I have thought sometimes about making a longneck banjo, but I never actually did it until last month when I was lucky enough to get a custom neck building job for a short longneck, which ended up being a 29″ scale length. The owner wanted the flexibility of the longneck design without having to reach all the way out to a full size longneck. It tuned down to E pretty well with medium strings. The owner sent me the pot and I made the neck to fit. It’s curly maple with rosewood veneer pinstripes and a rosewood fretboard. This was my first time working with plastic binding and plastic dots. The customer wanted light colored dots that would show up, and I have noticed before that when I put maple dots in a rosewood or ebony board that when I sanded it the dots were darkened by the dark sanding dust. I had a few bumps along the way learning to use the plastic binding, but it came out all right in the end. This was also my first time installing a Shubb capo. There’s always more to learn, and I like to get the chance to try new jobs.
These two banjos were the first I made with hickory fretboards, and since neither of them were bought in the year since then I decided to mark them down ten percent. The discounted banjos are #39 and #40, both shown on the Banjos page. I’ve recently acquired a ring roller and am starting to experiment with making sort of Whyte Laydie style tone rings. I’ll write a post about that soon once I’ve had time to learn the machine and make a banjo with one of the new rings in it.
I had a good trip and am now ready for another year in the workshop. I’ve got a couple of fiddles to make to replace ones that were sold, and some banjo projects are in the works. Here’s a link to my trip report from this year’s excursion:
I am going on my annual bicycle-powered vacation to the Adirondacks from the 23rd to the 29th and will be out of reach of email and all other forms of long distance communication other than smoke signals (which I don’t know how to read, unfortunately) and yelling during that time. I will do my best to reply promptly to all messages when I get back. Here’s a picture from last year’s trip.
In January I did a series of posts detailing the construction of banjo #44, which is to be the prize in a free drawing on BanjoHangout coming soon. I got to thinking that I should make an armrest for it, so I did a little bit ago but didn’t get it posted till now. Step 1 was to find a suitable piece of wood, at least 1.5″ thick to make the side of the armrest and draw the outer curve on it using the handy template for 12″ banjos.
Once I cut the outside I drew a line about 1/4″ inside it, using my finger as a depth gauge to make a relatively uniform thickness.
Then I cut it off and sanded the inside smooth on the spindle sander, since it is less accessible once the top goes on.
Then I used the template again to draw the shape of the top on another piece of cherry.
I cut it out, sliced it to about 1/4″ thick and glued it onto the side. When I came back the next day I sanded the outside of the assembly smooth, and then used the tomato paste can to draw the curves. I then used a 1/4″ roundover bit in the router table to radius the edge where the top and side come together. This makes me nervous so I do it very carefully.
Then I took it back to the bandsaw and cut off the bulk of the waste at the corners, using a block of wood to support the armrest.
Then I used the spindle sander to clean up the inside curves on the sides and the inner edge of the top and the disc sander to smooth out everything else. I did a bit with a random orbit sander and then some hand sanding at the end to get everything smooth. Then I drilled a hole 3/8″ up from the bottom edge and used a countersink to make it match the screw. I took it out to the loft and applied the Tru Oil in 5 coats over the next 2 days.
Once the finishing was done I brought it back to the shop and made the bracket from 1/8″x1/2″ brass left over from making tension hoops. I bent it to match the curve of the rim, made a notch in each end to fit over each hook with the belt sander, drilled a hole in the middle and tapped it for an 8-32 screw. I cut the extra length off the screw and sanded the end smooth.
Then I mounted it on the banjo. It takes an hour or so to do the work of making an armrest, spread out over a few days.
I made this banjo after thinking about a number of ideas that I wanted to try. Over the course of a few weeks I came up with an idea in my head and when I had time and all of the materials I went ahead and put it together. The first idea I had was that I wanted to try making a 5+1 banjo tuned gGDGBD, also sometimes called a lojo. I was started down this rabbit hole by a custom neck request from someone who seemed interested and then disappeared after asking if I could make him one. I was not familiar with the idea but it seemed interesting. Then I thought it would be nice if it could be made to be also played as a guitar banjo. This would enable me to use a set of 3 on plate right angle tuners from Stew-Mac that I had on hand, and would also make the banjo more versatile. I thought about using a .008 string for the drone but decided I would rather try a tunneled string design instead, and I ordered some stainless steel micro-tubing from China on eBay which took about a month to arrive but was fairly economical. I made the neck with a 12″ radius since it is so wide, and of course a bridge to match the curve.
While waiting for the tubing I got started on the pot, which uses a piece of 6061 3/8″ aluminum rod as a flange. The rod was cheap and easy enough to bend, but also easy to mar in the vise so I had to be careful. I found out that I couldn’t use silver solder on aluminum so I began thinking about how to join the ends. I don’t have welding skills so I thought about some mechanical options. I ended up with the idea of cutting a slot in each end with the bandsaw and putting in a piece of 1/8″ x 1/2″ aluminum bar. It then occurred to me that I would have an extra 1/8″ of bar sticking out that I would have to cut off, and I had a notion that I could perhaps make it into a tailpiece of sorts. I have been thinking for a couple of years about making a banjo mandolin but the tailpiece was always the sticking point, and now I think I have a design that will work and can offer 8 separate nubs for the 8 strings. I got most of the holes lined up when drilling the flange to match the tension hoop, but a few of them are slightly off kilter as you can see in the second photo. I also had to put a slight bend in the hooks to make the nuts parallel with the rim. Another time I will make a slightly wider ledge for the flange to rest on, which will move the hooks and nuts out slightly away from the sides of the pot till they’re parallel. I made the bottom of the rim round to visually match the shape of the flange.
I also wanted to try making my own dowel stick yoke out of aluminum, and I had a big enough piece of 6061 on hand to try it. I got some advice about that as well as about the flange on BanjoHangout. I thought it might be hard to cut the heel of the neck to fit over the flange but it wasn’t too bad. I used a 1/2″ forstner bit coming in from each side, and then cut out the rest by hand with knives and chisels.
Here are a few pictures of when I first set it up, as a guitar banjo tuned EADGBE. I used a set of medium banjo strings minus the 5th, with a .036″ for the A and a .046″ for the low E. I got the odd loop end strings from Elderly for around $1.20 a piece as I recall, and they were nice and long.
The assembled banjo weighs 4 pounds 15 ounces, which is a bit lighter than I had expected. I guess the aluminum must be the main reason for that. I like the sound pretty well and I’ll have to get used to how to use the low string effectively. To see a couple of video demonstrations please follow the links below:
I spent a couple of hours or so on getting this banjo assembled and set up. My first step was to use a single edge razor blade like a scraper and run it around on all of the finished surfaces where it will work. Then I used 400 grit sandpaper or #0000 steel wool on the other areas to make the finish feel smooth to the touch. The razor blade is faster and does a nicer job but it only works on flat or convex surfaces.
I used a very small amount of mineral oil to rub down the surfaces with a bit of paper towel and went to the cabinet to find the hardware.
I have found that I am most efficient when I don’t keep picking up a tool and putting it down, so first I put all of the washers on the bolts, then I put all of the bolts in the holes, then I screwed all of the shoes on by hand and then used my ad hoc 5/16 nut driver to tighten them all. I went over the whole tension hoop with 400 grit to makes sure it was smooth and ready to go, and began putting in hooks. One down side of the Van Eps style hoop, at least the way I make it, is that all of the hooks have to go on at once before the tension hoop is finally positioned. I put each hook in at about the angle shown in the picture and then rotate it down to point towards its shoe. Getting all of the hooks through the holes in their shoes is a little fidgety but very feasible with practice.
Once they’re all in their shoes it’s very easy to put the nuts on the hooks and tighten the head.
Here’s a close up of how the hooks fit in the hoop. I could make larger holes which would make it easier to insert the hooks but I like the close fit, it looks neater to my eye when assembled.
Once the pot was all put together I got started on the neck. First I used the cello pin reamer to ream the holes out slightly for the Gotoh tuners. It would be cheaper to buy a 10mm drill bit, but I already have a good 3/8″ bit and the reamer so they’re what I use.
Then I took the button and washer off the shaft of the 5th string tuner and put a small socket over the shaft. I put a piece of paperboard in the vise to protect the finish on the neck and pressed the tuner into the 3/8″ hole. It is very fast and easy.
Then I made the nut out of a piece of Corian. I buy it in small slabs and cut strips off them to make into nuts. I cut it on the bandsaw, or put it in the vise and cut with a hacksaw for very small cuts. I shape it on the 1″ belt sander, make the slots with a triangular file and finish by coloring it black with a Sharpie marker. The blackest Corian I could find is sort of speckled so I color it to match the tuner knobs.
Then I took my test bridge and the 3rd string and put them on to see what it looked like.
Then I popped the test bridge out and traced it onto a scrap of hard maple with suitable grain orientation. I made the new bridge taller and cut it out and sanded it to shape.
Once I had the new bridge in hand I trimmed it a little at a time till the height looked good and then made new slots and put the strings all on.
Then I marked where I wanted the 5th string nut to be positioned to make the 5th string spacing from the 4th the same as the other string spacings at that point on the neck, drilled the hole, cut the nut from a small Corian dowel I made last winter as an experiment, shaped, slotted and colored the top and put it in the hole, and then put the string on it.
Today I took the banjo out in the loft by the big window after lunch when there is good light and took some pictures to show the whole thing now that it’s done.
Here’s an odd thing I have noticed about this jatoba I have been using lately. If I look at it from one end of a piece it looks medium reddish in color:
but if I look at it from the other end it looks more blackish in some areas. I think there is a word for this but I don’t know what it is.
Here’s a link to a quick video clip of what it sounds like as of 12:45 today:
Early in January I was in touch with Brent from BHO about including this banjo in the BHO free drawing program, and he agreed to the idea. I had been thinking of posting a banjo building thread for a while, and this seemed like the best banjo about which to do it. I have not heard back yet from Eric about when it will be scheduled to appear, but I imagine it may be sometime in the not too distant future.
Yesterday I put the finish on Banjo #44, as well as a ukulele and a refinish job on a used banjo which is going back up for resale soon. I took a couple of pictures after the second of 5 coats of Tru Oil.
I can’t use the camera while I have my gloves on both hands and am applying oil, so there isn’t a lot to see today. I took another picture after the last coat of oil.
At 7 when I had finished with the Tru Oil I put some Danish oil on a pseudo-morris chair which I built in December. I would have finished it sooner but I was trying to find a good plug cutter that made the size I needed to cover the screws. I realized this fall that I had not sat on a chair that really fit me since I was in my early teens, probably, so I used some of the cherry from the cart in the loft that was not good enough to use for instruments.
Tonight I’ll be assembling and setting up #44 and I’ll have a lot more to show in tomorrow’s post.
This will be a much shorter post than my recent ones. I only spent about half an hour working on the banjo tonight, and now it will have to wait till Sunday when I will have time to apply the finish. In the winter, or whenever it’s too cold to finish in an unheated space I do all of my finishing on Sundays since that is my day off. I light a fire in the woodstove in the house (which we don’t use during the winter and has the pipes drained). around 7 or 8 AM, and by 11 it’s warm enough to start applying Tru Oil unless it’s extra cold outside. Then I apply a coat at 1, 3,5, and 7 PM, and I have 9 as a fallback time in case I miss an earlier one. This way I can get the finishing done in one day and minimize the amount of time I have to run the stove. Tonight I started by trimming the heel cap flush with the heel, using the disc and RO sanders and some hand carving with the little knife. I find it’s harder to carve burl wood because the grain is totally random, so I never know how hard to push or which way the knife will want to pull, but it’s a very small job so it didn’t take long.
The heel cap is much more symmetrical than it looks in the picture, I think it is something about the angle that makes it look rather grotesque. I didn’t notice when I was taking the picture. Then I put some #30 CA from Stew-Mac in the pockets in the burl wood on the peghead and rubbed some sanding dust into them. The pockets were very small, about the size of a pencil lead or less, and the burl is so random that the odd colored spots won’t stand out like they would on plain wood. Then I sanded the neck and rim and dowel stick, first with 120 where it was needed, then with 220, and finally 400, all by hand. I sanded off the extra filler on the peghead and put the banjo away in the cabinet where nothing should be able to fall on it to wait till Sunday.
On the evening of the 24th I spent most of my time marking and drilling holes, and sanding. My first task was to fit the neck to the pot. I began by marking the position of the square hole where the dowel stick passes through and drilling most of the way through with a spade bit in a regular handheld drill. I stopped about 1/8″ short of the inside of the rim. I have found that no matter how well I try to fit a block behind the hole to prevent damage as the bit emerges I still get tearout more often than I like, so a couple of banjos ago I started this new method.
Then I set the rim down again and inserted the pilot(?) of the spade bit back into the hole from the inside, coming down from the top at an angle. The resulting hole would not be satisfactory for something like inserting a dowel, but since I will be carving it out to a square shape anyway it is more important to protect the surrounding wood than to maintain a straight hole. I have wondered if a regular twist drill bit would not tear out as much, but I don’t have a 3/4″ one on hand to try it out.
Then I used a jigsaw to cut up and down from the side of the hole, across the grain, to begin to approach the final square shape, and used a chip carving knife to finish the job. I don’t usually sand inside the hole, I just carve it till it’s big enough and leave it at that. I really like this knife. the company that made it seems to be called Two Cherries, and it takes a good edge and holds it better than other knives I have used.
Then I measured from one side of the hole around the rim to the other side, divided than number by 2 and marked the vertical line where the endbolt hole would go. I put the dowel stick in the hole and eyeballed the length it should be cut to and made a mark that was my best guess.
I trimmed the end off the dowel stick by degrees and kept re-checking the fit. I also had to chip off a bit of glue that had dried around where the dowel stick goes into the neck. I should have checked for that when I glued it in but I was too fixated on the alignment to remember it. Once the dowel stick was cut to the right length I took a look at where the dowel stick came to on the rim and drilled a hole, and then drilled the hole in the end of the dowel stick to match and screwed in the hanger bolt. Then I put the neck back in the rim and put the endbolt ball on to see if everything looked right.
Then I put the dowel stick yoke in and marked the spot to drill for the pin, and then drilled the hole with the dowel stick sitting on a hardwood backer block to prevent tearout around the hole. I drilled all of these holes with the handheld drill. In the picture the screw is not tightened to bear on the shim, it’s just sitting there.
Next I put a sanding drum in the drill press and trimmed the end of the fretboard so it was more even. I may have to do this again during final setup but at least it’s close now.
Then I drilled the previously marked holes in the peghead, and eyeballed the position of the hole for the 5th string tuner, all with a 3/8″ drill. The peghead holes should be 10mm, but it’s easy enough to ream them out to fit. I will show how I install the 5th tuner in the assembly and setup post.
Then I put the head and tension hoop back on the rim and marked the locations for the bracket shoe bolt holes. I used the speed square, though a machinist’s square would be handier, I think, but I don’t have one yet. The masking tape is to hold the tension hoop in place so it doesn’t slide around as I’m marking.
Then I took the rim to the Shopsmith and drilled the holes. I like to set the table to a 1 degree tilt away from the headstock when drilling these holes because the bolts are .210″ and the nearest bit I have is .214″, and I think that tilting the holes slightly helps keep the bottom of the shoes from pulling away from the rim under tension, but I don’t know if it really helps or not. I only started doing it recently.
The last thing I did was to cut out and glue on a heel cap on the neck. Because the rim is fairly deep there’s room for one, so I got a scrap piece of cherry burl to match the peghead.