In virtually every guitar repairman’s workshop, including my own, there are remarkable similarities in some of the most basic elements that comprise an instrument repair space. I’ve noticed that although I own a varied array of woodworking and machine shop implements, that there are a select few tools that seem to get used, over and over again, during the normal course of working on instruments at the shop. I started looking closer at what I was actually using most of the time and began to narrow it down to approximately ten different types of tools that I feel no repair bench should be without. In no particular order, here is my Top Ten List of the tools you shouldn’t live without.
Files – There are so many types of files, designed for so many different types of materials. At the very least, you should own a set of wood working files and rasps (larger, rougher files), a set of fine, or ‘needle’ files, a set of gauged round-bottomed nut files, and a set of metal working files. As you can tell from this list, there are a wide variety of applications that require a clean, sharp file to complete the task. I personally believe that the needle files and the nut files are only required if you do your own nut work, something that a lot of guitarists don’t deal with.
Rotary Multi-Tool with attachments – The key word here is “attachments”. A modern design rotary tool can have hundreds of different attachments available, all with distinctly different purposes and functions. From fine sanding, to polishing and of course cutting, a rotary tool is the guitar repairman’s “Swiss Army” knife in the shop. I polish fret tops, cut and trim metal hardware, and sand and grind most everything that can be found on a guitar with this tool. I actually own two, to save me some time when switching out attachments. One rotary tool is permanently equipped with a thin cutting wheel while the other one is host to mostly polishing, sanding and grinding implements.
Drill Press – I strongly urge the use of a table or stand mounted drill press. This tool is used when drilling holes with perfect accuracy is necessary. The drill press can maintain an exact right angle orientation while drilling holes to exact depths. I found mine used in a pawn shop for around $50 and it’s been one of the best investments I’ve made. You can also use these versatile tools as presses. Stewart McDonald makes a variety of swivel-mounted, curved cawls to allow curved frets to be perfectly pressed in to guitar necks. You can also use these sturdy machines as vertical sanders, installing a sanding drum in place of a drill bit. The best models come with variable speeds, and can handle bits sized up to ½” or larger.
Drill Bits – Sounds kind of obvious, but along with the drill press you’ll need a rather large assortment of drill bits in your home shop. Wood and metal bits are not made the same way. So, you’ll need both types of bits, sized from rather large (1 ½ inches diameter) to smaller standard sized bits (1/16th inch diameter). You’ll also need a comprehensively gauged set of small wooden bits, starting with size 60 bit tips and progressing to size 1 bit (1/8th inch). My personal fine bit kit includes over sixty different drill bits, all less than 1/8th of an inch in diameter. There simply is no substitute for the correct size drill bit when you need to do it right! There are also brad point bits, which leave relatively flat bottoms to holes. This is another area where I believe that buying quality drill bits pays off in quality work, so don’t go cheap on the drill bits.
Adhesives – We’re living in the golden age of adhesives. Cyanoacrylates (super glue), synthetic hide glues, and UV cured adhesives are all making the repairman’s job a lot simpler. Super glues, for example, now come in a dizzying array of types and applications. Thin, water-like glues that quickly seep in to wooden crevices are life savers sometimes. Thick, viscous super glue gels allow structural repairs on a variety of materials, all found on a modern instrument. Manufacturers are starting to use UV cured adhesives that set within a few seconds of light exposure. This characteristic allows exact positioning of a critical part without worry of premature glue set.
Sandpaper and other abrasives – Guitars are for the most part, made from wood. To work with wood and associated finishes, sandpapers are a great choice. From heavy 80 grit papers to incredibly fine, 8,000 grit wet finishing stock– there are about as many types of sandpaper as there are guitars. This is one area where I strongly urge you to purchase quality sandpaper and abrasive materials. Cheap sandpaper will leave significant residue on worked surfaces, and have inconsistent results that are not uniform. Wet sanding is an automotive finishing technique that uses a lubricant to help the sandpaper work better with a finer grade of abrasives. Steel wool is another useful abrasive, mostly used in cleaning metal parts and ultra-smooth wooden surfaces such as fingerboards. Be careful using steel wool around guitar pickups, as the pickup’s pole magnets attracts the steel wool threads.
Rubbing and Polishing compounds – Just as sandpaper comes in different abrasive grits, so too do liquid rubbing and polishing compounds. From coarse abrasive pastes to fine glass polishes, there are many grades of these finishing supplies that are useful when working on instruments. I tend to use Plexiglas polish the most, simply because it won’t scratch any finish, it removes contamination from delicate lacquer finishes without removing paint, leaves no swirl marks or white residue and is compatible with a multitude of surfaces (including chrome and nickel). In addition to the proper abrasive compounds, it’s also important to have the proper polishing and buffing supplies. Automotive paint supply stores carry a great assortment of foam buffing pads that mount on hand drills and non-scratch microfiber cloths that leave zero lint behind, which is critical when doing finishing work.
Screwdrivers – Once again, an assortment of varying types of screwdrivers is absolutely necessary in a properly-equipped shop. Both Phillips and flat-bladed varieties, in sizes ranging from size 04 (eyeglass screw sized) to 3/8th inch tips, there are always a multitude of screws to be dealt with. Having the properly sized screwdriver for the screw being worked on will preserve the integrity of the screw head, and ensure its proper operation moving forward. Allen head screws are also sometimes encountered when working with electric guitars equipped with locking tremolos. Contrary to screwdrivers, Allen head drivers are sized for either Metric or English measurements. This means that you’ll probably need both sets of Allen head drivers and wrenches to deal with both import as well as domestically produced instruments.
Razor Knives – Some people call them “exact-o” knives, but these inexpensive little blades are incredibly useful when working on instruments. I use them to smooth rough edges to newly drilled screw holes, scrape and clean plastic edges, remove finger grunge from fretboards and a host of other small tasks that always seem to be popping up with old guitars. These incredibly sharp blades can not only cut materials, but can be used to smooth and polish plastic and finely finished raw wood surfaces as well. I always use a sharp razor knife to do the final finish work on newly cut plastic pickguard edges. They produce a neatly bevelled edge to most modern pickguard materials.
High quality small hand tools – Diagonal cutters, snips, needle-nose pliers, locking pliers and many other types of small hand tools will be in demand as you work. Electrical work on instruments usually require soldering irons, wire strippers and, of course, diagonal cutters. There are hexagonal nuts on potentiometer shafts and output jacks that will require at the very least, a small crescent wrench for service. By purchasing quality tools, they’ll last longer and stay sharp longer. They won’t break at a critical point, gouging the otherwise beautiful top on your guitar. They won’t strip out or damage any hardware they’re used on, and will outlast several replacements with inferior, cheaper tools.
Only you can ultimately determine which tools are the most useful to you and your instruments. Tool manufacturers and distributors try and lead you to believe that you definitely need their latest, laser guided nut saw, to do a great job on your guitar. But, that’s not always the case…the good old ‘standards’ as discussed in this article are a great foundation for your shop, but there are so many different solutions to the same problems, when it comes to guitar repair, that you could spend ten years dissecting the merits of the various types of fret crowning files on the market today. The point is; find out what works for you and don’t think that you have to spend a ton of money to get the right tool. Flea markets and thrift shops can sometimes have some great deals on used tools to help you save a couple of bucks, but be careful and only purchase undamaged tools that function properly. Good luck in setting up your own home-based guitar repair shop, and now go out, spend some money and stimulate your local economy!