February banjos

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.

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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.

January banjos and necks, and a surprise bus

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.

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Also in January I made two necks. The first one is a cherry A scale fitted to a vintage 12″ pot.

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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.

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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.

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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 banjos and an archtop guitar

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.

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#237 was a walnut fretless A scale banjo with a zebrawood fingerboard.

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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 banjos and other things

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.

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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.

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#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.

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#232 was a mahogany A scale banjo, pretty similar to a stock banjo except it was ordered with a scoop and side dots.

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#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.

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#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.

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.