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 ARCHIVED TOPIC: Two 6-string banjos


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/350371

Ken LeVan - Posted - 01/20/2019:  14:19:54


It's a snowy day here in northern PA, so I'll bore everyone with a long thread about something I've been working on for quite a while.





I am just about finished with two 14”  6-string banjos, and this pair - call it a brother and sister - has been one of the most interesting if difficult projects I have ever worked on.

Practically every aspect of these was out of my comfort zone, and I had to figure out or invent a number of different things.



First of all, these are not the standard 11“or 12” 5-string banjo, so some things are different than I would normally do them.



Short backstory, more than a year ago I got a commission to make a banjo guitar using a 14” pot the client already had and to make a 14“ tonering for it.  It turned out pretty well, but I didn’t like the sound, particularly the balance between the treble and the bass, and we experimented with a couple of internal resonators trying to even it out.  I won’t go into the details of this very long and involved project, but if anyone is interested, I can elaborate on it - I decided not to talk about it on this thread.



Fast forward, the customer wanted to try it again  with a better rim, a different neck, a Tubaphone type tone ring, different tailpiece, the whole nine yards.  In fact- he wanted to make two of them - one with a Tubaphone type, one with a Superwoodie.



This was a case where the client really knew what he wanted and directed me accordingly.  There were some unusual specifications:  the fingerboard should be flat, 1.85” wide at the nut, which is practically classical guitar width, and most unusual, the bridge should be only 4“ from the tailpiece side of the pot, which is WAY closer than I would have gone, but the client had other instruments with that setup and he liked it, so I did it that way. Beyond that,  as we progressed, there was to be slotted peghead, floating wooden tailpiece, relatively heavy bridge, mahogany neck and spikes at 2, 5, and 7 (keep in mind, this is a 6 string banjo with a drone string, not a banjo-guitar which is strung like a guitar - major difference, and since the drone string is not tunneled, it can be tuned in any number of ways as well as fretted.  It’s actually very cool and opens up a lot of possibilities.



I made a drawing of the basic proportions so I would know how to make the neck - here you can see how close to the end of the pot the bridge placement is - I had to shorten the tailpiece from the picture I had in my mind.



Now that I had a plan,  the first things I had to do were to tool up to make a 14” Tubaphone type tone ring and a 14” laminated rim.  My idea here was not to copy the tubaphone, but make something different, heavier, more bluegrass-like with the inner ring made of bronze, with a thicker skirt and a single unit construction as opposed to three separate parts like the old Vega TuBaPhone.  I wound up calling it the “TuBaTone.  halfway between a TuBaPhone and a Mastertone and I am using a deeper pot, so it’s a different kind of pot altogether, which I will be adapting for two 11” bluegrass banjos shortly.

Before doing the 14” one, I troubleshot it by making a couple of 11” ones and a 12” one.  Once I got everything worked out, I made the 14” one. It’s a big hummer.



I then made a form for 14” laminated rims and made a couple of them.  With these large diameter rims, six strings pulling, and having the so-so experience of the previous one, I wanted to go for stiffness.  I did birch-maple-beech because I wanted the outer lamination to be stainable to match cherry and walnut, but stiffer,  so I used yellow birch, which is pretty neutral looking and can be stained.  The other two laminations were maple in the middle and beech inside,  which would be covered by veneers - walnut on one and cherry on the other one.



In the end, they turned out to be very nice rims with the stiffness I wanted.  They look shallow because they are so wide, but in the end, the pot depth is 3”.  With larger diameters,  I want to resist the temptation to make the pot depth proportionately deeper  as that can make the bass overpower the treble - too much growl,  not enough sparkle.





Here are the two rims with the respective tone rings installed - the bronze TuBaTone on the rim with the walnut veneer, the teak brass-skirted SuperWoodie on the one with the cherry.



Right about this time,  I started working on the necks, and the client asked if I could do elephants. That sounded pretty interesting, and I said “of course I can do elephants” thinking to myself  “how am I going to do elephants?  I made a bunch of sketches involving  MOP silhouettes, magnesium engravings, wood inlays and combinations and didn’t really come up with anything I liked.  I spent a lot of time with this and really got nowhere.  It got to be a joke with my wife - ”Why did you say you could do a fingerboard with elephants?”.   The client asked if I could do lions for the other one and could I do Kilimanjaro? Why not? Looking at pictures of Kilimanjaro got me thinking in a landscape mode and I decided to go in that direction which really made the breakthrough.

I thought I could use various kinds of exotic wood, which seemed to fit in with elephants and lions, so I collected a bunch of pieces that could be useful.  I didn’t use any CITES listed wood, which means the wood I used is less endangered than the animals being depicted.



Then I made a drawing, scanned it and photoshopped the various woods into the picture, which I sent to the client.  Once he approved,  I did the real thing with the wood, and added the cloud layer below the snow cap of Mt Kilimanjaro which was made from a remarkable piece of curly-swirly birch saved from my firewood pile.





Now I made the necks from 40 year old pattern grade Honduras mahogany and used a Les Paul profile, which was what the client wanted.



One of the difficult things about this is that the neck had to be at the correct angle - the client wanted a 1” bridge and with the fingerboard overhang it’s difficult to mess with the neck angle. PLUS, I felt we needed some really rigid neck attachment with a strut because of the tension of 6 strings. My idea was to make a carbon fiber interface which would be curved to match the pot on one side and flat on the other.  In this way, I could adjust the angle by adjusting the interface, not the neck.  I was intrigued by the guitar neck mounting done by Ken Parker, but that kind of thing doesn’t work with a banjo.

I made a drawing:



I made a mold and began experimenting with carbon fiber composites, finally settled on this design - you can see how it fits the form of the pot (you could adapt this to complex rim bluegrass banjos) and the back that mates with the heel is flat and can be adjusted or machined.



I also made a hybrid form of Rudy-rod-co-rods,  whatever you want to call them.  I thought I needed some very rigid method of attaching the neck to the pot.  This is actually based on several things I have done earlier.  I am in the process of making a couple of bluegrass banjos and may use this system, which is a Rudy rod on top and a push-pull rod on the bottom.



I may post another thread with a more thorough explanation of how this works, but here’s the basic idea.





In terms of the neck, here are the finished fingerboards on the necks with no strings attached ha ha.  The pegheads and the rest of the necks are as yet not finished at this point.  The fingerboards are impregnated with resin, as I do wood inlaid fingerboards, in order to consolidate everything and create a scratch proof surface.



My son is a furniture finisher in Philadelphia, and he gave me this OSMO oil wax finish for Christmas.  It’s what they use in his shop for everything . He plays guitar and bass and told me this would be the bomb-diggety for necks - it’s a smooth as a baby’s behind, so I used it on the playing part -it's a wonderful finish:





I became enamored with the angled cuts into the slots in the peghead and didn’t want to cover up the one where the truss rod comes out, so I made a special minimal  truss rod cover to show it off:



Anyway, here are the finished instruments



and a few details:





I know what you are wondering - what do these sound like?  I am trying to figure out how to play them, but my hands are not used to the wide flat fingerboards and 6 strings, plus, I burned my left index finger with the woodstove, so it may take a while, and the actual owner may be the one who makes sound files.

While these are settling in and I haven't shipped them out, I may try to record and post some scales and a simple tune, or something like that, but I am not so hot at playing a tune that does them justice and you have to use that low 5th string.

They are very loud and assertive, they have an amazing bass as you would imagine, but a great banjo sounding treble as well - all the way up the neck.   Good sustain, not thumpy like other large pot banjos I have heard.  Sounds like a very large banjo, but a banjo, which is what it is - not a bass.  I think it could be tuned and strung in many different ways - even with nylon strings like a classical guitar.


Edited by - Ken LeVan on 01/20/2019 14:28:30

rudy - Posted - 01/20/2019:  14:50:02


Great job, Ken.  I also like the cool contours produced when forming the string ramps in the slot head channels.  I just did slots for a guitar I'm building and it was really nice to be able to simply use the same jig for cutting both slots in the peg head.  I usually use two different lengths; a shorter one for strings 1 and 2 of a five string and a longer one for strings 3, 4, and 5.



I'm sure your experiance is also that you very seldom get to re-purpose a jig for an entirely different instrument.

Dan Drabek - Posted - 01/20/2019:  16:44:17


Well Ken, I was really pleased to see two of your latest banjos. Looking over your threads is like reading a novel. Not only are they impressive, but seeing the process is always entertaining. Your photography and presentation is like coffee-table-book quality.



As usual, your builds are much more than initially meets the eye, and this one is no different. I spent a lot of time exploring the details, and there are plenty of them. One of the things that made me do a double take is your design of the bracket shoes and nuts. I've never seen a square design like you have produced with the faceted tops, like little pyramids. It's a refreshing change from the standard shoe design. And the rim band is stiff and hard enough to prevent any gouging of the rim. I also love the patination you have developed for the brass parts. It looks clean and new, but with an aged hit.

That's a very handsome peghead design you've come up with. It's got some of the look of Robert Bouchet classical guitars and looks totally natural on this six string banjo. An elegant alternative to the plain paddle shape we most often see on open back banjos.

The tailpiece is also unique. It has some of the look of the tailpieces you see on high end archtop guitars. There are a variety of styles in this instrument and they all work well together. Ditto with your wood choices. I'm a wood lover and this banjo is easy to love.

I was wondering how you handled the fifth ( sixth) string and I see it works by stopping it at progressive frets with railroad spikes. Simple and easy to use.

Whether the extra bass string will be successful, I don't know. Banjo players tend to be resistant to change, but I think it won't be too tricky to learn this neck. The fifth string can simply be ignored for the casual player who wants to try it out. But I think there is the potential for some new and exciting licks with the expanded range. Time will tell.

In any case, I have to applaud your free-thinking approach to a client-dictated wish list. Not many builders are as flexible as you are, and your customer picked the right luthier for an out of box design idea. As usual your craftsmanship is top notch and your taste is impeccable. Bravo once again.

DD


Edited by - Dan Drabek on 01/20/2019 16:46:30

rudy - Posted - 01/20/2019:  17:37:36


I'm intrigued by the Osmo product; it sounds much like Rubio Monocoat in how it molecularly bonds with the wood surface, but the Rubio product requires a couple weeks of cure time.  I purchased sample sizes of Rubio Monocoat and did test pieces and was really pleased with the resulting finish.  I just can't deal with the LONG cure time.  The plus side is it is truly ONE coat.  It's impossible to apply a second coat and it's dead easy to repair, so that's a plus.



It sounds like the Osmo product might be a very nice finish for those not wanting to do more extensive finish application.



 


Edited by - rudy on 01/20/2019 17:47:09

Ken LeVan - Posted - 01/20/2019:  17:58:39


quote:

Originally posted by rudy

I'm intrigued by the Osmo product; it sounds much like Rubio Monocoat in how it molecularly bonds with the wood surface, but the Rubio product requires a couple weeks of cure time.  I purchased sample sizes of Rubio Monocoat and did test pieces and was really pleased with the resulting finish.  I just can't deal with the LONG cure time.  The plus side is it is truly ONE coat.  It's impossible to apply a second coat and it's dead easy to repair, so that's a plus.



It sounds like the Osmo product might be a very nice finish for those not wanting to do more extensive finish application.






So far, I have used it on a table top and these two banjo necks.  I really love the way it comes out  - you can put on multiple coats and it goes over other finishes.  In the case of the two necks in this thread, I first sealed the mahogany with unwaxed shellac, one coat, rubbed it with a maroon 3M cloth, then finished the heel and peghead with Hydrocote, which I feathered with the 3M cloth, then rubbed the playing part of the neck with the OSMO, applied with a rag, which blended right into the other finish.  It doesn't have much smell and is very pleasant to work with.  For satin finishes in the future, I intend to eliminate the shellac and Hydrocote and use all OSMO, and will get a can of the gloss.



youtube.com/watch?v=O7cgv0l4k8...s=pl%2Cwn

Zachary Hoyt - Posted - 01/20/2019:  18:10:47


Those are very nice banjos. The carbon fiber interface is an interesting idea. I am very impressed with your fretboard designs, I can't even draw good looking stick people.
Zach

FlyinEagle - Posted - 01/21/2019:  04:55:59


Ken, Its always exciting to see a thread with your latest work. The specs on these things are wild!

I think the elephant banjo is my favorite. The figure and coloration on the slotted peghead is mesmerizing, and the effect you got with the whirly birch is something else.

I’m pretty intrigued with the Rudy-Co-Rod system you came up with, and especially the carbon fiber plate. Did you buy a block and shape it or did you make up your own?

You are right, I’m dying to hear a sound sample. Do you like that bridge placement now that the banjos are complete?

Ken LeVan - Posted - 01/21/2019:  05:44:22


quote:

Originally posted by FlyinEagle

Ken, Its always exciting to see a thread with your latest work. The specs on these things are wild!



I think the elephant banjo is my favorite. The figure and coloration on the slotted peghead is mesmerizing, and the effect you got with the whirly birch is something else.



I’m pretty intrigued with the Rudy-Co-Rod system you came up with, and especially the carbon fiber plate. Did you buy a block and shape it or did you make up your own?



You are right, I’m dying to hear a sound sample. Do you like that bridge placement now that the banjos are complete?






Thanks, Jeff,



The carbon fiber plate is made in a mold. I first had to make an accurate master model, which I made from a patternmaker's material. Then I made a rubber mold from that,  which was oversized so I could trim the part.  Then I bought a bunch of carbon fiber tow and experimented with different composite mixtures I could mold.  I wanted the max of carbon fiber but to be able to mold it. I used a little compression.  Too much fiber and it gets hairy.



This part has to be strong in compression - it's not like a neck reinforcement or golf club shaft where you are after tensile strength.  Anyway, it works very well and it's possible to drill and shape it with a disk sander, but I didn't try to cut it with the bandsaw.  I am now going to try one of these on a regular banjo.



I will try to make some kind of sound file because this sounds really good and it's not the kind of thing you hear every day.  I am going to go along with the bridge placement as specified by the client - he has a history of these large pots and has gone through a learning curve, so I'm not going to second guess him.  I think that the bridge being closer to the edge is good with such a large head and a more central position may make it sound too tubby, or like a washtub bass, not what we want.



I am working right now on a bluegrass banjo with cardinals and another one with mountains, so the wood inlay is something I am doing more. The Rudy Rod co-rod system works very well but isn't really necessary on 11" or even 12" banjos, and the bottom rod gets in the way if you are doing work on the neck and have to take it off and put it back (just like traditional co-rods).  It can be done so that the bottom rod is an option that could be used ot not used.  I think it is of some value on bluegrass banjos because people are used to the double rod system and this actually works better than that (IMO) because of the wooden dowel with the tension rod inside.

rudy - Posted - 01/21/2019:  06:54:02


Ken,  If you have an interest in doing a lot more of the interface option I'd suggest Garolite XX opaque black block material.  It's relatively cheap, cuts, machines, sands easily by "small shop" methods and looks like fine ebony when you polish it.  I use it fairly often and it's available in small quantities in thicknesses of up to 3/4".



mcmaster.com/garolite

heavy5 - Posted - 01/21/2019:  07:55:21


Ken ,
Along w/ everything else , I really like your departure from the typical hook & nut pot hardware . It's very tasteful & complements the whole banjo .

Ken LeVan - Posted - 01/21/2019:  08:34:40


quote:

Originally posted by rudy

Ken,  If you have an interest in doing a lot more of the interface option I'd suggest Garolite XX opaque black block material.  It's relatively cheap, cuts, machines, sands easily by "small shop" methods and looks like fine ebony when you polish it.  I use it fairly often and it's available in small quantities in thicknesses of up to 3/4".



mcmaster.com/garolite






I need something I can mold to any shape and make multiples, besides if my current method works, why try something more expensive and difficult?

Ken LeVan - Posted - 01/21/2019:  08:46:52


quote:

Originally posted by heavy5

Ken ,

Along w/ everything else , I really like your departure from the typical hook & nut pot hardware . It's very tasteful & complements the whole banjo .






Thanks, Bob,



I first did that hardware design on a banjo I made using Arts and Crafts style in the spirit of early 20th century California Architects Greene & Greene.  The hobnail / pyramid design is a feature used in that era on furniture, particularly on tenon pins and dowels, which then was probably a historic reference to earlier blacksmith-made nails.  The square nut was an idea the client of that project had, where you could make  simple looking period-style nuts that would tighten with a drum key or skate key.  It actually works very well.  The dark patina is part of the style.



In the case of these two instruments, I showed pictures of various styles of shoes and hooks I make to the client, and this is what he chose.


Edited by - Ken LeVan on 01/21/2019 08:48:53

heavy5 - Posted - 01/21/2019:  10:30:31


Now the client will need a non metal open end so as not to scratch the nuts or rim :)

Ken LeVan - Posted - 01/21/2019:  11:36:15


quote:

Originally posted by heavy5

Now the client will need a non metal open end so as not to scratch the nuts or rim :)






Actually, I give them a brass wrench I make, which doesn't scratch, but you can use the drive end of any 1/4" drive socket and they are smooth.




Edited by - Ken LeVan on 01/21/2019 11:37:09

BNJOMAKR - Posted - 01/22/2019:  01:56:32


Stunning! WOW!



 

Gerrit - Posted - 01/22/2019:  03:28:24


Thank you for posting this! It's original, inventive and wonderfully executed.

And the presentation makes it a joy to read.

gottasmilealot - Posted - 01/22/2019:  16:02:43


Very interesting!

Ken LeVan - Posted - 01/23/2019:  08:23:50


I said I would try to post some sound files before I send these out.  As I said I am NOT very good at playing these, so bear with me.  These are just so you can hear the sounds of the two - what's the difference between the TuBaTone and the Super Woodie - VERY different tone rings.



some chromatic sales on the bass strings to show the "growl"



Some descending scales on the treble side to show the "sparkle"



A few bars of John Henry just to show a tune with low notes.



 


FlyinEagle - Posted - 01/23/2019:  09:29:35


You’re right, the bottom end is not thumpy like a cello banjo or other banjos with large diameter rims.

I think there is much more of a difference between the tone of the woodie and tube-phone style ring, as opposed to past comparisons of the woodie vs other rings. I really like the Tubatone ring here. It just keeps going down, down, down!

CW Spook - Posted - 01/23/2019:  09:54:09


Interesting. I preferred the sound of the Tubatone ring on the simple scale, but preferred the woodie when you were playing John Henry.

Ken LeVan - Posted - 01/23/2019:  10:09:34


It is interesting, and these two banjos are identical in construction - even the necks are from the same board.  Only the tone rings are different, so you really hear what the tone ring does in terms of tone color.



When you hear it from "behind" the instrument, I think the woodie has a little more sustain and the TuBaTone has a little more note separation and jingle at the high end (I think), but what I like is that every note on both of them sounds like a "note" with complexity and character.  I think which one you might like is up for grabs and there is room to experiment with different tunings and stringing, not being constrained by any limitations of the instrument.



For instance, I believe that if this was strung like a guitar with the lowest note a low E, it would still have a clean character and not get thumpy at the bottom end.

Leslie R - Posted - 01/30/2019:  18:12:18


I am the person for whom these banjos were made. I could see some potential from a 14 inch banjo which Ken put together for me in 2017. But it was unbalanced, and little note separation. And I thought the tone was a bit rough and harsh. The pot from that banjo was not one of Ken's making. Ken was just doing me a favor by putting it together for me. That is what led to this project.

It's been a year or so. LOTS of emails back and forth. I like to tinker and experiment. I cobbled together a couple more 14 inch rim banjos, so I could experiment with various set ups. So I ended up with 3 total. One was actually a 12 string.

One aspect of set up seemed to be consistent, and that was bridge placement. Perhaps it goes against the rules of physics, but all 3 banjos seemed to produce the tonal quality I liked, with the bridge right at 4.2 inches from the side of the rim. Must have been counterintuitive to Ken, but that is what we went with.

I like to tinker, experiment, try ideas, see where things go. It is exciting to experiment with out of the box ideas.

Ken described some of the challenges which were faced. As each new challenge was encountered, Ken was able to find a solution.

I've been listening to the sound posts. It's hard to describe sound. I hear a tone that I like. But you can hear a clear tone on each note. It does not have a muddy overall sound. It does sound like a banjo, which is what I wanted. It does not sound like a guitar with a skin head.

The appearance on both is simply something to see. Not just the fingerboard, but the overall look as well as the other details are amazing.

It's kind of hard to describe these two banjo's without using every positive adjective I have ever heard.

It has been a thrill to watch this come together.

Thank You very much, Ken. Fantastic job on each banjo.

Dan Drabek - Posted - 01/30/2019:  18:42:00


Both banjos have a very rich tone. The low bass notes open up a whole new avenue of musical expression for the instrument.
I think I prefer the Super Woodie. The tone is just a bit cleaner to my ear. But it's very subtle. On a different day, I might choose the Tubaphone.

DD

Ken LeVan - Posted - 01/31/2019:  13:51:24


quote:

Originally posted by Dan Drabek

Both banjos have a very rich tone. The low bass notes open up a whole new avenue of musical expression for the instrument.

I think I prefer the Super Woodie. The tone is just a bit cleaner to my ear. But it's very subtle. On a different day, I might choose the Tubaphone.



DD






One of the interesting things I have learned that was driven home by this project is that tone rings act differently in different diameters.  You expect that with the pot - we all know that larger diameters have a stronger bass, etc., but now I have made both those SuperWoodie and TuBaTone tonerings in three different sizes - 11", 12" and 14", and while the proportions of the pot, if you look at a cross section, aren't significantly different, the difference between the two tone rings changes.



Hard to explain: The difference between the TuBaTone and SuperWoodie is different in 11" 12" and 14" - the differences become magnified as the diameter increases.  Too bad I wasn't able to make a 6-part sound file comparison.

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