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 ARCHIVED TOPIC: A real pretty old banjo - need setup advice

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Voyageur - Posted - 09/24/2009:  19:54:01

I just bought a nice old banjo on ebay. You can still see photos - it's Item #180405740154; or take a look at the photos on Bill's Banjos; Mine is just like it except for the headstock inlay.

It seems to be in very good condition. Part of the fingerboard is broken near the head, and the fingerboard is very worn from 120 years or so of playing, but other than that it looks great.

It came strung with old steel strings. I took them off. What strings should I put on? If steel, what gauge would you recommend? Or should I use Nylguts? It has a 10" pot and the neck is 17.5" from nut to the pot. The head is skin - goatskin, I think. Not original, of course.

It came with a very tiny bridge, although with standard string spacing. Should I put on a modern bridge, or leave it? I have a spare 1/2" el cheapo bridge.

The pot is aluminum, I think. Should I shine it up or leave it?

I sure appreciate your advice. I love this little old banjo!


"Do not pray for an easy life. Pray to be stronger. Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers. Pray for powers equal to your tasks."
- Fr. Solanus Casey

KE - Posted - 09/24/2009:  20:28:43

Oh, a Dobson, and she's a beauty! I believe steel strings should be okay, but I bet you'd like Nylgut better. It seems the scale is short, so the tension from light guage steel strings won't be too high. The bridge is your choice, just keep the old one around. A wider string spacing sure makes for more comfortable drop thumb, IMO. I thought the pictures of the pot look quite nice -- leave the patina but maybe swab out the dirty crevices with a moist Q-tip.

Since the fingerboard is chipped away, you have a ready-made frailing scoop at no extra charge. I'd recommend giving the fingerboard and frets a brushing with 0000 steel wool to get rid of crud, and then wipe lightly with some lemon oil (or mineral oil.)

It sure does look like the kind of banjo that has enough character to really bond with. It sounds like you already have!

Edited by - KE on 09/24/2009 20:30:43

Surveyor - Posted - 09/24/2009:  20:36:40

Neat Banjo Mary. Fun fun!

Mr. B

Wind me up and watch me go!

Bill Rogers - Posted - 09/24/2009:  21:00:17

The banjo will be nickel-silver or plated brass spun over a wood core. It's not aluminum.


banjonz - Posted - 09/24/2009:  21:44:49

Given the age of the instrument, it would almost certainly have been strung with gut strings. I can't recall when steel strings started appearing on older banjos but I think it may have been just prior to WW1 but I am not certain. Some old banjos can take being strung with steel, others cannot. If in doubt...don't!

New Zealand

My short-term memory is not as sharp as it used to be.
Also, my short-term memory's not as sharp as it used to be.

Bill Rogers - Posted - 09/24/2009:  22:45:26

Steel strings were in use by the 1890s, but how much is another question.


Bagpussfrog - Posted - 09/25/2009:  06:23:48

Nice looking banjo, with a little work - I do think Nylguts might work on there - Bridge wise, see what works, but keep the original

Good luck

When you want genuine music - music that will come right home to you like a bad quarter, suffuse your system like strychnine whiskey, go right through you like Brandreth's pills, ramify your whole constitution like the measles, and break out on your hide like the pinfeather pimples on a picked goose - when you want all this, just smash your piano, and invoke the glory-beaming banjo!

Mark Twain
( ] )=====^===[: :}

Voyageur - Posted - 09/25/2009:  06:48:23

Thank you, thank you for this great advice and information! I'm putting Nylguts on, once I've treated the fretboard as Ken suggested. And thanks for the info about the pot, Bill. The inside of the pot is wood, so maybe it is the plated brass?? What would it be plated with?

I have bonded with it already, Ken, in a totally different way from how I bonded with my Ome the very first time I picked it up. The Ome was brand new, and it is mine only. But this little G. C. Dobson seems to carry echos of days gone by. Looking at the deep wear on the fingerboard, I can't help but imagine the hands of people in old times who played it. I hope my playing will one day do justice to them and the little banjo.


"Do not pray for an easy life. Pray to be stronger. Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers. Pray for powers equal to your tasks."
- Fr. Solanus Casey

Bill Rogers - Posted - 09/25/2009:  12:08:54

If it's brass, the plating is most likely nickel. If you don't see any brass where the plating's worn through, it's probably nickel silver.


tomberghan - Posted - 09/25/2009:  12:21:24

>>>Should I shine it up or leave it?<<<

Any collector or curator will tell you to leave it alone as much as possible. (Ever watch the Antique Roadshow?)

Repairs and or modifications should only be done by someone who really knows what they are doing. You risk devaluing the instrument.

There are a number of expert luthiers on this list. Listen to them. Be patient and get the job done right! Congratulations on getting a really nice old banjo. That is very cool!

stanger - Posted - 09/25/2009:  12:53:08

Shine it up if you want to, Mary... banjos aren't furniture, and on a banjo this old, 'patina' could amount to corrosion.
The rim doesn't look very tarnished, so it shouldn't need much. The banjo is in fine condition!
Don't use harsh metal cleaners like Brasso on the rim- I suggest calling a good jewelry store and learning what they use for polish.

The pen is mightier than the pigs.

deuceswilde - Posted - 09/25/2009:  15:10:26

I agree, if you want to clean it, clean it.

If we went by the "antiques rule" we would not clean anything we own.

-Joel Hooks

Success always comes to those who have the money to buy it.

-The Adventures of a Banjo Player, 1884 p.26

banjobrotheroz - Posted - 09/25/2009:  18:26:49

jewerly shops sell silver cloths,they are non abbrasive and are very good for what you need to do.I use them with great results.

oldwoodchuckb - Posted - 09/25/2009:  20:41:53

georgeous banjo Mary. The Boston Dobson banjos were made by Buckbee and perhaps the NY Dobsons too - I'm not sure. Your instrument is definitely a Buckbee, and it is in beautiful condition. I envy your purchase.

My best advice on restoration is to visit Save The Banjos (you can google it that way) and see how Timmo49 does his amazing work.

As to the antique vs user thingie - that is for you to decide, but it looks to me as if you've got a twofer (A bnjo that can be played for most uses and does not need serious work) so you don't really have to worry about it. Antiques Roadshow may say not to clean it but that "patina" can create skin problems - it is after all, metal and sweat and whatever floated past the banjo in the last 130 years. I can't play the banjo in my avatar without long sleeve shirts because she cannot be disassembled again (metal fatigue) and properly cleaned.
Rocket Science Banjo - Advanced Clawhammer Techniques for beginners and long time players alike. Plus videos and 25-40 EZ Clawhammer Tunes.
& check out "How To Mold A Mighty Pinky" at:
banjo brad's great banjo site

tomberghan - Posted - 09/25/2009:  21:36:58

Yeah, you know I was totally wrong. Those goofy “antique-rules” are for the birds. Who cares if it is really old? Pshaw!! This is 2009 right? Put a new thick coat of urethane varnish on the neck. That will protect it! Hey, one of those cool “Prismatic” iridescent rainbow Mylar heads would be neat. Oh, and don’t forget to put some Keith Style D-Tuners! Ah . . . and the crème de la crème would be a Piezoelectric transducer pickup. That would be awesome!!!

(Tongue in cheek, just kidding . . . not attacking anyone) Oh, and by the way, I do like Keith tuners, just not on an old G.C. Dobson

Folks . . . I did not say don’t clean it. I am simply advising Mary to be careful and prudent about cleaning it and to seek professional advice. There is no harm whatsoever in seeking some guidance from luthiers who have restoration experience with instruments of this period. It is a very old and very beautiful musical instrument and it deserves to be taken care of in a respectful manner (please ignore the first paragraph).

Like The Old Wood Chuck says . . . ask Tim Smith for advice, or, call the National Music Museum at The University of South Dakota in Vermillion SD. (605) 677-5306 br /
They do not give appraisals but they do give expert advice.

Mary, I’m sure you have a deep respect for this instrument. Many musicians have musical instruments that are a few hundred years old and they do play and enjoy them. I’m simply pointing out that they need special care to be put into and kept in playing condition. For example, in time some components may not be repairable if they are to be preserved, so rather than modifying an original part, replacement with a modern copy of the part may be best, leaving the original intact and safely stored.

But again, let me say congratulations and I wish you all the best with your beautiful G.C. Dobson banjo.
Best Regards,

Voyageur - Posted - 09/26/2009:  11:18:19

I am so pleased with all the positive comments and good advice here - I thank you all so much!

Here's what I've done so far:

1) LIGHTLY rubbed the fretboard with 000 steel wool and applied a small amount of high-quality lemon oil. (It was really not very dirty.)

2) Cleaned the tailpiece with steel wool. It was really cruddy. I don't know if this was the original tailpiece - it's a Waverly style - and will need to research this further to decide whether I should replace the tailpiece. Any suggestions are welcome!

3) I started out with Nylguts, but was not happy for several reasons, so I restrung with light gauge steel strings similar to what was on it when I got it. The banjo is in really good condition except for the missing bit of fretboard, and is quite sturdy. Unless someone really thinks steel strings are a horrible idea, I am leaving them on. Or I could get extra lights. Or maybe real gut???

4) I put a 1/2" cheap, standard maple/ebony bridge on, and did not like how it sounded or looked - harsh. So I put the tiny little bridge it came with back on. WOW! What a difference! It sounds great with that bridge, and is not as hard to play as you might think even with low action. It sounds so old-timey - I LOVE it.

All that said, I am still going to have my luthier friend go over it to make sure I haven't done anything bad. I also play fiddle and have a very old one, probably early 1800's, so I have some experience with old instruments - I know enough to let the experts decide! I will not be the one to disassemble it if necessary - I had enough trouble getting the tailpiece right.

Again, thank you all so much for your time and interest. I think this banjo is a real treasure and am so glad I won the auction.


"Do not pray for an easy life. Pray to be stronger. Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers. Pray for powers equal to your tasks."
- Fr. Solanus Casey

RG - Posted - 09/26/2009:  14:29:46

simichrome works great to polish up the rims on these old banjos...

"It's a league game Smokey..."

DumbPluck - Posted - 09/26/2009:  14:35:13

Agreed, and simichrome is completely non abrasive..... It will just clean it up rel purty like

oldwoodchuckb - Posted - 09/26/2009:  14:48:34

Many banjos of that era sported a hand carved wooden tailpiece that floated just above the head. The tailpiece was tied to the end-pin in much the same way as a fiddle tailpiece and some were ever shaped like fiddle tailpieces to a degree. The banjo bridge to endpin distance is proportionally a lot shorter than on a fiddle.

If you have a modern open back you might be surprised at the bridge location. We moderns tend to put the bridge in the middle of the head, while in the 19th century the bridge was closer to the end pin side of the rim. I suspect this has to do with the different nature of heads.
Skin - more plunk, you seek sharp sound by putting the bridge further back toward the rim
Plastic - more ping, you seek plunk by putting the bridge more toward the centre of the head.
Rocket Science Banjo - Advanced Clawhammer Techniques for beginners and long time players alike. Plus videos and 25-40 EZ Clawhammer Tunes.
& check out "How To Mold A Mighty Pinky" at:
banjo brad's great banjo site

Voyageur - Posted - 09/26/2009:  14:49:48

Hmmm, never heard of simichrome. Sounds like a good product. I definitely don't want to use any abrasive polishes. I may just clean it w/o removing all the patina.

"Do not pray for an easy life. Pray to be stronger. Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers. Pray for powers equal to your tasks."
- Fr. Solanus Casey

KE - Posted - 09/26/2009:  14:55:10

Simichrome is nonabrasive, but does chemically remove some of the coating to restore the luster.

tomberghan - Posted - 09/26/2009:  17:48:01

All this steel wool and chemicals have me very concerned . . . but I guess everybody thinks I am overly cautious . . . so I will make just one more suggestion and then leave it alone. (Just trying to help!) What's the rush? What's a few weeks? I mean it isn't like you can't play it while you take some time and study. Were it me, I would do some homework first. Safety First! . . . Look before you leap . . . that's what Grandma always said right?

Robert L. Barclay, editor, The Care of Historic Musical Instruments (Ottawa, Ontario: Canadian Conservation Institute, 1997). This book is available for purchase (about 35 Canadian dollars) from: Extension Services, Canadian Conservation Institute, 1030 Innes Road, Ottawa, Ontario K1A 0M5, Canada. This book includes articles by seven contributors representing a wide range of specializations in the care and preservation of historic musical instruments.

OK, I'll shut up now!

oldwoodchuckb - Posted - 09/26/2009:  21:03:50

I'll second Tomberghan - the instrument has lasted this long give it some thought before acting. But I'm the guy who spent a year and a half using a mini vice grip to tune a classical guitar, because is wasn't ready to order a whole new strip of tuners just because one button had broken off.
Rocket Science Banjo - Advanced Clawhammer Techniques for beginners and long time players alike. Plus videos and 25-40 EZ Clawhammer Tunes.
& check out "How To Mold A Mighty Pinky" at:
banjo brad's great banjo site

tomberghan - Posted - 09/26/2009:  22:03:21

I always like reading the Old Woodchucks stories! Now, lets do some math here . . . I believe the OWC was playing back in 1960 . . . (he was actually, even before that!) . . . so just for fun let us suppose this classical guitar he had back then was 125 years old (about the age of Mary’s banjo).

Then the year the guitar was born would be 1835. That would place the guitar firmly in the late classical period. It even could have been played by the Great Fernando Sor himself! (He died in 1839).

So, if that WERE the case . . . then YES you were wise in waiting to do the job right Old Woodchuck!

Edited by - tomberghan on 09/26/2009 22:20:09

Voyageur - Posted - 09/27/2009:  06:46:35

I cleaned (not polished) the pot with a mild solution of Murphy's Oil soap. It removed surface grime without disturbing the patina. It's not shiny now, just clean. I'm leaving it like that.

I don't see any evidence of brass showing through plating on the pot, although I do on the tension hooks, so maybe it is nickel-silver.

When I cleaned the tailpiece, it became obvious that it is fairly modern stainless steel. I don't like it. Any ideas?

I want to try gut strings. I'll search the forum for more info, but anybody's 2 cents here is more than welcome!


"Do not pray for an easy life. Pray to be stronger. Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers. Pray for powers equal to your tasks."
- Fr. Solanus Casey

mrphysics55 - Posted - 09/27/2009:  08:06:18

Beautiful Banjo, Mary,

Of course, I have advice ..... Enjoy!


You NEED a new Banjer! Go To

tomberghan - Posted - 09/27/2009:  09:43:00

Gut Strings - Great Choice

You will need to speak with a person who has the experience to calculate what gauges and types of twist you need. That person is -
Chris Henriksen
Boston Catlines
34 Newbury St.
Somerville MA 02144

Call him if you want the strings as quickly as possible - he does not like email - he likes to speak in person and have one 3-minute conversation about what you need rather than 5-emails back and forth.

Eddie (the email above) is asking you if you want him to look at your banjo. He is a repair luthier. The photos on his web site are evidence that he can definately do some amazing repairs . . . but again I caution you Mary that there is a huge differance between repair and restoration / preservation. As for the tailpiece or bridge . . . sure, use replacements, but keep the original parts carefully stored as they are the provenance of your banjo.

From reading your posts it would seem your banjo needs very little restoration but ALL banjos need preservation . . . and a original G.C. Dobson definately needs preservation. I am pleased to know that she (your banjo) has a new owner who loves her and wants to preserve her "provenance."

Voyageur - Posted - 09/27/2009:  14:49:41

Thanks, Eddie!

Tom - I hear you, and I agree. I don't think this banjo needs any repairs, other than to repair the missing piece of the fingerboard, which I won't have done unless leaving it would lead to greater damage in the future.

I do think I understand the difference between restoration and preservation. I have a fiddle that is approaching 200 years old. It needed a lot of work when I first got it, and I asked my luthier to do what was needed to make it playable and stable, but to think in terms of preservation rather than restoration. I feel the same way about this banjo.

I would like a different tailpiece - this one is not old or authentic. And thank you for the referral for gut strings!


"Do not pray for an easy life. Pray to be stronger. Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers. Pray for powers equal to your tasks."
- Fr. Solanus Casey

tomberghan - Posted - 09/27/2009:  18:14:22

Excellent Mary, glad to hear it!

Now about the tailpiece. Funny you should ask, because just recently I started a new forum topic about tailpieces (and I learned a lot). Here is the link to that old discussion. I think you will find some good info about tailpieces in the posts. I did!

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