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Dec 7, 2018 - 8:32:17 AM
148 posts since 12/5/2014

I picked up one of those saga kit banjos, it will be here tomorrow. The only reason I bought it is I got it for a ridiculous price and thought it would be fun to put together.

Which that said, I’m looking for some suggestions on a finish. I really would like to find something locally if I could to use on the finish. I know most recommend Stew MAC stains but since this is just a weekend project is there something I can use to achieve an older fashion look to it without having to order and wait on stains?

My google searches has shown stains from big box stores to be pretty much a no no on a stringed instrument. I’ve read talk about tung oil and gun stock oil but would this also act as a stain? I am looking for advice so I didn’t not have to spend most of my time sanding off what did t work and starting over.

I saw someone mention making a stain out of vinegar, steel wool and coffee grounds? My target is to give it a look somewhat of the arch top era since that’s what it is.

I mean if I have to I’ll buy the stain and wait. But. Figured there are age old banjo builders on this site who have used other methods and could give me some ideas.

Dec 7, 2018 - 8:53:30 AM
Players Union Member



13478 posts since 3/27/2004

If you are not experienced with finish application the best advice I can offer is to use a protective finish and forget staining.  I'm personally advocate using woods that reflect the color that you want your completed instrument to be; walnut, cherry, maple, oak, etc.

Natural oils and waxes, etc. can be good treatments for premium wood surfaces, but their use will prevent or make it difficult to apply any tougher finish later.  They are not stains and will only slightly darken woods that are already dark and will have minimal effect on a lighter wood surface.

Staining greatly increases the difficulty of finishing an instrument, and if you didn't do the actual woodworking you can run into things like wood surface that has been permeated with glue, etc. that can play havoc with stain application.

If you have your heart set on staining I can recommend the brand "General Finishes" which you can find at shops that carry woodworking supplies.  I have had the best luck with General Finishes stain on light woods where I was worried about blotchiness.

Follow with a compatible finish, I recommend Min-Wax Wipe-on Poly (satin, but gloss also available).  Three coats, morning, evening, next morning.  After hardening a few days the satin only require SLIGHT knocking down of surface dust with 0000 steel wool.

There's a lot of finish tips that you can find by using the search spyglass in the left panel of every page.

Edited by - rudy on 12/07/2018 08:57:33

Dec 7, 2018 - 9:17:57 AM

148 posts since 12/5/2014

Thanks a lot Rudy, the poly that you recommended lines up about with what I read. I just didn’t want my wood to stay it’s blonde natural color. I have an old goodtime and I HATE that color. But I do find nd it’s satin like finish easily playable.

Dec 7, 2018 - 10:00:01 AM
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7105 posts since 1/7/2005

Rit dye, found at most grocery stores is basically the same analine dye found in powdered wood stains. You can mix two or three colors to get the color you are looking for. It is made by mixing the powder into a container of water, and like any water stain, it will raise the grain, so you will need to lightly sand after staining.

Mixing the correct color is the most difficult part, and it is imperative that you test the stain on a piece of scrap wood. Adjust the color and intensity until you get the look you're after.

The vinegar and steel wool you refer to takes a while to make and will probably take you longer than ordering ready made stain.

A traditional stain for maple on muzzle loading rifles is called aquafortis. You apply it to the wood and then heat the stock which will quickly turn a dark brown. You can sometimes find it at your local gun store.

Once again, test your finish on some scrap maple so you don't have any unpleasant surprises.

You can also use an oil stain that is available at any hardware store. It will work fine under poly finish, but it probably won't get your maple very dark. Make sure any oil stain is fully cured before applying any finish.

Finally... test your finish on some scrap maple before staining your banjo!-- This includes adding a top coat of varnish, which will also change the color over the dry stain.


Edited by - Dan Drabek on 12/07/2018 10:06:30

Dec 7, 2018 - 10:04:27 AM



2415 posts since 6/30/2017

what kind of wood is the kit made with?...if its maple and you go with a clear finish with no stain its gonna basically look like your goodtime banjo...

stew-mac has pretty good delivery..anything i have ordered has been here within a week and i am north of the border..

do you have access to spray equipment?...if not you might wanna do your final coating with spray can lacquer...

fwiw any of the commercial oil stains are compatable with virtually any top coat..another thing to consider is prepping the wood for stain and finish...dont finish sand with too high a grit can result in blotchy staining...320 grit is more than ample..

having said all that..dont skimp on the finish..bear in mind that it will be the last thing you do to your project..

if you have questions RE me...

Dec 7, 2018 - 10:05:56 AM
Players Union Member



13478 posts since 3/27/2004

One point about the vinegar / steel wool concoction is that it is 100% dependent on the tannins present in the wood to react and darken.  It will have almost no effect on maple or other low-tannin woods.  That's the reason you most often see the mix used on oak.

Edited by - rudy on 12/07/2018 10:08:46

Dec 7, 2018 - 10:14:32 AM

148 posts since 12/5/2014

Oh ok, I am pretty sure this is mahogany. At least the neck, it’s a Saga RK 3 kit. I’m on the road but I’ll look it up tonight. Btw, the resonator isn’t as big a deal, my wife does crafts and she’s gonna put a family picture on the back of the resonator taking up The Whole space. It’s just what she does :). So mostly just the neck and the rim of the resonator. The pot is actually a one piece metal arch top. I sure hope it sounds good after all this

Dec 7, 2018 - 10:24:36 AM

148 posts since 12/5/2014

I went ahead and ordered the red mahogany from stew Mac. Might as well do it right

Dec 7, 2018 - 12:13:50 PM

7105 posts since 1/7/2005

Ah, I thought you indicated it was maple. Mahogany can take stain or leave it, depending on the individual piece of wood.

I haven't seen a Saga banjo in decades, but I recall that they sound pretty good with that metal pot. Similar to the old Gariepy banjos, which have a lot of fans.


Dec 7, 2018 - 12:22:09 PM

148 posts since 12/5/2014

I got the idea because I saw this one on eBay. Seems he did a fairly good job.

I always wanted an arch top in my collection and the price was right. I figured ah why not. It will give me something to do in my older age.

Dec 7, 2018 - 1:31:55 PM
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692 posts since 11/3/2016

This is the lacquer I've been using for awhile , it lays down well & is a heck of a lot easier than mixing up some from the gallon I have for my airbrush . For raw mahogany I would recommend a grain filler coat if u are using lacquer.
I also us this for filling small dents--drop by drop build up w/ over night drying , then wet sanding w/ 600 & then 1200 paper . Time consuming but once u get the hang , it goes fast .

Dec 7, 2018 - 3:58:44 PM

148 posts since 12/5/2014

Good info Bob, thanks

Dec 7, 2018 - 8:54:55 PM
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2415 posts since 6/30/2017

you cant go wrong with mohawk finishing and touch up products..mohawk also has a ton of tinting lacquer in spray cans,,,

Dec 7, 2018 - 9:25:23 PM
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113 posts since 10/11/2008
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Many years ago, I was visiting a local music store run by a classmate's family. The mom told me she had recently taken a tour of Gibson's factory (still in Kalamazoo), so that really piqued my interest and we spent quite a bit of time with her telling me all about it.
I told her I had a red sunburst Dove and she said, "You know how they get that color?"


"Food coloring."

Always wondered if that was actually the case. I have tried it myself on some projects and yes, it does stain wood quite well once you get the hang of it, but I've never tried it on something like a musical instrument since I've never attempted a build.

Another homemade stain I have used on incidental stuff I didn't want to spend a whole lot of money on is tar and gas. It goes dark fairly quick so you have to be on your toes, but it produces a perfectly acceptable rich, dark brown tone, or a much lighter one depending on your mix. Don't know if I'd try it on a musical instrument though, unless I was going for a cafe sunburst effect--from very dark to lighter to yellow.

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