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Introducing the Bric-à-Brac Banjo

Posted by stigandr5 on Monday, December 30, 2013

Somewhere during 2013, I got a hankering for a new banjo. Well, a new old banjo, I guess. I have always been fascinated with Gibson’s ball-bearing tone ring design, and I was hoping to find an intact version of this assembly (pre-war, dontcha know?) and mate it to a new neck.

Then I thought to myself, if the pot is going to be old, why not make the neck very, very new? I liked the thought of a multiple-radiused fingerboard, a tunneled 5th string, and unconventional woods. Oh, and I wanted 24 frets so as to play two octaves on the D strings in G tuning.

What I ended up with was a series of compromises that ultimately didn’t sacrifice the original inspiration. I found a 1920s Gibson TB ball-bearing banjo for $150, removed the neck, cleaned up the parts, and plugged up the dowel hole.

I bought an unfinished Harmony neck blank off eBay from some guy in Georgia and plugged that dowel hole, too, in addition to the 5th string peg (no need with a tunnel!). My uncle had given me a gorgeous piece of white oak that was cut somewhere in south-central Illinois that I had been hanging on to for some special project. It almost looks spalted, if such a thing exists in white oak lumber. I decided it would make a fine fingerboard.

After roughing out the shape of the fingerboard, I carved out a channel for the piece of steel microtubing that would house the 5th string. I also carved a wee cavity for a special something in the lower reaches of the fingerboard. It gives a nice rattle and a little no sé que. I set the 5th string tunnel with some epoxy and then glued up the neck and fingerboard.

It was looking good. Next, I drilled holes for the furniture lag bolts that would ultimately join the neck to the pot. Bye bye, dowels and coordinator rods. Then I stretched a fresh goatskin over the pot.

The neck was fairly clunky at this point–perhaps 1.25 inches thick. I’m all for futozao, but that was a bit excessive. I hogged out a profile that fit my hand better.

There ended up being a lot more fingerboard than neck, but that was fine since the fingerboard was a much harder, stable wood anyway. Next came the woodburning. I always seem to end up defacing/decorating my instruments at some point, so I figured I would beat myself to the punch this time.

 

I got one of the designs from a silver soup spoon.

For finish, I chose Watco Danish Oil with a Golden Oak color. I’d have used tung oil if it was present, but there was a big sale at Home Depot and that’s what they had.

And voila! She’s strung up, singing sweetly, and all set to sail.

Here’s the video debut:

Enjoy!

-N.A.



5 comments on “Introducing the Bric-à-Brac Banjo”

siwla virago Says:
Monday, December 30, 2013 @12:53:22 PM

Aw loved it , and home made too .

banjoshamisenbass Says:
Saturday, January 4, 2014 @10:11:37 PM

Very nice - love the wood burned marks.

stigandr5 Says:
Sunday, January 5, 2014 @7:51:23 AM

Thank you both for reading.

bart_brush Says:
Tuesday, August 19, 2014 @5:13:45 PM

Good sounding banjo and very nice version of "Last Chance." I'm not familiar with the ball bearing tone ring. It looks like the idea is to raise the tone ring up off the rim on the ball bearings. How high are the ball bearings, and how much space does this create between wood rim and tone ring? Also, your first photo shows two tubular rings, one with holes on the top (or bottom?) and one with holes on the inner circumference. Are these stacked one on top of the other? Does the narrower ring (2nd from the bottom in photo) help line align the two tubular rings? Thanks for the advice, Bart Brush

stigandr5 Says:
Saturday, August 23, 2014 @10:02:57 AM

Hi Bart. The ball bearing probably only come above the rim a few milimeters. 3 or 4 mm max I'd say. It's really not that dramatic. One of the rings is actually part of the "flange" for the rim. There are no brackets drilled into the rim. Instead, the ring nests under a wooden shelf on the rim and is held in place by the hook tension. Best, N.A.

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