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A Sampling of Traditional & Progressive Banjo Designs:Boucher Early Minstrel Banjo
Frank Profitt Mountain Banjo
Bluestem Mountain Banjo Nouveau
Bluestem Artisan Mountain Banjo
Bluestem Open Back Banjo Nouveau
Bluestem Wine Box / Hand Drum Banjo
Banjo Design & Construction Information:Open Back Banjo Design Primer
General Banjo Construction Information
Open Back Banjo Setup Guide
“Why can’t I get this thing to play in tune?” (More than you wanted to know about equal temperament)
Bluestem Open Back Banjo Construction Guide on CD with full size plan
Bluestem Workingpersons 11 Slot Head Open Back Banjo Construction Guide on CD with full size plan
Bluestem Wood Top Banjo Construction Guide on CD with full size plan
Assorted 5 String Banjo Construction Tips
***********************************************************Pot related information
Neck related information
Assembly and related information
Assorted Banjo-related tidbits that don't fit anywhere else...
POT RELATED INFORMATION
Block Rim ConstructionRim layers can be formed easily using the method shown. I cut them with a miter saw, but they can be cut by any other means. I cut 8 segments with 22-1/2 degree angles, leaving the last segment with extra length. Seven segments are glued using slightly stretched painter's tape to hold them tightly together until dry. Cut the last segment for a perfect fit, hold it in place and mark the inner excess material. Cut away the excess material on the inside of the ring before gluing the final segment in place. This saves a LOT of time when sanding the rim to size. Glue the last segment in place and plane level when dry. I use the Wagner Safe-T-Planer in my drill press, but use whatever method you choose. Cut the outer profile oversize before gluing the layer in place.
Here's a quick youtube demo of using the Wagner Safe-T-Planer to surface a rim layer:
Rim Segment Layout GuideClick HERE for a PDF guide that allows you to print out full size patterns for 8, 12, or 16 segment rims, 11" or 12" OD sizes, in either 5/8" or 3/4" wall thickness.
Rim Construction Without Using A Lathe, Two Alternate MethodsHere's an alternative to lathe forming a rim. The pictures should be more or less self-explanatory. The secret is to form a base with a precisely sanded outer diameter. The circular base rides against two guide boards located to the right and to the rear of the base and clamped securely to the drill press table. Slightly oversized segments are glued directly to the base and accurately sanded with an 80 grit drum sander. Adjust the right guide board to control "depth-of-cut". You should take multiple light passes until the desired dimension is reached. Use medium speed and keep your work moving to avoid burning the wood. Cut or plane away the base to reach the inner portion that could not be initially shaped with the sanding drum. Clean up the outside and inside surface with a random orbit palm sander fitted with a 220 grit disk. With a little care you can easily produce a rim that rivals its lathe-turned counterpart. The photos below show how this is done.
Rim construction sequence is as follows:
1. Glue first (bottom layer) to a circular pattern formed from void-free plywood to serve as a sanding guide. I always use a few grains of salt on the glue surface to keep layers from sliding when clamping pressure is applied. If your layers are level they can be clamped with pressure exerted from a central point above the rim.
2. Sand outer diameter of first layer to match circular sanding guide. The inside diameter of this layer is sanded as the last step.
3. Glue second layer in place.
4. Sand outside diameter of second layer to match first layer.
5. Sand the second layer inside edge to the appropriate diameter and outside diameter to match the second layer.
6. Glue the third layer in place.
7. Sand the third layer inside and outside diameter to match the second layer.
8. Glue the top layer in place.
9. Sand the top layer inside and outside diameter to match the third layer.
10. Remove the circular sanding guide. Excess material can be removed from center and the remaining material can be planed away.
Another Block Rim Construction Idea...Here’s a quick picture to demonstrate another idea for an easy alternative to lathe use when making a rim. Any size rim with any wall thickness can be created this way. Each segment is precut to the desired OD and ID plus a little extra for sanding purposes. The first segment’s ends are sanded and it is glued to a plywood disk whose outer edge has been sanded to the desired finished O.D. Each additional segment has both ends sanded prior to adding it to the rim. The mating end is additionally sanded to form a more or less perfect joint when it is added to the previous segment. The salt shaker is used to sprinkle a few grains on the glue surface to prevent the segment from shifting out of place when clamp pressure is applied. If a small disk sander is used, the joints can be mated to create an almost invisible glue line. When all the layers are complete the plywood form can be cut or planed to remove it or it can be used as a reference to sand the rim using a 2” sanding drum mounted in a drill press as shown above.
Slow n’ Easy Laminated Rim Construction, another lathe-less rim making alternative…There are many ways to make a laminated rim; here’s a photo that encapsulates many of the ideas associated with yet another alternative to lathe-based rim construction.
Constructing The Form:
The form shown in this example is a simple internal form made of 5 layers of particle board that has been stacked and glued, cut into four sections, and joined together by recessed screws across the joints. One of the four quadrant sections has its face tapered inward the exact thickness of the lamination layer to serve as the “starting area” for the first layer. This starting end of the first layer will be sanded away to form a smooth inner transition after the rim is completed. This method of starting the first wrap will ensure that the following layers will be full thickness so the rim will be as rigid as possible. This inner rim layer “tuck” and associated tapered quadrant of the form can be seen at the lower left portion of the photo. Wrapping and clamping layers solidly against an internal form is a good way of ensuring that layers will be as gap-free as possible, as there is a natural tendency for the layers to conform tightly as they are bent around the form. This technique does require careful planning so the final outer layer will end up at the desired outside diameter after the rim has received any final truing and surface sanding. A bit of careful planning will be necessary to address that, and we’ll take care of all that ciphering next.
Calculate the required outer diameter of the form by subtracting two times the thickness of your rim walls from the desired outside diameter of the completed rim.
In the example shown the desired rim size was 12” with 1/2” rim wall thickness comprised of four 1/8” thick layers, so the outer diameter of the form was 11” and was made of five stacked and glued layers of particle board. The form walls were made 1-3/4” thick, enough to resist deformation under clamping pressure, but allowing enough space so the clamp bodies have enough clearance at the inside area of the form. The form is made in four sections and screwed together, with one quadrant’s face tapering inward to form the “ramped start” for the first layer. If one of the quadrant sections is mated to its adjoining sections with slightly tapered end cuts it will be very easy to remove the form from the rim by removing a few screws and giving the tapered section a tap to loosen it. The surface of the form is wrapped with stick-on shelf liner so the rim won’t be accidentally glued to it. Shelf liner isn’t very sticky, so the ends of the shelf liner are held to the form with masking tape. The form is mounted to a backing plate that is made to match the desired rim diameter. This plate is held to the work bench by using a bolt through the bench top and a large knob to secure it. This allows quick repositioning of the form as the layers are added.
Making The Rim:
The laminations were made 48” long by 1/8” thick with a 3” width. Plenty of extra material allows the rim to be made wider than necessary and trimmed to the desired finished width. Each layer is dampened with a wet sponge and an ordinary household iron is used to apply heat to easily bend each thin lamination. Clamping cauls that roughly match the desired rim outer diameter are lined with 1/4” thick cork with heavy duty double stick carpet tape. Several of these will allow the rim to be formed and glued a section at a time to eliminate the rush of trying to form a perfect rim from several layers all glued simultaneously. It is recommended that each layer is bent and clamped in place before gluing so the layer won’t spiral too far out of alignment. After a portion of the layer is bent and clamped in place to ensure alignment then the first portion can be unclamped and glued. Continue the bending and clamping until the layer is complete, trimming the length as necessary. The joint ends are butted together as the next layer is added. If care is taken to make a tight and gap-free rim, trimming a bit of the end layer overlap and sanding of the outside surface will produce the desired outer diameter and the extra material forming the inside taper of the starting lamination can be trimmed and sanded to true up the inner diameter once the rim top and bottom are trimmed to the desired rim height. Rounding over the rear edges and forming the top of the rim completes the project.
Combining Block And Layer Construction TechniquesI also often use a top bearing guided carbide router bit to pattern route the ID and OD to each previous layer. I use this technique in combination with adding highly figured overlay veneers to the inside and outside surfaces of a rim. By combining block and layer construction you can obtain rims of unsurpassed strength and stability while maintaining a 1/2" or 5/8" wall thickness. The photos below graphically illustrate the technique and the rim variations that can be achieved by combining the techniques.
Drilling Rim Holes, Two MethodsDrilling the rim for bracket holes can be done using this simple drill press fixture. An extension arm is clamped to the side of the drill press table to permit the holes to be drilled perfectly perpendicular to the rim face. The top of the overhanging arm is rounded to match the inner diameter of the rim to prevent tear out when the drill bit breaks through the inner face of the rim.
The second method shown in the photo below utilizes a hand drill. A guide block with rear face curved to match the rim outside diameter is fastened to the bench top. Alignment marks are drawn on the rim face and the top of the guide block to accurately locate the rim hole positions. The rim is clamped in place against it using a curved sacrificial guide against the inner rim surface. The bracket hole can then be drilled using the guide hole with no tear out on the rim surfaces.
Making Your Own Raw Brass Bracket ShoesMaking your own raw brass hardware can be a great alternative for a number of reasons. Here a a few ideas for shoes that can be fabricated in the average home shop. Brass works and polishes easily, and can be patina finished with one of many commercial products that are commonly available.
Click HERE for a PDF guide to fabricating the raw brass banjo shoe shown below.
Patina Finished Raw Brass Two Point ShoesIt's easy to add bling by designing and making your own unique raw brass shoes. Here is a version of a simple two point shoe that can be made in the home shop. A complete construction guide featuring 17 annotated photos is available for free viewing in my "photos" section at Banjohangout, and is also available in the "Extras" section on my Open Back Construction Guide CD.
Raw Brass Two Footed Single Point ShoesHere is another shop-made shoe design. This one is shown in polished brass before patina finishing.
Here the previous design is slightly modified to make this handsome square ended version:
Polishing Raw Brass HardwareHere's a quick youtube to demonstrate the polishing of raw brass hardware:
NECK RELATED INFORMATION
Fret Board LayoutHere's a quick animation demonstrating the steps used in banjo fret board layout. It takes a little over a minute to cycle through the steps. Use of your browser "refresh" button will restart the animation from step #1. The "stop" button will freeze the animation at its current frame until the "refresh" button is used. The captions used are listed below with additional explanatory text added.
1. Banjo fret board layout on a typical 20” by 2-1/8” fret board blank.
2. Draw horizontal center line on fret board blank. All measurement is done from this line.
3. Draw third string path below center line by dropping the nut end of line 3/16” down from center line. All vertical lines will be drawn perpendicular to this line. This is done so the nut and frets will be perpendicular to the pot center line when the neck and pot are joined. The neck will be "rotated" slightly around the center point of the heel causing the third string path to be exactly on the extended pot centerline. This is done so the strings will center over the neck heel when the instrument is assembled. The third string should be a perfectly straight line from the nut slot, over the heel center, and extending to the center of the tailpiece.
4. Draw nut and heel locations. Be sure to draw all vertical lines perpendicular to the 3rd string line drawn earlier. Note that the heel location is independent of the actual scale length and determines where the bridge will be placed on the head. Heel position is calculated by subtracting the heel to bridge distance (pot diameter X .6) from the actual scale length. The resultant dimension is the nut to heel distance. This is the actual length of the finished fret board.
5. Draw 4th and 5th fret locations.
6. Mark the centered nut width. The example shown is 1-3/8”, a typical clawhammer style banjo nut width.
7. Mark centered heel width. The example shown is 2”.
8. Connect marks on first string side.
9. Draw a line from nut to fourth fret on a line between the marks on the fifth string side.
10. Add 5/16” to the distance from the center line to this line at the 5th fret and mark the new width. This additional width varies based on personal builder preferences, many builders add 1/4" for the fifth fret bump out distance.
11. Draw a line between the indicated 5th fret width and the mark at the heel.
12. Draw the curve connecting the lines between the 4th and 5th frets.
13. Draw the remaining fret positions on the blank. Seventeen are shown. This is a popular number for many clawhammer players, others like additional frets.
14. Draw a line parallel to the 3rd string path line on the 1st string side. The blank can be trimmed to this line and the edge used for a reference for cutting the fret slots. It is generally easier to cut fret slots with a little extra board width. This minimizes the possibility of chipped slots when the saw exits the cut. Some prefer a minimum of width if cutting frets by hand (shudder...) as it reduces overall blade friction while cutting.
Banjo Neck Layout GuideClick HERE for a Banjo neck and fret board layout guide in PDF format. It can be used to lay out the entire fret board profile and also is used to lay out any desired spacing for bridge and nut slots. It has printed steps that follow the animated graphic that is shown above.
Wfret, The fret position calculator that prints full size templates!Someone is always trying to produce a "better" version of this program, but the truth is Jon Whitney's Wfret does everything that's necessary in a simple and easy to use program. WFret produces accurate layout of fret locations as well as full size templates for any type of fretted musical instrument. Choose your desired scale length and number of frets and Wfret spits out a chart of fret position measurements and an actual printed full size template if desired. It runs on your machine with no internet connection, Java script, or anything else necessary. I often copy the chart information and paste it into another application when I'm working on instrument CAD drawings or other ancillary information. Why can't more people produce this kind of stuff? I supply Wfret on my CDs with Jon's gracious permission, and the zipped installation file can be found with a quick Google search.
Click HERE for a download link for the zipped installation file for Wfret. Don't forget to tell Jon thanks!
Simple Excel-based fret position calculator:Here is my own version of the many popular Excel-based fret spacing calcularors available on the web. To use it, double click cell B1, type in the desired scale, hit enter, and print out the resulting chart. There is even a full decimal equivalence chart provided so the decimal values indicated can be easily converted to common fractions if desired.
Click HERE for a Excel spreadsheet for calculating fret positions for any scale length and up to 24 frets. This is quick and easy to use if you're just looking for the actual measurement values.
Full Size Fret Layout Guide Sheets
Click HERE for the left side AND HERE for the right side of two PDF files that are designed to be printed and physically joined to make a unique full sized template for accurate layout of fret and position marker locations when constructing banjos and other musical instruments. Several scales are represented to choose from. The unique properties of the PDF files allow these patterns to print accurate representations of the scale positions. Save the files to your local hard drive and they can be printed out whenever the need arises. When printing the 2 files make certain that the "no print scaling" is selected in the print dialog box and verify by measurement that the borders have been printed to be 7" by 9-3/4". This will ensure that the layout patterns are sized correctly.
Carefully trim the left border of the RIGHT layout guide, match it to the right side BORDER of the LEFT layout guide and tape them together. Fold lengthwise at the top of the desired scale and transfer the locations directly to your fret board blank. The 24 frets shown are more than the number needed for banjo use, but the guide can also be used for other types of fretted instruments.
Fret Board SlottingAn example of how I cut fret slots is shown below. This small tile saw has been retrofitted with a jeweler's slotting blade that cuts a precise .023" slot width for standard frets. If you make a lot of instruments that require frets this saw works beautifully.
If you are making a fretless neck it does not need this kind of precision, and any type of saw can be used to make the slots which are filled with a contrasting wood strip. Sand the strips to match the slots, glue them in place, and sand them level with the fingerboard surface.
NOTE: I have had many requests for the details about parts that I used to make this saw, so here's a quick rundown of what I used. YMMV.
Circular screw slotting blade (Thurston Mfg. Co. #J-034) .023” by 2-3/4” OD 1” arbor 72 teeth McMaster-Carr #3062A31
The blade was matched to the 5/8” arbor of the small circular saw using two arbor reducing washers:
McMaster-Carr #68885A62 1” to 3/4” hole reduction bushing
McMaster-Carr #68885A63 3/4” to 5/8” hole reduction bushing
Tunneled Fifth String DesignI've found that small gauge stainless steel micro-sized tubing to be ideal tunnel material. I use 16 gauge micro tubing available from McMaster Carr at around 5 dollars for 12". This stuff is SMALL at 1/16" outside diameter and fits easily in a 3/32" channel routed between the fret tang and the bottom of the fret board before it is glued in place. It bends easily with a little care and has a really nice polished internal surface.
I've found it is best to have the tunnel exit at a very low angle between the fourth and fifth frets or alternately the fifth and sixth frets. The tunnel exit area resembles an elongated oval with a shiny edge when finished flush with the fret board surface. I opt for the fifth-sixth tunnel exit location because I prefer the sound of the fifth string with a bit less tension on it. The best tunnel path is directly below the fret tangs and exiting through a slot cut in the bottom edge of the nut. The micro tubing end is flush with the rear face of the nut and in a plane just above the peg head overlay.
A slot head design benefits from the tunnel bent slightly downward under the nut area and exiting in the tuner slot at a location that will enable the string to enter the tunnel in a straight line.
Whatever tunnel design and path you choose it is IMPERATIVE for smooth tuning that you form the channel in a way that presents a minimal amount of bend and friction points between the fifth nut and the tuner post. It's not that difficult to do, but requires a little design and planning to implement it in an effective manner. Think of the ideal string path being a straight line from the fifth string nut to the tuner post and try to deviate as little as possible from that ideal line. Here is a drawing to demonstrate some of the ideas presented above.
Neck Reinforcement Using 2024-T4 "Aircraft Aluminum" Bar StockI commonly use an 18” length of 1/4” thick 2024-T4 aircraft aluminum bar stock that tapers from 3/8” at the nut end to 5/8” at the heel end of the neck in my banjos, but it is not necessary in a well-built nylon strung banjo. Do not use ordinary aluminum bar. If you can flex the bar by hand it is not stiff enough to be effective in preventing neck bow. The bar can be cut easily on the band saw, but avoid overheating the bar when cutting it. The top and bottom edges of the bar must be sanded smooth and flat. The bar is installed by routing a 1/4" wide channel that is cut 1/2" deep at the nut end and tapers to 3/4" deep at the heel end. The channel is routed using several progressively deeper passes until the desired depth is reached. The bar is glued into the channel with a filler strip clamped over its top. The filler strip is finished off to be level with the top surface of the neck after the glue has dried. An example of this type of bar is shown in the photo.
The details for making and installing this type of reinforcement bar can be found HERE at my other website.
Scraper HolderNothing beats a properly sharpened cabinet scraper for doing smoothing and leveling operations quickly and accurately. Make a nice wooden block to hold your scraper in an arch and you'll take all the work out of holding it properly. The handle shown below can be easily made by sawing the handle in half vertically by creating a long curved cut with a band saw. After the curved cut is made it is glued back together with a wooden shim between the two halves, leaving a void at the bottom to hold the scraper blade.
Banjo Neck ScoopI create most scoops by pattern routing the double ogee shape using a 3/8" carbide cove bit with a 3/8" bearing mounted to the shaft to follow the pattern. I shift the pattern toward the heel and repeat the cut at 1/16" intervals until the scoop is wide enough to flip the neck over and finish up the scoop on a router table with a straight carbide bit.
Banjo Peg Head TemplatesThese templates can be used to assist you when forming the outline contours of a 5 string banjo peg head. The peg head profiles print out as full size patterns within a 9" by 6" area of the page. The profile of your choice can be cut out and traced directly to the peg head area. These particular patterns are drawn with a 1-3/8" nut width indicated, but you may modify them easily for a narrower nut if desired. I've found the 1-3/8" nut with 1-1/8" string spacing to be quite comfortable, lending themselves well to clawhammer and other related styles of banjo playing.
Click HERE for a Banjo Peg Head Profiles #1 in PDF format.
Click HERE for a Banjo Peg Head Profiles #2 in PDF format.
Click HERE for a Banjo Peg Head Profiles #3 in PDF format.
An example of what the templates look like:
Shaping The NeckCut the neck profile out to match the shape shown on the plan. Try and cut the profile as closely as you can to reduce sanding time. Use extra care when cutting the flat area at the rear of the peg head and the thumb stop profile. This will make it easier to easily transition from the rounded portion of the neck when it is shaped with the sanding drum.
The neck profiles (cross sections at several fret locations) along the neck are available on the print. Place a flexible sheet of plastic over the guide and trace over the pattern with a fine tip permanent marker. Cut out the areas representing the neck profiles.
One of the easiest ways to shape the neck is to round out the desired shape at the several fret locations using the guide, remove the waste areas between the shaped locations, and finish by refining the areas to eliminate irregularities. Round the heel area and blend the neck into the heel in a continuous smooth transition. A smaller drum sander (3/4” course grit) can be used to profile the thumb stop area. You may wish to practice your first attempt on a scrap piece of lumber. If you error beyond saving, pitch it and start over. After all, it’s just a piece of wood.
The picture shows the first two template locations at fret positions 1 and 3 rounded with the 80 grit sanding drum. The rest of the locations will be rounded in the same manner prior to removing the waste areas between the locations.
Banjo Neck Profile TemplateThis template can be used to assist you when shaping the contours of a 5 string banjo neck. The guide prints out as a full size 9" by 3-1/2" pattern. The best way to use the print is to place a clear or translucent semi-rigid plastic sheet over it and trace the outlines directly on the sheet with a fine tip permanent marker. The shapes can then be cut out and the resulting template can be used to assist you when shaping the neck contours. This particular pattern shows the edges of the fret board blending into the neck contours, but you may also keep the edges square if desired. I've found this profile to be quite comfortable and its generous proportions lend themselves well to clawhammer style banjo.
Click HERE for a Banjo neck profile template in PDF format.
Banjo Neck GeometryThe unusual geometry that develops as a result of the asymmetrical neck and short fifth string of the current five string banjo design necessitates a little tweaking to enable the strings to be centered on the neck. It wouldn’t be much of an issue, except the five strings create a natural center line that invites visual scrutiny. Modification of the neck angle is also necessary to center the strings over the asymmetric fret board. In order to create a balanced appearance and assure the centering of the strings over the fret board the following steps are suggested.
When the fret board is made the fret slots and nut end should be cut to be perpendicular with the third string path. (This path will coincide with the true centerline of the pot if the neck is attached correctly, as outlined below.)
Fret board position marker location:
The position markers should be centered on a line that runs from the center of the neck heel to a point half way between the center of the nut and the third string nut slot. This may require a little thought to visualize, but it is a way to reconcile the apparent visual centerline (the third string path) and the actual center of the fret board. The positions are shifted to “split the difference” between these two lines.
Adding the fret board to the neck blank:
This one is easy. The midpoints of the nut and heel ends of the fret board are positioned on the neck blank centerline so the board and neck laminations will appear as being centered and symmetrical.
Mounting the neck to the pot:
With the heel center positioned on the pot centerline, the entire neck is “rotated” slightly clockwise (when viewed from the front) to place the third string nut slot directly over the pot centerline. This is accomplished by slightly canting the heel profile when it is formed. Note that this "canting" of the heel profile works in conjunction with the neck heel angle as outlined below.
Neck Heel AngleOne of the problematic areas for new builders is the question of proper heel angle cut. Three degrees is often the suggested angle, but in reality the answer is more complex than that. A small change in heel angle will result in a substantial difference in the bridge height necessary to achieve proper string clearance over the frets at the upper end of the neck. Although there are mathematical relationships that can be used to calculate the theoretical ideal heel cut angle, in actuality it’s difficult to accurately reproduce this ideal calculated angle in the average home shop.
Skip the following paragraph unless you like headaches...
“Can I use a simple math to calculate the heel angle?” Yes and no. You can use trigonometry to ascertain what the desired heel angle needs to be. The first thing you need is a right triangle with the long side equal to the distance from the neck heel to the bridge. The short side of the triangle is the "rise" which is the bridge height minus the distance between the head and strings at the neck heel. In our diagram above we need to subtract the distance from the head to the strings at the edge of rim from the height of the bridge to come up with the needed triangle shape. Draw a line parallel with the head which intersects this point and extends to the bridge to envision the triangle shape. Got it? Even this simple angle isn’t perfect because the strings and the surface of the frets are not parallel due to the increased height of the strings over the upper frets, but its close. OK, we’ve got our right triangle with the two needed dimensions of distance and rise. For simplicity’s sake we’ll say 6” and 1/4” are distance to bridge and the rise to the top of the bridge. Opposite side (.25) divided by adjacent side (6) gives us a tangent of .0416666. Checking the tangent tables we find that .0416666 lies somewhere between 2 and 3 degrees. We guessed that much. Luckily the tangent tables are more or less linear, so we can use simple ratio in proportion to calculate the exact angle. We’ll use the tangent for 2 degrees (.03492) as one portion of our ratio. Doing the math, we get (2).0416666/.03492=2.386403 degrees. Good luck with setting that angle gauge to 2.386403 degrees! Let's move on to a real world method of calculating and cutting the heel angle.
My neck design preference utilizes a 3/16” thick fret board incorporating a 1/8” scoop set flush with the head surface. My heel angle is cut so a straight edge placed across the top of the frets intersects with the bridge position 3/8” above the head surface as illustrated in the diagram. This results in a nearly perfect action when a 5/8” bridge is used. Any further small adjustment in string height above the upper register frets is taken care of by raising or lowering the heel position on the rim.
I’ve found that for me the best way to achieve the angle necessary to produce this desired measurement is to make a preliminary cut, mate the heel to the rim and check the result by placing a straight edge across the top of the frets and checking the resultant distance above the head where the line intersects with the bridge position as illustrated in the diagram. The angle is adjusted slightly if necessary to achieve the desired 3/8” measurement.
Every banjo design presents a unique combination of variables that affect the ideal heel angle. Head deflection is one of the variables that must be considered. Factors effecting head deflection are head material, diameter, tensioning, bridge height, down force from string angle from bridge, additional down force from an adjustable tail piece if used, neck angle, string material, string gauges, and tuning. You can generally figure that the bottom of the bridge will end up 1/16” to 3/16” lower than the top plane of the head after the string tension is applied to the bridge.
Another factor that plays a key role in determining the heel cut angle is the design of the fret board and how it intersects with the level of the head. Non-scooped fret boards, necks positioned higher or lower than the plane of the head, or bridge height more or less than 5/8” will obviously require a slightly different heel cut angle. It helps to make a full size drawing of your neck and pot prior to cutting the heel angle to visualize these relationships and get a good idea of the initial heel cut angle.
Don’t forget that the neck also needs to be slightly “rotated” so the third string path will line up on the pot centerline. (See the entry under BANJO NECK GEOMETRY to get that portion of the total picture.) This means that the heel cut must result in a neck that both angles back and is skewed slightly clockwise when viewed from the front of the instrument. I suspect that most small scale builders develop a heel profiling system that works for them and then rely on that methodology to achieve repeatable results for their instruments. My heel profiling system is based on a vertical oscillating spindle sander as shown elsewhere on this page, but many other builders use many creative solutions to achieve the desired results.
Profiling The Banjo Heel, Two MethodsShown below are two of the many ways to form the heel profile. The first picture shows a jig that uses an oscillating spindle sander and easily creates a heel to rim fit that I used to only dream about! Any arrangement that presents the heel to the sanding drum at the correct radius and angle can be used, as shown in the second photo of a drill press based fixture.
ASSEMBLY RELATED INFORMATIONThe information in this section is mostly related to initial setup during assembly. If you're looking for more specific advanced setup information it can be found on the "SETUP" page which can be found HERE.
My Method Of Neck AttachmentMost often I attach my necks using an internal 1/4" X 20 barrel bolt housed within the heel of the neck. This method of attachment is very solid, provides for quick and easy vertical adjustment of the neck heel for action adjustment, and allows complete and unobstructed access to the neck heel for profiling or fitting to the rim, either when initially fitting or at any later date should the need arise.
Fitting Pegs To Peg HeadThe method shown can be used to install any tuner of any type without damage to front veneer overlay or the rear surface. Drill a small dimple where the tuner will go, hold the guide and bit tip against the dimple, and clamp the wooden drill bit guide and backing board in place. Pull the bit out and check centering by looking down the hole with a small flashlight to ensure proper centering before actually drilling the hole. This particular hole is 9/32" for the violin tuners used on this banjo. A tapered reamer is next used to enlarge the holes to match the pegs exactly.
Attaching StringsHow to attach strings so they don't slip when tightened. The diagram should be more or less self-explanatory.
Nut ViseHere is a simple vise that can be used to hold the nut while cutting and shaping slots. It uses a short piece of "fret board" at the front to simulate an actual fret board. A simple eccentric cam at the back locks the nut in place while it is being worked on.
If you are using frets, a pencil which has been sanded so only half remains can be used to mark a line on the front face of the nut to use as a reference in determining how deep to cut the initial slots. Stay slightly above this line when preliminarily shaping the slots and do the final fitting on the instrument when the strings are added.
The nut slots are cut to be just above the level of the fingerboard (the thickness of a business card serves as a convenient guide) if you are building a fretless instrument.
Bridge SlottingI've found that bridge slotting can best be accomplished by filing a sharp "V" from both sides of the bridge with the intersecting points of the notch just a bit below the top edge and centered on the bridge thickness. If the notch is formed correctly a uniform breakaway angle is formed for the string with a distinct edge so there can be no buzzing created within the string slot.
Since I make my own bridges I find it easiest to start with a bridge about 1/16" taller than my target string height and then match the lowest point of the notch to the desired height.
The bottom of the bridge is also formed in a slightly convex radius to match the very slight depression formed in the head under string tension. This will prevent the bridge from sagging in the future.
Fret End FinishingHere's a quick youtube video to demonstrate how to make your own "safe edge" fret file and how to use it to finish fret ends:
First LightThe term “First Light” is used when a newly constructed telescope is used for its first astronomical observation and I’ve lately realized that a newly assembled banjo could also be considered from a “First Light” perspective, when the instrument is strung up “in the white” for the first time to verify everything fits and works together as planned. I usually play the banjo for a few days in this form and note any final changes necessary before disassembling the instrument for sanding and finish application.
Assorted stuff that doesn't fit in the other categories:
Make Your Own Banjo Tension GuageClick HERE for the complete directions for constructing your own banjo head tension gauge using an inexpensive import dial indicator as shown below.
Logo RemovalFrom practical experience I’ve found that lacquer thinner removes a manufacturer’s logo thoroughly, leaving no trace behind when dry. I've removed dozens of logos this way with no adverse effects. It's best to liberally dab on with a cotton pad and use another slightly dampened cotton pad to remove it as soon as it dissolves. Any remaining traces of the logo ink can be cleaned off with a piece of freshly dampened paper towel.
Inlay SawHere's the best thing I've found to work for sawing inlays. It is a heavy frame hacksaw that has sections of 3/8" key stock added to it for mounting the blades. The blades are retained by the clamping portion that is held with a Allan head cap screw. It makes blade changing quick and easy. The extra depth of the frame makes inlay cutting much easier, and works really nicely when cutting inlays that are affixed to the substrate material. See my home page photos at www.Banjohangout.org to see examples of this very simple inlay method that eliminates routing of a matching recess when doing pag head inlay.
My take on left-handed instruments (rant warning...)I'm STRONGLY left-handed and play a "right-handed" instrument, although I'm using the term very loosely as I'm convinced that there is no "handedness" in musical instruments, it's only a self-perceived concept. If handedness were important in stringed instruments, then what we refer to as right-handed instruments would actually be "left-handed" since the much more complicated manual dexterity necessary to play a fretted instrument is done with the left hand on a "standard right-handed" instrument.
If a person's natural tendency is to favor a dominant hand to perform a task then it would seem totally natural to place the neck of an instrument in the left hand. Using guitar for an example, all the chord forming and individual melody development within a song is done with the left hand and the right hand can do as little as strum and still generate good accompaniment.
If one were to pick an instrument up and not try to “play” it, the dominant left hand would naturally be more suited to the complex tasks of chord formation and picking out melody, as it is the normal hand chosen for use when performing complex tasks. I personally believe lefties have a more difficult time with standard instruments because they come to the table with a preconception of needing a “mirror-image” of the right-handed world counterpart. That’s not an easy habit to break, and I understand if someone's feeling run counter to this. If you're brand new to playing an instrument you should at least give a "right-handed" instrument a try. You might just surprise yourself!
Many other musical instruments aren't so readily available in "lefty" configuration (i.e. piano, trumpet, etc. etc. etc.) and lefties seem to do just fine with the standard "Right-handed" version of these instruments. Breaking free of the handedness concept will greatly expand the lefty’s options where musical instruments are concerned.
Scissors? That’s a different matter altogether…
A Quick Visit To The ShopA quick visit to the homestead and shop can be found HERE.
**************** OPEN BACK BANJO CONSTRUCTION GUIDE ON CD ****************
Information on the purchase of my Guide to Open Back Banjo Construction on CD with full size printed plan can be found HERE.
Please visit my other website designed to provide information on musical instrument construction. There are free plans as well as construction tips and techniques available at the present time.
Rudy's Sketchbook of Musical Instrument Plans, Ideas, and Inspiration
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