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2 April 2015

How to make a Pete Seeger banjo bridge

The title of this post offers a lot of promise. I got all excited yesterday as I convinced myself that I could perhaps make myself a banjo bridge like Pete Seeger's. The idea had never crossed my mind before, and now that it has, I just have to give it a go.


In case you're wondering what bridge I'm talking about... cast your eyes over this picture. It's from the video below. What an unusual bridge with its two arms curling forwards. I posted on google+ asking for hints on how to make one and the feedback was brilliant.


Pete comes across as a great guy in this video. He talks about all sorts of things. I don't think he really knows too much about his bridge, but he's happy to show it off. I still can't get over him attaching a hoop into his banjo neck to hold his strap. What a character and inspiration!


I was pointed in the direction of the Banjo Bridge website where Bart Veerman recreated the bridge made for Pete Seeger by Stu Jamieson and Allan Hjerpe. This one and the original were apparently made using circuit-board in the spirit of true prototypes. I began to wonder whether I could perhaps make one out of wood. Maybe I couldn't get one as thin as the one pictured, but it would be in the style. The more I thought about it, the more I figured I needed to give it a go as a little experiment of my own.


All great journeys typically start with a destination. Here's mine. I drew out plans for building my Seeger-style banjo bridge. I chose to make it out of ebony because I just happen to have some of this hardwood to hand. Would it be hard enough?

These plans have been tweaked over the day as I've realised I've made mistakes with some of my measurements. They may change again.

All of the measurements have been made from examining the video above by eye.


This is the main body of the bridge itself. Those little legs have caused me bother.


And here is the plan for the largest leg. The shorter leg is pretty much the same, but shorter and not standing quite so high. The interesting thing here is the incline of the bridge body. I chose 60 degrees in my plan, but the one I've made is closer to 45. The important bit is the height of the strings. I'm aiming for 15.9 which is the standard 5/8 inch.


Here's the ebony I'm using. See the crack. This would have been an offcut, so I'm glad that I've figured out something to use it for. I've reduced the thickness down to 3 mm using my table saw and I'm intending to sand thinner where needed..


Here I am cutting the blanks I'm going to need. For simplicity's sake, I cut the two leg blanks to be the same size.


Here's a neat trick. It's difficult to see pencil drawing on ebony, with it being so dark. Here I've put masking tape over one side to draw on. I can cut through the tape as I'm cutting the wood..


Out came the vice and I cut everything out. 


At this stage, everything was looking good. Don't be fooled, the legs are not connected here... I was just dreaming again ;-) 


Disaster struck when I tried to drill the starter holes for the legs. The leg was just too thin and weak to take the pressure and snapped on me. Damn, damn, damn! I'd kind of expected it, but it still hurt.

No problem, I had more wood. I could try again. Perhaps this time I could avoid the issue by drilling the holes first?


It took a lot of faffing about and a broken file, but I got the holes in place. And then, because I was feeling a little nervous about screwing things up I decided to glue it before doing much more on the bridge body. All I did was to level off the base so that it would sit flat. 


Here it is glued and drying.

I want to round a lot of those corners and need to cut slots for the strings, and cut off those leg tabs, but I'm in two minds about what to do with the body. Nobody makes "single foot" banjo bridges that I can find, and there may be a very good reason for this. I think I need to hear this played before I decide what to do next.

My biggest fear is that it will collapse under the pressure of strings. There's only one way to find out. I'll report back ;-)


Tomorrow I hope to be working on the Highwayman Banjo neck and not this at all... but we shall see...

Update 4-Apr-2015: You can see the finished bridge and hear a sound check in my follow-up post.

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