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Jun 11, 2022 - 4:50:52 AM
50 posts since 3/22/2022

When making a wooden block tone ring for a banjo, does anyone ever mix woods together? Ie walnut on 12 and 6 o’clock positions, cherry at 3 and 9, or something. Idk why but I assume that some level of symmetry would be necessary. Is this ever done with circular symmetry, like one wood encircling another?

I’m curious how it turns out, or how y’all think it would.

Jun 11, 2022 - 5:04:42 AM
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Players Union Member

Helix

USA

15724 posts since 8/30/2006

Funny that you would ask. Symmetry is good to think of. Concentricity hasn't been tried yet.

To my knowledge no one has done this. So you're in a brand new county with no county line and no road signs. Pleasant isn't it?

So I'll show you a picture of a Cherry/Ash hybrid with built in Marquetry of alternating slices glued on.

Then I'm including a rim with skunk stripes to match the neck.

Some banjo rims don't lend themselves to this, others do better.

You have a great idea that is ahead of the crowd. Part of the reason is 3-ply rims with bronze added are too heavy 3 hours later at the gig.
Rim caps and woodies are never quite the same, in my experience.
Good hunting, great idea.




Jun 11, 2022 - 6:02:53 AM
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14741 posts since 6/29/2005

Making block rims allows all kinds of things to be done, and people who turn bowls have done amazing ones that could be done with banjo rims. 

Just google search "segmented bowls"  Here are a few:

Jun 11, 2022 - 9:00:46 AM
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3178 posts since 2/18/2009

I have a regular customer who orders block rims made from 3 woods, usually, in various patterns that he devises. I don't know what the effect is on the sound, as I have not heard the banjos after they are completed. My experience with using a different wood for a tone ring layer at the top of a block rim is that is makes no detectable or substantial difference to the sound, but it can look nice.

Jun 11, 2022 - 1:23:42 PM
Players Union Member

Helix

USA

15724 posts since 8/30/2006

I think people use a harder rim cap wood just like people use Ebony as a bridge cap.
Zachary Hoyt, I wish you had some photos of 3 wood caps, that's just what this person is asking.

Ken Levan That's nice. But Nobody has done it.

Jun 11, 2022 - 1:42:30 PM
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14741 posts since 6/29/2005

quote:
Originally posted by Helix

I think people use a harder rim cap wood just like people use Ebony as a bridge cap.
Zachary Hoyt, I wish you had some photos of 3 wood caps, that's just what this person is asking.

Ken Levan That's nice. But Nobody has done it.


In other words you shouldn't do something unless someone else has already done it?

Jun 11, 2022 - 4:39:50 PM

50 posts since 3/22/2022

Wow, I’m surprised my question/idea was interesting enough to elicit responses from three of the most respected banjo luthiers here!

Helix, thank you for the kind words and encouragement

Ken, I’d never seen segmented bowls before, they’re beautiful and show me a versatility I didn’t fully comprehend that block rims had that level of versatility

Zachary Hoyt, that’s interesting, I wonder how much of the purpose of the rim is aesthetic and how much it’s sonic. Sounds pretty similar to what I was thinking of, though.

I wish I could experiment with this myself, sadly I lack the tools, space, and finances for now, as I live in nyc and that prevents the last two. Lutherie is definitely something I want to try my hand at some day, it seems like fascinating and rewarding work.

Jun 11, 2022 - 5:09:23 PM
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14741 posts since 6/29/2005

Here's a real simple 3-tiered one I made for my Grandson.  It's cherry and walnut.

In answer to your question, the most important function of the rim is structural, providing rigidity and holding all the hardware that tightens the head, but aesthetics can also play a big role, and using good-looking wood will not detract from the sound of the banjo.

Jun 11, 2022 - 6:08:09 PM

9793 posts since 8/28/2013

Although I pretty much agree with Ken's statement about the rim's function, there does seem to be some who believe the rim ha a huge influence on tone. Even if the rim is mostly structural, there may in fact be a very subtle influence different woods might have on tone. There are those who swear to hearing those influences. I have found that the biggest influence, however, is the rigidity; a thin rim (possibly because it's not as rigid, has a tone that's not like that of a heavy, thick rim but that the woods involved don't seem to change much of the tone. Sure, there is some change, but it's very subtle and mostly not discernable. When one looks into tone, there are too many parts of a banjo that affect the way it plays, from tone ring type, to bridge, to strings, to head tension, to pin things down to just the rim.

To put it simply, so long as the rim is good and sturdy, its looks aren't a big matter, and the builder should do all he/she can to make a banjo that also has aesthetic appeal. Of course, aesthetics have a lot to do not only with design, but of the craftsmanship involved in making that design--one cannot be sloppy.

Jun 11, 2022 - 6:40:57 PM

18 posts since 9/1/2020

The effect may be minimal, but it's real.
Think of the principle by which sound isolation is achieved.
Extreme variations in density; sound board/ dead air/ sound board/ dead air...
That's an extreme example, but when you mix wood species, (or even introduce a glue joint in same species) there's going to be a minor difference in density, and consequently a small squelching effect to resonant vibrations.
Tony Pass once said "More wood, less glue" in regards to the subject. I would venture to say that more contiguous wood grain, and pieces of similar material properties will render the best resonance.

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Jun 12, 2022 - 2:18:18 AM

50 posts since 3/22/2022

I understand the structural function of the rim, I was wondering specifically the reasons behind the custom rims ordered from Zachary Hoyt.

No doubt ipe will have a different tone from balsa if used in a rim, I’m curious if they were both used in equal parts, equally touching other segments of the banjo, how would it differ tonally from just one or the other? Would it be a combination or would the different resonances just cancel eachother out?

The more wood, less glue makes me think of those wild puzzles that can be made of wood and be incredibly stable, as well as how there are joints that can be pretty strong without much if any glue or screws. I wonder if making a rim entirely of wood without any glue would be a noticeable difference, though I’m sure grains going against eachother and such would still cause dissonance to some extent.

Jun 12, 2022 - 2:35:04 AM

50 posts since 3/22/2022

This density talk reminds me of a video I’ve seen recently about an instrument called the clavinimbus where basically the body of the piano was replaced by a balloon. Also there’s something called the inflatable guitar that has the same principle behind it, and basically sounded similar to a uke. It made me think of what would happen if instead of a sock to mute an open back you put a helium balloon back there. My guess is it’d be as bright as looking into the sun, by which I mean too bright and possibly painful.

Jun 12, 2022 - 6:09:19 AM

14741 posts since 6/29/2005

This started off as a question about using different wood in a decorative pattern to make a block rim, and has drifted off into the popular "rim as a sounding board" discussion.

I would say read David Politzer's papers about how a banjo works, and Ervin Somogy's books about how a guitar works.  Maybe John Calkin's paper about "tonewood heresy".

There is so much folklore, near religious belief, and anecdotal testimony about banjo rims, it's hard to wade through it without the kind of boots you need to clean out a barn.

In a banjo, it's the head that makes the sound. In a guitar, it's the top that's the sounding board. In a banjo, the rim supports the head and allows it to vibrate to the max, in a guitar, the sides support the top and allows it to vibrate to the max. In a banjo, either your belly or a resonator is the "back", in a guitar, there is actually a back, which will be resonant if you play sitting down, reflective if you play standing up with the back pressed against your body. 

The sides of a guitar, analogous to the rim of a banjo, are considered to be "non sound producing".

Don't listen to me—you can actually read about this—David Politzer, who is a Nobel Laureate has written many papers about banjos and teaches courses in banjo physics at CalTech.  Somogyi, who is the father of flat top steel string guitar lutherie, has written numerous things, including a set of books considered to be the "bible" of the subject.  Both of these people know WAY more than I do— I can only speak from my own experience, having made many banjos in different configurations and from different woods, and listened to them or recordings I made.

There is no doubt that the rim of a banjo must impart some tone color—not as much as the neck, which is directly connected to the strings, but some, and this has been blown out of proportion. 

Meanwhile, there are negative aspects—the rim, if poorly constructed, is too flexible, spongy, or badly conceived geometrically, can actually detract from the sound by robbing energy from the head and absorbing it into itself, diminshing the sound, or it can make the banjo sound too bright if it's too shallow or small in diameter, too thuddy if it's too large in diameter, too dull if it's too massive and thick, and too bassy and "canny" if it's too deep, but that's because of geometry.  It's easy to ascribe the wrong cause to an effect.

So maybe we ought to think of rims in terms of minimizing their sound-diminishing potential.

Special configurations of the rim, like the "megaphonic" conical shape have an affect because of their geometry, not because they are acting like a sounding board.

The species of wood is important because of what physical characteristics (stiffness & density) it posseses to be a rigid structural member, and aesthetic qualities have very little to do with anything that has to do with sound. The glue ought to be the hardest and most rigid kind, but is really a non contributor to sound.

Jun 12, 2022 - 7:58:05 AM

RO75

USA

4 posts since 5/27/2022

Thanks Ken, I was going to start my summer reading list today and your references will top the page.

Jun 12, 2022 - 8:28:27 AM

50 posts since 3/22/2022

Thanks Ken, they definitely sound interesting and as someone who has some background in physics and a love for banjo those papers sound amazing. I was thinking too much about stuff that I know rationally aren’t that important and won’t magically change the tone somehow beyond very small amounts. It seems almost like the strad conversation in violin circles where people swear up and down it is noticeably different or better but double blind, empirical studies show that it’s usually just a sort of… not true. I never thought much about the geometry, aside from seeing helix banjos, but I just wasn’t properly thinking about acoustics i suppose. I wonder how far one could push it though, if a banjo could have holes wherever not structurally necessary, or a pot made of stone. I’ll make sure to read those papers.

I’m a bit confused by what you said about the species of wood mattering in terms of its structural viability, if I understand correctly. Is the use of wood, in your opinion, almost entirely an aesthetic thing, as opposed to using plastic or aluminum or something?

Regardless, making a banjo with sides that look like those bowls would be very cool imo.

Jun 12, 2022 - 9:45:25 AM
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14741 posts since 6/29/2005

quote:
Originally posted by Frailinandwailin


I’m a bit confused by what you said about the species of wood mattering in terms of its structural viability, if I understand correctly. Is the use of wood, in your opinion, almost entirely an aesthetic thing, as opposed to using plastic or aluminum or something?

Wood is the most common material to make a banjo rim from by a huge margin, and it's easier to work with than most other materials.

You are asking about block rims, and I make laminated ones, but they are both made from wood, and the wood they are made from has the same physical characteristics and the geometry can be the same. My rims are made from different kinds of wood—maple, birch, beech, cherry, walnut, etc etc.  Each of these woods have different physical properties, and the most important ones for rim building are stiffness (modulus of elasticity), measured in multiples of pounds per square inch (Mpsi), density, measured in pounds per cubic foot, and bending strength, measured in pounds per square inch (psi).
The species of wood is important mainly in terms of these physical properties, and while individual pieces of wood might sound somewhat different when struck—some might work better than others as marimba bars, for instance—the rim of a banjo is a structural entity and not a “sounding board”, so I go by the physical properties when engineering rims.

Having said that, here is a chart showing the physical properties of some common wood species that could be used to make banjo rims.  I put Honduras mahogany in there even though it’s not a “North American wood” because it’s one of the ones I use.

Here’s another chart that narrows it down further, and this one is organized by stiffness.  You will note that stiffness does not necessarily correlate with density.

Here are the woods I normally use in order of stiffness— I have made oak and ash rims, but they are not the normal thing.

SO, it’s easy to argue that maple is the quintessential banjo rim wood—it’s what Gibson used exclusively for their rims (although their specification was “maple or beech”, so there might be some beech thrown in there on some rims)—it would be tough to tell from the part you can see—Can you tell whether this 1927 rim is beech, maple, or both?—I can’t, and knocking on it wouldn't tell you anything.

In terms of Fairbanks / Vega—all their 7-ply rims were maple.

So, going back to the chart, and assuming red maple, this would be the  quintessential rim that would make a banjo you with the sound you’d expect to hear, like maple bridges—you see that birch is the stiffest, cherry is the least stiff, beech is the heaviest / densest.

Before I go any farther, I will reiterate that a banjo rim is not a sounding board, and it’s the physical characteristics and geometry of the rim supporting the head and the tension of the head that makes the banjo plinky or plunky— I would argue this is a function of the stiffness and density of the rim, not whether it’s maple or cherry—red maple just happens to have the combination of stiffness and density we associate with banjo rims.   I can also sense a question, so being a kind of banjo heretic, I’m going to  insert a quote from a major guitar builder rather than addressing this with my own opinion—
“Tap tone—” I may get into some real trouble for this opinion, but I’ve never been able to make sense of tap tone as a way to judge a top (read rim). I tried very early in my career to make it work for us, but there seemed to be too many variables and human-error opportunities for this to be a good judge of a top (rim). I will not say that it doesn’t work for others. It just doesn’t work for me because I find it to be a very unscientific and unquantifiable practice. ”
end of editorial.

If you were going to make “pure” rims, which is to say, made from only one species of wood , there would be differences one to the other, which could be used to your advantage.

My experience is (and the differences are subtle) that higher stiffness is going to provide a brighter snappier sound, and less stiffness will provide a more mellow, plunkier sound, so an all birch rim would probably be great for bluegrass banjos (true), particularly if you wanted to peel paint with a “Stanley sound”,  and an all cherry rim would appeal more to clawhammer / old time players who wanted plunk (also true).
This, of course, goes along with scale length / bridge placement.

NOW,  back to engineering— suppose you are making a walnut banjo, or a cherry one, or a mahogany one—You want the neck to match the pot.

We know that the neck has an affect on the sound of the banjo, but we want to have the best performing rim, yet have it match the neck—what do we do?
My thesis here is to laminate the rim so that the part you see is made from the same wood as the neck, but we maintain the physical characteristics that produce the rim we like, and we can actually control that (probably not with a block rim).

Here’s an example of combinations that mimic the characteristics of maple.

You can see that the density doesn’t go along for the ride, so you can’t be perfect.
The world is your oyster:

I don’t know what else to say about it at this point.

Edited by - Ken LeVan on 06/12/2022 09:53:30

Jun 12, 2022 - 1:03:17 PM

50 posts since 3/22/2022

Ken LeVan that was an amazing and informative read, and it came full circle, because what I was asking about at the very beginning of this thread was basically what I now realize is a laminated rim. I lacked the vocabulary to describe it as intended, but I personally am a habitually curious person so I’m glad to have learned so much along the way. I’m gonna look more into laminating as a process for rim creation as I’m unfamiliar with it and it seems cool and to have great results.

Jun 12, 2022 - 1:04:23 PM
Players Union Member

Helix

USA

15724 posts since 8/30/2006

Latitudinal grain or strap or laminated type rims all line the tone ring up parallel with the side of the tree

Others may line the tone ring up with the bottom of the tree or use an angular bias to extend the grain run to produce a virtual depth greater than the assumed and standard depth of banjo cases

Log stamping has been done since the 1830’s. Scruggs sat his banjos in front of speakers

No one has built a rim cap with angular bias to increase the virtual depth because they definitely didn’t think of it inside the “there ain’t no tone in the rim” corral

Now Pollitzer and Levan have to prove it by building a banjo with a papier-mâché or other stiff enough stuff. Why? Because they colluded on personal visiting
My sincere congratulations to Mr Pollitzer
50 years of math
My sincere congratulations to Mr Levan for the graphics

I know of a Cherry archtop woody who underweighs the competition by at least 6 lbs every weekend on stage
I jam with everybody so I get to hear the real time difference

Remember too much hybrid might not give the best or enough of either choices, veneers and lams are covered in glue

Ashore: an inflatable banjo rim is totally stiff enough if pneumatic tires are.
Pressure and/or mixture of gases might produce luminescence

Aboard: other factors might also include hydraulics, optics and acoustics

Tread lightly. It’s a full moon

Jun 12, 2022 - 2:29:19 PM

14741 posts since 6/29/2005

quote:
Originally posted by Frailinandwailin

Ken LeVan that was an amazing and informative read, and it came full circle, because what I was asking about at the very beginning of this thread was basically what I now realize is a laminated rim. I lacked the vocabulary to describe it as intended, but I personally am a habitually curious person so I’m glad to have learned so much along the way. I’m gonna look more into laminating as a process for rim creation as I’m unfamiliar with it and it seems cool and to have great results.


Thanks,  I thought you were asking about block rims.

Actually I have no particular axe to grind as to rim construction, having made block rims back in the 1970s, more recently laminated rims and finger-jointed ones—they all work. Regardless of the method, I always build them with the grain running horizontally around the rim for reasons of circumferential stiffness, which is critical, although in laminated rims I have made some that have several vertical layers, similar to the 60s Vega ones. 

I've heard from other builders and repair people about seeing "stave" rims with the grain going vertically that you could squeeze out-of-round with your hands, so while that's a great way to make salad bowls, I don't go there with banjo rims.

Jun 12, 2022 - 2:44:32 PM
Players Union Member

Helix

USA

15724 posts since 8/30/2006

Go with Ken and his data

If you end up needing material or tools, go make friends with some cabinetmakers, I mean play some banjo for them

I’d look for a good recording signal like Audacity to do real audio comparisons because hearsay is not against the rules here

Jun 12, 2022 - 3:12:56 PM
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50 posts since 3/22/2022

Thank you all for your advice and help, has been a learning experience. And don’t worry helix, however much I’m partial to data-driven information, Im generally a skeptical person who will do my own research best I can.

Jun 12, 2022 - 5:03:28 PM

14741 posts since 6/29/2005

quote:
Originally posted by Frailinandwailin

Thank you all for your advice and help, has been a learning experience. And don’t worry helix, however much I’m partial to data-driven information, Im generally a skeptical person who will do my own research best I can.


You just have to make banjos, and you'll learn— I've been making instruments for 55 years and not by data-driven information, but by hands-on experience and trial-and error. Nobody taught me how to do it.

Jun 12, 2022 - 6:06:16 PM

9793 posts since 8/28/2013

I have always felt that the theory that too much glue can ruin tone basically came out of the back end of a bull. Harpsichords and pianos both have sounboards glued up from slats of spruce, and even many guitars and violins have two-piece tops. The Steinway piano has always used a laminated rim (originally made from TWO different wood species, and we're talking here about 30 square feet of glue holding those woods together. These rim types have always been considered the best, and pianists choose Steinways for concerts more than 90 % of the time.

Glue is a nice anecdotal excuse for bad design, in my opinion. If the rim is to stay together, one had better have a good glue bond, because wood won't stick to wood without some kind of mechanical connection. I suppose screws might work, but they have their own issues.

Jun 12, 2022 - 6:40:07 PM
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Fathand

Canada

12016 posts since 2/7/2008

If you look at the banjo build tutorial in the Scruggs book, thare are some interesting ideas on decorative rims from laminated wood strips.

Jun 13, 2022 - 1:11:38 AM

50 posts since 3/22/2022

Are steam bent rims the same as laminated rims?

Jun 13, 2022 - 4:09:59 AM

14741 posts since 6/29/2005

quote:
Originally posted by Frailinandwailin

Are steam bent rims the same as laminated rims?


Most laminated rims are made by steam-bending wooden slats and laminating them together, although it's possible to do it without steam.  Bart Reiter said that he started off using thin strips and laminating them without any steam, and he makes very good banjos. The first laminated rim I made years back was for a TuBaPhone, and I wanted to do the Vega 7-ply style, so soaked, roughly 1/10" slats in water and laminated them with a form.

I believe that Dan Drabek bends outer and inner slats for rims with a bending iron like you use for guitar sides.  That would be another way to do it.

There have been people who bent very thick pieces using ammonia.

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