How (not?) to Make a Banjo
Several years ago I was toying with the idea of getting a banjo but I had a hard time justifying spending a lot of money on one because, frankly, I didn't (my wife would probably say STILL don't!) know how to play one! I wasn't interested in fancy modern bluegrass pickin'. What I really wanted was a nineteenth century style fretless banjo that I could strum out minstrel show and other period music on. My good friend Eric Hector told me to check out George Wunderlich's website  for reproduction banjos. Nice stuff! I especially liked the look of his early home made banjo (left.) I found a place that offered kits for sale - Bob Flesher's minstrel banjos - but it still was sort of pricey for me if I wanted to have some money left over to buy my family Christmas presents. So I started to get another one of my "damn-fool ideas" - Why not make a banjo myself? Ever since I was a little kid I have been in awe of my father who never let practical considerations like "I never did this before" get in the way of him doing a project and so with him as my role model I was off and running.

Someone recommended I look for Foxfire #3. We had it in our school library and there was a pretty good series of articles in there on banjo making. The two best things I found there were a drawing of a banjo with measurements and some sketches and a photo of "The Sweeney Banjo." With that information and by scaling a photo of a banjo I liked that had a 12" diameter head and using dividers to figure other measurements I made a full sized drawing of the banjo I wanted to build.

I visited Gagnon's, a local sawmill, and Kenny Gagnon was able to fix me up with "a nice piece of ash" (heehee.) When I got there they were sawing out ashwood and I found a nice clear board. Since it was fresh cut I figured it would be more flexible to bend into the hoop than something that was dried. There was enough wood there for a couple dozen hoops. Maybe I'll make a period tambourine some time or snowshoes with the extra wood. Another possibility is that my sons have expressed an interest in making traditional wooden bows.

For the neck I wanted a piece of poplar (or as they say here in Vermont - "popple") that was 6 inches wide x a little over 2 inches thick. I couldn't find anything at Gagnon's but I found a really nice piece of 2 year-old kiln dried poplar at Johnson Sawmill in Bristol.

I wasn't ready to start trapping and skinning neighbors' cats for the head (as recommended by one of the traditional banjo makers in Foxfire) but I found a maker of African drums, Yendor, who also sold drum supplies and bought a goatskin from him. Rather than carve out the tuning pegs I decided to cheat and buy violin pegs from a local music store. Now I was ready to start cutting and shaping wood ...

UPDATE: Since I first created this website Yendor was no longer able to sell the goatskins over international borders due to restrictions related to mad-cow disease. I now buy my banjo heads from Elderly Instruments. Elderly music also sells many great early banjo instructional tutors - both copies of original tutors and updated tutors in tab.

Making the banjo (next page)

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