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Identifying vintage hand-me-down

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Jun 25, 2022 - 12:29:52 PM
5 posts since 6/25/2022

So this banjo has been hanging on the wall of my grandparents house for at long as I can remember, this past weekend I suddenly found interest in playing it, so they let me take it home and today I got it strung. The Shopkeep (who strung it up for me) said he was unfamiliar with the tailpiece and suggested that it might be ~100 years old. (He also told me, while stringing it, that it was janky and going to have a bunch of quirks. It's MY janky banjo now, so there.)

Im mostly interested in identifying it out of curiosity. I thought it might be something from George C. Dobson at first, but while researching I found another thread on this forum where it was suspected that it may actually be something else.

I know nothing about any kind of instruments, stringed or otherwise, so I've just taken a bunch of pictures of what I thought to be important.

 

EDIT: several other things the Shopkeep said that may be of interest:

- The pegs it has are violin pegs, and the 5th string peg is a different make.

- the head has been replaced.

- several of the metal pegs (I think that's what he called them) have also been replaced. One next to the tailpiece is missing.


Edited by - N_Lewis on 06/25/2022 12:34:40

Jun 25, 2022 - 1:06:12 PM

427 posts since 10/8/2018

quote:
Originally posted by N_Lewis

So this banjo has been hanging on the wall of my grandparents house for at long as I can remember, this past weekend I suddenly found interest in playing it, so they let me take it home and today I got it strung. The Shopkeep (who strung it up for me) said he was unfamiliar with the tailpiece and suggested that it might be ~100 years old. (He also told me, while stringing it, that it was janky and going to have a bunch of quirks. It's MY janky banjo now, so there.)

Im mostly interested in identifying it out of curiosity. I thought it might be something from George C. Dobson at first, but while researching I found another thread on this forum where it was suspected that it may actually be something else.

I know nothing about any kind of instruments, stringed or otherwise, so I've just taken a bunch of pictures of what I thought to be important.

 

EDIT: several other things the Shopkeep said that may be of interest:

- The pegs it has are violin pegs, and the 5th string peg is a different make.

- the head has been replaced.

- several of the metal pegs (I think that's what he called them) have also been replaced. One next to the tailpiece is missing.

 


First thing is to order some nylgut strings and get those steel strings off!! They will ruin your your pegs and tailpiece. It is probably 130+ years old and was designed to use gut strings. I looks in great shape and should make a great player when you get it set up. Don't let the guy who strung it up touch it again he knows nothing about these old banjos. Finds someone who knows what they are doing. There are plenty of people here who could help you out if you have questions. George Dobson was one of the well known Dobson Brothers who each produced their own banjos and sold them. You have a great little banjo there.

Jun 25, 2022 - 1:16:29 PM

hbick2

USA

629 posts since 6/26/2004

It appears to be a nice, early banjo in pretty good condition. We all need to see some more pictures: the side of the pot (the drum part) where the hooks and nuts are; a side view of the heel (the part where the neck joins the pot); anything else.

I agree the steel strings need to come off. Even if they don't damage it, they do not belong on this one.

Jun 25, 2022 - 1:25:20 PM

N_Lewis

USA

5 posts since 6/25/2022

Had no idea about the strings—thanks for that! I'll take a look around and hopefully find some I can afford.

And here are those pictures you asked for! Not sure what else to take pictures of but I'm more than happy to take more if you need them. Peeled up the tape that was in the drum(?) To check if there was anything under it, but there's not.


Jun 25, 2022 - 1:28:41 PM

rmcdow

USA

1179 posts since 11/8/2014

What is the diameter of the head, from the inside of the metal hoop holding it down to the other side?

Jun 25, 2022 - 1:35:43 PM

427 posts since 10/8/2018

quote:
Originally posted by N_Lewis

Had no idea about the strings—thanks for that! I'll take a look around and hopefully find some I can afford.

And here are those pictures you asked for! Not sure what else to take pictures of but I'm more than happy to take more if you need them. Peeled up the tape that was in the drum(?) To check if there was anything under it, but there's not.


Certainly is a nice looking banjo. It was made for George Dobson by the Buckbee factory probably in the 1880's. The is a post here about Buckbee and is good reading and will give you some info about your banjo!  I saw my last name on the tape that you peeled off. (Guess it used to be mine! LOL) I usually get my strings off of eBay Aquila classic or Labella 17's. They are usual around 10-13 dollars.

Jun 25, 2022 - 1:45:33 PM

N_Lewis

USA

5 posts since 6/25/2022

quote:
Originally posted by rmcdow

What is the diameter of the head, from the inside of the metal hoop holding it down to the other side?


11in or thereabouts!

Jun 25, 2022 - 1:47:50 PM

N_Lewis

USA

5 posts since 6/25/2022

quote:
Originally posted by TriMD180
quote:
Originally posted by N_Lewis

Had no idea about the strings—thanks for that! I'll take a look around and hopefully find some I can afford.

And here are those pictures you asked for! Not sure what else to take pictures of but I'm more than happy to take more if you need them. Peeled up the tape that was in the drum(?) To check if there was anything under it, but there's not.


Certainly is a nice looking banjo. It was made for George Dobson by the Buckbee factory probably in the 1880's. The is a post here about Buckbee and is good reading and will give you some info about your banjo!  I saw my last name on the tape that you peeled off. (Guess it used to be mine! LOL) I usually get my strings off of eBay Aquila classic or Labella 17's. They are usual around 10-13 dollars.


oh! LOL the name on the tape was Ruth ('To Ruth, by Mom') who is my great aunt. She didn't want the banjo though, which is why I was allowed to take it. Would have been neat if it had been yours though!

Also thanks for the string recommendations!

Jun 25, 2022 - 1:51:02 PM

banjoy

USA

10340 posts since 7/1/2006

I am not familiar with these types of period banjos and you'll get plenty of expert advice from folks who are (as in the above posts)...

I'm just posting to comment on the missing "metal pegs" you mentioned ... those are called brackets and the kind on this banjo have a shoe they are threaded through. All you need I think is replacement brackets (the shoes are bolted onto the wood rim and seem to still be there). I believe that some of these BHO experts may have some period-correct parts that you may be able to acquire to restore those missing parts and keep the banjo authentic.

Regarding the violin pegs, I can see that at some point in the life of this banjo the original peg holes in the headstock were reamed out and filled with wood, and re-drilled for the new pegs. You see this a lot in old violins too. Whoever did that peg work did an excellent job.

Nice banjo. A keeper I would think.

Edited by - banjoy on 06/25/2022 13:53:46

Jun 25, 2022 - 2:09:20 PM
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1860 posts since 1/13/2012

quote:
Originally posted by banjoy


Regarding the violin pegs, I can see that at some point in the life of this banjo the original peg holes in the headstock were reamed out and filled with wood, and re-drilled for the new pegs. You see this a lot in old violins too. Whoever did that peg work did an excellent job.

Nice banjo. A keeper I would think.


That is very likely original. A reasonable number of Buckbee's banjos had end grain bushings installed around the peghead tuners from the factory. I'm assuming this was to combat splitting.

Andy

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Jun 25, 2022 - 3:18:26 PM

4267 posts since 3/28/2008
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quote:
Originally posted by banjoy


I'm just posting to comment on the missing "metal pegs" you mentioned ... those are called brackets and the kind on this banjo have a shoe they are threaded through. All you need I think is replacement brackets (the shoes are bolted onto the wood rim and seem to still be there). I believe that some of these BHO experts may have some period-correct parts that you may be able to acquire to restore those missing parts and keep the banjo authentic.
 


Try Bob Smakula. He's a regular here on BHO, and has all sorts of old banjo stuff. Here's his website: https://www.smakula.com/.

Jun 25, 2022 - 3:45:08 PM
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hbick2

USA

629 posts since 6/26/2004

One problem that I see is the plastic head is the wrong height . The stretcher band (the metal band that pulls the head down) should be roughly level with the fingerboard. I would suggest that you replace it with a calfskin head. You will be able to get the stretcher band down much farther than it is now and it will be much more appropriate for the banjo. The problem is that calfskin heads can be pretty expensive and they are difficult to install. If you lived closer, I would put one on it for you. Maybe someone on BHO lives close enough to help you. Where in Virginia do you live?

Jun 25, 2022 - 3:56:34 PM

9812 posts since 8/28/2013
Online Now

Absolutely get those strings off. I'd go with the LaBellas. Nylguts are too thick and many times require modifications to the nut and bridge. (they also stretch a lot, break easily and tend to be false, meaning they don't vibrate evenly).

I, too, would check with Bob Smakula about parts.

These do need to be worked on by(or at least worked on using advice from those who know 19th century banjos). Anyone who strings one of these violin pegs/wooden tailpiece banjos with steel (and its knife-like cutting action) is not a person who knows much of anything, let alone a Dobson banjo.

Jun 25, 2022 - 5:26:54 PM

N_Lewis

USA

5 posts since 6/25/2022

quote:
Originally posted by hbick2

One problem that I see is the plastic head is the wrong height . The stretcher band (the metal band that pulls the head down) should be roughly level with the fingerboard. I would suggest that you replace it with a calfskin head. You will be able to get the stretcher band down much farther than it is now and it will be much more appropriate for the banjo. The problem is that calfskin heads can be pretty expensive and they are difficult to install. If you lived closer, I would put one on it for you. Maybe someone on BHO lives close enough to help you. Where in Virginia do you live?


In the area of Richmond, Charlottesville, Staunton, or thereabouts. I'm also still in the 16-21 age range lol, so travel outside of my hometown is under supervision.

I really am glad for all the advice/help you guys have offered by the way, this is a lot more than I was expecting :)

Jun 28, 2022 - 2:57:18 PM

9812 posts since 8/28/2013
Online Now

Strings can be sent through the mail--no travel needed. I have used Elderly instruments and others have ordered from JustStrings.

Bob Smakula is an exce4llent supplier of banjo heads, and can give you clear instructions for measuring for the correct size, and for installation. I don't think the head is a real issue yet, but those terrible strings need to go fast.

It's always a good thing when a young guy takes up the banjo, and it's even better when that guy does all he can to get his banjo right.

Joel Hooks sells period-correct bridges, and is a deep well of knowledge about these earlier banjos and how they were played. He's a member here. You also might try doing a member search to possibly find a qualified banjo man in your area. I would never take it to that moron who put steel strings on yours, and I hope you've already removed them before they can do their damage. I know you can't play it without strings, but It's better to have an idle banjo for a short time than it is to have a banjo with hacked up tuners and tailpiece that need replacement--idling the banjo even longer.

It's always good when a younger guy takes up the banjo, and it's even better when that young guy does all he can to get his banjo right. I hope you do well and enjoy this.

Edited by - G Edward Porgie on 06/28/2022 14:57:56

Jun 29, 2022 - 6:55:59 AM
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hbick2

USA

629 posts since 6/26/2004

I'm afraid that putting a new plastic head, with a higher crown, will not fix this banjo. I've tried to illustrate the problem with the photo from your own banjo.

"A" is the top of the stretcher band and "B" is the top of the fingerboard. These two should be about the same level. If you put a head with a higher (deeper) crown on it, I'm afraid the bead around the bottom of the head "C" will bottom out on the top of the neck notch "D". I have owned banjos where this occurred, and the heel of the neck was actually broken by over tightening the head.

This is one of the problems with plastic heads, the beads are way too thick. A calfskin head, however, uses a much thinner "flesh ring" in place of the bead on a plastic head. This would give you much more room to tighten the head. I hope this is clear. Another possibility, although I don't necessarily recommend it is to file down the stretcher band in the area where the strings pass over it. You might be able to use a shorter bridge, but either way, you are going to have pretty high action (height of the strings over the fingerboard).


Jun 29, 2022 - 8:25:48 AM

3 posts since 6/28/2022

I'm really new to the banjo world, and am looking to get a banjo. How rare is it to see things like this come up for sale at a reasonable cost?

Jun 29, 2022 - 9:27:25 AM

9812 posts since 8/28/2013
Online Now

zI have fitted plastic heads sometimes by cutting or filing away portions of the bead. I have one banjo where I fitted the head this way about 40 years ago and have had no problems with it.

@HowardB--you need to define what you consider "reasonable."

Jun 29, 2022 - 6:14:40 PM

1882 posts since 2/9/2007

If you aren't going to play it, hang it back up on the wall just as it is. You wouldn't even need to change the strings, as long as there's no tension on them.

If you do want to learn to play, I'd say the same thing. For not much more than what you'd have to spend to make that one playable, you can get a brand new Gold Tone or Recording King starter banjo that will be a LOT easier for a novice to deal with. Once you learn your way around some on a banjo, you'll have some knowledge upon which to base a decision about what you want to do with that Dobson.

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