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Jan 19, 2020 - 7:54:22 PM
28 posts since 5/27/2019

I picked up a 1930s Slingerland May-Bell 4-string recently. It's kind of in sad shape, but I think it's basically solid and can be returned to good playing condition. I picked it up largely as a learning project. I've been woodworking for a number of years, but got a little bitten by the instrument-making bug last year and made a banjo ukulele. Then I saw this one on Craig's List for cheap and decided it needed to be saved....

- It needs a new head, as the calf skin head on it is ripped. Searching around old BHO threads, it looks like people generally recommend 10.75" medium crown heads for Slingland banjos. The way this one is currently set up, the head is proud of the tension ring. The notch in the tension ring is flush with the surface of the neck (no fretboard on it currently), and there is a hair more than a half inch from the bottom of the tension ring to the surface of the head. So do I need a medium crown or maybe a high crown?

- The surface of the head is about 0.25" above the neck (again, no fretboard on it currently), which means that the fretboard is going to need to be at least that thick. It doesn't look like the neck/pot connection is wonky or has been modified. How thick should the fretboard be?

- What height bridge would have originally come with this? Playing around with it (putting 1/4 inch spacers on the neck and checking with a straight edge), it looks like a half-inch bridge might give it reasonable action. It's hard to tell with the current head being so messed up, though....

- Did these originally have steel strings? There are remnants of steel strings left on the tuners.

- There's a couple aesthetic issues with the peghead that I'm just curious about. The May-Bell sticker is coming off, and it looks like swirly white plastic underneath. As the sticker goes, it is taking the finish with it. The rest of the peghead has kind of a cool retro iridescent amber effect to it, which I wouldn't mind saving. But I'm not sure if there's any way to repair that once the sticker is removed. I'm thinking I may just remove the whole overlay it and replace it with some curly maple veneer I have lying around. (This instrument isn't worth much of anything, nor has historic value, but I want it to look decent at the end). Any thoughts?

- The back of the peghead has eight small holes around the tuner holes. At first glance, I thought that maybe these were screw holes for different tuners had been installed at one time. However, the spacing of the small holes is all wrong for that, and looking under magnification, it doesn't look like screws were ever installed in them. Any idea why they might be there? I'll likely fill them with maple.

Other work that will need to get done is to reglue some loose veneer on the resonator, replace missing hooks (maybe replace all of them because the old ones were painted and don't look very good), plane the neck slightly to remove some bow, rehab or possibly replace the tuners, make or buy a fretboard and glue it on, and make a nut. The dowel/neck joint seems solid. I'm considering adding a carbon fiber rod to the neck.






Jan 19, 2020 - 8:36:28 PM

banjonz

New Zealand

10844 posts since 6/29/2003

One comment. A modern mylar head may not be suitable for the neck as the current 'flesh hoop' used to mount the head on the rim is much thinner than the mounting band on a modern head. There may not be enough room in the heel cut for the neck to fit back in.

Jan 20, 2020 - 12:25:54 AM
Players Union Member

Helix

USA

12202 posts since 8/30/2006

Everything seems to be there.
Fingerboards are 3/16" thick, so that would help bring the head into better alignment.
You can surely get new hooks, you have the right tension hoop.
No clue about holes in the back of the peghead.

I've worked on a few of these, just repair, not a restoration.
New tuners are easy to find.
I agree, it's a real learner's project.
You should disassemble to get the right head. For 11's, I fit the head at 10-15/16". I recommend a plastic head, no fiberskyn.
If a carbon rod isn't needed, I would discourage that.
Hope this helps.


Jan 20, 2020 - 4:05:29 AM

1523 posts since 6/2/2010

Call Bob Smakula at Smakula Fretted Instruments. He will know exactly what size head to use.

Jan 20, 2020 - 5:28:03 AM

652 posts since 2/19/2012

Bob can also explain how to remove the metal channel around the plastic head which will help with clearance issues at the neck. I did that on a similar project here and it works fine without the metal channel. I understand some newer heads are made differently though and it's difficult to get the metal off. Bob is the go-to person for this.

Jan 20, 2020 - 8:24:34 AM

28 posts since 5/27/2019

quote:
Originally posted by banjonz

One comment. A modern mylar head may not be suitable for the neck as the current 'flesh hoop' used to mount the head on the rim is much thinner than the mounting band on a modern head. There may not be enough room in the heel cut for the neck to fit back in.


Interesting.  The existing flesh hoop is about 9/64 x 9/64" (or 0.17 x 0.17"), although it varies a bit from place to place.  I can't find the dimensions for modern Remo mounting bands listed anywhere.  The tension hoop is 0.192" thick.  It's hard to tell just by looking at photos of Remo heads online, but maybe I'll be ok.

Edited by - Uke-alot on 01/20/2020 08:25:18

Jan 20, 2020 - 8:57:39 AM
Players Union Member

Helix

USA

12202 posts since 8/30/2006

Measure your rim diameter right there, then call Bob

Jan 20, 2020 - 9:13:32 AM

28 posts since 5/27/2019

quote:
Originally posted by Helix

Everything seems to be there.
Fingerboards are 3/16" thick, so that would help bring the head into better alignment.
You can surely get new hooks, you have the right tension hoop.
No clue about holes in the back of the peghead.

I've worked on a few of these, just repair, not a restoration.
New tuners are easy to find.
I agree, it's a real learner's project.
You should disassemble to get the right head. For 11's, I fit the head at 10-15/16". I recommend a plastic head, no fiberskyn.
If a carbon rod isn't needed, I would discourage that.
Hope this helps.


Thanks for responding.  I was thinking of going with a Renaissance head.  A lot of people seem to like them, and I'm not necessarily going after the brighter bluegrass sound.

The neck has developed a bit of concavity.  There's about 1/64" gap between a straightedge and the surface at the widest point, which is perhaps within the realm of "relief" and could be safely left alone.  But I'm not sure where it will end up when string tension is restored, so I'll likely take at least some of that out with a handplane.  There is also a tiny bit of twist (judging from using winding sticks and sighting down the neck) that I will correct.  Even that might not be a problem in playing, but I'm not sure.

Regarding the CF rod (actually I had a bar in mind, not a round rod), the question in my mind is whether/how much the neck will bend again under string tension if it isn't reinforced.  This is what I had in mind when I asked whether these banjos originally had steel strings.  The strings on it were 0.009, 0.011, 0.016, and 0.031, by the way.  It has a scale length of about 22.5".

I did install a CF bar in my banjo uke.  Even though that probably wasn't strictly necessary, lots of builders are putting them in ukes.  It seems to be good insurance, and it's not particularly expensive or a whole lot of work.   This one would be a little different because I can't cut the slot into a squared-up blank.  I would probably build a slot template to use with a plunge router and guide bushing.  Is there a downside to installing CF bars in banjos?

Jan 20, 2020 - 10:40:47 AM

6700 posts since 8/28/2013

I don't know where my earlier comment went, so I'll try again.

This should easily take a 10 3/4 inch medium crown Remo head. You'll have no problem with the mounting band; it'll clear the tension hoop and neck notch. I have a Slingerland with the same tension hoop, and the modern head works fine.

You can get hooks that match the originals from Elderly Instruments or Stew-Mac. (Smakula probably has them, too.) They should be flat hooks, 8-26 thread size.

The peghead is imitation mother-of-pearl plastic, called perloid. It probably looks white under the decal because the old finish has come off along with the decal, and I doubt there's any real damage to the pearloid itself, and it could simply be refinished. The extra holes on the back I believe were actually screwholes for the original tuners.

These originally used steel strings with a half-inch bridge.

Jan 20, 2020 - 10:56:43 AM

6700 posts since 8/28/2013

Possible downsides to a CF bar could be added weight and perhaps undershooting the mark for fret relief, although that probably could be compensated for by sanding a slight dip in the fretboard. The 1/64" bow would probably be fine, but since there's also a twist, planing is certainly an option. Just be very careful and remove the minimal amount of wood possible.

The wood here is probably 90 years old, and has most likely twisted and warped about as much as it ever will. Although I don't think you really need any CF, that's really up to you. Sounds like just extra work to me, but maybe it would be good practice for future projects.

Edited by - G Edward Porgie on 01/20/2020 10:59:04

Jan 20, 2020 - 11:45:59 AM

28 posts since 5/27/2019

quote:
Originally posted by G Edward Porgie

I don't know where my earlier comment went, so I'll try again.

This should easily take a 10 3/4 inch medium crown Remo head. You'll have no problem with the mounting band; it'll clear the tension hoop and neck notch. I have a Slingerland with the same tension hoop, and the modern head works fine.

You can get hooks that match the originals from Elderly Instruments or Stew-Mac. (Smakula probably has them, too.) They should be flat hooks, 8-26 thread size.

The peghead is imitation mother-of-pearl plastic, called perloid. It probably looks white under the decal because the old finish has come off along with the decal, and I doubt there's any real damage to the pearloid itself, and it could simply be refinished. The extra holes on the back I believe were actually screwholes for the original tuners.

These originally used steel strings with a half-inch bridge.


Thanks! This clears up some of the mysteries.  Unfortunately, if I plane the neck, the plane will run into the perloid overlay and damage it.  Is there any chance I could remove it whole and then reglue it?  I have no idea what adhesive they might have used, nor how sturdy this material is.

I've looked at a bunch of pictures of May-Bell banjos, and a lot of them have these same (or very similar) tuners.  I too initially thought they were replacements, but now I'm not so sure.  Or maybe someone had different tuners on there for a time, which were then replaced with period-correct ones?  The weird thing is that the spacing of the extra small holes isn't standardized.  Or rather, the tuners  at 10 o'clock and 5 o'clock match each other, and the ones at 2 and 7 also match each other, but all 4 don't match.  So maybe someone mixed two sets of tuners.

BTW, I went to school at Clemson a few decades ago and needed to drive into Greenville a bunch of times.  Western South Carolina is definitely a pretty part of the country.

Jan 20, 2020 - 2:44:27 PM
likes this

6700 posts since 8/28/2013

I don't know what they were using to hold that stuff on back in the '20's, so I can't recommend a way of removing the peghjead overlay (I absolutely CAN say, DON'T USE HEAT). It's old, probably a bit brittle, and may come off in pieces anyway, or it could very easily warp after removal, making it hard to glue back on. I would try a card scraper to remove old glue and wood bits from the neck, and just live with ths slight bow and twist, or else adjust the bow and twist by sanding the fretboard. Either that, or you could try planing very carefully from the peghead down while attempting to avoid the pearloid. I hope that someone else has some better suggestions about this.

The tuners that may have been used were probably made to turn in one direction, and since the usual practice was for the tuners to wind in opposite directions on each side of the neck, two of them would have been mounted upside down. I'm sure if you measure the spacing from the actual tuner, you'll find the bottom holes on one side match the upper holes on the other side. They could have been replacements, but there's no real way to tell what may have been original.

Greenville and its surroundings are not nearly as nice looking as they were a few decades ago. Lots of development. At least there are more decent places to eat, though, and they now have an actual nature park and a wonderful music museum here in Greenville. My sister went to Clemson, I think back in the early seventies. I ended up here much later.

Jan 20, 2020 - 4:24:22 PM

DSmoke

USA

799 posts since 11/30/2015

It looks like a 1 piece neck, and if there is relief now, good chance that would increase with string tension. But, there is no way to tell for sure. I've learned the hard way myself. I'm now in the habit of stringing them up and letting them sit under tension, and playing them if possible for a few weeks before I go working on the fingerboards or refinishing them. Hopefully, someone comes along and tells you about the Pearloid, but at 90 years old it is brittle! Slingerlands are often looked down on, but I'm a secret fan of them. They made some nice banjos back in the day. And many of them can make very affordable good sounding banjos.

Jan 20, 2020 - 8:00:56 PM

6700 posts since 8/28/2013

It would be kind of hard to string up this banjo to decide what string tension would do to the neck, because without a fret board, it will behave differently than it normally would. The fret board not only holds frets, but also helps to stiffen the neck. You could conceivably glue the board on temporarily with an easily removed glue if such a glue can be found, but that could add another potentially tricky clean-up job. Be aware that the board would also have to have frets in it, as empty slots will also affect how much the neck can bend under tension.

I think I'd just scrape the crud off the neck, glue the new board on, and hope for the best, although I might say differently if I had this banjo in hand. Basically, you're looking at a crapshoot, as would most anyone else, so you're on your own.

Jan 21, 2020 - 3:59:48 AM
Players Union Member

Helix

USA

12202 posts since 8/30/2006

Using a sq. C.F. Bar sounds good
Go straight ahead

i spec Renn heads. I like em just fine 

Edited by - Helix on 01/21/2020 04:01:03

Jan 21, 2020 - 4:32:40 AM

DSmoke

USA

799 posts since 11/30/2015

quote:
Originally posted by G Edward Porgie

It would be kind of hard to string up this banjo to decide what string tension would do to the neck, because without a fret board, it will behave differently than it normally would. The fret board not only holds frets, but also helps to stiffen the neck. You could conceivably glue the board on temporarily with an easily removed glue if such a glue can be found, but that could add another potentially tricky clean-up job. Be aware that the board would also have to have frets in it, as empty slots will also affect how much the neck can bend under tension.

I think I'd just scrape the crud off the neck, glue the new board on, and hope for the best, although I might say differently if I had this banjo in hand. Basically, you're looking at a crapshoot, as would most anyone else, so you're on your own.


Sorry if my post was confusing.  I was not suggesting to string the neck, just that I have done similar work only to discover a bow after stringing it up.  I agree with everything George says.

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