Dan’s Banjo

Viewer Project - By Dan Drabek from CA
Added on February 7, 2013

I recently finished my 7th banjo. The last time I built one was over 30 years ago. Since I recently retired, I decided that a new one would be a good way to spend some of my newly found spare time.

Several years ago I picked up some very nice mahogany at our local flea market. It was lumber salvaged from the interior cabinetry of a 100 year old sailboat, which had been dismantled. The color had oxidized under the varnish to a beautiful dark red color–almost black in places, with lots of glow and figure. The boards were a full inch thick, so I picked up several planks. The wood was rift sawn, so I was reluctant to use it for a banjo, but the planks were dead flat, and if they were going to move, it probably would have happened by now.

I planed the lumber down to about 7/8″ thickness to remove the surfaces and was surprised to find the mahogany was still quite dark in color. I don’t know if oxidation can penetrate an entire plank, but I doubt it. I have some suspicion that this might be Cuban mahogany rather than Honduran. Maybe someone reading this has an opinion. In any case, the wood was finer-grained, darker, harder and heavier than any Honduran I have worked with.

The peghead and inlay is of my own design. I’m an amateur astronomer, so I included Saturn, Jupiter with three of it’s moons, a shooting star, a smiling man-in-the-moon, a double-star on the octave fret, and a rising sun on the heel plate.

I suppose the most unique design feature is the carved heel. I’ve done unicorns on the last three banjos I made. They are all slightly different, but the design seems to fit the banjo heel quite well, both structurally and esthetically. The “horn” is carved from antique ivory taken from the handle of an old table knife. It’s inset into the neck and the forehead of the beast. It was a tricky fitting job, but will never come loose. I had a scrap piece of Brazilian mahogany kicking around my shop for years. It was too small for a fingerboard or guitar bridge. I ripped it on the bandsaw into three pieces of 1/16″ veneer and bookmatched it to laminate a facing on the back of the peghead. With the left-over veneer, I carefully grain matched it and glued pieces around the back edge of the rim. The result looks like a solid piece of veneer. Not much of that nice rosewood went to waste, I am pleased to say.

I made the rim from the same wood as the neck. It was made without the use of a lathe. It’s basically a block rim, with a veneer on the outside to hide the block pattern. Fitting the veneer was a bit of work. I re-sawed a piece of figured mahogany veneer from one of the planks, double-stick taped it to a flat board and ran it through my planer to get it nice and flat and 1/8″ thick. I made a quick and dirty steamer from a piece of 3″ PVC pipe and a pressure cooker, and steamed the wood until it was pliable. I then clamped it around the block rim with hose clamps for a day, took it off and re-clamped it with glue. Then I trued the rim with a sanding drum on my drill press–using the tone-ring clamped to the rim as a guide, spinning it against a couple of clamped boards. This brought it down to the exact diameter of the tone-ring. The last photo shows my setup. A quick pass on the router table, using the same clamped-board technique allowed me to cut a perfect rabbet to fit the ring skirt.

I finished the banjo with three coats of de-waxed shellac, sanded down to bare wood to seal and fill the pores. Then I gave the banjo five coats of Behlen’s Rock Hard Table Top oil varnish, wet sanded with 600 grit wet/dry paper between coats. Finally, I rubbed it all down with a felt block, pumice and water, followed by polishing compound. The resulting finish is very nice. The pictures don’t quite do it justice. Varnish has a unique warm glow, and is remarkably durable.

The banjo sounds most excellent. Lots of ring and snap. I plan to play it open-backed for a while, but will eventually make a resonator for it. I kept enough of the boat mahogany to do the job. I play both bluegrass and frailing styles, so the banjo will do double duty.