I just completed my June banjo last night, though we’re well into July. That’s been how things go lately, but the end of the transition period may be in sight now, I hope. Banjo #259 is a custom resonator banjo with most of the hardware coming from First Quality Music. The tuners are the new Rickard high-ratio type, and the fret wire is stainless steel from Stew-Mac. Most of the wood is maple, with curly maple binding and Rocklite Ebano for the fretboard.
At the house things are coming along. The septic system is finally supposed to be installed this week, and the spray foam man is coming to insulate the house. The wiring is all in place in the house and the workshop and actually passed inspection, the chimney and the outside doors are replaced, and the basement wall repair is completed. Once the foam is in I’ll just have to hang the drywall and finish it, put in the plumbing and the electrical devices and put down the flooring, and we’ll be able to move in, though there will still be some more work to do for a while on trim boards, cabinets, etc. We may be able to move up there by early August if the shadows of these things remain unaltered by the future, or if things go pear-shaped it may be somewhat longer. I’ve been working in the shop very little, but am looking forward to the time when I’ll be caught up on construction tasks and ready to return to the shop steadily.
This last picture shows the workshop now. Most of this stuff will be going into the house when it’s ready, and then there will be room to build banjos out here. The exception is the shorter wood stove with legs, which will stay somewhere in the workshop and get its very own chimney before winter.
My shop time has been very limited in May and it looks like more of the same for the next couple of months at least. I got two custom necks completed and mounted on the customers’ pots, and made a few armrests.
Up in Piercefield the house is coming along. The replacement windows are all installed, and I added an attic window so there will be some light and air up there and so I could pass some joists and sheet goods up through the hole to strengthen and cover the attic floor.
I also have made progress toward rebuilding the collapsed stone foundation wall. The woodshed is now built except for the siding and doors, and one load of firewood that came before the lumber was ready is now stacked in the yard. Another load is coming soon and both will have to be moved into the shed.
My sister kindly came up for a day and helped dig up a vegetable garden on the hill below the workshop before she left for Georgia. I dug up and replaced the pipe that brings water from the town main into the house and the town turned the water on, so now I can water things when needed and can mix mortar. The rest of the plumbing in the house is still pending.
My shop goal for June is to complete a custom resonator banjo that I recently began. At the house I need to finish rebuilding the stone basement wall, run the new wiring through the house and get everything else ready in time for when the spray foam insulation person comes (if all goes well) in early July. The septic system should also be being installed this month, so that will be sort of exciting.
I got up at 4:15 one morning last week and bicycled a couple of miles to the Mount Arab trail, and got to the fire tower at about 5:20, somewhat after the sunrise but while it was still a little dim. It was nice to take the time to do something recreational, and I’m looking forward to the day when I can start to do more of that and more shop work, once the house is livable and we’ve moved.
April was a mildly frantic month, but fairly productive overall. I only made one custom banjo, #258. It is made from red maple stained black with Fiebing’s Leather Dye. I didn’t have very good results with the dye on this wood, it came out somewhat uneven or blotchy even after 3 coats, and the grain didn’t show through at all. Before I have used it on ash, and that has been much better. The customer wanted a black banjo with an ebony armrest, Rocklite Ebano fretboard and black head. This was also my first time putting a brass plate in the scoop. They are entirely non-functional, and if anything makes the scoop less useful because shallower, so I don’t recommend them, but they seem to be becoming a thing people ask about in recent years.
During April I was gone almost half of the time to Piercefield to work on the new workshop and the old house there. I’ve never lived a double life before, and I found it rather tiring, but the good news is that it won’t last for more than a few months. The bus that I mentioned in an earlier shop news post has proved very useful, and hauled all the material for the workshop building to the site, even the gravel since the roads were posted for weight and I couldn’t bring in a dump truck.
For now the building is just a shell, but I will use it as a staging area to work on the house, and to store things I bring up ahead of the move. Once the house is mostly done I will insulate, wire, and such to make it into a year-round work space. It’s 16 by 32 feet on the outside, so it should be plenty large enough for what I do.
I also put in the new 200 amp electric service on the house with the help of the electrical inspector who kindly answered my questions, and jacked up the kitchen and put in some new sills and all new joists and plywood. The goal is to have the house livable by sometime in June or July.
I am currently down to 3 in-stock banjos and don’t think I’ll have time to make any more till July at the earliest. I’ve got two necks coming along, and will be starting a custom resonator banjo after they are done. My shop time is very limited during this period, but once I have moved up there and the dust has settled I’ll be able to build instruments full time, so I hope to be able to catch up by the end of the year.
Life is sort of like the garden of Looking-Glass House right now, in that I have to move away from where I want to go in order to get there. My goal has been to have more time to build instruments, and for outdoor recreation in the summer months, but right now I have less of both for a little while.
I’ve finally caught up with myself and am writing more or less contemporaneously again, so that’s a relief. March was a moderately month in the shop. By some freak of coincidence the three banjos I had on the agenda all had persimmon fretboards. Banjo #251 is a walnut 12″ fretless Ab scale with curly maple trim.
Banjo #252 is a cherry 11″ with a 26-3/16″ scale and curly maple trim.
Banjo #253 is a left handed 12″ maple banjo. Unfortunately I had a deadbeat customer for this one and I am stuck with it unless some kind left-handed person comes along and buys it, or I make a right handed neck for it. It is listed for sale on Banjo Hangout currently. I have not had a problem with a custom build for well over 100 banjos now, so overall things are going well, but I will need to think about implementing a deposit for banjos that are going to be hard to sell if the buyer backs out.
Banjos #254 through 257 are stock banjos and are shown on the Banjos page. I won’t have time to make any more stock banjos for a bit now, as I have a few custom builds lined up and will be away about half of the time working on repairing the house and building the workshop. Tomorrow I am heading up there and am planning to make the first steps in building the workshop. I need to put down some plastic with gravel over it and because the road is closed to heavy vehicles for the spring thaw I will need to bring in 4 loads of 1.5 tons of gravel each in the back of the bus. Luckily the gravel yard is only about 6 miles away.
As well as having more limited time to build banjos my customer service is going to go downhill for a while as I will only have internet access when I go into town, and I will not be able to ship banjos when I’m up there, so there may be delays of a few days. It’s going to be a little slow and bumpy for a while but in the long run I hope to be able to build banjos full time, so that both production and responsiveness should improve.
I am even later this month, because of a delay in getting a part that was out of stock from the supplier. Since I wrote last I have made one custom banjo, #248, a tenor with a 3 play maple rim and a hickory fretboard that the customer brought to me. The rest of the banjo is red maple and walnut. The customer wanted a lighter and quieter banjo for camping and other occasions when a banjo with a Whyte Laydie type tone ring is a bit too loud.
I also made an unfinished neck and sent it to the customer to be finished and fitted, but unfortunately I guessed wrong about the dowel stick angle so the customer had to redo the dowel stick. This is the risk that is run by not sending the pot to have the neck fitted, but it is cheaper not to have to do the extra shipping. The customer had the skills to put in the new dowel stick I sent and get it at the proper angle, so it all ended well.
Banjos 249 and 250 were also built in February and are shown on the Banjos page. Now in March I am building 3 custom banjos and one stock, and have about half completed 3 more stock banjos. The custom banjos should be ready to ship later this week. I have two more custom banjo builds lined up for the spring, and may be able to fit in one more depending how things go. Once we get into April I will be gone about half the time, weather permitting, to work on the house and get it ready to move into later on. I went up there last Monday to get the permit for the workshop but the person I needed to see called in sick, so that is still pending. I also have recently found out that the person who has been saying for months that he will install a new electrical service is not going to, so I will have to do that myself. I was planning to do the wiring inside anyway, so this will be an opportunity to learn some new things about working with large wires. The electrical inspector has been very helpful in telling me what I need to know to put the service in correctly.
When I’m gone away I won’t be able to respond as quickly to emails as I normally try to, and I will only be able to ship banjos when I’m back here. I will do my best to keep things moving in an orderly way, but there will be some delays. I hope that by sometime in the summer things will settle down and I will be able to get back up to speed in the shop and on the customer service side of things.
I’m a little out of sync with the calendar again, but I’m hoping to catch up next month. January started out with a batch of 3 stock banjos, #241-243. They are of course shown on the Banjos page. Then came banjo #244, a mahogany slot head with ebony trim throughout and a veneered rim. I didn’t get this banjo completed till more than a week into February due to getting sick and missing a week or so of work in the shop toward the end of January.
Also in January I made two necks. The first one is a cherry A scale fitted to a vintage 12″ pot.
The other neck is maple with a slim profile and zebrawood fretboard, fitted to a newer pot. This one was delayed for 8 days because I failed to check the hanger bolt size that was needed, so when I went to install the completed neck I had to wait for them to come in the mail. I had two sizes in stock already and thought I was all set, but now I have three sizes. Live and learn, I guess.
Just before writing this I completed 3 more stock banjos that were begun in January. They are #245-247 and are also on the Banjos page.
I haven’t been up to work on the house I bought since November, but preparations for work and the move are proceeding. I have been buying materials that I’ll need when I can get them cheaply on Craigslist and stockpiling them here till the days get longer and warmer and the roads are clear. I also recently bought a retired school bus that the district had been using for a maintenance vehicle for a while. All the passenger seats were removed, so I will be able to carry 16 foot lumber inside it when I am building the new workshop, and I’ll also use it when it’s time to move. I figured that by driving this bus for a few months I can do my part to uphold the image of banjo builders as eccentric and goofy persons.
I will hope to be more timely in posting my next Shop News report. My plans for the rest of February are to build 3 banjos or so, and 2 necks, and anything else that time will permit.
December started with a stock banjo, #235, which is shown on the Banjos page. Next came #236, a custom walnut 11″ banjo with a Dobson tone ring. This banjo also has some precut inlays which the customer sent for me to install.
#237 was a walnut fretless A scale banjo with a zebrawood fingerboard.
Banjos 238-240 and wood topped banjo #3 were also completed in December. They are all stock instruments and are shown on the Banjos page. My last project which I began at the end of December and completed in early January was my third archtop guitar. It is shown on the Guitars page. I have come to like the archtop guitars best of the kinds of guitars I have made so far, so I try to restock as soon as I can after one is sold. I hope that starting next fall I will be able to be in the shop full time, and make a selection guitars and fiddles to have in stock as well as banjos. Winter arrived here yesterday when we got over a foot of snow and sub-zero lows. Once spring comes I will get back to work on the house in preparation for moving.
November started with the completion of banjo #230, a 12″ mahogany 5+1 with a lot of inlay chosen by the customer. This banjo had been on hold since late September pending arrival of some of the inlays from overseas.
The next thing on the agenda was a scheitholt, a sort of ancestor of the mountain dulcimer as I understand it, but played with a bow. I had never heard of these before being asked to build one. The customer wanted a chicken head like I put on fiddles.
#231 was a fretless 12″ walnut banjo with a Boucher-esque neck and peghead with a beehive. The dot arrangement was invented by the customer to mark the locations where frets would have been if this wasn’t a fretless banjo.
#232 was a mahogany A scale banjo, pretty similar to a stock banjo except it was ordered with a scoop and side dots.
#233 was a walnut 12″ stock banjo, built to a customer’s request with a zebrawood fretboard. I began using zebrawood a year or so ago and I have come to like it a lot.
#234 was a 12″ walnut stock banjo with a WL-type tone ring and is shown on the Banjos page. My last project for November was a curly maple mountain dulcimer, shown on the Dulcimers page which is found on the Other Instruments page. Plans for December include two custom banjos and four stock banjos, and I hope to have time to make another archtop guitar and perhaps a chicken head fiddle toward the end of the month.
I finished removing what had to go from the new house by mid-November, and jacked up the second floor and added more joists. I had a mason who had given an estimate and agreed to do the foundation repair but he backed out at the last minute, so work up there has come to a stop for now. If I can’t find another mason by spring I will do the work myself once the risk of freezing is past. I have not had a lot of experience with stone work, but the walls are more than 2 feet thick holding up a 1 story 12×16 foot kitchen, so the stakes are pretty low. I had hoped to get the basement repaired this fall or winter so I could put a floor in the kitchen and move forward with plumbing, wiring etc, but all of that is on hold for now. In the meantime I will have more time in the shop this winter, which will be nice.
Having failed to post a September report during October I figured I’d better get going somewhat promptly now that it’s November. In late September I bid on a house in the scenic town of Piercefield, NY, population about 300, in an online tax auction. In mid-October the deed was recorded and I was allowed to go onto the property and find out just what I had bought, and start working on it. The house was abandoned abruptly and left empty for 6 years, so it needs a lot of work. I am starting to peck away at it a few days at a time, which keeps me out of the banjo shop more than usual at this time of year. I am aiming to get the house into livable condition so I (and my mother) can move into it sometime next summer.
It’s been a dream for 10 years or more to live in the Adirondacks someday, and since late 2018 I’ve been planning a move in 2022. My goal in planning that far ahead was to allow time for the farm where I have been living and working for the last 20 years to find people to do whatever comes next, but so far that has not happened. If you’d like to read more about the transition here at the farm our last several newsletter address it at some length and can be found on the website at stfrancisfarm.org under Newsletters.
I began work on four stock banjos in September and they are all about half completed. I have not worked on them for the last 6 or 7 weeks but am hoping to find time to get at least some of them done this month. Since mid-September I’ve just about been able to keep up with promised custom builds. I have a couple of banjos and an octave mandolin promised for November and one banjo for December, and after that I am going to a waiting list instead of promising work for a particular month. During the winter I should be able to get a fair amount of time in the shop, but after that I am not sure when I’ll be able to work on instruments, between getting the house ready, building a workshop up there and moving. I hope to be able to return to a monthly schedule by late in 2022.
I made a lot of parts in September, rims, hoops, armrests and such. The only banjo I actually completed during the month was #227, a walnut banjo mandolin. This was my first banjo mandolin, and I enjoyed getting to make one. It’s been something I’ve thought would be fun but there are so many old ones out there that I thought it might be hard to find someone who would want a new one. This was also my first time using Blackwood Tek, which is a new (or new to me, at least) ebony substitute, made from compressed and altered New Zealand radiata pine. It seemed to work well, and is much cheaper than Rocklite Ebano has become now.
Another September project was building a neck for a vintage Luscomb pot. The pot is very nicely made and the owner did a great job cleaning it up and making it look new again before he sent it to me. The peghead shape is similar to what the original neck looked like.
I worked on another custom banjo in September and got it about 3/4 built but then it had to go on hold for about 6 weeks pending delivery of some custom inlay lettering the customer had ordered that got delayed. October consisted of two banjo builds. #228 was a fretless curly maple banjo with a brass plate to the 7th fret and a Dobson tone ring. This banjo also had the deepest pot I have ever made, at 4″. The banjo was shipped unfinished, as the customer wished to stain it, which is something I am not able to do.
Banjo #229 was another curly maple 12″, but a little more like what I normally make. It has some extra brackets and an abalone star.
This is a quick picture I took about a half mile from the new house, while I was up there working in October. It’s a beautiful area, and I’m looking forward to when I’ll have time to explore it more fully. In the meantime I’ll try to be more timely with my November shop update.
My first project in August was carried over from the last few days of July. I made two left handed necks for one customer, to fit a couple of nice old pots.
Then it was time for a batch of 4 banjos. Banjo #223 was a bit of a departure from the usual sequence of construction. I made a 12″ cherry rim to order a few years ago, and the customer bought all the hardware and drilled the rim, and fitted a long neck to it that he had. This summer he wrote to see about having me make a neck to fit it. He sent the pot back, and I added a rim cap and made a neck. Usually when I make a neck for an existing pot I don’t assign the result a banjo number, but in this case since I had made both the rim and the neck I did. The customer had done a nice job with the work he did on the rim.
#224 was made for the owner of #164, which I made in August 2020, and is a mirror image of it, in a sense. This banjo is made from curly maple with walnut trim, #164 was walnut with curly maple trim. Otherwise the specifications are the same, 12″ C scale with 12 frets and a scoop.
Banjos 225 and 226 are shown on the Banjos page. My plans for September involve 2 custom banjos and a neck, as well as cherry cello and A and C scale banjos and a walnut 12″ with a Whyte Laydie tone ring. So far I am not too far behind schedule for the month, and I am hoping to get a bit more shop time and catch up the rest of the way soon.