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Apr 20, 2019 - 2:11 PM
like this
11719 posts since 6/29/2005

I have wanted to make a top-tension bluegrass banjo for a long while but really needed an actual project to justify going through the design development.

In a near telepathic occurrence, a potential client contacted me and asked if I could make a top tension bluegrass banjo with an easily removable resonator so it could be used occasionally as an openback without a flange. Needless to say, I was very excited and jumped at the opportunity to make an all-purpose banjo that can be an openback or a resonator banjo without compromising either one. It’s nice to be able to physically switch from a resonator to openback without having to be concerned about what to do with the flange. One-piece resonator flanges double as a bracket band, hence are not removable at all. In the case of a tube-and-plate, you have to remove half the tension nuts to remove the flange plate.

As fate would have it, I had another removable resonator bluegrass banjo commission, Which you may have seen on another thread, therefore had to make two resonators, and so as I mentioned on another thread, I went through a prerequisite development, that being finding materials and setting up to make laminated resonators (I actually made 6 until I got it right). I’ll be posting a thread just on that because I think it will be interesting to many —I can’t be the only person who wants to make laminated resonators.

This banjo has a mahogany neck and resonator and has been finished a little differently.

The first thing I had to do with the top tension was to make some drawings in order to figure out all the measurements, materials, etc. I did NOT want to make a copy of Gibson’s top tension, or anybody else’s for that matter - actually, I don’t like the way the tension hoops are made on the ones I have seen.
Not to bore everyone with steps in the design process, but here is an encapsulation —a few rough sketches:


These lead to an accurate drawing:


Then I had to make a brass model or maquette to see what it’s really going to be like and how hard will it be to do (Will I actually be able to do it?). From the model I was able to make a photoshop rendering which I sent to the client just to make sure we were on the same page—I’m not going to post it because it looks pretty much like the real thing came out so it would just be confusing, especially if it got picked up on Google images or Pinterest— The images I post are all of the actual thing- no photoshop.


Finally, I actually made the bracket band and tension hoop and made sure they both lined up right. There is practically no margin for error for misalignment because I am using oxide coated stainless steel socket bolts (which don't bend) as the tensioning bolts. I’ll admit I had to re-braze a couple of the threaded lugs to get it right. Next time I’ll mark them better— this is the first one.


The rim is a cherry-maple-maple 3-ply with a mahogany inner veneer.
The resonator is one of the laminated ones I referred to earlier, with a 3-ply poplar core and a sapele outer lamination. I posted a thread on this forum to get opinions about wood binding vs synthetic and the results were 50 /50.
As it turned out, this client wanted wood binding and the other wanted black Corian, so I got to do both.
Here’s the way it came out, with quarter curly maple binding with sapele striping (which will match the neck).
The client wanted a satin finish, so that’s what you see here. I really like rubbed satin finishes on wood.. There is no stain on this—it’s the natural mahogany color


I had to make the resonator first, then the flange because the flange fits into a rabbet in the resonator. I won’t go in to the details of how to make the flange, other than to say I made it from “Muntz metal”, a beautiful alloy of brass once used to clad the bottoms of ships — Muntz metal has a number of important qualities; one of the most valued of these is its color (once known as yellow metal - although it’s more “goldish”). A form of alpha-beta brass, Muntz Metal is comprised of 60% copper and 40% zinc with a few traces of iron. Due to the structure of muntz metal, it is stronger, harder, and more rigid than other forms of brass. I wanted to try it and because of the extra rigidity, it was perfect for these flanges. If I can get it in the right dimensions of metal stock, I’ll try it for other parts later on.

I liked it so much, I didn’t really patina it - heat the flange, submerge it in copper pickle, heat it again, and a 5 second douse in the patina bath then into the water.

Here’s how the whole pot goes together—I am using my TuBaTone bronze tube tone ring in the heavier version, which will be perfect for this banjo.


The charm of a top tension pot is that you can tighten the head without having to remove the resonator - it’s also easier to see what you are doing with a drum dial.


So now, with the fully tensioned head and the flange screwed onto the resonator, you can see that the way this banjo is set up, the flange is attached to the resonator, not to the pot. This allows for a clean openback unencumbered by L-brackets, lugs, magnets or clips when the resonator is removed.
You will notice that because this one is a top-tension and has no tension nuts below the shoes, the flange plate can be very simple and not have clearings for the tension nuts:


Of course, the ball-bearing latches I showed in another thread would work with this, but with this banjo, I am using a method to attach the resonator that uses brackets attached to the flange that are tightened via 4 socket bolts threaded into the pot—another way to do it. These bolts can either be screwed all the way in or simply removed when the resonator is not on the pot.


At the end of this post, there is a short video showing it in action. Once again, these resonator attachment methods are not specific to one banjo or the other.

Another interesting aspect of this banjo is the inlay on the peghead and fingerboard.
The client asked if I could do cardinals, and this played into the method I have developed in the past three years of doing wood inlay and resin impregnatiing the fingerboard. The basic fingerboard is made from black locust, the peghead from apple wood, and the cardinals are made from padauk, yellowheart (beaks), and baked ipe. The branch on the fingerboard is black walnut and the leaves are abalone. After piecing the whole thing together like a jigsaw puzzle, and laminating it to a mahogany substrate with epoxy, it has been impregnated with resin and is more scratch and wear resistant than ebony.


Here’s a shot that shows the peghead and you can see how the center stripe on the Honduras mahogany neck is also padauk. The peghead shape is based on the client wanting something “Art Deco”. I did not want to do anything similar to the Gibson “blob” shape:


Here’s a picture of the whole banjo with the resonator front & back:


A close up of the back of the pot in “openback”mode— you can see the 2-rod system, the top one of which is a Rudy-rod with a tension rod inside. There is an anchor in the heel and this is an extremely tight connection— in the bottom picture, you can see one of the socket bolts that attach the resonator. These can be completely removed or tightened down and left in place, (so you don’t lose them) as desired. I just tighten them down with my fingers and keep them there.
.

A couple of details:


A close-up of the bridge, a 3-footed 2.5 gram one with carved feet and a padauk saddle. Lately I have come to really like padauk as a resonant wood, and it is tough as well, so makes great bridge saddles. The tailpiece is a new one— the “Gothic” style I like, with a built in hinge that makes it adjustable, and I thought I had invented until I saw one that was 92 years old. There are more details of this on the thread about the walnut banjo with the snap-on resonator.


As for sound files, I made a video— Here you see the banjo being played by Sally Wingate, a great bluegrass player, with Mark Wingate playing fiddle. This is all very informal. There’s a classic fiddle tune and a bit of Cumberland Gap, and you can see and hear hear Sally going up and down the neck. Normally fiddle tunes would be played in A with a capo on the second fret, but she is doing it open in G, which is a little bit tougher. Hugo the German Shepherd does a little singing.
 


Edited by - Ken LeVan on 04/20/2019 14:17:37

Apr 20, 2019 - 2:35:06 PM

71 posts since 12/27/2003

Ken, that's absolultely a work of art.
Terry

Apr 20, 2019 - 3:09:17 PM

11719 posts since 6/29/2005

quote:
Originally posted by alison130

Ken, that's absolultely a work of art.
Terry


Thank you!

Apr 20, 2019 - 3:18:43 PM

532 posts since 11/17/2018

How much does it weigh?

Apr 20, 2019 - 3:21:23 PM
like this

4417 posts since 9/7/2009

Gosh Dang... It don't get no better than this!

Apr 20, 2019 - 5:40:26 PM

11719 posts since 6/29/2005

quote:
Originally posted by OldNavyGuy

How much does it weigh?


11# even

Apr 20, 2019 - 6:18:01 PM

1737 posts since 5/2/2012

Be still my heart.....

Apr 20, 2019 - 6:25:13 PM

239 posts since 11/21/2018

Absolutely beautiful craftsmanship and amazing design/engineering. Thanks so much for the step by step illustrated posts! It would be nice if you have another recording without fiddle to hear your banjo alone-close up and personal if you have one.
Love the cardinals!

Apr 20, 2019 - 6:43:28 PM

HarleyQ

USA

2963 posts since 1/31/2005

Love that Top Tension!!

Apr 20, 2019 - 7:25:34 PM

2426 posts since 2/16/2017

I don't think there is a single thing I don't love about this banjo Ken. The top tension system is common sense and not overly bulky like so many, the color and patina of the metals is very attractive and organic, the convertibility, the inlay is as beautiful as I expected it to be, and I love the peghead shape and inlay.

This banjo has a very lucky owner!

Apr 20, 2019 - 8:00:49 PM

7245 posts since 1/7/2005

Bravo Ken. It is magnificent. Every piece of the banjo is unique and inventive. You have a lot of thought and planning built into every aspect of the banjo.
I also like the new peghead design. I can see you had fun with this one.
DD

Apr 21, 2019 - 4:39:45 AM

11719 posts since 6/29/2005

quote:
Originally posted by northernbelle

Absolutely beautiful craftsmanship and amazing design/engineering. Thanks so much for the step by step illustrated posts! It would be nice if you have another recording without fiddle to hear your banjo alone-close up and personal if you have one.
Love the cardinals!


Thanks!

I did make a couple of mercifully short sound files in G and A, but I am no great player by any means. Anyway, for what it's worth, here is what I did:


Apr 21, 2019 - 5:47:37 AM

11719 posts since 6/29/2005

quote:
Originally posted by Dan Drabek

Bravo Ken. It is magnificent. Every piece of the banjo is unique and inventive. You have a lot of thought and planning built into every aspect of the banjo.
I also like the new peghead design. I can see you had fun with this one.
DD


Thank you, Dan!

I DID have fun with the peghead and went through some changes with it.  The client wanted top tension with an Art Deco peghead shape. When I get a project like this, I try to feed the specifications back to the client so they can see what I don't know— lots of "to be determineds".  It makes them want to fill in the blanks and start a dialog.

I said earlier that I made a photoshopped comp of the banjo to show the client, and I wasn't going to show it on this thread, but here it is, showing this banjo at a very preliminary phase with lots of things yet to be determined— I was already trying to figure out how to make an armrest that wouldn't have to be removed to tighten the head:  We wound up with no armrest, a different tailpiece, an entirely different inlay motif, and I misspelled "Honduras"- I'll call it a typo ha ha.  I had hit upon the "tulip" shape, which I liked and that stuck.

 

Going with that tulip shape, my first idea was to make it a multi-wood design made from the same combination of wood as the neck and resonator- Honduras mahogany, padauk & maple.  I was thinking of using some Art Deco style typeface.

Then the client came up with the cardinal idea and it went from there—the perfect use of that red padauk.

 

Apr 21, 2019 - 6:29:16 AM

11719 posts since 6/29/2005

quote:
Originally posted by FlyinEagle

I don't think there is a single thing I don't love about this banjo Ken. The top tension system is common sense and not overly bulky like so many, the color and patina of the metals is very attractive and organic, the convertibility, the inlay is as beautiful as I expected it to be, and I love the peghead shape and inlay.

This banjo has a very lucky owner!


Thanks, Jeff!

I had a strong suspicion you were going to like this banjo.

Apr 21, 2019 - 7:38:33 AM

5088 posts since 12/20/2005

This enters a realm in which, for me, is difficult to find words.
What a magnificent banjo.
I do not think anyone, past or present, could have built a better instrument.
The owner is indeed fortunate.

Apr 21, 2019 - 1:35:26 PM

239 posts since 11/21/2018

Thanks for the solo sound clips Ken. I really like the throaty midrange that seems to be lacking on a lot of top tensions. Of course the tone ring is a whole different "animal" from the usual T.T. but it has a nice "organic" sound. (boy those subjective terms...) VERY nice!

Apr 21, 2019 - 2:11:10 PM

11719 posts since 6/29/2005

quote:
Originally posted by northernbelle

Thanks for the solo sound clips Ken. I really like the throaty midrange that seems to be lacking on a lot of top tensions. Of course the tone ring is a whole different "animal" from the usual T.T. but it has a nice "organic" sound. (boy those subjective terms...) VERY nice!


Thank you!

I really appreciate your comments,  That tone ring is the result of years of evolution, and I call it a "TuBaTone" because it sits somewhere between a Tubaphone and a Mastertone— considerably heavier than a Tubaphone but not as heavy as a Mastertone—bronze, but fabricated, not cast, same skirt thickness as a Mastertone, and the rim is the same thickness as a flathead rim below the flange, thicker than a Tubaphone one and the pot is much deeper, so it's its own thing, and it does have a throaty midrange—I think it has a good bottom end, too, which you hear in the beginning notes of "Pretty Polly". I like a lot of expressiveness, and that's what I go for.

The bridge is not as light as some people make them because David Politzer's work using some of my bridges indicated that "too light" loses some frequencies, and I don't want to go there.

I like "organic"— I'll remember that.

Thanks again!

Apr 22, 2019 - 6:59:14 AM

255 posts since 7/28/2016

Wonderful visually and tone(ally?) I always wondered why more builders didn't use the B&D design with the flange attached to the resonator instead of the pot. I have a B&D that I play both ways. I never owned a top tension but after buying a very heavy bluegrass banjo I realized what a great idea it is. I hate taking my banjo apart to tighten the head.

Again a wonderful job and In the words of my ancestors Salute !!

Apr 22, 2019 - 7:33 AM

38 posts since 8/9/2007

The "Pretty Polly" section of the sound bite has some real "growl and howl" .. beautiful banjo , aesthetically and tonally .... Amazing what can be created when you're not tied down with "pre-war chains" .

Edited by - FredFlintstone on 04/22/2019 07:37:23

Apr 22, 2019 - 5:33:39 PM

docmarc

USA

15 posts since 2/1/2019

Once again you have defined the word 'stunning'.

Apr 22, 2019 - 6:19:10 PM

14091 posts since 12/2/2005

Gorgeous instrument. Ingenious design and flawless execution, as always. And, as always, a magnificent presentation for us plebes here on the Hanjo Bangout.

You do need to find a new lead singer, however - at least as evidenced by the Cripple Creek section of the first vid, starting around 1:50 in. When she (he?) wasn't singing sharp, he (she?) was singing sharp. wink

Apr 23, 2019 - 5:29:33 AM

11719 posts since 6/29/2005

quote:
Originally posted by eagleisland

Gorgeous instrument. Ingenious design and flawless execution, as always. And, as always, a magnificent presentation for us plebes here on the Hanjo Bangout.

You do need to find a new lead singer, however - at least as evidenced by the Cripple Creek section of the first vid, starting around 1:50 in. When she (he?) wasn't singing sharp, he (she?) was singing sharp. wink


Thanks!

Hugo is a "he" and I guess he sometimes goes off-key.  We now have a puppy, a golden doodle, and Hugo is teaching her to sing, so sometimes I get a chorus, and they do seem to sing in the same key more or less.  It's very difficult for me to tune a banjo because I can't hear what I am doing at all.  It sometimes takes 5 or 10 minutes for them to quiet down.  You can hear Hugo piping in briefly on the Pretty Polly sound file.

Edited by - Ken LeVan on 04/23/2019 05:30:24

Apr 23, 2019 - 6:06:56 AM
Players Union Member

dbrooks

USA

3581 posts since 3/11/2004

Ken, it is now routine for me to be amazed by the craftsmanship of your work and the outstanding photos and descriptions you put together to tell the stroies about your work. Stunning in every way.

David

Apr 24, 2019 - 3:46:02 PM

Beardog

USA

1666 posts since 8/20/2008

Awesome work, Ken!!

Apr 24, 2019 - 4:48:24 PM

11719 posts since 6/29/2005

quote:
Originally posted by Beardog

Awesome work, Ken!!


Thanks, Sam!

Apr 24, 2019 - 5:06:15 PM

2 posts since 4/24/2019

This is absolutely beautiful, Ken.

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