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Notes on Skinning a Banjo

Posted by Brooklynbanjoboy on Saturday, February 9, 2013


Here is a blow by blow account of the installation of a new skin.


This is the rim.  It is a simple wooden hoop, from a basic tenor dating from the 1930s or so.  As such, it is a bit ovalized – out of round.  These sometimes present a challenge since there’s not much symmetrical about them.  The skin needs to be stretched with special care to avoid crimping up at points where the tension hoop, flesh hoop and skin come together. 




Below is the tension hoop that came with this rim.  When I remove the rim from the neck and start the task of taking the pot apart I mark the way the tension hope was oriented on the rim – usually placing some signal in the form of tape or pencil marks that shows where the tension hoop sat above the opening for the perch pole or the perch pole exit joint with the rim.  This helps by telling me how to align an ovalized tension hoop with an out of round rim. 




I try to use the original flesh hoop that comes with the pot.  In some instances these were held in circle form by inventive means – thread, glue, piping.  In other instances only the pressure of the fit of the skin held the flesh hoop in position.  I have also used store bought brass rods as well as the circular metallic frame used in hubcaps, and dry cleaner hangers.



When I require a bit of stability I will use metal tape to secure the two ends of the brass rod – and here I’m talking about metal tape of the sort that one might use in securing a disposable vent pipe to a washing machine/dryer setup.  I also use brass tubing to achieve the same joining function on a flesh hoop.   So far, I have not used any sort of weld or solder.  I prefer using ways that are reversible especially since on these out of round rims mid course corrections are often required.  







Here’s the tape in question.




I tend to keep a tub of water on the workbench I use to fit skins.  Again, if a mid-course correction is required (because the flesh hoop needs to be refashioned or adjusted, or the skin proves stubborn or inappropriate for the banjo in question) I want to be able to re-immerse the skin or quickly soak another skin.


Here’s a skin floating in the plastic bin I use as a soaking tub.



So, back to the rim:






I pull the soaking skin out of the plastic bin in which it has been luxuriating in tap water, and drape it over the top of the rim:



I use a 16 inch skin because that gives me the most purchase when I need to grab a hold of the skin to get some tension around the edges as I’m stretching the thing. 


The next thing I do is lay the flesh hoop over the skin.  I try to orient things so that the joint of the flesh hoop is situated above the entry hole for the neck and the dowel dowel stick.  Orienting things this way maximizes the extent to which this flesh hoop joint will be hidden when the deed is done.




I will usually give an original flesh hoop a coat of Rustoleum paint – silver, bronze or black, using whichever paint is the closest in color to the original metal composing the flesh hoop.  This tamps down rust and minimizes the oxidation that results when a wet skin is seated on a rusting flesh hoop. 


Here’s how things look so far:


And here’s the flesh hoop adjusted for depth around the rim:




The next thing I do is place the tension hoop over this, folding the exposed skin that falls outside the flesh hoop under the tension hoop to create the lock, and the means of achieving tension on the skin over the center of the rim.



Here’s how it looks when the skin is tucked through and the tension hoop and flesh hoop are situated in a way that will allow me to achieve that skin tension.



You can see the slack in the middle of the rim where the skin isn’t sitting precisely tensioned evenly across the top largely because of the ovalized shape the rim has assumed over years, and the slight discrepancies that might emerge in sandwiching all this stuff together – flesh hoop, tension hoop and rim.  That ends up creating crimps along the edge of the tension hoopp that look like this:



The goal in this situation is to stretch the skin out along the tension hoop to eliminate these crimps.




Here I’ve ioslated one such crimp and I will manipulate the skin, and as necessary the surfaces of the metal parts – flesh and tension hoop – in the hope of erasing any such folds or crimps. 




The above photo shows a point at which the flesh hoop and the rim meet in a way that exposes more of the hoop, especially on an ovalized section of the rim, so that the hoop doesn’t exactly take the shape of the rim.  That is a recipe for crimps.  And other complications such as not being able to situate the hooks so that they can exert even pressure around the rim. 


When I’m stretching the skin, putting tension on the skin by pulling the sections that flop over the sandwich composed of the flesh hoop/skin/tension hoop, I’m looking to see points at which the skin knows up on the flesh hoop son I can single them out and pull them straight.





In the end, this is what I get:




I tend to set the “excess” skin up by smoothing it out over the tension hoop so that I can cut if off easily.  In this instance, note the way the point at which the two ends of the brass rod that formed the original flesh hoop came together at the entry point for the dowel stick.  The skin pouted a bit there and I had to make adjustments to get it tighter.  Actually, in this case I ended up removing the skin and using another flesh hoop.  The original was too thick and kept slipping under the tension hoop. 


Here’s the end result:




There is one more step.  Some years ago, Bob Smakula of Elkins, West Virginia, a superb instrument repair man and a talented clawhammer player, taught me the value of spraying Scotchguard on a new, dried skin head.  That step helps manage the impact of humidity on the banjo head.   I usually spray twice, for good measure. 


I order my skin heads from a variety of South Asian entrepreneurs.  There are any number of more commercially refined sources here in the U.S. that introduce quality control, bleached white coloring, and other tailored specifications to the product.  However, for me there's something satisfying in the knowledge that Pakistani herdsmen can be shown by their clever capitalist cousins in the U.S. how to cure and shape the product to "code" for modern banjo requirements, and thus contribute to modern day efforts in America to capture the sound and spirit of old time music with its origins in old Africa. 







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