Sometimes you can use whatever’s handy to plug a hole; toothpick, dowel, or whatever. Sometimes, though, actually cutting a plug is the better way to go. Check out the pros and cons…
Whenever I talk about adjusting Fender guitar truss rods, I try to emphasise the importance of the correct size allen wrench.
Now, this applies to any truss rod that uses a hex-socket for adjustment but especially—really super especially to those guitars with the Fender Bi-Flex truss rod. You know the one—it’s adjustment nut is hidden away beneath a wooden (walnut) dowel and you access it via a narrow hole at the headstock.
Fender use a ⅛” allen wrench to adjust these. Problem is, that’s a relatively small wrench and the ‘flat’ surfaces of the wrench and socket aren’t huge. It’s annoyingly easy to ‘wear’ these flat surfaces so that a wrench no longer grips it.
Allen wrenches that don't fit snuggly, or are themselves a little worn, can wear down your hex edges and leave you with a ruined truss rod nut.
Worn Fender Truss Rod Nuts
You can see what happens in the illustration above. Let’s face it, a circular socket isn’t the most useful thing when it comes to turning a nut.
When this happens, you end up with a truss rod that can’t be adjusted. That’s less than ideal when you’re trying to properly set up an instrument.
Removing Bi-Flex Truss Rod Nuts
It’s possible to remove that walnut plug and to replace the nut. It’s not super difficult but you do need to be careful because, hot!
Yep, we use heat to soften the glue holding the plug in place. Then we can remove it.
Steps For Fender Truss Rod Nut Replacement
First off, strip the headstock hardware. Remove the tuners and string trees. Do this so you can get easy access to the plug. Otherwise, you’re trying to work at an angle and that’s a recipe for burning stuff. Next up, use a sharp knife (Exacto-type) to score the finish around the plug.
Protect the face of the headstock. I just wrap some foil around it a couple of times.
I use a soldering iron. The bit fits into the hole in the walnut plug. Be careful if you’re doing this. I find that it’s not necessary to make contact—the soldering iron doesn’t need to touch the wood.
This is tricky so be careful. The heat from the iron will penetrate through the walnut and soften the glue. It should be ok if the iron taps off the walls of the hole occasionally, but don’t let it remain in contact or the wood will scorch.
It doesn’t usually take too long for the glue to soften. Insert an allen wrench and ‘loosen’ the nut. Turn it counter-clockwise and the nut will eventually butt against the inside of the plug. If the glue’s soft enough, the nut will push it out*.
*A quick note on this: This is very good reason to remove a nut that’s worn before it goes too far. Stew Mac’s Gripper wrenches (see below) can help but sometimes you end up with a completely worn nut and you have to get the plug out by more invasive means.
When the plug protrudes enough, you can grab it with a needle-nosed pliers and pull it out. Be careful—it’s easy to crush or break the plug at this point.
Behind the plug is a washer (keep it).
Behind that is the nut. Fish it out.
New truss rod nut time. On the American Standard, the nuts have a ⅛” hex socket and a 10/32 thread. Lubricate the threads of the new nut with a little (I mean a little) Vaseline and screw it back in. Don’t forget the washer next and follow up by reinserting the plug with a smear of glue.
Depending on the guitar, I’ll sometimes do some finish touch-up.
Help Prevent Worn Truss Rods
- The fact that the adjustment nut is buried an inch deep means that it can be awkward to reach. Sometimes the short leg of your allen wrench won’t reach and you have to use the ‘ball’ end. This makes it harder to get good, deep purchase into the hex socket (and to get decent leverage to actually turn it). Check your guitar stores for a special allen wrench, made with a longer leg, especially for this job.
- Stew Mac offers a ‘Gripper’ wrench. This has a hex head that tapers—it gets wider along its length. The idea is that, as it’s inserted, the wider part might be enough to grip the socket.
This is pretty handy but, if your adjustment nut has started to wear enough that a standard wrench won’t grip, I’d really recommend replacing it. Use the Gripper wrench to remove the nut and install a new one. Otherwise, you risk wearing the nut to the point where even the Gripper won’t work.
- It should be obvious, but don’t force a truss rod. If it’s not adjusting easily, stop and regroup. Try slackening off the strings. If that doesn’t work, you could try forcing the neck into a slight back-bow—using clamps and a brace (second part of this article)—and just tightening the rod to hold it (the rod’s not doing the work to get there). The Rickenbacker Truss Rod Trick can also help.
Let me just repeat, don’t force anything. Check with your trusted repair person if you have any doubts. Remember, this can happen to any truss rod nut—not just ⅛” nuts, not just Fender, and not just hex/allen nuts. I've had to cut rounded Gibson nuts off because people didn't use the right tools too. Be careful.
Despite the wonders of jigs and templates and CNC machines and whatever automation magic you can dream up, somewhere in the chain is a human with a brain of squishy meat and the potential to drop a spanner.
Sometimes things are misaligned in the world of guitars. It's rare to fit an after-market pickguard without having to plug and re-drill at least one screw hole. New tuners? Get the drill. Fit a Floyd? Ah, crap.
Misplaced and misaligned bridges happen too. They can cause some serious hassle for the player. That trem in the image above is not going to be the most reliable for returning to tune for instance.
Tun-o-matic bridges can sometimes be found loitering in completely the wrong position too. And not just on Gibsons. This mahogany-body Tele on the right is a cool little Gibson-like Squier. It'd be cooler if the bridge was in the right place, though. Cue the cutting of wooden plugs, the plugging of holes and the re-drilling of correctly-placed mountings.
Wherever possible, it's best to plug holes with the same wood as the material you're plugging. If the plugged repair will be visible, it's nice to match the grain of the surrounding wood as much as possible to minimise signs of repair.
Plugging with hardware-store dowels isn't generally the best route. These are typically made of soft wood and you'll usually end up with end-grain showing in the plug. This tends to stick out like a sore thumb in a repaired surface and is best avoided, if possible.
If you're doing your own plugging, cut your plugs from matching wood when you can. It's possible to increase the size of the hole to be plugged to match the size of your plug. If you go this route, be very careful—drill bits can wander and guitar finish can chip.
Take it slow and easy. Good advice in guitar repair and in life. ;-)
A better plan—if you've got a hole that's a different size to your plug-cutter tools—is to do things the old-fashioned way. Good, honest, whittling.
Cut a long, square-section of hardwood, just bigger than the hole to be plugged and get carving. Knock off the corners over and over until your four-sided section becomes eight, becomes sixteen, etc. A good, sharp chisel will give you better control than a knife. When you're almost round, switch to sandpaper. A good fit is important, so don't be tempted to go with something too small.
Go, my friends. Go and plug with confidence.
It's not too unusual for the strap button on your guitar or bass to become loose. They can take a bit of punishment without your even realising it. Many of you will be familiar with the 'matchstick trick' where you can insert a matchstick (preferably spent) or toothpick or similar into the worn screw-hole and re-screw the button back on. This can get you through a few gigs or even a bit longer but it shouldn't really be considered a permanent solution—it could get embarrassing when your strap flies off as you're doing an Angus Young duck-walk across the stage.
The best thing to do is to plug the worn hole completely and re-drill a new screw-hole into fresh wood.
The hole shown here has been let go a bit too far. It's had matchstick after matchstick inserted and all that (ahem) screwing has worn away more wood than usual. This one is a bit of an extreme case.
To put it right is the same principle though. Plug and re-drill. In this case, I'm actually going to drill the existing, worn, hole a little to clean it and get rid of the taper that it has. This will allow me to insert a decent piece of new wood that will hold the strap button for the foreseeable future.
In the image above is the piece of mahogany I'll use. I like to match the plug to the guitar wood if possible and I think it's better to use hardwood plugs rather than those softwood dowels you can get in the hardware shops. The only drawback is that I generally have to shape a plug. It's not that big a big deal though, and it gives a better repair.
I'll drill this hole out a bit—it won't be wider than it is at its mouth and it'll be covered by the strap button anyway— and shape that mahogany to fit. Then, I'll glue it in and let it set. A new screw-hole is drilled and the surface given a dab of lacquer to protect the fresh wood (we're not talking refinish-quality here as it's all hidden anyway).
Once done, the remounted strap button should be good for plenty more years of service.