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Nov 9, 2018 - 9:02:18 AM
60 posts since 11/27/2017

On the tenor banjo I've been working on, the skin head keeps stretching. I know this is common, normal even. However, I've not had any experience with natural heads, only prefabs. So please excuse my novice questions.

From comments on my other post, this is likely a Slingerland, maybe a May-Bell, although there are not many embellishments, only an inlaid star on the peg head. The fretboard has white dots but there are no side markings. (I may add some at a later time). After I put some Planetary tuning machines on, I was given the original friction tuners. At some point I may put them back on, but the peg holes were already drilled out and guitar tuners installed, so..... But the banjo wouldn't fit in the hard case with guitar tuners, and they looked like they didn't belong, so I went ahead and put the others on. The originals were supposedly slipping, but I haven't investigated if it was just a loose tension screw.

The pot appears to be burled maple or cherry, and the tone ring is plain round bar stock, maybe aluminum based on the corrosion (white) when I took it apart to work on the neck to dowel joint.

So back to the problem. The head keeps stretching. It is an old Rogers head and some on hear have suggested that I should preserve it if possible. So I've been using it, and every couple of days it needs a little more tightening.

The pot is 10 3/4" and if I replace the head it will likely be with a Renaissance. or Fiberskyn so I would set the existing head aside in a safe place. But it seems to me that it would last better by using it, just based on my experience with leather goods in general. Unused leather gets stiff, is subject to mold, mildew, etc., and in general doesn't hold up as well as that which receives respectful use.

My questions are, is there a way to gauge how many times/how much I can keep stretching this head before doing harm? Should I just resign myself to it being stretched sometimes (humid weather) and get a little higher bridge?

Any advice here is welcome. As I said, I'm a relative novice with banjos and have no experience with natural heads.

I'm also going to order a slightly higher bridge. This one is supposed to be 1/2" but in reality is just under that. I'm thinking 5/8" would be appropriate as I'm getting a little buzz when the head stretches.

Thanks!






 

Nov 9, 2018 - 11:21:54 AM
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591 posts since 9/29/2009
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Most of those Slingerland tension hoops are only 3/8" deep at the neck notch. I find that hair dryer works well instead of stretching the head so many times that the tension hoop is sitting lower than the fretboard. It only takes a minute or two of warming the skin to see the string height getting higher.

Edited by - Billybiltbanjo on 11/09/2018 11:26:32

Nov 9, 2018 - 11:45:33 AM
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5081 posts since 8/28/2013

If you have to tighten things up every couple of days, I would suspect that there's something wrong with the head, like a small tear where you can't see it. Either that or you are leaving the banjo in an unheated shop or workroom then bringing it in the house to play. Skins need periodic adjusting (sometimes they even need to be loosened), but usually not as often as every couple of days unless there are some serious weather changes or some kind of head damage.

I wouldn't go to a 5/8 inch bridge until you solve the problem with the head. When the tension is correct and not slipping, you may find that the banjo plays fine with the 1/2 inch bridge.

This banjo is most likely birdseye maple stained a darker color. That was pretty usual with Slingerlands. The tone hoop, despite the white crud, is actually probably steel. See if a magnet sticks.

You won't be able to remount the original friction tuners unless you dowel up the peghead holes and redrill for a smallre size, but I suspect you already know that.

Also, just so you know, May Bell and Slingerland were made by the same company, and many of the models overlap. Slingerland also made banjos for other suppliers. I, myself, have an obvious Slingerland tenor that's marked "Washuington," and there were many "Concertone" banjos made by Slingerland. It's kind of like all those identical modern Asian bottlecap banjos with all the different names on them, but the Slingerlands were much better banjos.

Nov 9, 2018 - 12:10 PM

60 posts since 11/27/2017

Thanks Billybiltbanjo , I was wondering if that would cause stress to the head. You are correct, the tension hoop is already sitting as low as I would like to see it. That's another reason I haven't been too quick to tighten it further. I suppose the same could be accomplished with a heat gun if I take care not to hold it too close. Not sure I have a blow dryer.

Nov 9, 2018 - 12:22:53 PM

591 posts since 9/29/2009
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Justa Country Girl.. I see in the picture that it is sitting a little low at the neck but more of a concern would be if your nice Presto tailpiece digs into the head with a few more tightenings.

Nov 9, 2018 - 12:24:29 PM

60 posts since 11/27/2017

George @G Edward Porgie, the big problem is we live in an old house with no air conditioning. It's been raining for-EV-er this year and it has played havoc on this poor head. The person who had it before me had it out in his workshop, again with no A/C. and the head was already over-stretched I suspect. I took it off for a while while I worked on the neck, and I was hoping that it would hold its shape better. When I first put it back on there was a fair amount of tension, but as it settled in it has stretched back to where it was when it was brought to me.

Yes, I know that I would have to plug the holes. I'm not intimidated by that at all. But that's another project and can wait. It's in fairly good, usable condition, so we'll play it for a while. Maybe the next set of strings or so will see the original tuners go back on, maybe not.

When the banjo was brought to me it had a home-made bridge that was around 5/16" tall. (Image attached) It was almost as wide at the base as it was tall. The head was not tight and the banjo sounded muffled. The reason he had made the bridge was to lower the action to where he could play it because the neck was not right. The top of the fretboard was even with the top of the head.

This project has been educational and enjoyable. I love seeing vintage instruments come back to life. But I want to do it justice, so that's why I asked about the head.

Thanks!


 

Nov 9, 2018 - 12:28:58 PM

60 posts since 11/27/2017

quote:
Originally posted by Billybiltbanjo

Justa Country Girl.. I see in the picture that it is sitting a little low at the neck but more of a concern would be if your nice Presto tailpiece digs into the head with a few more tightenings.


Well, when I got it the tailpiece was sitting ON the head.  I raised it and it is actually floating just above the head, even when the head is tight.  We watch when we tighten the head to make sure it doesn't become an issue.  But thanks for pointing that out.  I've been keeping an eye on that and it seems to be seated well, not moving.

But that was another reason I was considering a slightly higher bridge, to get a better angle on the strings to the tailpiece.  It seems just a bit flat there.

Edited by - Justa Country Girl on 11/09/2018 12:42:15

Nov 9, 2018 - 8:40:24 PM

5081 posts since 8/28/2013

It looks to me as though there is still a little bit of room left for tightening the head. I wouldn't worry about the tailpiece, since you already know that it shouldn't be resting on the head.

The Presto tailpiece was made to be adjustable, so the down-force can be made greater without needing a taller bridge, but this one may be missing the screw that adjusts it. There should be a treaded hole in the back of the tailpiece, and a machine screw can probably be found to fit it. (Many people remove the screw because they can mark up the banjo rim.)

I still wouldn't try a 5/8 inch bridge until you have the head tension right. First things first, as they say. Once head tension is right, a taller bridge might prove to be too tall and raise the action so the banjo is no longer fun to play.

Nov 10, 2018 - 4:39:29 AM
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carlb

USA

1879 posts since 12/16/2007

Instead of tightening the head, you might try a Tally Tone Enhancer (wine cork cut to just fit between the skin and the dowel stick; position can be changed with changing humidity or to your tone preference).


Nov 10, 2018 - 5:04:34 AM
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68 posts since 3/6/2006

I never had a skin head continue to stretch after it settled in. I am wondering if the skin is unwinding itself from the flesh hoop as you tighten. Just a thought. Can you still see the edge of the skin where it was cut with a razor after installed?

I have seen a number of skin heads that ended up stretching too far resulting in a low tension hoop, but I think they were probably installed without allowing for that initial stretch that is necessary at installation.

Larry

Nov 10, 2018 - 5:56:37 AM
Players Union Member

Helix

USA

11469 posts since 8/30/2006

Here's a picture of another "noisy cricket." A Birdseye neck and rim. A Washington indeed.

The white stuff on the flesh hoop is likely from a zinc coated hoop, correct to use a magnet, if it was brass (uncommon) the stuff would have been green, I've only ever seen rusty or zinc coated.

When I installed this new head, I sprayed Clear coat lacquer on the flesh hoop to waterproof. The spray bottle during assembly made it much easier. The damp head tightened itself up overnight, cute little drum now. (The owner plays for his Special Ed. class if they behave.

A heat gun will scorch the head, but a steam iron without the steam or a hairdryer is all you need. Don't touch the iron to the head, just gentle infrared IF you use a new skin head.

Otherwise, what is the diameter of your rim? Off size heads are available. I hate to see somebody get lost in the skin head cul de sac.

The other picture shows a Maybelle tenor for aboard ship, imagine how difficult to keep this head tight.


Edited by - Helix on 11/10/2018 05:59:31

Nov 10, 2018 - 6:11:17 AM
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Helix

USA

11469 posts since 8/30/2006

For performance, there is a secret shown openly in the photo of the front of the May Belle that says US Navy stamp.
See the little "tennis shoes", the ebony plates under the bridge. Some people use pennies like from the buskers on the street in rainy Nollins, Leezyana. So people would install a bridge shim of anything that was handy if the head got to sagging. In orchestra pits that were in cold theaters, people used candles and later light bulbs. That's why guitars began to replace banjos in the '20's. Charlie Poole almost single handedly saved the 5-string from extinction. His mentors were many.

Tongue depressors make dandy bridge feet or tennies. I actually have colored ones imported from China I got at ACE hardware, they're probably radioactive and full of lead. Buyt they are quartersawn lumber.

Personally, I would head for a no maintenance plastic head. I have used planetaries available for just such a project, contact me if you like. Hope this helps.


Edited by - Helix on 11/10/2018 06:11:35

Nov 10, 2018 - 6:16:25 AM
Players Union Member

Helix

USA

11469 posts since 8/30/2006

Way to go Carl Baron, a darn piece of cork.

Edited by - Helix on 11/10/2018 06:16:47

Nov 10, 2018 - 12:46:16 PM

60 posts since 11/27/2017

quote:
Originally posted by larrytoto

I never had a skin head continue to stretch after it settled in. I am wondering if the skin is unwinding itself from the flesh hoop as you tighten. Just a thought. Can you still see the edge of the skin where it was cut with a razor after installed?

I have seen a number of skin heads that ended up stretching too far resulting in a low tension hoop, but I think they were probably installed without allowing for that initial stretch that is necessary at installation.

Larry


Larry I've been keeping an eye on that and no, it is pretty much welded to that flesh hoop.  The head was put on the banjo decades ago.  I can still see the trimmed edge all the way around.

Nov 10, 2018 - 12:55:54 PM

60 posts since 11/27/2017

Helix I wouldn't hold a heat gun close enough to scorch, I'd use my hand to gauge the temperature. If it is too hot to blow on my had it's too close. But winter is coming and with it dry air, so we shouldn't have trouble for a while. :-)

I've thought about putting a modern head on this but everyone's out of the 10 3/4" heads at the moment. But I'm having fun with it anyway. It's different from the 5-string, but a really neat sound. When I get a little better maybe I'll post a sound file. But for now, I don't want to insult your ears! :-)

Nov 11, 2018 - 3:43:27 AM

82 posts since 7/14/2017

As you already have planetaries I wouldn't rush to reinstall the original friction tuners. I have the original frictions on my 1920s tenor and they work just about adequately (with the addition of spring [crinkle] washers) but they certainly don't work well! A 1:1 ratio makes steel strings tough to tune accurately.

My skin head (new) doesn't seem to need adjustment, but here in the UK we don't heat our houses as hot as in the US and our humidity and temperature swings are less dramatic.

Nov 12, 2018 - 9:58:30 AM

60 posts since 11/27/2017

Update.....

It seems that I was not as patient as I should have been. The head had been removed in order to repair the neck and do a general cleaning/setup. It seems that I just hadn't stretched the skin to the point it had been before it was removed. Once it reached that level it seems to have settled in and doesn't fluctuate as much.

I'll still want a higher bridge, and probably a better one. This was a $6.00 bridge I had ordered before I ever saw the banjo in person. Now that we have things in working order it's worth putting a little more into things like the bridge to tweak the sound and action.

Thanks for all the input and advice! It's great that you guys share your knowledge and experience so freely.

Nov 12, 2018 - 1:10:47 PM

5081 posts since 8/28/2013

quote:
Originally posted by Justa Country Girl

Update.....

It seems that I was not as patient as I should have been. The head had been removed in order to repair the neck and do a general cleaning/setup. It seems that I just hadn't stretched the skin to the point it had been before it was removed. Once it reached that level it seems to have settled in and doesn't fluctuate as much.

I'll still want a higher bridge, and probably a better one. This was a $6.00 bridge I had ordered before I ever saw the banjo in person. Now that we have things in working order it's worth putting a little more into things like the bridge to tweak the sound and action.

Thanks for all the input and advice! It's great that you guys share your knowledge and experience so freely.


Yes, it does take a while for a natural hide head to settle down when it's been removed then replaced. It usually doesn't take too long, but perhaps it has been damp in your area.

I would take an earlier suggestion about putting pop sickle sticks or shims of some sort under the current bridge. That way, you can determine just how tall you can go with a new bridge before it affects the string height too much. I'll add that there isn't as wide a bridge choice for 4 string banjos as for 5 stringers, but you can probably find a custom bridge maker here who would be willing to make one that's actually better than the usual Grovers and eBay cheapos. 

Another thing I've found with Slingerland banjos: they have narrow necks, so the string spacing at the bridge should be kept to a minimum or you may push the C string off the fretboard or pull the A string off. I am currently using a genuine old Slingerland bridge, and the string notches are definitely closer together than what is currently available commercially. It measures 1 3/16 inches from the C string to the A string.

Nov 12, 2018 - 4:03:24 PM

60 posts since 11/27/2017

George, I'm beginning to feel like I moved to Seattle! It's rained a LOT lately. Usually we can count on dry weather in July and August with the exception of the occasional afternoon thunderstorm, but for the last two years we've had above average rainfall. It kinda sucks, but it gives me more banjo time. :-)

I will use shims to determine the ideal height before I order a bridge. But I will order a better bridge. I think this old gem deserves it.

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