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 ARCHIVED TOPIC: What do I need to do to replace a rim on a banjo that was custom made?

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MickeyReeves - Posted - 05/31/2023:  20:28:50

Hey all.

I have a custom built banjo by Robin Smith that I had made in 2010 before he passed away. Im interested in knowing what I would need to do to have this done. Is it generally the case that you would need to send your tone pot away to have the rim changed?

Mickey Reeves

banjonz - Posted - 05/31/2023:  20:36:27

Why do you need or want to replace it?

MickeyReeves - Posted - 05/31/2023:  20:39:30

Because I dont really like the sound of it, its very dead sounding. Its a mahogany rim.

Old Hickory - Posted - 05/31/2023:  21:03:57

Yes, you should send the three-piece pot assembly of rim, tone ring and flange, so a skilled rim-maker can measure and duplicate the rim, and assure the fit of the tone ring and flange. I don't think it's necessary to send your neck. If the rim-maker copies the outside diameter of the rim skirt (section below the flange), I'd expect this to assure the neck fits the same as on your current rim -- so action should be the same.

I highly recommend Eric Sullivan for this work.

Aradobanjo - Posted - 06/01/2023:  04:05:17


Hmm… some of the best sounding banjos have mahogany necks. Is the rim all mahogany or mahogany skinned?

Take the ring off to be sure. In 2010, lighter banjos were being sought. Does this banjo have a tone ring of metal?

steve davis - Posted - 06/01/2023:  05:06:03

There is a BNL from back then (2007ish) with a Bela article of a mahogany rimmed banjo.
I thought that was pretty cool and had a banjo made with a walnut 3 ply rim.
I ended up replacing that rim with a 3 ply maple and it made all the difference.
I would think a shop could simply use your mahogany rim as a master and copy its dimensions without needing the entire banjo.

Helix - Posted - 06/01/2023:  05:43:01

I think the tree is completely innocent. Mr. Smith is famous for a reason(S).

There are plenty of turners upstairs there who can certainly duplicate, even a cabinet shop can do it.

But since the rim in some peoples' opinion gives little if any tone to your soul's desire, I would ask what tree are you contemplating replacing it with.

Douglas Fir is very responsive but doesn't necessarily lend itself to patient laminating.

Myrtle should be plentiful being "Mountain Mahogany." Same genus as the Bayberry on the East Coast of N. America.

Yes, Eric Sullivan can turn a rim to any tone ring spec out there.

Once upon a time there were four women in a row, 3 got Mahog and the 4th got Walnut.

Perhaps one would look at setup and get a good disassembly inspection.

Shipping has "evolved" completely and international tracking numbers may stop at the border. Domestic Kanuck would be my preference.

I just shipped a ring/rim without the flange to a man with only one tooth in his head, yet he plays the banjo just fine. :)

mike gregory - Posted - 06/01/2023:  05:52:42

Free advice from an Old Person:
Mess with the less expensive stuff first, before paying for a new rim.

Bridges, heads, etc.

One of the OutHangers lines cheap aluminum rims with wood, to improve their tone quality.

KCJones - Posted - 06/01/2023:  05:57:11

Robin Smith was a top-tier banjo builder. I can't imagine any banjo he'd build would have sound 'dead', regardless of the wood species. Before you dive into a full rim replacement, it might be worth looking at setup. A bad setup can kill tone on even the best banjo.

Neck/pot connection, tone ring fit, gap between tension hoop and fretboard, head tension and material, bridge height and material, tailpiece design and position, string gages. All of that is much easier to adjust than a full rim swap, perhaps you could try all that before doing open-heart surgery.

RB3 - Posted - 06/01/2023:  06:44:09

I concur with what KCJones said. Additionally, I would suggest that you consider having Charlie Cushman or Steve Huber do a setup on the banjo. If the setup can be changed to make the instrument sound good, they will be able to do it; if that's not possible, they can explain why it can't be done and give you good advice about how best to remedy the situation.

steve davis - Posted - 06/01/2023:  07:42:56

If Robin was asked to build a banjo with a mahogany rim he might not have agreed with the decision,but the customer is always right.

steve davis - Posted - 06/01/2023:  07:44:19

I costs a lot less to try a different rim than to employ experts.

vthokie7227 - Posted - 06/01/2023:  08:57:50

I think mahogany rims used to be trendy in some circles. I think it was around 2010 when Huber introduced a Chris Pandolfi signature model that had a mahogany rim.

KCJones - Posted - 06/01/2023:  10:06:57


Originally posted by steve davis

I costs a lot less to try a different rim than to employ experts.

How so? If you do a full rim swap, an "expert setup" is part of the work. Unless you can do the rim swap yourself, in which case you can just do the set up yourself too. Seems like the only cost difference between a full teardown/setup and a rim swap would be the cost of the rim. 

MickeyReeves - Posted - 06/01/2023:  10:29:38

Hey all, Thanks for the replys the response was fantastic.

Bela and some others do, or did, play some banjos with mahogany rims from what I heard.
Robin was defintely top tier, no question about it. I dont blame the builder at all, and I've played many banjos and been to tradeshows etc. To me, it's dull sounding. Robin did tell me I'd be sacrificing volume for tone and told me he always focuses on tone. Since I told him I wanted a warm banjo with a ton of sustain, he built me a shorter scale instrument with jumbo frets. I think though, that all-mahogany rim is too dull.

I appreciate the advice from everyone here. I have tried bridges, and I could try another head as well, but having changed a head on another banjo, I dont think the head is the culprit.

You know how some banjos just like... vibrate, or resonate when you play them? This one doesnt do that. Mahogany feels so soft; the neck is magonany too, and very soft wood. I just wonder how much that is suppressing the tone.
Although I wouldn't touch my neck. Never. That should be framed. Man, Robin was an artist.

G Edward Porgie - Posted - 06/01/2023:  10:50:42

You've had this banjo for 13 years, so I am wondering if it has always been dull or if perhaps in 13 years, your hearing has changed some.

MickeyReeves - Posted - 06/01/2023:  11:02:33

Good point, years in the trades, too. But, I have another banjo that I've owned alongside this one as a direct comparison.

Helix - Posted - 06/02/2023:  15:44:10

Note how many guitars are made with Mahogany. She's very musical and responsive.

All of us vintage with time.

lazlototh - Posted - 06/02/2023:  17:08:09

Before doing anything drastic, have you checked the head tension?
A Drum Dial is very helpful. Steve Davis has a simple test you can use as well.
I think almost every banjo, other than really old ones, have had loose head tension and sounded a lot better when properly tensioned.

Old Hickory - Posted - 06/02/2023:  17:52:38

Tom makes a good point: Check the obvious. Sort of like when the TV won't come on, first thing to do is make sure it's plugged in.

So head tension is something to check. So is tightness and solid-ness of contact of neck to rim. I've had both of these be the cause of poor sound that developed in different banjos over the years.

Of course check the other adjustable and easily changeable set-up items already mentioned. Just be sure you've tried everything reasonable to help the banjo sound its best.

If you've tried all these things over the years, and have never liked the sound of the banjo with the mahogany rim, then by all means get a new rim. Maple. 3-ply. Depending on whose rim you choose, it doesn't have to be expensive. A few hundred dollars. And it's not irreversible.

A used rim might cost less, but fit will be a crapshoot. I'd say go new. (This is do as I say, not as I do!)

If you end up liking the sound with the new rim, you can always sell the mahogany rim and recoup some of the changeover cost.

Good luck.

zz4350 - Posted - 06/02/2023:  21:44:58

I’ve assembled over 20 parts banjos in the past 5-7 years and have used hard maple, red maple, and mahogany in three ply and block form and all have been plenty loud. The only trouble I’ve had is with a tone ring I bought that was toooo responsive. I would try a different set up or two or three before a full change out of the rim.

5strings3picks1banjo - Posted - 06/03/2023:  02:53:55

If I was taking the job I would explain I cannot match a rim to your parts if I don't have them.

You should change it because we play more when we are at peace with our banjo.

If sound has changed over time towards lifeless no sparkle,
I've loosened tonering fits to fix banjos.
The rims can expand with weather and lock rings up.

lightgauge - Posted - 06/03/2023:  04:32:05

I experimented with a mahogany rim due to preferring the sound of mahogany necks. I don't recall if I found it dull or just too mellow, but did not enjoy it. I switched back to maple and I probably sold it here. Eric Sullivan does 3 ply and block rims from maple, torrified maple, and factory floor maple. I would contact him as to which to get and send him your rim to duplicate. He has turned thousands of rims and can be very helpful.

Brett - Posted - 06/03/2023:  06:20:12

Mickey, if I had a Banjo I felt was slow to respond to input and “kinda lame or kinda dead”, I’d do what was common when I started learning in the 70s. Tighten the hell out of the head. Or even better, install a clear hear. Thin your bridge some with sandpaper. Tighten down the tailpiece as close to the head as you can. If you cannot buy a clear head anymore, get a white un-frosted head, with the slick white finish.
After you install a slick white head or clear head, and get it super tight, and have a thinner bridge or an ebony top one with the white bone inserts, then you will have maximized the brilliance, at the expense of the bottom end, in normal cases.
In your case, since you perceive the mahogany rim as the dulling component, I’m sure the added brilliance will be a significant and drastic change.
Then, if you feel it’s too brilliant sounding, you can slowly work on backing off head and tailpiece tension, to regain more balance. It’s free to tighten the crap out of the current head and tailpiece, and thinning your current bridge (if you have a sheet of sandpaper laying around).
Some heads and some banjos lose tension more than others and some people do not perform any upkeep to ensure heads stay tight enough. Heck, you might even have a head bead torn under the tension hoop that you cannot see until removed.
You might just have a horrible bridge that’s way too thick and heavy for your setup.
You might have a truss rod with no tension on the nut. You might have coordinator rods that have loosened and you’ve got an air gap going in the neck pocket that’ll kill any efforts to improve tone.
But, I know a simple change to a slick white head makes any Banjo I own too bright for my tastes. And I know any bridge with bone inserts tends to sound too brilliant for my ears. I tend to not like archtop, despite owning one, as they tend to sound too brilliant to me. I’m very sensitive to overly brilliant tone as I have one ear it starts to bother, I only notice this with steel string banjos and telecasters. You may be losing part of your hearing range, making your banjo sound duller and duller also. Good luck.

steve davis - Posted - 06/03/2023:  09:13:02

I feel it better to have the tried and true maple rim for any snappy projection and mellowing (if necessary) with tried and true methods such as bridge wood choices of maple,sycamore,walnut,rosewood or mahogany.I didn't mention cherry because I never met a cherry bridge I liked.Then again I've made a couple by request.

Knee mutes were nice for knocking down the tone if that's what one would want, though I haven't seen any knee mute kits for sale.
Head material and tension offer their own range of tones.
String choice is also quite a variable.

With just these choices the combinations are exponential.

MickeyReeves - Posted - 06/03/2023:  15:13:03

The head tension is definitely something I will continue to play with. I think the consensus is pretty clear that the setup is probably off on the banjo. It is probably not set up very well. I'd have to ship it somewhere; the local music store is a start but I'd really like someone on Robin's level to look at / change the rim.

I might also just look into a whole new tone pot assembly at this point and use my exisiting neck.

The low D just sounds like rubber. I changed my strings 6 hours ago then played for a few. The banjo doesnt really 'resonate' or vibrate when you play it. I've played mastertones that just the whole thing almost vibrates like a huge speaker when you play it.

Its a beauty, though. I really appreciate all the replies and responses.

rcc56 - Posted - 06/03/2023:  15:28:37

You describe a dull sound.  That's not normal for a well made banjo with a Gibsonesque tone ring.

I suspect a problem with the head.  I'd take it off and inspect it very carefully for tears or loose spots around the edges.

Edited by - rcc56 on 06/03/2023 15:32:11

steve davis - Posted - 06/04/2023:  06:06:12

A fine banjo can sound like junk with a poor set-up.

pfolmar - Posted - 06/09/2023:  17:34:46

Which tone ring did he put into it? Mahogany works great with some tone rings, not so good with others. I experimented with mahogany rims and had to change some out. Red maple or hard rock maple again depends on what tone ring you have. I had a Cox Kentucky five tone ring that was a disappointment until it met up with a tony pass birch rim-then magic happened. Like any marriage, you need the right mate.

pfolmar - Posted - 06/09/2023:  17:37:31

Of course, make sure the setup is done first before major changes.

Helix - Posted - 06/10/2023:  09:41:08

5strings3picks1banjo Thank you, Leon.

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