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Jan 15, 2021 - 9:39:24 AM
26 posts since 6/17/2020

I started my build with a little bit of confidence that 200 years ago, backwoods banjo builders didn't have the tools or improved techniques that we have today, and that anyone with a moderate woodworking skill level can build a banjo. Also they hadn't discovered yet, neck back angle or crowned fret boards. As my plans took shape, guided by you tube and banjo hangout. I have come across road blocks to my knowledge and skill level. I have been advised to find a Luthier to build my neck and fret board but this would drive up the costs of the build to such a level that it may have been better to buy a ready made custom Banjo. So the point of this post is to invite discussion around the pros and cons of Banjo building by novices. 200 years ago most banjos were fret less, so they played by ear and instinct for what sounded right. Today if you are a beginner player, it is better to learn to play on a fretted banjo and then progress to fret less banjo. I have been researching neck shapes, but how do you choose a neck shape if you have never played a banjo ? If your trying to build a banjo in the spirit of the first banjos, you could research museum examples and copy those shapes. However ! id like to make contact with a luthier to see if i really need to hand over the building of my neck into more professional hands.

Jan 15, 2021 - 9:54:20 AM

1270 posts since 3/10/2005

You don't need a luthier's advice to build a mountain banjo. Its a folk instrument and while some may have reached "luthier" level quality, many did not. Anyone can do it. You can do it. I have done it, twice. Your first one may not be perfect but your second one will be better.

However, I'd advise you not to do it until you have owned a built banjo for a while. It seems both foolish and wasteful to have a luthier build a mountain banjo neck when you could use that considerable expense to buy your first "real" banjo.

Jan 15, 2021 - 10:09:37 AM

26 posts since 6/17/2020

Would you advise that i buy a mountain Banjo as this is the type i am trying to build ?

Jan 15, 2021 - 10:21:07 AM

26 posts since 6/17/2020

I have added one embellishment to my Neck which is my signature carving, giving the peg head the appearance of being an abstract bears paw with claws. However im not sure if i can pull off my fret board design because it requires two wood types to be cut and glued together creating a pattern.

Jan 15, 2021 - 10:54:51 AM

1270 posts since 3/10/2005

Well to me, the whole point of a "mountain banjo", and by that I mean a homemade, usually small-headed thing with a wood or small skin head, is that its home made.

If you have your mind made up that your first banjo be a mountain banjo, which I still advise strongly against, then I guess your choices are self-limiting. It sounds like you are building an awfully fancy one for your first time. I don't want to be too discouraging though, I just think you are taking the hard road.

Jan 15, 2021 - 11:03:03 AM

3013 posts since 2/18/2009

Another way to approach this might be through the 'breadboard, model and prototype' method which I read about as a kid. When a new product was being invented the first step was to make a "breadboard" that performed the function, the second was to make a model that looked the way the finished product should look but was not functional and the third was to make a prototype that combined the two. Even if your first banjo doesn't turn out to be playable you will at least have gotten some practice at making the appearance that you want, and you can make a simple but functional one at some point to get the technical aspects sorted out before bringing it all together.

Jan 15, 2021 - 11:13:07 AM

2 posts since 2/16/2020

I will offer another perspective. I have made 9 cigarbox, mountain, and gourd banjos. I have never owned a banjo I didn't make, and except for a few minutes here and there, have never really played other banjos. I cut my first necks out of home depot 1 X with a jig saw, profiled the back with a 3/4in roundover bit on a router, and sawed the fret slots right into the same board. Stretched the head over 6in pvc for the first mountain banjo. I went back later, when I had more tools and skills and recarved the back profile on those early necks.

Never had any regrets. I don't think I would have actually learned to play banjo if I simply bought one. The fact that I made an instrument that actually worked kept me going though the early stages when I couldn't actually play anything. I say go for it, make your first banjo yourself. Keep the neck simple, it will still work.

Jan 15, 2021 - 11:52:05 AM

1270 posts since 3/10/2005

And that's why I'm butting out, because everyone is different and I don't want to discourage anyone who really knows what they want to do.

Jan 15, 2021 - 12:40:51 PM

1728 posts since 6/2/2010

The whole reason to make a homemade banjo (mountian, gourd, salad bowl, etc) is to do it yourself without the need to pay someone else.

Your first neck can be carved out of a 2x4.

You might want to see if you can check out the firefox book from your local library. One of those books has plans in it for a mountain banjo. Not sure which one - hopefully some else will tell you what number book it is in.

I say build it yourself. The first one might not be perfect but each one you build gets progressively better.

Jan 15, 2021 - 12:53:50 PM
Players Union Member



16827 posts since 6/30/2015
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I would go fret-less on the first build. You can always add frets later if you want them, or build another neck, or another banjo. It would be tough playing bluegrass on a fret-less, but not clawhammer. My gourd is fret-less, and I had no problem playing it. My first cigar box guitar was also fret-less. I drew the fret lines on where they mathematically should be, and my second build I put in frets, but they didn't go in exactly straight. Did better on my first dulcimer build. All these skills take time to develop, so start with cheap wood and expect spontaneous design changes along the way.

Jan 15, 2021 - 8:01:04 PM

26 posts since 6/17/2020

Thanks guys. You have helped me to get back on track with doing this build myself.

Jan 16, 2021 - 9:17:44 AM

2534 posts since 6/19/2008

Don't worry about the fancy stuff yet. You probably won't discover the perfect neck shape for your hands until you've experimented a bit. While I must say I played a couple of factory banjos when I first started, I have made the most progress in my playing as I've played banjos I made myself. I've built about 45 or more banjo in 25 years or so. So trust me, once you've built your first, it won't be your last.

As far as frets go, it's obvious that plenty of people started out playing fretless in the past.  Violin-family players still do.  When my kids learned their stringed instruments in elementary and Jr. High, they put narrow tape strips to mark the important finger positions on the fingerboard.  I suggest you mark the fret positions on your first fretless with a marker, scribe with a knife, or whatever other way you think will work OK.  Fretless, as some have pointed out, is just about as easy as fretted, for clawhammer related styles.

Edited by - Jonnycake White on 01/16/2021 09:22:44

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