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Nov 14, 2017 - 12:38:31 PM
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6501 posts since 1/7/2005

So we come to the last part of the resonator construction. That is finishing.

I use short oil varnish on the banjos I make. While I really like the benefits, I am reluctant to recommend the method to beginning banjo makers,

because the process can be somewhat tricky,is time consuming, takes a long time to cure, and has a rather steep learning curve.


That said, I'll add a few notes on how I approach it. 

To begin with, since varnish is so slow to dry, you need to find a fairly dust-free place to do it. For me, it's my back bathroom. 

I don't spray on the varnish but apply it by hand with foam brushes. They lay down the varnish smoothly, and I don't bother cleaning them,

but throw them away and use a new brush for each coat. Since we aren't spraying the finish, there is no problem with overspray. 


I pick up the rugs, vacuum well, close the door and turn on a household air purifier. The purifier pulls any floating dust particles out of the air, 

and keeps them from settling on my wet finish. I lay down some newspaper to catch any drips and support the neck, rim or resonator in some way to suspend it,

yet give me a good handhold for picking it up and turning it around while working. In this case, I clamped the little latch post on the inside in a heavy desk vise. 


I always stain maple, and alter the color as it suits me at the time. So I won't delve into the staining process here, but will assume your piece is already stained,or will not be stained. On the Crow banjo I used maple, so no grain filler was necessary. With walnut or mahogany, or other open grained woods, I would fill the grain before sealing. Once stained I give the wood a coat of sealer. I generally use Zinsser Sealcoat, which is a thinned de-waxed shellac. Keep away from standard hardware store shellac, as it contains waxes, which will keep your varnish from hardening properly. 

The sealer dries quickly, and in an hour I lightly go over it with 0000 steel wool. Just enough to smooth it and create a little tooth for the varnish to grab on to.

I can then give the wood it's first coat of varnish. Depending on the brand of varnish, I usually use it straight out of the can. You have to develop a feel for varnish to determine whether to thin it or not. If too thick, it will sag. If too thin, it won't level properly. It's best to experiment on a piece of scrap wood first. Varnish will dry dust freein a couple of hours, and you want to avoid stirring up dust while it's drying.

I let each coat of varnish cure for at least 24 hours. Then I give it a light scuff sanding to smooth it out and give it more tooth. Varnish dries very glossy, and it needs the tooth to give it a better mechanical bond with the underlying layers. 

Here are my tools for sanding between coats:

I start out with 800 grit wet or dry sandpaper wrapped around a felt block. I dip the paper in water before sanding. You want to use a light touch, as

you don't want to sand down to bare wood, but simply smooth out any bumps, and create a hazy finish. On maple I usually give the wood three or four

coats of varnish with a day's drying time between coats. 


After the last coat, I go over the finish with a damp pad dipped in powdered pumice. Once again, you need to avoid scrubbing through the final layer

or you will have witness lines showing when you buff it out.

I do the final polishing with a fine liquid polishing compound. I would wait a minimum of two weeks before rubbing out. Varnish doesn't reach full hardness for

months, and the longer you let it harden, the better polish it will take. On the resonator I choose to wait two or three months before giving it the final rubbing. 

A final coat of paste wax ( Renaissance is probably best, but any good wax will do ) is optional. 

On the inside of the resonator, I simply stain it and give it a quick coat of de-waxed shellac, applied with a rag. 


One of the last steps on the resonator is to add pieces of felt on all contact surfaces. I've tried many colors, but keep coming back to green.

Use a good quality felt, You can tell by feeling it. The cheap stuff feels flimsy and shreds easily. I lay it down with contact cement. 


And that's how I build a resonator. I hope it was of some interest. My techniques are unconventional at times, but hopefully the results justify the means. 

Thanks for looking. 


Edited by - Dan Drabek on 11/15/2017 07:49:17

Nov 14, 2017 - 4:56:13 PM

4309 posts since 9/7/2009

You are the man, Dan! We have never met, but you are one heck of a craftsman, and I will tell you that face-to-face if we ever meet!

Edited by - BNJOMAKR on 11/14/2017 16:56:40

Nov 14, 2017 - 6:59:30 PM

6501 posts since 1/7/2005

Thanks Marvin. You know I feel the same way about your wonderful work. I think we both build for the pure love of it.


Nov 14, 2017 - 9:17:36 PM

64 posts since 12/29/2009

Dan - I've really enjoyed reading your posts & sent links to my wood-worker son so he could read as well. Your pleasure with the process comes through in how you document it.

I hope you're considering putting a book together - I'm sure others outside the BHO community would enjoy this as well.

Nov 15, 2017 - 2:54:59 AM

592 posts since 11/26/2008

thats gorgeous Dan.

Nov 15, 2017 - 4:59:41 AM

603 posts since 2/16/2017

Exceptionally beautiful work, Dan. I've really enjoyed following this series along.

I'm trying to learn as much as I can about building, so I follow series like these along closely. The time that builders like you, Ken LeVan, Marvin, Rudy, Helix and the many others take to share their knowledge and guidance is really appreciated by me, and I'm sure many others who share this interest.

Thanks again!

Nov 15, 2017 - 7:22:25 AM

66 posts since 5/3/2004

I'm not a builder, but I have loved following your creation of this banjo. Thanks for sharing.

Nov 15, 2017 - 8:29:34 AM



212 posts since 4/27/2013

Love it. Nice job. That natural varnish finish gives a nice warm look for sure.

Since you're in the bathroom anyway... One method for minimizing dust is to use a hot shower spray in the room before your work. Steam up the room, let it settle out all the dust particles, then move your item into place and go to work. The higher humidity at start will obviously slow the initial dry time, but often that works in your favor.

Nov 15, 2017 - 9:06:34 AM

Ken LeVan Players Union Member


10481 posts since 6/29/2005

I can't tell you how much I love that resonator, Dan.

The green cheese moon with the cat is one of the greatest inlay designs I have ever seen - who needs fussy Art Noveau when you can have that?.

Where do you get the felt blocks? - I missed that when I read this the first time.  That is a great thing to have.

I really like that l next-to-last photo with the chisel marks in the resonator, the bronze flange with the MOP dot,  the blue felt, and the purfling on the resonator rim - a study in colors and textures unlike any other banjo.

Nov 15, 2017 - 11:31:12 AM

6501 posts since 1/7/2005

Thank you all for the comments. The construction of the resonator went pretty quickly and seamlessly. There are some things I would do differently, but the actual method of construction worked so well, I have no plans to change it. Clarence, the steam room idea is a great one. I'll probably give it a try on my next one. One thing to remember about oil varnish is that it doesn't dry by evaporation, but dries by polymerization--which I think is a fancy word for oxidation. The more air the varnish is exposed to, the faster it cures. I used to put a fan on it in the past, but the air purifier does a good job of keeping the air moving, as well as pulling the particulates out of the air. I also use a dehumidifier if I'm varnishing on humid days. It really helps.

Hi Ken, thanks for the kind words. I've bought the felt blocks in the past from Rockler Woodworking and more recently from Amazon.

I use them for dulling finishes with pumice and water, which not only dulls the finish on the final coat before polishing, but it can create a dead perfect matte finish that I prefer over steel wool. Recently I've been finishing the peghead face with a high polish, but going to a matte finish on the rear of the peghead. I use another one with polishing liquid for the final rubbing. They have just enough resilience to follow curved surface--like the back of a resonator, or for polishing flat surfaces like a guitar body, but are stiff enough to keep surfaces dead flat. I use a different block for different polishing compounds, and I have a few that I've cut up into smaller pieces for smaller areas. They're very handy for a number of tasks. The one for high gloss I keep in a sealed plastic bag to avoid contamination. With care, they last almost forever.


Nov 15, 2017 - 12:37:21 PM

25 posts since 8/3/2017

Dan, congratulations on an extraordinary piece of work and on such a fine and wonderfully readable posting. I agree with you about brushed or flowed varnish being “tricky”. The ‘full choked’ or so called ‘piano’ finish using oil varnish probably should not be the first go-to for the faint of heart— or for anyone on their first varnishing rodeo ride. This would be a tough go-round even if one had the old fashioned finishing room ‘water-fall washed walls’ and wet sheet tenting. Have had a go at the piano type finish a few times over the years. What’s the old joke: There are those who have messed it up, and those who haven’t yet. My attempts never looked quite as good as yours, I’m afraid. I pretty much stuck with French Polish. I really enjoyed this series, Dan. I admire your craftsmanship. Thanks for letting us watch.

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