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Open-backed tenor banjos in birds-eye maple

Posted by Mike Floorstand on Sunday, July 13, 2014

Here is a nice pair of open-backed 17-fret tenor banjos, both made from birds-eye maple:

In the foreground is a vintage model - maybe 1930s, possibly made by Slingerland (although there are no logos or serial numbers to indicate this, the inlay on the headstock is very similar to some photos of Slingerlands I've seen from that period).Birds-eye maple is an attractive wood, although I suspect the instrument was sold as a student-grade or economy model at the time. The maple has darkened nicely with age - compare it with the second banjo at the back, made by Oakwood in 2014. The vintage model has steel strings, a 21" scale length, and a simple round rod tone ring which sits on top of the rim, held in place by a 10 3/4" head. The Oakwood has nylon strings,  a short 48cm scale length and 11" head, and the rim is capped by an integral wooden (cocobolo) tone ring.

Below is a side-shot of the two banjo heads side by side, with the vintage model again in the foreground. For some reason the vintage model has two dot markers at the 10th fret and only one marker at the 12th. The vintage model has 20 flat tension hooks to hold the grooved tension ring.

The following photo has the Oakwood in the foreground, you can see this has round tension hooks (24 in total) with a notched tension ring. It does not have fret markers on the fretboard itself, though I did get my celtic knot design inlayed at the 12th fret.

Next photo shows the necks side-by-side. The Oakwood has side fret markers; the vintage model has white fretboard binding.

Now let's look at the open backs of the two banjos, both fitted with square dowel sticks. The back of the rim of the vintage model is capped with a darker wood, possibly mahogany.

From the side, again you can see flat hooks on the left and round hooks on the right. I have put a simple wire armrest on the vintage and you can see the single-bracket of the flat armrest I have fitted to the Oakwood.

Up next is a close-up of the headstock inlay on the vintage model, which is very similar to some 1930s Slingerland models. The nut seems very white to me and may be a replacement (I understand the banjo has had a fair amount of restoration work in the past, including re-varnishing).

The Oakwood headstock has a rosewood veneer and simple "O" logo inlayed in  (Oakwood do have a logo spelling the name in full, but I thought it might be too cluttered on a small headstock):

Now for the back of vintage model headstock. Tuners are I believe the original non-geared friction tuners with grained, yellowy buttons. I'm considering replacing these with some modern geared tuners, but it will mean reaming the pegholes which are currently only about 6mm diameter. There is a centre strip of a dark wood running all the way down the neck, this is a bit chipped in places and seems to have shrunk relative to the maple so it's not a particularly smooth neck.

Back of Oakwood headstock (Schaller machines with white buttons), again with rosewood veneer:

Side of vintage headstock, showing yellow tuner buttons and the white fretboard binding:

Side-shot of Oakwood headstock, showing Schaller gearered tuners and the maple headstock sandwiched by rosewood front and back veneers:

Below is a close-up of the vintage head. The tailpiece is a Grover "Presto" style,  plating is a bit worn in parts and I believe could be original -certainly consistent with photos I've seen of 1930s Slingerland banjos. I've mounted the Remo head so the Remo logo is hidden under the tailpiece. I shall probably make a calfskin head for this if I can find or make a flesh hoop of the right size.

Close-up of Oakwood head next. Oakwood normally fit Kershner tailpieces, but I asked for this four-fingered "tensionator" made by ABM I think. The calfskin head is one I fitted - Oakwood supplied a clear plastic head which was very effective at showing off the cocobolo tone ring, but I like the sound of calfskin.

Now look at the vintage heel, capped in some dark wood - maybe mahogany. I believe this is the original neck brace (not particularly well-fitted). The rim is about 2/3".

The Oakwood heel is capped in rosewood and uses a neckbrace with a similar traditional design to the vintage model. The rim is thicker than the vintage model, at 3/4":


One final difference between the two banjos of course, is price. You can see the list prices of Oakwood instruments on their website. The vintage banjo here is a low end instrument and not particularly collectible, so if you can find one on ebay etc. it can probably be had for an order of magnitude less.

That's all folks!

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