

The bridge could also be described as the conductor in a secondary way. The bridge's main job is to act the most important brace on a uke or guitar top.

A high mass saddle would be bad, assuming high mass= high weight. The saddle/bridge should be a light/stiff as possible while retaining the strength to hold its own shape. 8-9-11 grams seems to be about the lowest weight i can get with an ebony uke bridge. The 4 bridges in the pics below are about 10 grams each.

Brass would be a bad metal for a bridge.
Titanium might work as I think it is very light (?) , but its super hard to cut and work with, and expensive. ...so... not worth it- worth trying though if you have a spare 3" of titanium laying around.

The heavier a bridge is, the more it acts as a "heat sink" for vibration.

4 bridge shapes.
1- Long parabolic.
2- Art Deco type.
3- Faceted Parabolic.
4- Pyramid
111541
111542
111548

ProfChris
08-28-2018, 08:10 AM
Not sure I'd agree that the lowest possible mass bridge is always the best. As I understand it (if I do!) a heavier bridge reduces attack (and volume) but increases sustain. So a lot depends on the top - if its very lively, a heavier bridge might improve the sound.

And clearly there are limits either way. A very thin top with a tiny banjo bridge will sound like a banjo, while a top with a really heavy bridge might be close to silent. Within the "workable" range it's a trade-off, as with all instrument building.

FWIW my own building style favours light bridges, but I know some builders of good ukes who prefer them heavier, especially on softwood tops.

sequoia
08-28-2018, 05:54 PM
Do you expect the fretboard to vibrate?? I'm lost.

You are not alone. But this brings up something that has long puzzled me: Do the neck and fretboard influence the sound of the instrument? I used to think that no way it influences the sound of the box. Now I'm not so sure. As a matter of fact, yes it does but I have no idea why or how. Go figure. It is one of the subities of instrument building. Bottom line: the neck vibrates too (doh). The whole thing vibrates. But to try and control it? Way, way beyond my feeble efforts.

TjW
08-31-2018, 07:35 AM
You are not alone. But this brings up something that has long puzzled me: Do the neck and fretboard influence the sound of the instrument? I used to think that no way it influences the sound of the box. Now I'm not so sure. As a matter of fact, yes it does but I have no idea why or how. Go figure. It is one of the subities of instrument building. Bottom line: the neck vibrates too (doh). The whole thing vibrates. But to try and control it? Way, way beyond my feeble efforts.

I would think the stiffness of the neck and fretboard would affect the sound. The more the string moves anything but the soundboard, the less energy there is to move the soundboard.
Whether there's some optimum stiffness to generate a pleasing sound would be hard to say.

TjW
08-31-2018, 07:41 AM
I have read about compensated nuts, but the concept eludes me. It would only work on open strings. I would think that once you fret a string, or put on a capo, whatever you've done to the nut would make no difference.
Could someone explain the concept to me?

It changes the tension of the open string. Shortening the string length at the nut lowers the tension to bring the string in tune. If a fretted note was previously sharp, lowering the tension should make it flatter.

Beau Hannam Ukuleles
08-31-2018, 08:59 AM
Every nut is compensated by 0.010", which is half of the slot that is cut to indicate the nut.

Henning
08-31-2018, 10:58 AM
When you say "a surface that is supposed vibrate" do you mean the nut? "Vibating path through the fretboard"? Do you expect the fretboard to vibrate?? I'm lost.

I think it is in The Guitarbook by Tom Wheeler where some of the guys he´s met, a luthier claims that ebony is superior to rosewood in the fretboard for the projection. But I imho, would say it is pure bullsh*t to even mention that because the differences (if any?) would be so extremely small for sure.
So, the conclusion would be, lost? -Yes indeed!