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Feb 16, 2017 - 5:20:28 PM
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easy

USA

43 posts
Joined Jan 23, 2009

Hello friends.  I'm building a banjo from the ground up, and think I'd like to go with a block rim.  First off, for those who've owned/played one or more, do they, in fact, seem superior to bent rims?  Pros/cons?  Next, which would you recommend?  I've heard/read good things about both Tony Pass and Helix, are there others of their caliber on the market?  Also, I've read that decreasing the wood to metal ratio can help me achieve the sound I'm going for (good and plunky with a strong attack and quick decay) <http://www.banjohangout.org/topic/325798>, so I'm attracted to Pass' thinskirt.

Finally, is there anyone who would recommend against a block rim, that I might achieve a better sound with a more traditional rim?  Thanks in advance,

David

Feb 16, 2017 - 6:07:44 PM
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756 posts
Joined Jan 26, 2012

Here we go. Give me a minute to make some popcorn before the show starts.....

 

But seriously, it's all very subjective. For starters, what type of playing do you do- bluegrass, clawhammer, etc?

Feb 16, 2017 - 6:25:36 PM

424 posts
Joined Nov 25, 2014

Ooh...someone say popcorn! Let the games begin! Too personal a question without knowing your intended outcome. I personally like Ken Levans finger jointed rims, to much work for me though. I had great success with traditional block rim..Walnut, with walnut neck, Renaissance head. Good luck! I need more butter.......
Feb 16, 2017 - 6:28 PM

424 posts
Joined Nov 25, 2014

Oops, not sure how I missed your intended outcome, pass rims are nice!
Feb 16, 2017 - 7:00:10 PM
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DeanT

USA

35667 posts
Joined Jul 28, 2005

I've owned both a Helix and a Pass ring. The Pass ring was absolutely beautiful, and perfectly made. It was a work of art, and flawless. The Helix rim however, totally kicked the Pass rim's ass, for tone and volume. Both banjos were woodies (no tone ring). The Helix rim is the only non tone-ringed banjo that I've had, that could keep up in an acoustic jam.

Feb 16, 2017 - 9:30:08 PM
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624 posts
Joined Mar 23, 2006

I have an open-back Cedar Mountain model L-2 with a rosewood block construction and integrated tone rim.  It was made by Lo Gordon around 1998 and I am confident that his son, Tim Gardener who has taken over the workshop, makes the same rim with the same qualities.  Everyone who hears it comments on the very strong volume.  The tone of course is more of a personal taste, and I have tried several set-up options -- action, string gauges, bridge, head -- to settle  on the tone that I like. 

Feb 17, 2017 - 4:55:51 AM
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2809 posts
Joined May 12, 2010

My Cloverlick banjo has a Tony Pass rim from 2006, so was made by Tony Pass. It is a fine banjo, sounds great, but the rim is only one part of the whole.

I have used several block rims made by Zach Hoyt (BHO member), and they are fine rims too.

I have also used laminated Maple rims from Cooperman, and the last banjo I built I used a laminated Walnut rim from Balsam Banjo Works. Both of these produce exceptionally well made laminated rims.

I like the looks of a laminated rim better, and I don't like cutting a big square hole in a block rim for the dowel mortise, so use a laminated rim when building with a dowel, or when building with a thinner rim.

If coordinator rods are to be used in the construction I always use a laminated rim, because I have seen more than one block rim ruined by folks over tightening coordinator rods. A block rim is not designed to flex .

I build some banjos for a couple of people who prefer a thick (3/4") rim, with bolt on necks (take down design for air travel). I use block rims for those.

I was very impressed with the quality of the Balsam laminated rim, and will use more of those soon.

As to sound, what matters more than rim construction is the mass, thickness, type of wood, and the size of the air chamber.

There are plenty of folks who claim otherwise, but I don't think most people could tell the difference between the two types provided they were quality rims of the same dimensions, and wood variety.

Edited by - OldPappy on 02/17/2017 05:00:12

Feb 17, 2017 - 5:57:59 AM

rudy Players Union Member

USA

11237 posts
Joined Mar 27, 2004

quote:
Originally posted by easy

Hello friends.  I'm building a banjo from the ground up, and think I'd like to go with a block rim.  First off, for those who've owned/played one or more, do they, in fact, seem superior to bent rims?  Pros/cons?  Next, which would you recommend?  I've heard/read good things about both Tony Pass and Helix, are there others of their caliber on the market?  Also, I've read that decreasing the wood to metal ratio can help me achieve the sound I'm going for (good and plunky with a strong attack and quick decay) , so I'm attracted to Pass' thinskirt.

Finally, is there anyone who would recommend against a block rim, that I might achieve a better sound with a more traditional rim?  Thanks in advance,

David


Hi David,

All good questions that show the direction that you'd like to take for achieving the desired sound.

First, OldPappy covered the answers well, so that covers a large portion of your considerations.  I'd add that you examine the construction of many open backs that meet the qualifications of the sound you're going towards.  There's a reason that many well-respected small shop makers use relatively thin-shelled laminate rims for open backs that are built to achieve the sound qualities that most frailers look for when looking for a modern era banjo.  Heavy wall block rims can't sound fine to a player that's looking for a given tonal quality, but it doesn't seem like that would be the direction you are looking for.

Another part of what contributes to your enjoyment of a banjo that you've invested time and money in making is the look of the instrument, and should consider the number of hours that you'll have it in front of you.  Some types of rims are physically more attractive than others, and it does contribute to the playing experience.

Whatever you decide to use do consider that if the rim shows unattractive glue joints it's not going to get any better with time.  If glue joints are plainly visible on the surface that means the mating ends of the wood segments aren't any better inside the rim.  You're investing a considerable amount of time and money with your build, so make sure it's something you'll be proud of, will please your visual sensibilities, and has the best chance of matching your tonal expectations.

Feb 17, 2017 - 6:32:37 AM
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Fathand

Canada

10343 posts
Joined Feb 7, 2008

Since you are building from the "ground up", the Helix and Pass rims are a moot point unless you are trying to reproduce what they do.

Study the construction of each and compare to the shop equipment you have available, or are willing to purchase, and your comfort level in all of the construction steps. There is a recent thread on BHO about Stelling Rim preferences and they are both popular.

Feb 17, 2017 - 7:43:11 AM
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13174 posts
Joined Mar 6, 2006

Randall Wyatt makes as good a block rim as anyone, so add his name to your list of builders.

Feb 18, 2017 - 6:18:24 AM
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ken61

USA

1505 posts
Joined Jun 7, 2005

David

Let me offer some thoughts on this subject. I am not being negative here , just trying to be objective.

I teach a banjo building class where my students build banjos, both openback and resonator types. We make all the wooden parts except the fretboards and soon we will be doing those.

We have built nearly 70 banjos in this class and I have built about 13 for myself.

There is a huge number of parts on a banjo , all of which contribute to the overall sound.

There is a tremendous amount of anecdotal evidence regarding how the various parts affect the sound of a banjo, but VERY LITTLE true scientific data.

Looking at a pile of parts on the table, I do not believe it is possible for ANYONE to predict the sound quality which will come from those parts when incorporated into a playable banjo.

A rim can be purchased for anywhere from $50 to $250. Depending on the banjo design and the parts chosen for quality this can be a small percentage or a significant percentage of the total cost.

There are many quality rims available in the block format including Pass, Helix, LeVan, and many others.including mine whicih I rarely offer for sale. Among these the designs vary greatly and the wood species can vary greatly. About the only things constant about rims is they are round, often 11 inches in diameter, made of wood. Everything else is a variable added to the variable nature of every other part in a banjo.

Prediction is not possible---I know, some will still argue and it makes for good conversation , but little efficient prediction.

Choose a rim, build your banjo, enjoy the sound, or change the rim for another and try it again to see if you like it better or not. Sell the rims you do not like and the overall cost is not that great.

Remember, all the other parts and the setup of the instrument will be having an effect on the sound you hear including the weather .

Of all the banjos we built in my class and those built by me for myself, I never said, after proper setup, I hate this banjo.

All banjos do not sound alike, nor should they, nor should we expect them to .

Enjoy your build and your banjo.

ken61

Feb 18, 2017 - 5:18:50 PM

15 posts
Joined Feb 4, 2010

I own a Helix Jackrabbit. It's made of bamboo. My son has a Deering basic. The Jackrabbit is a hair over 5 lbs. with the resonator. It does not have a flange so the resonator is held on with magnets. The helix is not quite as loud as the Deering Basic. They are 2 different animals. I've been pleased with the sound and loudness of the Bamboo Helix. So, the power to weight ratio has been great. I think it may have something to do with the block design that Larry uses. One note. The block rim appears easy to repair also. The post office broke the rim of the banjo during return shipment from Larry. I had him upgrade the rim with spoons. Not only did they break the rim, they broke the tone ring also. Larry fixed it with no problem. Not exactly sure how he did the magic. I can only guess that if the rim was other than a block construction, it would have been beyond repair.

Feb 18, 2017 - 5:40:59 PM

424 posts
Joined Nov 25, 2014

My block rim was walnut. My test rim I could stand on and throw around the woodshed and it wouldn't break. How did they manage that??!!
Feb 18, 2017 - 6:32:13 PM

15 posts
Joined Feb 4, 2010

Feb 18, 2017 - 6:33:48 PM

15 posts
Joined Feb 4, 2010

Never could figure it out. The outer packing was not damaged. Larry was scratching his head also. I"m just glad it was fixable. No problems since the repair and the banjo is played almost daily and travels out of the house in the case once a week.

Feb 20, 2017 - 10:22:19 AM

wizofos Players Union Member

USA

3943 posts
Joined Aug 19, 2012

Just a thought about Helix vs Block Rims. 
The Helix rim is only 8 pieces of wood vs about 3-4 times that many pieces and the increased number of glue joints for a block rim. 
The Helix rims are one solid piece from bottom to top so no planing or sanding to get the glue joints for the layers flat and smooth.  Basically with a block rim you are building 3-4 rims then stacking them. 

This has nothing to do with the sound or tone of the rim but with  my perception of ease of building.  Less glue joints, less cutting, less work.
 

Feb 21, 2017 - 5:33:23 AM

Helix Players Union Member

USA

10245 posts
Joined Aug 30, 2006

All the rims have the same board feet and circumference, it's how you use the tone ring and the grain together. People can split hairs, but the math don't fib.

All of these kinds of rims, we hear at the jam and there is a TELL, a character and characteristic struggle to be heard, people work harder with various rigs. More carpal tunnel. Some banjos require silence from the crowd to be heard.

Go ahead, use a thin drum shell, it makes a fine banjo, but it's only one way to do it,

Now lay each type of rim out flat and show them side by side and extreme differences appear which have direct relation to how the banjo will perform. And we could demonstrate that side by side, given a few subjective variables.

1.Laminated rim or lammies are 3 strips stacked on each other, glue all over the inside lam. Straight grain
2. Finger jointed is still straight grain.
3. Brick rims use straight grain, Tony Pass and others say virtual 100% solid, quarter sawn, straight grain, inside shaped like a bell. Brick rims have glue on 4 of 6 sides of the inside tier.
4. Vertical stave rims are like a solid walkway with pavers. Vertical grain
5. The Helix type rim is angled at 45 degrees like a caterpillar tractor so the Virtual depth on a 3" rim is 4.24" Angled grain , more contact with the end grain and tone ring , the signal follows the grain
6. The McDow type rim is a solid ring, no joints, straight grain, one piece of wood, very well thought out,

Now choose yer poison and get in there, dive, dive.


Feb 21, 2017 - 7:32:06 AM
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13174 posts
Joined Mar 6, 2006

The direction of the grain and relation to the tonering sitting upon it  being "better" is based upon anecdotal evidences. There are fantastic sounding banjos made from both block and traditional 3 ply rims. The main contributing factor to tone in a rim is well seasoned  wood, skillfully made and assembled and properly fitted to the tone ring.  Any well made rim will sound "different" from another, depending on the individual pieces of wood and how the rim is built and most importantly, what the other parts are in said banjo and how it is set up. 

Feb 21, 2017 - 10:45:37 AM
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Ken LeVan Players Union Member

USA

10137 posts
Joined Jun 29, 2005

What Banjophobic says.

There is way way way too much energy spent trying to determine which method of construction or "brand"of rim is the be-all and end-all.  In truth, the rim is just one part of a banjo, and not the most important one.  We all wish there was a "silver bullet" and you could predict how a given rim will perform, but it's not so. If anyone says they can consistently make rims that perform the same way every time - that's just BS or hype - the voodoo nonsense is a lot of fun, but not serious. It diverts your attention from what's really important.

One Tony Pass rim is necessarily different than the next one on the pile because of the wood it's made from, BUT you can count on the fact that they are always well-made from good wood and all have well-made tight joints and a predictable stiffness - they won't break themselves apart because of poor joinery, shear stress failure across the glue joints caused by radial expansion, and you can't squeeze one of those rims into an oval.

Stiffness is an extremely important attribute of  banjo rims for several reasons. Then you have the physical dimensions: thickness, depth and weight - Then you need to be able to alter the blank to fit it to the other parts.

The rim has to be made to fit the individual banjo design, and the physical dimensions and species of wood are more important than the method of construction (providing the method of construction is a sound one).

The two predominant rim making methods, laminated and block construction, became the standards because they are predictably stiff, and in the case of traditional laminated ones, you can make a very thin rim without giving up structural integrity.  Block rims, the "new kid on the block" are popular because they are easy to make in a typical shop and the grain can be properly oriented,they are plenty stiff, and they are versatile. They work for Tony Pass because he can turn the bottom of the inside thinner to make a "thin skirt" without having to worry about lamination glue-lines. These rims always have the grain running horizontally around the rim because wood expands across the grain, not end-to end, which is why a rim made with the grain running horizontally is more stable than one with the grain running up-and down, and that's why most rims are made that way.

I make laminated rims, block rims, finger-jointed rims and and hybrid kinds with a combination of block or finger-jointed cores and laminations - ALL made with good wood and good tight glue joints and the grain running in a stable direction. No one kind is intrinsically better than the others.  I will say that again - no one kind is intrinsically better than the others.  There is basically no difference in the quality sound they will produce when made into a banjo.  The critical variables are the dimensions the wood, and the design of the pot.

In the past two months I have made 4 banjos - (1) An openback with a finger-jointed cherry rim with a walnut lamination, (2) a bluegrass one with a cherry block rim, (3) a frailing banjo with a finger-jointed cherry rim with a cherry lamination (for which I made an alternate laminated cherry-beech rim for comparison), and a longneck openback with a Vega-esque 7-ply laminated maple and beech rim with 2 alternating laminations.  The rims for each of these had different dimensions, were for different kinds of banjos, and the rim construction method was chosen because of the specific requirements of the banjo, not because of some slavish and stubborn adherence to a particular method I am invested in (I am not invested in any single method).  I am starting on another one right now, and haven't decided which way to go yet. 

Feb 22, 2017 - 4:01:36 AM

Helix Players Union Member

USA

10245 posts
Joined Aug 30, 2006

Easy, it's your thread, are you getting enough information? Boulding and Levan have responded with their AMAZING opinions, see how they have grown?

It's your project, from a building point of view, you are free to examine all these opinions and either build a certain type of rim or gather more information, the sound you are looking for can definitely be built in.

Nobody even mentioned knock note, and how to use it.

As far as traditions and anecdotes, those are just the changing tides, people want what works, don't be afraid to ask, don't forget to ask what their banjos weigh, that's another TELL.

Feb 22, 2017 - 10:00:04 AM
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6259 posts
Joined Jan 7, 2005

Chasing after the ultimate rim, or the ultimate tone ring, etc. I put into the same category as magnet therapy or shark cartilage pills. Or the belief that a $350 Lie-Nielsen bronze smoothing plane will build better furniture than a $25 19th century Stanley plane. Or that a pre-war Mastertone will make you a better banjo player than a well designed new instrument. We're always looking for the magic fix. 

 

It's not hard to pin down what makes a banjo sound the way we want it to sound. Look at the bluegrass banjo. Nearly all of them have heavy rims, heavy tone ring, plastic head, steep break angle and resonator. The traditional player wears a cowboy hat and a tie. The result is perfect for the idiom. Some banjos are better than others, but almost any bluegrass banjo will be better for playing bluegrass than will the best of the old-timey banjos. 

 

Alternately, the typical old time banjo has a lightweight rim, skin head, short tailpiece, no resonator, shallower break angle, light weight, simple or no tone ring, few brackets, and fret scoop. The old timey player wears no hat, or maybe a fedora, vest and rolled up sleeves. there are few bluegrass banjos that an old timey player would be happy with. 

 

Those are the things that have the most predictable effect on the sound coming out of the banjo. There are side growths of each ideom that play variations on the theme, but I see basically the two most popular formats, each with it's own list of instrument design preferences. There are, of course, subdivisions. For example, the church of Earl Scruggs has it's own liturgy, while the progressive bluegrassers are allowed a bit more special dispensation. 

 

I won't even get into the four string players, who seem to be less rigid in their preferences, or the "classic" group which has its own unique needs. Or for that matter, the historical folks who play gourd banjos, etc. The one thing the best of them have in common is the use of tried and true design principles coupled with good craftsmanship and proper woods. That does not mean that there’s no room for experimentation. That’s part of the fun of the instrument. But the most popular examples of all banjo styles still tend to be remarkably similar to designs that were developed long ago, and while sometimes equalled, are rarely improved upon. 

 

DD

 
Feb 22, 2017 - 11:34:34 AM

rudy Players Union Member

USA

11237 posts
Joined Mar 27, 2004

My thanks particularly to Ken and Dan for bringing clarity to senseless chaos.  Absolutely nothing wrong with tradition combined with good common sense, and it once again reassures us that skillful joinery and proper attention to well-made glue joints will go a long way toward creating rims that stay together for the long haul.

First and foremost, an instrument of any type has to follow the rules of maintaining mechanical integrity.  Only then can we move toward the possibility of refining sound characteristics.

Feb 22, 2017 - 12:50:12 PM

424 posts
Joined Nov 25, 2014

My bottle cap cheapo banjo was really plunckity.....new head and little modifying and it sounded like a banjo lol
Feb 22, 2017 - 2:33:17 PM

13174 posts
Joined Mar 6, 2006

quote:
Originally posted by Helix
 


Nobody even mentioned knock note, and how to use it.

As far as traditions and anecdotes, those are just the changing tides, people want what works, don't be afraid to ask, don't forget to ask what their banjos weigh, that's another TELL.


Ok, I'll mention a knock note, tell me how a knock note on a rim is going to predict how it will sound on every banjo. My banjo weighs 11 pounds and sounds amazing. I've had banjos in the shop that weighed 6 lbs that sounded great, and a Great Lakes top tension that weighed probably 15 lbs that sounds great, so what's the point of that?

Feb 22, 2017 - 2:58:27 PM

6259 posts
Joined Jan 7, 2005

Knock notes are relevant in guitar tops. And most of the great luthiers use it for determining the stiffness and resonance of a particular piece of tone wood. The rim of a banjo has no relationship to the soundboard of the guitar. If anything, it is counterpart to the sides of the guitar--which are nearly insignificant in the ultimate sound of the guitar--and IMHO, equally insignificant in the sound quality of the banjo. 

On a banjo, the head is the counterpart of the soundboard on a guitar, and is highly relevant in it's contribution to the banjo's tone. Knock notes on the head signal significant differences in tone quality. Tighten the head on a banjo to a higher pitch, and the response of the head becomes quite different than a head which is loose. Change out the wood species or grain direction, or glue surface on a rim and you experience only minor differences. The depth of the rim is of more importance in my experience, than the construction details. 

I do not mean to belittle rim builders, as the rim has it's own importance as as stable support for the head. And it plays a serious role in the solidity and stability of the pot. Once again, construction quality separates a good one from a bad one. But not necessarily an expensive one from an affordable one. 

DD

Feb 22, 2017 - 6:09:42 PM

rudy Players Union Member

USA

11237 posts
Joined Mar 27, 2004

quote:
Originally posted by Helix

Easy, it's your thread, are you getting enough information? Boulding and Levan have responded with their AMAZING opinions, see how they have grown?

It's your project, from a building point of view, you are free to examine all these opinions and either build a certain type of rim or gather more information, the sound you are looking for can definitely be built in.

Nobody even mentioned knock note, and how to use it.

As far as traditions and anecdotes, those are just the changing tides, people want what works, don't be afraid to ask, don't forget to ask what their banjos weigh, that's another TELL.


Might be an obvious reason for that.

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