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Restoring a Robert William Keith 7 string fretless banjo circa 1840's

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May 31, 2020 - 11:35:42 PM
14 posts since 10/11/2019

This is my first 7 string banjo restoration. I have questions about the action for such an instrument. I'm planning to use a set of Clifford Essex strings. I have no original bridge nor tail piece for it. I want to make these parts to be as authentic as possible. I would like to use ebony for them. I have had little luck in finding any photos of 1840's 7 string banjo hardware. I think this banjo was built by Robert William Keith before he joined with Prowse. There is no mark on the side of the heel of the neck. No two hook nuts are the same size indicating they were each hand made. It was built either as an order, gift, or presentation piece for Joseph Mann who was a pawnbroker in Belfast at the time. There are no makers marks anywhere. His name and initials are engraved on the nickel silver inlaid plates. This banjo is close to being built during the actual dawn of banjo building in the U.K.
Any help, photos or information on this early banjo would much be very much appreciated. Thanks to all you folks for maintaining this great hangout.


Jun 1, 2020 - 12:38:05 AM

1382 posts since 4/25/2007

quote:
Originally posted by wannabe picker

This is my first 7 string banjo restoration. I have questions about the action for such an instrument. I'm planning to use a set of Clifford Essex strings. I have no original bridge nor tail piece for it. I want to make these parts to be as authentic as possible. I would like to use ebony for them. I have had little luck in finding any photos of 1840's 7 string banjo hardware. I think this banjo was built by Robert William Keith before he joined with Prowse. There is no mark on the side of the heel of the neck. No two hook nuts are the same size indicating they were each hand made. It was built either as an order, gift, or presentation piece for Joseph Mann who was a pawnbroker in Belfast at the time. There are no makers marks anywhere. His name and initials are engraved on the nickel silver inlaid plates. This banjo is close to being built during the actual dawn of banjo building in the U.K.
Any help, photos or information on this early banjo would much be very much appreciated. Thanks to all you folks for maintaining this great hangout.


I have to say that the banjo in the photo looks to be more from the 1890's. Detailed photos of the rest of the instrument would be helpful.

Jun 1, 2020 - 5:43:49 AM

5321 posts since 9/21/2007

I was thinking the date might be off by about half a century as well.

Could you post more photos? Full front, full back, front/back/side of peghead, side and back of heel, rim hardware, inside of rim, and any other point of interest like the presentation tag.

Thanks.

Jun 1, 2020 - 8:33:23 AM

14 posts since 10/11/2019

Thanks for both your responses. The banjo is three quarters of the way done. After completion I will post more photos.

Jun 1, 2020 - 8:50:49 AM

1382 posts since 4/25/2007

I doubt either Keith or Prowse made any banjos. Most of the Keith Prowse stamped banjos i have seen appear to have been made by J E Dallas.

Jun 1, 2020 - 10:08:47 AM

14 posts since 10/11/2019

You all might be right. Meantime I was hoping to get information on string height ( action at the nut and the bridge) and any ideas for an ebony tail piece and bridge. Thanks again everybody.

Jun 1, 2020 - 6:31:31 PM
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1865 posts since 1/4/2009

How did they have a tenor presto Tailpeice strung for 7 strings???

Jun 1, 2020 - 11:09:33 PM

14 posts since 10/11/2019

quote:
Originally posted by m06

Nice banjo but, as Steve and Joel already indicated, you're around 50 years out (+/- 5 years) on your date estimate.

I've never seen an English banjo (photo or at first hand) that could be reliably dated to the latter half of the 1840's. Banjos of a design that suggest they are likely early period English manufacture (mid 1850's-1870) are fairly rare and notoriously difficult, if not impossible, to accurately date. I have a 7-string English banjo that currently a best estimate can only date in the broad range c.1860-1875. And early English banjos are of material and have distinctive design features very different to yours.

What is the width of the neck of your banjo at the rim joint?


Thanks for the response. You could be right, but there is a bit of evidence to support my case. First the condition of this instrument was very very poor when I purchased it. I have worked on antiques including instruments for over 45 years and this just had the look of being much older than 1880's. Secondly, As I dis-assembled it I instantly noted that all but two of the original hook nuts looked the same but no wrench would fit them. I had to remove them all with nylon jawed flat pliers. They were all threaded the same but no two nuts were of the same diameter or shape.. All the original hooks themselves are present. All parts are nickel over brass. All of the remaining nuts appear to be handmade, no two of them exactly alike, not factory made as they were on later 1890's instruments. The oak hoop, spun nickel silver over brass, was more dried and cracked than I have ever seen. The quality of the nickel plating was poorly done as well. Thirdly, the neck, though it looked like a JHB neck, had no stamp on the side of the neck near the heel. The tension hoop is expertly riveted together with a very thin piece of metal nearly invisible. Fourthly, if this WAS built by Keith himself, he died in 1846 at the age of 59, and his customer Joseph Mann died at the age of 74 in 1898. It is possible that this banjo was built by Keith before he joined Prowse in 1830. At that time Joseph Mann, a pawnbroker in Belfast, would have been in his 50's or 60's. Keith did have his own shop where he built instruments before 1830. Bottom line is that the age or maker of this banjo can never positively be proven so you may well be correct. All that aside, I am hoping someone will have some suggestions about set up of a seven string banjo. Again thank you for your input. The width of the neck at the rim joint is aproxamately 2 3/8"

Edited by - wannabe picker on 06/01/2020 23:15:36

Jun 1, 2020 - 11:38:58 PM

1382 posts since 4/25/2007

Until you post some more detailed photos it is really difficult to say anything more about your banjo. But to my knowledge the first spun over rim banjos appeared in the USA around 1855.

Jun 2, 2020 - 12:01:30 AM

14 posts since 10/11/2019

quote:
Originally posted by Stephen John Prior

Until you post some more detailed photos it is really difficult to say anything more about your banjo. But to my knowledge the first spun over rim banjos appeared in the USA around 1855.


Not good at uploading multiple pic yet. here are three if it works. thanks




 

Jun 2, 2020 - 12:05:54 AM
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1382 posts since 4/25/2007

Here's a photo of a Keith Prowse labelled banjo made by J E Dallas.


Jun 2, 2020 - 12:08:11 AM
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14 posts since 10/11/2019

quote:
Originally posted by Joel Hooks

I was thinking the date might be off by about half a century as well.

Could you post more photos? Full front, full back, front/back/side of peghead, side and back of heel, rim hardware, inside of rim, and any other point of interest like the presentation tag.

Thanks.


Here a few more pics.






Jun 2, 2020 - 12:10:29 AM

14 posts since 10/11/2019

quote:
Originally posted by Stephen John Prior
quote:
Originally posted by wannabe picker

This is my first 7 string banjo restoration. I have questions about the action for such an instrument. I'm planning to use a set of Clifford Essex strings. I have no original bridge nor tail piece for it. I want to make these parts to be as authentic as possible. I would like to use ebony for them. I have had little luck in finding any photos of 1840's 7 string banjo hardware. I think this banjo was built by Robert William Keith before he joined with Prowse. There is no mark on the side of the heel of the neck. No two hook nuts are the same size indicating they were each hand made. It was built either as an order, gift, or presentation piece for Joseph Mann who was a pawnbroker in Belfast at the time. There are no makers marks anywhere. His name and initials are engraved on the nickel silver inlaid plates. This banjo is close to being built during the actual dawn of banjo building in the U.K.
Any help, photos or information on this early banjo would much be very much appreciated. Thanks to all you folks for maintaining this great hangout.


I have to say that the banjo in the photo looks to be more from the 1890's. Detailed photos of the rest of the instrument would be helpful.


Here are a few more pics.






Jun 2, 2020 - 12:19:05 AM

1382 posts since 4/25/2007

quote:
Originally posted by wannabe picker
quote:
Originally posted by Stephen John Prior
quote:
Originally posted by wannabe picker

This is my first 7 string banjo restoration. I have questions about the action for such an instrument. I'm planning to use a set of Clifford Essex strings. I have no original bridge nor tail piece for it. I want to make these parts to be as authentic as possible. I would like to use ebony for them. I have had little luck in finding any photos of 1840's 7 string banjo hardware. I think this banjo was built by Robert William Keith before he joined with Prowse. There is no mark on the side of the heel of the neck. No two hook nuts are the same size indicating they were each hand made. It was built either as an order, gift, or presentation piece for Joseph Mann who was a pawnbroker in Belfast at the time. There are no makers marks anywhere. His name and initials are engraved on the nickel silver inlaid plates. This banjo is close to being built during the actual dawn of banjo building in the U.K.
Any help, photos or information on this early banjo would much be very much appreciated. Thanks to all you folks for maintaining this great hangout.


I have to say that the banjo in the photo looks to be more from the 1890's. Detailed photos of the rest of the instrument would be helpful.


Here are a few more pics.


That's great thanks. I would guess made by Dallas.  No earlier than 1880's but it's just my opinion.

Jun 2, 2020 - 1:06:01 AM
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1382 posts since 4/25/2007

W Temlett Snr. could also be a contender. Their hardware is very similar but maybe they were using the same supplier of maybe Dallas was buying parts from Temlett ?

Jun 2, 2020 - 1:19:43 AM
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1382 posts since 4/25/2007

Ok Bill, my apologies, having cleared the fog of last nights indulgence and hit the coffee i realise my earlier mistake. I am pretty certain it was made made W Temlett Senior.

Jun 2, 2020 - 1:55:25 AM
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1382 posts since 4/25/2007

Photo of a five string model this would be the correct period style of tailpiece. 1/8th of an inch thick nickle plated brass. Obviously yours would need to be slightly wider to accommodate 7 slots.


Jun 2, 2020 - 5:54:04 AM
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5321 posts since 9/21/2007

Thank you for posting more photos-- they tell a better story.

The triangle shaped wedge plate neck brace was developed and introduced by S. S. Stewart in Philadelphia in March of 1881.

J. E. Brewster started importing SSS banjos to England sometime in 1882 (I am not sure of the exact date and year, but there are testimonials from England published in the "Stewart Journal" from December 1882 about banjos imported by Brewster).

The English did not take much time to copy things (they were relentless copyists in both banjo design and plagiarized sheet music) and in three years (1885) Brewster and J. E. Dallas had started to make banjos based (pretty closely) on SSS designs.

So, with the evidence trail, your banjo cannot reasonably be believed to have been built until after March of 1881. We should allow time for copying the wedge plate neck brace, so, let's say 1882. We know that J. E. Dallas was making banjos based on SSS' designs by 1885.

It is safe to say that chances are your banjo is 1885 at the very earliest, but likely later than that.

The plate at the base of the fingerboard is a nod to New York pattern banjos like those from James Clarke. Several professionals brought Clarke banjos to England. The "New York" pattern banjo (with clad rim) was developed about 1855 in Troy, NY by two builders Wilson and Farnham. So while the aesthetics could be as early as post American Civil War, a major component puts it after March 1881.

We know that 7 string banjos were still in use (and likely still being built) in the 1890s.

Sadly the English were not good at putting dates on things (esp. paper documents like books and music) so we have to dig deeper.

Jun 2, 2020 - 6:00:30 AM
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5321 posts since 9/21/2007

"Looking old" or general deterioration is no indication of age. A couple of decades of storage in a barn, garage or attic will put significant age on an object. As an example of this I like to post photos of a banjo I grabbed off of ebay.

This banjo was built in the 1950s or 1960s for the post WW2 folk revival. As you can see it "looks" like it could be 200 years old.

On the other side of this, there are many examples of 140+ year old banjos that look like they were taken off of the showroom display yesterday.










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