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 ARCHIVED TOPIC: LeVan New Vintage - New Developments


Please note this is an archived topic, so it is locked and unable to be replied to. You may, however, start a new topic and refer to this topic with a link: http://www.banjohangout.org/archive/336347

Ken LeVan - Posted - 11/05/2017:  10:03:25


A few months ago, I introduced a new banjo, called the “New Vintage”, which is a hand-made,  limited production openback banjo. The idea was (still is) high quality at a reasonable price.



The first batch I made were all cherry except for one maple one and were all 11”.  I posted them on my website, and that first batch sold right away.  The first one to go was the maple one, so I decided for the second batch, I would make more maple ones and because someone ordered one, I decided to introduce a 12” version.

Before I even got started on the second batch, people started ordering them, so as I write this, the second batch is long gone and I am working on another group, one of which is destined to be a Christmas present, so I would like to get that one out before December - the pot is done.



I started off making 8 banjos for the second batch and made extra parts to the extent I could, so I do have some pots and neck blanks already made;  therefore, batch no. 3 will be faster.  I can’t really make more than 4 in a month. - as I said, they are all hand made.



I keep developing this, so some things have changed in the second batch. While I agree that consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, I am, nonetheless, trying to achieve a certain consistency in these while improving as I go.  I can’t tell you how many people have told me I will have to raise my price, but I am not going to do that in the near future. Depending on how it goes, I will probably raise the price of the curly maple ones a little bit, inasmuch as it is quite a bit more time consuming to finish them and the wood is more precious.  I will also offer other kinds of wood that don’t have to be stained, such as cherry (which I already offer), walnut and mahogany.  Later on I may venture out into the open-pored woods such as ash, oak, black locust and hickory, but I would have to develop a finishing strategy for those, and there would have to be something special about them.



As I work on my process, I keep refining.  At this point, I use 9 different “glues” or adhesives, 4 different alloys of metal,  will be offering 4 kinds of wood, and have gotten the finish down to one kind of stain/dye and one kind of finish.  If I could have the perfect shop, it would be a circle about 40 feet in diameter with a series of stations around the perimeter, each one equipped with the tools that were needed for the operation at that particular station and I would never have to change setups.

As it is, my lathe is used as a lathe for wood turning, a truing device for tone rings and tension hoops, a buffing machine, a horizontal boring machine and a threading device, needing to be changed for each operation.  If someone gave me three other lathes, I would have no place to put them - my shop is maxed out space-wise.



So anyway, the banjos - first, the 12” one - here’s a picture of it:



Here is a picture showing the difference in size between the 12 inch and 11 inch.

By manipulating the length of the scoop and eliminating one “virtual” fret, I was able to make the scale length and bridge placement be  “virtually” the same on both.  Thanks again to all the BHO members who posted on my thread asking about scale length and bridge placement on 12” banjos. I hit it right without having to go through a learning curve.

.



This batch is all red maple, and I have a number of really nice curly red maple boards - Here you can see the necks, laminated and partially blanked out.  to the left is the curly maple board, consecutive to the one the neck blanks are made from and the same as the maple one I made in the original introductory batch.  It’s red maple, air dry outdoors under a roof going through the seasons for about 30-35 years.  It’s very nice wood.





Here’s a shot of the first 4 from this batch. You can see the subtle variations of the maple figure.



Here’s another shot of various curly maple boards - they all have different finishing characteristics, and you can never tell what a given neck is going to look like until it’s gone into the staining process - you see it in the board, then it disappears while you are working on the neck, only to reappear when you start to put finish on it - it’s a leap of faith.



I am thinking about writing a thread about the finishing of curly maple, since it’s an interesting subject and often discussed on the BHO.



For this batch, I had to make a whole “setup” to make 12 inch rims, which involved a form for clamping and gluing slats, longer slats, cleaning and polishing fixtures for the tone ring, bracket band and tension hoop as well as a set of new fixtures for marking tension hoop notches and shoe placement.  I had to rearrange my shop in order to accommodate some of these things.  I now have forms and fixtures hanging from the joists.



For the rims, I have been working on kinds of wood and gluing for several years, and have hit upon birch / beech, and whatever the neck is made from as my preferred  rim material.  The birch is beautiful as the thickest outside lamination, can look almost indistinguishably like cherry, maple or walnut depending on the stain. It’s very strong and doesn’t split out when bending.  Beech is very strong and stiff, and I use it as the inside laminations.  It gives the rim a very “maple-like” quality.  For the inside “veneer”, which is up to 1/8” thick, depending on the thickness of the rim, I use whatever the neck is going to be made of .



Different woods have different characteristics, and while we don’t usually think of wood in that way, a laminated wooden rim can be made to have the combined characteristics of several kinds of wood, just like metal alloys combine desired properties of the elements that form them into a different metal; brass, bronze,  and nickel silver are alloys containing copper and other elements.

So in the case of the rims I am making, they combine the qualities of birch, beech, and maple, cherry, walnut etc, into a rim that has a combination of the best qualities that each kind of wood has.  I can make the rims in any thickness by engineering the thickness of the slats used to laminate them, but I have hit upon the range between 9/16” and 5/8” as being ideal for these rims.  This gives me the ratio I want between the metal and wood.  For the New Vintage, I have goosed the depth up a little bit from what I had been using on other rims.



I posted a thread about birch rims a while back, which I’m sure is in the archives.  As Casey Stengle said “you can look it up”.



Here  is a picture of a laminated birch / beech rim blank - I still have to put a  “veneer” lamination in the inside to match the neck.

You can see the scarf joint I use on the layers.  The inner layer will also be scarfed:



Here’s a finished rim with a tortoise rim cap:



I think I said earlier, there are 86 handmade metal parts in one of these banjos, and making the metal parts  in quantity has made me think more about process.  Once I start on, say tension nuts, I have to keep those setups in place until  I have done the whole batch - otherwise I waste a lot of time (which I have done in the past).  This time I made enough metal parts for 6 banjos - I was going to do 8, but I stupidly under-ordered material and missed my window-in-time for the other two.  Here’s a shot of a batch of them with the patina - the patina is a multi-step process, and I have to set aside a day to patina a batch - am nother reason to have as many parts ready as possible.  The most difficult thing to patina is the tuners, which are not shown in this image.  I do them as a separate operation and complain about it a lot.



Here’s a pic of some completed 11 and 12” pots.  I set the pot up completely with the head tensioned to 91 before I fit the neck.

I will probably post a thread about this kind of setup later on.



In terms of finish, I worked quite a while refining this.   I am tired of nitro lacquer, and actually I’m getting away from oil or lacquer finishes altogether for a number of reasons.   I have said for years that when the water based finishes look good enough, I will use them, and that time has arrived.  I still like the alcohol based dye because it doesn’t raise the grain like water based ones and is a little more forgiving, but beyond the stain, the finish I am using now is a green technology formula, and is much more durable than lacquer.



I can now spray banjo parts with no exhaust fan or complaints about the smell, not to mention the fire hazard and health issues of nitro or solvents.



As I said earlier, this is where you get to see the grain of the wood, which has been hiding all this time.



A few customers ordered theirs with some individual elements, which I will do for a modest up-charge, depending on what is requested.  As an example, one person wanted his banjo to be the 7th one, wanted an abalone moonface instead of MOP, and wanted a “No 7” like the Jack Daniels logo inlayed on the scoop.  I can do stuff like this with magnesium. Here’s what it looks like;



 



Here’s another one - “lucky 13”



I am happy to do things like this, but it can slow the completion time depending on where in the process it falls.



One last thing, I  am working right now on a group of new banjos, and I will be making a few walnut ones, including a 12” fretless one with a skin head.  I have some very old walnut,possibly 250 years old from a 1744 gristmill I once owned near Bethlehem, PA,  and I will be using a curly maple center stripe- a by product of the curly maple neck boards, flanked by dyed sycamore.  The cherry ones will have either maple and dark flanking stripes or padauk and curly maple.  I will also be working on a mahogany version.  I have some 40 year old pattern grade Honduras mahogany, the likes of which is not available any more.  Below is a picture of necks I have already started to make - curly maple, cherry, walnut and mahogany.

In the case of the mahogany one, I consider it to be referential to the vintage ODES made in Boulder in the 60s - another vintage.  I always joke about them “smokin the Peruvian mahogany” back then in Boulder, so this is my version of that - mahogany with maple and dark stripes except "bolder" stripes.



My strategy, strangely  is to compete with my own maple banjos with other kinds of wood.  I am going to have to raise the price of the maple ones eventually, but I would like to keep some nice options available in the original price.



SO, a lot of talk. what do these sound like 12” vs 11”?



I'll say this.  I expected the 12 inch one to have a more powerful bass at some expense to the treble, but that's not the case.  It's more complex than that and they sound more similar than I though they would.  The 12” one rings like the 11” one even high up in the treble.  I hate "word pictures" when attempting to describe a non-verbal thing, but I'll say that the 12 inch one sounds a little more "open",  the 11" more "controlled and contained".  Both sound good, but slightly different - this is not something that jumps out and hits you in the face.  In terms of tone color they are very similar (as they should be because both are identical except for the pot diameter).  I have been playing them both while they were still here but now all the 11” ones have been sent out or picked up and I have been playing the 12” one



Because of the greater head surface, I learned it's a little more difficult to get a 12" head up to tension, and there is a greater vibrating area, so while the vibrating string length is the same, there is more "motion" so the action has to be a slight bit higher.  Because of that head / string motion, I'm thinking slightly heavier gauge strings might be something I investigate in the future.



Here are two sound files. These are played in double C tuning, which lets you hear the low notes.  I also used picks because I am not a good frailer, but you get the idea.  If I can figure out a good tune, I may post more.  

These files are not “performance art”, and I am certainly not a performer. They are designed to show tone quality, so I am trying to play slowly so you can hear the way the high and low notes sound on each one.


Edited by - Ken LeVan on 11/05/2017 10:15:20


rbfour5 - Posted - 11/05/2017:  10:34:31


I am a 3- finger picker; have never owned an open back, and honestly never had a desire....until now. The 12" is awesome, you have me thinking Ken! Wow....


Edited by - rbfour5 on 11/05/2017 10:34:49

rickhayes - Posted - 11/05/2017:  11:17:38


Beautiful work and appreciate the detailed writeup.

FlyinEagle - Posted - 11/06/2017:  05:55:35


Ken,

Very interesting to see into the process of creating this instrument (especially as a future owner of one).

It’s also fascinating to hear, even with all of the experience you have, the new things you are learning through this undertaking. I really appreciate the write-up and the photos.

The choice of woods you are offering is exceptional...really beautiful wood.

And they sound great!

Dan Drabek - Posted - 11/12/2017:  15:09:14


I was out of town last week and just now discovered this update. It's always nice to see how others work. You have a nice selection of woods to choose from. Each one has it's own character. The audio files sound great. There is a bit more warmth and resonance on the 12", and a bit more brightness on the 11". No surprises there. Both would do nicely for most purposes.

I tend to find water based finishes a little cold looking, but with the amber stain you use on the maple, that's clearly not a problem. It might have a different effect on other wood species with no stain.

I usually "whisker" the grain before finishing. With water-based stains, it kills two birds with one stone. I like to sand curly maple lightly after the first two coats of stain, and finish with a third coat. This helps bring out the figure in the wood. By the third coat, grain raising is pretty much taken care of. Some claim that water-based stains are less prone to fading than alcohol stains, but I have no proof of this. But back when I was a layout artist, I did notice that magic markers (alcohol based) did tend to fade in sunlight faster than watercolor. Whether wood stains have this problem, I can't say. I think much depends on the color of stain. Earth colors like browns and ochers seem to be more color-fast than bright colors.

DD

OldPappy - Posted - 11/13/2017:  06:11:02


Ken,

Absolutely beautiful banjos!

You mention you may someday try oak or hickory, which is uncommon for banjos, though some have used it.

Dwight Diller has a hickory banjo made by Jeff Kramer (Original Cloverlick banjo Shop days). It is a very nice banjo, and sounds very good. Jeff made them our of oak too, but there is something I like better about the hickory ones. I think the density of the wood contributes to the sound. They do seem to have some weight to them.

I have only used maple, walnut, and mahogany but that is because I have a lot of good stock of those woods. I do have some nice quarter sawn white oak which has seasoned for decades, so may give that a try at some point.

Beardog - Posted - 11/13/2017:  14:51:56


Speaking of white oak, Old Pappy, I played one of those Deering white oak open backs recently, and it was stellar. At a lower price point (like the New Vintage and a few other really good banjos available these days), I think white oak could be a real hit.

rudy - Posted - 11/13/2017:  15:07:38


quote:

Originally posted by Beardog

Speaking of white oak, Old Pappy, I played one of those Deering white oak open backs recently, and it was stellar. At a lower price point (like the New Vintage and a few other really good banjos available these days), I think white oak could be a real hit.






I've been doing some jos in white and red oak and it works well.  The only problem with oak is that you have to use care when working it, as it can splinter and chip out more readily than many other woods.  If you get past that, it finishes well and feels great under hand.  The neck of the banjo shown below matches the rim and is one of my personal favorites.



pollywaffle - Posted - 11/13/2017:  16:51:38


Simply incredible work especially given how fast you are pumping these creatures out!!

Ken LeVan - Posted - 11/13/2017:  17:00:16


quote:

Originally posted by pollywaffle

Simply incredible work especially given how fast you are pumping these creatures out!!






Thanks!



It doesn't seem fast to me.  I like it when I finally get to put them together!

xnavyguy - Posted - 11/14/2017:  09:57:15


Amazingly beautiful or beautifully amazing! I can't decide which.

Very nice work!

Brett - Posted - 11/14/2017:  10:03:28


beautiful, simply beautiful. Do you find black locust wears blades quicker, I know they're heck on a chainsaw...

OldPappy - Posted - 11/14/2017:  10:53:59


"Because of the greater head surface, I learned it's a little more difficult to get a 12" head up to tension, and there is a greater vibrating area, so while the vibrating string length is the same, there is more "motion" so the action has to be a slight bit higher. Because of that head / string motion, I'm thinking slightly heavier gauge strings might be something I investigate in the future."

I build more 12" banjos than 11", and agree with the above.

What I have found between the two rim sizes is to get the tone and response I want the bridge placement needs to be a bit different. On an 11" rim I get good results placing the bridge closer to the tailpiece than where I put it on a 12" rim. For the 12" I place the bridge about 40-45% of center.

With mine, the 11" is just a little more focused and articulated, and the 12" has a little more "growl", but overall there isn't a great deal of difference.

Looked at the pictures, and listened to the clips again. Even though I make my own, I am much tempted to buy one of these just because they are so beautiful.

I doubt anyone else out there can build something so nice in that price range.

Ken LeVan - Posted - 11/14/2017:  13:45:08


quote:

Originally posted by OldPappy

"Because of the greater head surface, I learned it's a little more difficult to get a 12" head up to tension, and there is a greater vibrating area, so while the vibrating string length is the same, there is more "motion" so the action has to be a slight bit higher. Because of that head / string motion, I'm thinking slightly heavier gauge strings might be something I investigate in the future."



I build more 12" banjos than 11", and agree with the above.



What I have found between the two rim sizes is to get the tone and response I want the bridge placement needs to be a bit different. On an 11" rim I get good results placing the bridge closer to the tailpiece than where I put it on a 12" rim. For the 12" I place the bridge about 40-45% of center.



With mine, the 11" is just a little more focused and articulated, and the 12" has a little more "growl", but overall there isn't a great deal of difference.



Looked at the pictures, and listened to the clips again. Even though I make my own, I am much tempted to buy one of these just because they are so beautiful.



I doubt anyone else out there can build something so nice in that price range.






Thanks Andy,



I really appreciate your comments and agree with what you are saying regarding 12" vs 11" you have said it very clearly - focused and articulated in the 11 and more growl in the 12.



I also have enjoyed the conversations you and I have had about tonerings and other things.



Ken



 

BNJOMAKR - Posted - 11/14/2017:  16:59:18


Ken, I don't know how you can build such a beautiful banjo for such a low price. You are amazing!

Ken LeVan - Posted - 11/14/2017:  17:53:37


quote:

Originally posted by OldPappy

Ken,



Absolutely beautiful banjos!



You mention you may someday try oak or hickory, which is uncommon for banjos, though some have used it.



Dwight Diller has a hickory banjo made by Jeff Kramer (Original Cloverlick banjo Shop days). It is a very nice banjo, and sounds very good. Jeff made them our of oak too, but there is something I like better about the hickory ones. I think the density of the wood contributes to the sound. They do seem to have some weight to them.



I have only used maple, walnut, and mahogany but that is because I have a lot of good stock of those woods. I do have some nice quarter sawn white oak which has seasoned for decades, so may give that a try at some point.






Andy (and Rudy, too).



I just sawed up an oak log and got enough to make many rims.  It's chestnut oak, which is very hard.  Based on the wetness of it, I think the log was under water, but that will be good for steam bending.



It has a nice quarter figure and some worm holes that are so straight they look like they were made with a drill.





 



I also have some curly red oak, very unusual, and pretty old, and I made a neck from that several years ago which is one of my favorite necks all time.



If I'm careful and a little lucky,  I have enough to make 6 more necks.





So if i make an "oakie", the rim will be chestnut oak and the neck red oak.

Ken LeVan - Posted - 11/14/2017:  18:26:44


quote:

Originally posted by Dan Drabek

I was out of town last week and just now discovered this update. It's always nice to see how others work. You have a nice selection of woods to choose from. Each one has it's own character. The audio files sound great. There is a bit more warmth and resonance on the 12", and a bit more brightness on the 11". No surprises there. Both would do nicely for most purposes.



I tend to find water based finishes a little cold looking, but with the amber stain you use on the maple, that's clearly not a problem. It might have a different effect on other wood species with no stain.



I usually "whisker" the grain before finishing. With water-based stains, it kills two birds with one stone. I like to sand curly maple lightly after the first two coats of stain, and finish with a third coat. This helps bring out the figure in the wood. By the third coat, grain raising is pretty much taken care of. Some claim that water-based stains are less prone to fading than alcohol stains, but I have no proof of this. But back when I was a layout artist, I did notice that magic markers (alcohol based) did tend to fade in sunlight faster than watercolor. Whether wood stains have this problem, I can't say. I think much depends on the color of stain. Earth colors like browns and ochers seem to be more color-fast than bright colors.



DD






Dan,



The reason I am staying away from water based stain is one of process,. I actually think water based stain is clearer than the alcohol kind, and more color fast - I like it.



Here's my problem: My pegheads are all laminated and cross banded for  strength as well as for aesthetic reasons.  Ditto the neck and fingerboard.  The weakest part of a banjo , arguably, is the peghead, especially where it joins the neck, so the cross-grain lamination strengthens it.





The peghead veneer I make is made up of around 14 pieces - counting the peghead halves and center stripes, there are roughly 18 pieces.





 



I used to glue these together with titebond but they would cup. Then I tried urea laminating glue, which I use for rims, but they still cupped -just a little, but enough to cause big problems when inlaying, and then you have to clamp it flat.  I prefer to have it perfectly flat all the time, so I glue it all together with epoxy, which has no water and they remain dead-flat.  Here's a pic of some peghead veneers not yet lnlaid.





As you can see, I usually dye the top layer black, before inlaying, inlay it, dye it black again until I get it smooth and uniformly black - this is the way many vintage banjo pegheads were made, Then I glue it on to the peghead  If I use water based dye on the veneer, it cups, and inlaying a cupped veneer is like inlaying a radiused fingerboard and sometimes the inlay cracks when gluing it on to the peghead.  So anyway, that's why the alcohol dye.  Once it's glued to the peghead I'm home free.



I can get away with water based on the neck and rim, and will probably start using that after some testing, but for the peghead veneers, I use alcohol.



 

Dan Drabek - Posted - 11/14/2017:  18:51:55


Makes perfect sense.

DD

pollywaffle - Posted - 11/14/2017:  23:30:03


What “green” clear coats are you using now Ken? I’d like to move away from stinky lacquer at some point.

OldPappy - Posted - 11/15/2017:  04:56:18


Very interesting, and also having had problems with the veneers cupping during glue up, I have been looking at alternatives for Titebond. I almost ordered some of the urea laminating glue the other day, but after reading this, I believe I am going to give epoxy a try first.

I also was looking at a laminate glue which is applied to both surfaces, left to dry, and then the piece is ironed on, like the edge banding rolls used for counter tops and such, but what I was looking at didn't have a clear description of what type of glue that was.

Ken LeVan - Posted - 11/15/2017:  06:09:51


quote:

Originally posted by pollywaffle

What “green” clear coats are you using now Ken? I’d like to move away from stinky lacquer at some point.






I use Hydrocote.  Here is their website:  hydrocote.com



You have to read their website because they make a bewildering number of finishes for brushing and spraying, including a water based lacquer called "Resisthane" which is designed for spraying - I have heard good things about it and actually tried it and it works great.  Before that, I used the "Hydrocote water based polyurethane" which is very tough and used on gym floors.  That one is intended to be brushed, sprayed or wiped and I use a combination of brushing in initial coats around the peghead and then spraying for the final topcoats.



After trying both, I have decided I like the Hydrocote Polyurethane (which has a slight amber tint) better than the water-clear Resisthane, so that's what I now use.  It can go on over water based stain, (dewaxed) shellac, oil stain or alcohol based stain and is self-sealing, so requires no sealer.  You DO have to do a number of coats and wet sand between, but that's no different than nitro.



I will probably post some info about neck finishing, since it's always of interest on this forum

pollywaffle - Posted - 11/15/2017:  16:16:27


Cheers Ken. I bet we can’t get it here in Oz though.

blazo - Posted - 11/15/2017:  18:58:08


I'm the proud and happy owner of No. 7. I love this banjo and I really like reading about how it was constructed, can't ask for more. Ken is great to work with, very accommodating and helpful.

I too am amazed that Ken can build these things for the price he asks. I love the handmade look, feel and quality of this banjo. It ain't perfect but it's incredible! I don't think anyone should expect perfection from something that is handmade. Whatever flaws (minor and cosmetic) it may have are indicative of handmade, functional, and eminently playable art and, in my view, add to its appeal and endearing charm. It is an awesome, one of a kind musical instrument that stands head and shoulders above the crowd of mass produced, CNC router shaped, identical in every way instruments so widely available. I can picture Ken working in his shop, busily crafting individual and unique banjos 4 or 8 at a time. I made a couple to requests of Ken to add this or that on my banjo. He did so at a minimal cost. I sent him a piece of oak burl and asked him to use it for the truss rod cover and heel cover. He went above and beyond that, splitting the piece and book matching a veneer for the head.

The sound is awesome, rings like a bell, crisp and clean with awesome sustain. I initially had an issue with the third string buzzing. I traded emails with Ken, we narrowed it down to both bridge height and the fact that I live in a much different environment (CA vs. PA) so things likely changed during shipping. We have the bridge height dialed in now so Ken is going to make a couple new bridges for me. He told me that he puzzled over this for a day while working in his shop. That tells me that Ken is committed to his product and his craft and wants to know why it happened so he can fix it. I can't say enough about Ken and the Levan New Vintage.

Ken, please reserve No. 7 for me when you decide to do a resonator version. If you're not going to do a resonator version, I may just have to reserve the 7th banjo you make next year, this time with a 12" pot. I'll take that one in oak, please. Please make sure you select a piece for the neck that has outstanding ray fleck (although that may be particular to white oak). I'll send you some burl for that one as well.

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