September and October banjos and a house

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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August banjos and necks

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.

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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.

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#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.

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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.

July-an octave mandolin and not much else

I realized today that I had failed to post an update on July instruments. The only instrument I actually made in July was an octave mandolin, shown on the Mandolins page. Early in the month I was finishing off some June instruments for a few days, then at the end of the month I began a couple of left handed necks that will be in the August report. I have been having some intermittent back problems since mid-late July that have kept me out of the shop more than I would have wished, but they are apparently not lastingly serious, just inconvenient for a while. I’ll have an August post with pictures and things to post in a couple of weeks or so.

June banjos and a neck

I meant to write a June report a couple of weeks ago, but July has been busier than I expected out of the shop and I lost track of it. My first completed instrument in June was banjo #220, a curly maple 12″ tenor with a Whyte Laydie tone ring. The customer gave me a lot of very nice walnut wood that he had been storing for many years, and I used a little of it for the trim work on this banjo. He also supplied the hickory fretboard blank. I haven’t made many tenor banjos, but it’s always fun when I get the chance.

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Banjo #221 was a new kind of project for me. The customer has a 19th century dining table with a lot of leaves, and decided that he would like to have a table made from this wood. He shipped me two leaves, though as it turned out I only needed one. He asked me to incorporate some of the alignment dowels and holes in the banjo, and we agreed that in the rim would be the best place for them, structurally speaking. He also asked me to make an armrest which included the original edge of the table leaf. I am not sure how it will hold up to humidity changes since the grain of the top runs perpendicular to what I normally make, so the armrest is somewhat experimental.

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My last custom project in June was a new neck for an old pot. The customer ordered a ziricote fretboard blank that he liked and had it sent to me, and sent a mine token for the inlay, and all of the neck hardware.

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Banjo #222 is shown on the Banjos page. It is my first 11″ banjo with one of my shop made Whyte Laydie type tone rings. I am currently working on another cherry octave mandolin which has been requested, though it’s not a custom build. I will have that done before the end of July, but I think that will be my only large project for the month. I’ve had much less shop time than usual this month, and have used some of it to make a few rims, tension hoops, armrests and such. I’ll hope to get back up to speed in August, or, failing that, in the not too distant future. Things will likely be a bit busy for about the next year, as I am getting ready to move and working on winding things here up. Once I have moved I hope to have more time to spend in the shop than ever before, as I will no longer have as much outdoor work to keep up with.

May banjos and an octave mandolin

I was late getting my May banjos set up, since I started more than I had time to complete during the month. I think June 8 was when the last one got done. June is a 3-1/2 banjo month this year, so I should be able to get done on time even though I started so late. The first thing that was completed in May was an octave mandolin that I began in April.

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This was a stock instrument but was already spoken for before it was built. Banjo #212 was made following the internally tensioned pot design invented by Rudy and posted in a diagram on Banjo Hangout some years ago. The customer had seen this design and wanted to try it, since it is more comfortable without the hooks and shoes on the outside. This banjo was shipped unfinished. I had a problem with the pot veneer the first time, it is thicker than what I have mostly used and I pre-bent it on a hot pipe, the same way I do guitar sides. This left a couple of voids between the rim and veneer, and when I sanded the rim the veneer over the voids got thin and soft. The customer noticed the soft spots during the finishing process. I have just replaced the veneer and the top and bottom caps, and this time I bent the veneer dry, right onto the rim, which took much more force but makes a more consistent shape.

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Banjo # 213 was a real oddity, with a 5+1 design and 22 frets per octave. The customer knew what he wanted and i told him I would be happy to build it if he did the math to figure out the fret placement. Luckily he lives somewhat locally and was able to come and pick it up in person.

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Banjo #214 was a fairly standard design for me, but using padauk, which is new to me, as well as persimmon and walnut. The customer made the decisions about wood choices. I was happy to get to try padauk, it’s something I may use on a stock banjo sometime too.

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All of these custom banjos were done by the end of the evening on May 31, but then I still had 5 stock banjos to sand, finish and set up, which took another week or so. Banjos 215-219 are shown on the Banjos page. Once I get the June banjos and a neck done I will be making another octave mandolin, this time from cherry. It is to be a stock instrument but is already spoken for. I’m hoping that by giving it my undivided attention I can get it done in a week or two. The there will be a few July banjos to build, and maybe another chicken head fiddle if time permits. I’ll hope to post my June report in a more timely way than this one.

April banjos

My first completed banjo in April was a custom 8″ cherry banjo with an 18″ scale length neck. It’s always fun to make mini banjos, and this is as small of a 5 string as I have made.

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#208 was a custom walnut 11″ banjo which involved the first inlay I have ever cut out. The customer wanted a silver colored moon and I couldn’t find one the right shape, so I cut it out of a nickel silver disc. The stars are nickel silver dots. The customer designed the inlay and the peghead shape. I now have nickel silver rods on hand and can use them to make dots in the same way I have been doing with brass rods these last several years.

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#209 was an 11″ walnut A scale, pretty much like a stock banjo except for the scoop and the paddle peghead. The fretboard is zebrawood.

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#210 was a 12″ walnut internal resonator. It is a stock banjo but it was spoken for before it was completed, so it didn’t appear on the Banjos page.

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#211 is a stock curly maple A scale and is shown on the Banjos page. I also made the sound box of another octave mandolin, but didn’t get time to work on the neck till May. In May I am also working on 7 banjos, though I may not have time to get all of the stock ones I’ve begun completed by the end of the month.

March banjos and necks

March started off with two custom banjos. #201 was an ash 11″ with cherry trim, a hop-hornbeam fretboard, a paddle peghead and a Dobson heel.

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Banjo #202 was a 10″ walnut C scale with aged brass hardware. This is the first banjo I have made with a brass plate in the scoop. The plate is not functional.

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Banjos 203-206 are all stock instruments and are shown on the Banjos page.

My last two projects for March were necks for old pots. The first is a curly maple A scale neck with abalone dots and stars.

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The other neck was a short A scale or long C scale. A previous builder had cut out the side profile of a neck blank but not gotten further with it. The customer supplied all of the materials and I just put it together. I sent this neck unfinished, since the customer likes to do that work himself.

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Now that April is here I am working on 5 banjos and an octave mandolin. As spring arrives I’m not able to get quite as much time in the shop, but I’ll hope for some rainy days when I can stay in and get caught up on things.

February banjos

February was a busy month in the shop, and I was able to get quite a lot of time in the shop to get it all done. My first completed project was banjo #193, an ash 12″ with a kind of archtop tone ring system consisting of an 11″ brass ring mounted in a rabbet on the inside wall of the rim and the head touching the rim itself at the outer edge. I shipped the banjo set up but with the wood unfinished.

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The person who ordered this banjo ebonized the ash and did some inlay work. He kindly sent me some pictures of how it looked afterward, and a link to a video he made about it.

My next project was a new neck for a vintage pot. This was the most inlay I have ever installed, and while I was fairly happy with how the fretboard came out the peghead was less successful and required a lot of filler. I had never tried before to inlay a large piece like this, flexible at the joints but composed of stiff pieces. This project enabled me to add a new template to my assortment, traced from a picture of an old Orpheum No. 1 banjo. This neck was also shipped unfinished so that the buyer could stain the curly maple to match the pot. I am not able to stain (except black) because I’m colorblind and can’t tell what I’m doing.

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My last custom job for February was banjo #194, a walnut 11″ with a removable center mounted resonator like the one I made last year. This is the first time I’ve used these very small dots (that I often used as side dots) on the fretboard face.

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Banjos #195-#200 are all shown on the Banjos page. My plan for March is to make two custom banjos and two necks, and three stock banjos: a cherry 11″, a walnut 11″ and an ash 12″. If time permits I am also hoping to make a mahogany squareneck resonator guitar to replace the cherry one that was sold last month.

January banjos and a nameless oddity

January was a busy month in the shop, and I was able to get more time than usual away from my ‘day job’. The first banjo completed was #186, a 12″ walnut banjo pretty similar to #180 but with a streaky ebony fretboard.

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Next came #187, a mahogany 12″ with a 1/4″ brass tone hoop and Dobson heel.

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#188 was a cherry A scale which I had built to be a stock instrument, but someone was looking for an A scale and decided to buy it instead of #182 which I had in stock at the time, so I never listed it on the Banjos page.

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Banjo #189 was a walnut 12″ with spalted maple peghead overlay and a hickory layer on top of the rim, and ball shoes from Balsam Banjo Works.

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#190 was a 12″ walnut banjo with a left handed neck, a Whyte Laydie type tone ring, and a John Balch head.

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Banjos #191 and #192 are both shown on the Banjos page. Also shown on that page is a thing I am currently calling a wood topped banjo, though there are probably other and perhaps better names for this kind of thing. It’s a banjo neck on a banjo-shaped but structurally more guitar-like body.

In February I have two custom banjos and a custom neck to build, and am planning to build 4 stock banjos if I have time, as I am currently running a bit low. I think there will be another pair of 12″ walnut banjos with and without a metal tone ring, and an 11″ walnut slot head, and a cherry A scale, but my plan may change depending how things go.

December banjos and an archtop guitar

I am three weeks late in posting this update about December, but that’s life sometimes. I started off the month with a batch of 5 banjos. #181 was the only custom build, a Boucher-styled design with some more modern elements. This was also my first foray into making hooks and shoes, which were fun to experiment with. The customer wanted to use wing nuts, as they are canonical for this banjo style, and I wanted to use heavier brass for the hooks since there were only to be 8 to tension a 12″ Renaissance head. The hooks ended up being 3/16″ brass rod which I was able to anneal and bend fairly easily, if not always neatly, and which I then threaded with a 10-32 die. The shoes I cut out on the bandsaw and drilled on the drill press and the Shopsmith, and then sanded to their final shape. I thought about trying to refine the shape so they were more graceful but doubted my ability to make them consistent. This banjo has cherry flush frets and a truss rod that is under a layer of cherry on the bottom of the ebony fretboard. The customer applied a stain and oil finish to the banjo and did a very nice job of it, and was kind enough to send me pictures and let me include them in this post. The pale pictures are what it looked like before shipping.

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Banjos 182 through 185 were stock banjos and are shown on the Banjos page. My last project of the year during the Christmas break was to make another archtop guitar to replace my first one which was sold last spring. This guitar is shown on the Guitars page and is the reason why I am so late in posting this. I spent a few days working on the finish and didn’t get the guitar set up till the 8th of January, and then I found that the cheap tuners I had bought a couple of years ago on eBay were not good, and the knobs rattled when the D string was played. I ordered a set of Gotoh tuners that looked identical from Stew-Mac, but the mail has been overwhelmed lately and the tuners got delayed, and were not delivered till a couple of days ago. I have been working on a batch of 7 banjos which are getting their finish applied today, and while the 4th coat was drying I had time to get the tuners swapped out, make a quick video and get the guitar up on the website.

The 7 banjos will all be set up by the end of the month, and I’ll be making more banjos in February, and possibly a fiddle if I get caught up enough. I’ll plan to post the next monthly report in a more timely way, in 9 or 10 days from now.