Custom Banjo #14 158

Completed February, 2016

(click any of the thumbnails for a higher-resolution photo)


This banjo is the culmination of a lot of thinking and many a sleepless night: how to build a banjo that contains no metal. Somewhere along the line, this idea expanded to the concept of an organic banjo -- one that contains only materials that once lived. Here it is. The Organiasm Banjo

  • the head is calfskin
  • the rim and neck are mahogany
  • the peghead overlay is ziricote (a tropical wood)
  • the fretboard, tightening wedges, tailpiece, tuning keys, tensioning studs, and neck wedge and thrust plate are of ebony (another tropical wood)
  • The tension hoop and flesh hoop are black locust (a local wood)
  • the frets and nut are bone
  • the logo and position markers are mother of pearl (oyster shell)
  • the end gut (the cord that holds the tailpiece) is genuine animal gut; the end wrapping is cotton thread
  • the adhesive is hot hide glue (animal collagen dissolved in water)
  • the finish is raw shellac (an excretion of the lac bug) mixed with grain alcohol (water, sugar, corn, and yeast). I admit to drinking a bit of this in the process.
  • the weight: 40 oz.

My only concession to modern materials is one that can literally be rectified with the twist of a key. Rather than stringing it with genuine gut strings, I've opted for synthetic gut for durability and playability. The sound of this banjo is surprising -- big and tubby and one that invokes an aura of the mountains -- and though I'm not a clawhammer player, I intend to learn, and this banjo certainly has that special sound. I may sell it at some point, but just now, I'm going to enjoy it.

As I stated, I'm not a clawhammer picker, but this sound bite will give you a taste of this instrument's special sound:


Construction Photos

Construction begins with the rim. Mahogany strips are accurately sized, then cut into components with the utilization of a shop-built jig. The separate layers of the rim are glued together with hot hide glue. The interior of each layer is cut round on the bandsaw, and the separate layers are glued together into a rim.

The rim assembly is temporarily glued to an MDF disk. The exterior of the rim is sanded perfectly round and to the proper diameter on the spindle sander. The rim is split away from the MDF disk, and the inside is sanded. The result is a lightweight, perfectly round and very strong rim. The rim is shaped to emulate a tone ring.

The bracket standards go through a series of shaping processes, and are glued into place with hot hide glue.

The protruding elements are sanded flush with the inside to produce a finished rim. Black locust strips are laminated around a form to produce a tension hoop. A tenon is turned on the end of the neck stick, and it's tapered on the jointer. The stick is fitted to the rim.

The head-tensioning device will be my greatest challenge on this project, and I'm still working my way through it. After trying to cut threads on several species of dense wood, I've discarded that idea and have moved toward a tightening hook that slides in a groove, and will be tightened wither with a cam or wedge arrangement. A "flesh hoop" is fashioned from black locust and bent over a hot pipe to the diameter of the rim. This hoop goes inside the skin head, and forms a ledge against which the tension hoop will tighten. The hide head is soaked in water, then the flesh hoop is inserted and the excess hide is pulled out above the tension hoop.

A quick check assures that the head will not interfere with the stick. Temporary spool clamps lightly tighten the head while it dries. The excess skin is trimmed from the head. The tension hoop is notched to receive the tensioning hooks.

Creating a compact, strong hook from natural materials is a challenge. Bone or shell is hard, but brittle, while wood like this ebony is hard, but tends to split along grain lines. My theory is that if I wrap a strip of hide softened in hot hide glue around the top of the hook, it will shrink and dry to an iron-hard band that will maintain its integrity under tension. Time will tell. A mahogany neck blank is glued up with hot hide glue. A pivoting fixture on the router table cuts a perfect neck heel. A long bit is utilized to assure alignment while a hole is bored for the stick tenon.

All fits, all is in alignment. The neck is cut to shape, and the peghead is glued on. Fret slots are cut on the table saw. The fretboard is cut to shape.

The headstock overlay is glued to the headstock. A "frailing scoop" is routed on the upper end of the fretboard, and mother-of-pearl position markers are installed. The "Skipper" logo is cut from mother of pearl. The headstock is cut roughly to shape. Bone blanks are thicknessed to fit the fret slots, then ripped into strips with a diamond wheel.

An ebony thrust block against which the neck wedge will bear is fitted to the rim and to the neck stick. The thrust block is aligned with the stick and glued to the rim.

The logo is recessed into the headstock overlay. Normally I would set it in epoxy, but in the organic theme of things, it's set in hot hide glue darkened with a little wood dust. The inlay is sanded flush with the surface. The fretboard is glued to the neck. The fifth-string peghole is drilled.

The peghead is thicknessed on the spindle sander. The neck is shaped with spokeshaves, planes, rasps, and scrapers. The stick is glued into the neck mortise, and the alignment is checked against the rim. The bone frets

and mother-of-pearl side position markers are glued in with hot hide glue. The pot is assembled with temporary wedges that will give me an idea of the size and range of the permanent wedges needed. This is gonna work! The frets are leveled, crowned, and the ends are dressed.

Pegholes are drilled and shaped with a tapered reamer. I'll soon be finishing, so keeping in the organic spirit, shellac flakes are dissolved in grain alcohol. If you don't know how grain alcohol is made, watch "Moonshiners" on the Discovery channel any Tuesday evening. A slot is cut for the neck retaining wedge, and the wedge is fitted. Tuning pegs are tapered and fitted to the neck.

A violin-style tailpiece is fashioned from a chunk of ebony. An old-fashioned gut retainer is threaded through the holes. The ends are swelled by heating; the swollen ends are wrapped with cotton thread, and sealed with a drop of hide glue.

Since I have no idea how tight this head will have to be, and that needs to be determined before I cut the permanent wedges, I'm setting up the instrument on a temporary basis. A bone nut is fashioned and fitted to the slot. A clamp holds gentle tension on the head while the temporary maple wedges are replaced with permanent ebony. A bridge is fitted. Strings are installed, and the instrument is brought up to pitch. When all is copacetic, I tear it back apart for finishing with shellac dissolved in grain alcohol.

Thanks for watching this project

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