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6 April 2014

Dreaming of Building a Banjo

It should come as no surprise that I've been scheming up a project to build a banjo. I think we can squarely blame Rob Stenson for this; His wonderful playing on the Gold Mountain EP is still a firm favourite on my ipod playlist.

Here's an early sketch I did to help me to familiarise myself with the parts of a banjo. My thinking has moved on a bit since this was done, but I'll call out a couple of things that were troubling me at the time:

See the pot - the drum bit. How on earth would I make that? Here, I'm thinking of slotting the neck through it.

See that knobbly 5th tuner on the neck. I know it's kind of the defacto banjo look, but I don't like it; it would interfere with my thumb when I'm playing. Could I do things differently so that I wouldn't have to put it there?

Here's another sketch I did where I'm focussing on the neck. Can you see here that I'm worrying about how I can make it from all sorts of small bits of wood? Why am I doing this? Well, I was toying with the idea of using some of my maple blocks to build the neck from. You'll see very soon that they're nowhere near the size needed for this project.

I did loads of research into wood joining techniques, so learnt loads trying to figure out how it might be done. While I reckon most of it would have worked, I finally convinced myself that the combination of the half-lap joint and router groove for the truss rod would make the neck too brittle in the middle.

I do actually have a banjo that has been getting a bit of a workout this week. See it laid here for size against my blocks of maple. While I am in love with the look of this wood when finished, this is not the right project for it; The blocks are too small and thin. If not these blocks, then what?

Check this out! I picked these mahogany blocks up yesterday. Any one of them would be big enough to fashion a single-piece neck from. I was also lucky enough to be given the log of yew pictured below too! I wonder if this would make a good veneer for the head, or maybe the heel, or perhaps even fret dots? Maybe it's too green to use on this project? I'll need to think more about this.

From the looks of it, there will have been some chickens looking for somewhere else to sleep last night! ;-)

Here's what I think might become the basis of the pot on this build. It's a tunable tambourine! As much as I really, really wanted to repurpose an actual tom tom drum, I realised that that the rim on drums would be too tall for using on a banjo. My research is telling me that the neck and the top of the skin need to be level.

I could have gone for a hand drum, but the key here is the "tunable" bit. What I'm really buying  is the skin and tone ring. I haven't decided whether I reuse the hooks or not yet.

Having  ordered the tambourine, I immediately started wondering whether I should make the body too! I'd intended to simply cut holes into the tambourine to feed the neck into, but why not create a new one? Why not turn this into a real project! ;-)

See this wonderful picture below that I've snaffled from Sagmoen Banjos. Wayne Sagmoen details on his site how he makes "block rims" - go pay him a visit. Now that I've got all this mahogany, perhaps this is what I should do too! Wayne uses a router to do the final shaping. I could do that!

I want to call out a wonderful site I happened across whilst pottering about the internet. See the picture above from Bluestem Strings. I'm seriously thinking about throwing some money at Randy Cordle to buy one of his plans. I'm expecting that Randy has all sorts of little insights that could teach me a thing or five. For example, can you see the tunnelled fifth string in the above diagram? This is exactly the sort of thing that I think I'll be doing in my build!

Okay... it looks like we have a new project on the books! I'm doing all sorts of research at the moment. Haven't had so much fun in ages! Ha ha! Can I build a banjo? We'll just have to wait and see! ;-)


  1. Pretty synchy KU.Dud you see this news story from a few days ago ?

    " Country music guitarist Arthur Smith, best known for the theme tune from the 1972 film Deliverance.When the Warner Bros film studio used a cover version and renamed it Dueling Banjos for Deliverance, he sued them and won substantial royalties."

  2. ^ Oops! I wrote dud instead of did.
    Now I'm starting to write like a redneck...or a Kiwi.

  3. Dueling Banjos - Glen Campbell and Ashley Campbell.

  4. It's all about banjos at the moment Daz. There's no point trying to fight it! ;-)

    1. Re: "There's no point trying to fight it!"

      Fighting it would be dueling with it,wouldn't it ?-)