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Fun with the Squared Eel

Friday, June 8, 2018

Tom on the Squared Eel

I've begun teaching English to Chinese children. These kids are smart and driven (mostly by their parents). The other day I had to do a phonics intensive version of See-Saw Margery Daw so I put down the puppets and ran and grabbed my Squared Eel to play along. The kids are fascinated by my home-built Mike Gregory classic.

I owe a lot to Michael. He single-handledly restored me to the company of active banjo players.  I lost two banjos and two guitars in moving to Washington State with my wife. She went on ahead. We were broke and family invited us to come up and "help" with a sick relative. We were supposedly never going to have to worry about a place to live again. We arrived on a wing and a prayer. We paid my wife's entire disability check for rent and she did all the housework and I did the cooking. That arrangement lasted a year until the friction between the alpha dog and myself (a junkyard dog that isn't impressed by authority figures) became too stressful. We crammed our worldly goods in a storage unit and embarked on a month-long sojourn as homeless people.

God helped us find a place and we settled in. It wasn't long before I began trying to figure out how to get my hands on another banjo. Like the proverbial white knight, in rode Michael Gregory in his top hat and soon I received a package of parts from him which purported to contain almost everything I needed to make a genuine Squared Eel as demonstrated here by Johnny Button. My heart leaped for joy! The parts (below) looked decidedly unsophisticated, but wonderful things often come in simple clothing.

The parts on my kitchen counter.

Mike suggested an alternative head material in the note he sent with it - a plastic soda bottle. That started me on a whole chain of fun modifications to the basic Squared Eel. Briefly my modifications included the soda bottle head, made by cutting apart a 3 liter soda bottle into the largest flat piece possible (by removing the top and bottom). I followed Mike's instruction for assembling the neck, head and base. I stretched the pop bottle plastic over the rectangular head space, put down some powerful glue pressed down the plastic and then proceeded to secure the edges by hammering gold decorative tacks at regular intervals around the head. Then, following directions, I applied a hair dryer to the head and was tickled to see the head stretch taut over the frame. Not only that but after I trimmed the excess plastic it looked marvelous.

One problem!  I set the neck a little too low and with the bridge at standard height over the head was too high over what was to be my fretboard. Mike has this nifty design using old windshield wiper blades for frets, It became clear however I was going to have to add a fretboard material over it. Then I got a Stewart McDonald catalog in the mail and low and behold I found I could get a standard guitar fretboard for about 20 bucks. So I ordered one. Along with it I got a nice bridge and nut precut for a five string banjo.

When the fretboard arrived I found that if I pushed the top of the fretboard up against the nut, I had some gap space at the bottom of the neck between the board and the pot.  The measurement for the bridge put the bridge a little high on the pot. So I measured what the length needed to be to make it into a longneck banjo and lo' and behold, the neck was long enough. Sooooooo, I downloaded a template for a longneck fretboard from the Internet and moved the guitar fretboard so that the top of the fretboard lined up with the third fret mark from the nut. Then I added a thin piece of hardwood the same thickness as the fretboard between the nut and my commercial fretboard and glued it to the top of the neck.

Here's where Mikes wire windshield wiper core frets came in handy. You can also buy fret wire from Stew-Mac if you'd rather. I sawed the fret kerfs into the upper fretboard and tapped the wire into the grooves. I clipped the ends of the fret wire and rounded the rough edges on the ends with my trusty Dremel Moto-Tool. I may one day stain the upper section to match the lower fretboard but at the time I was more interested in finishing the project.  Instead of a tailpiece, I used screws and looped the ends over those. I had to fiddle with the bridge a little to get the strings to the right height. I wound up shortening the bridge and deepening the grooves on the nut, but I wound up with a satisfactory action when I was done.

You may wonder about the width of the guitar fretboard. That worked out to be a surprising bonus deal for a longneck banjo of the sort I wanted. The overlap where the sixth string goes hangs over the top edge of the neck. Once I put in the block for the fifth string, I discovered that the resulting lip allowed me to use a small plastic furniture clamp as a fifth string capo. Best one I ever had!  With a longneck, your capo gets a real workout and this feature allowed me to avoid retuning the fifth string when I went for the lower or higher frets from standard.

One other thing I did, was beef up the headstock by drilling a hole as shown and both gluing and screwing the headstock into place. I made one modification after I took this photo.  I removed the headstock and cut the end of the neck at a slight angle and reglued and rescrewed it into place. The headstock as you can see in the finished photos, is canted back a little bit which gives the strings more purchase against the nut and seems to reduce detuning when you play. You can see the tuners installed in this view.

I next stuck a screw eye on the front edge of the pot and looped an old leather belt and attached the ends to the eye. It made a dandy banjo strap. The final product makes a nice little banjo with a funky soft sound. To ease stress on the neck I used nylon classical guitar strings with an extra e-string for the fifth string. MIke uses fishing line, but I actually had an extra set of classical string in a drawer, so I used those. The tuners were simple standard banjo tuners. The ones I used were nice tuners and don't require a lot of retuning when you're playing it.

I had so much fun making this banjo and I've played it for church services so it sounds pretty good and is easy to play. Here's a video of me playing my new Squared Eel after a four year hiatus from banjo playing. It ain't great, but it's recognizable as Cripple Creek.

Here you can see the basic Squared Eel ready for the fretboard and the finished head attached to the pot. I stained and varnished the wood and put wood button plugs into the screw holes to give the pot a finished look. You can see two of the buttons on the butt end of the pot.

Ready for the installation of the fretboard.

Here you can see down the length of the neck of the finished longneck version of the Eel. You can see where the fretboard overhangs the neck under the fifth string allowing you to use a small furniture clamp to capo the fifth string. You can also see where the commercial fretboard and the add-on fretboard I made. I got some experience installing frets doing that little bit. It was satisfying discovering that I could install frets accurately.

Even if you have a store-bought banjo, this thing is a bunch of fun to build and Michael sells the kit pretty cheaply. Thanks Mike. You're the man!

- Tom

Here's me playing the beast. You can see the headstock and the top 3 frets more clearly here.


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Playing Since: 1973
Experience Level: Novice

[Jamming] [Socializing] [Helping]

Occupation: Freelance Writer, nonprofit consultant & grant writer

Gender: Male
Age: 67

My Instruments:
Squared Eel custom banjo, Goya classical guitar

Favorite Bands/Musicians:
Clancy Brothers, Earl Scruggs, Steve Martin, Connie Dover, Emmy Lou and anyone, Willie Nelson and anyone, Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, Gordon Lightfoot, Alison Kraus, Nickel Creek, Joe Bethancourt

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Visible to: Public
Created 6/26/2007
Last Visit 12/11/2020

I grew up in the small Seventh-day Adventist college town of Keene, Texas where I graduated in 1976 with a degree in English-Communications. I married a Scots-Irish-Indian woman from Monroe, Louisiana and raised three children and some cats and dogs, birds and fish. I’ve taught school, taught swimming, canoeing and sailing, knot tying, camping and astronomy for kids. I’ve water skied on canoe paddles, assorted bits of lumber and my elbows. I have a couple of canoes and a catamaran, 3 guitars, two banjos, a dulcimer, a mandolin, a fiddle, 2 recorders, a penny whistle, fife, a bag of harmonicas, a bodhrain, pair of bones and a jaw harp or two – all of which I play badly. I’ve helped start up 6 nonprofit organizations in 25 years and raised millions of dollars none of which ever managed to stick to my bank account. I’ve won awards for documentary screen-writing, published poetry and short stories and a book on how to organize a charity golf tournament. I was appointed to a two year term on the Public Transportation Advisory Committee for the Great State of Texas by the Governor and I work as an advocate for seniors, people with disabilities and low income families. I’m a Reagan conservative, which puzzles my fellow advocates, who think I should spontaneously combust from the sheer incongruity. On the other hand, I’ve taught them to speak Republican which has improved their rate of success with the state legislature. I am currently raising funds to expand Tiger Creek Wildlife Refuge here in East Texas. My advocacy work includes children’s issues, expanding public transportation, creating barrier free housing and promoting community wide accessibility standards that allow transportation challenged Texans to fully participate in their communities. I have three grandchildren, a son and daughter-in-law, my beautiful daughter and her new husband and we live on beautiful Lake Palestine near Tyler, Texas. My middle son, an amazing young man, passed away more than a year ago while finishing his senior year at UT Tyler. He was going to be a teacher. Since I wrote this, we moved away from the lake, lost almost everything and moved to Puyallup, Washington to live with my wife's sister and brother-in-law. In the midst of a recession and massive unemployment, it seemed to be the thing to do. We've cut our expenses drastically and I'm able to work on finishing up the books I have been working on.

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