Sunday, December 9, 2012

A skin head? Banjo fun.

One of my winter projects!
A while back I bought a large piece of parchment calf skin to replace the head on my old banjo. I acquired the banjo back in the early 60's. I had "picked" up a cheap one first, and then my banjo teacher suggested I try this one , which really did sound a 100% better. As I had little or no money, I was forced to ask my father for the grand sum of $100.00 to purchase it. He was not impressed, even after I played them both to show him the difference. As the banjo was not on any of his classical tapes or records, it was a miracle he came through.  I told him I had already bought it & now had to pay for it and as he didn't want any barefoot, shotgun toting banjo sellers knocking at the door, he coughed up the money.
Anyway, to get back on the subject, after reading the instructions that came with the head, and watching videos on U-tube, I decided to give it a try. The old head war torn almost all the way around. It was synthetic, and I decided to replace it with a natural calf skin head.
The first thing I noticed on disassembling it, was that there were more parts than in any of the instructions I looked at.

The bracket hooks and the wrist rest still haven't been removed, something I had to do to get them out of the way when attaching the new head.

Lots of round pieces.

The wood rim about ready
I referred to the above. It was not much help.So I dry fitted some parts.

The tone ring

Another brass tone ring? This one rests on the top edge of the rim, not in it. Research tells me that is was an early way of making a tone ring.
Like this! 
I think this is called a high head type of banjo.
The flesh hoop. This is a wire ring that the skin wraps around the banjo rim. I had to make this as the plastic head that was on the banjo didn't use one. I used a piece of copper wire and beveled and soldered the ends into a hoop.. Brass would have been nicer as the copper will probably turn green, but I didn't have any brass and didn't want to use a coat hanger which the instructions suggested. The head wraps around it and is then pushed down by the tension hoop.
This is the tension hoop. It is pulled down by all the bracket hooks to tighten the head. The notch actually goes on the other end where the neck attaches.

The skin is soaked for about fifteen minutes, laid on the rim over the tone rings, the flesh hoop is next placed on the skin. The skin is then folded up over the hoop and the tension hoop is set on top. 

Daisy was interested in this part, as it smelled a lot like the hide dog-chew she buried under the couch cushion last year. She prefers her antler sheds and I guess is saving the chew for hard times. Every now and then when she thinks I'm not looking she checks to make sure it's still there.

A few bracket hooks are attached to start pulling the hoop down. The outer folds of the skin are pulled by hand to remove all the wrinkles, then the rest are attached at the same tension.  

Skipping a "head", as I didn't take as many photos as I should have if this were to really be a "how to put a head on a banjo" post. Especially since no beer was involved.

After drying all night and tightening all the clamps, the head was removed, the excess trimmed off, and it was all re-assembled. All the instructions I found say to trim the excess skin in place. I couldn't see how to do that neatly, so I took the head off. It was nicely wrapped around the  flesh wire and I used a pair of scissors to trim it enough so that the cut edge wouldn't show above the tension hoop. It worked very well, was easy, and went right back together. It looks like there will be plenty of room between the tension hoop and the neck to tighten more if needed.

Somebody had had a set of Scruggs pegs on it at one time & then filled the holes. Maybe some day I'll clean that up.
 The resonator attaches to a metal bracket on the dowel-stick. The dowel-stick attaches the neck.

All ready for the strings!  Something I forgot to order when I bought the head. It seems the local music store is no more and I'll have to either drive to Newberg or Salem to get them. I need a new bridge as well, the old one is slightly warped from sitting on the broken head for so long. 
Then I need to do a lot of practicing as it';s been a while.
I have no idea who made this banjo as there are no serial numbers of names anywhere on it. If anybody can help me with this it would be appreciated.


  1. Nice work! First guess is some flavor of Vega or Vega knockoff from the twenties, maybe thirties. Vega would have had serial and model stamped on the original dowel stick. High end Vega would have had a band inside the pot instead of bolt heads.

    No matter heritage, how does it play and sound?

    1. I'll let you know as soon as I find a set of strings.

    2. Got a screen door?

      Banjo players get about as much respect as the Ledge...

    3. Of course I never played well enough to get respect anyway.
      I put a light gauge of Ernie Ball strings set on it. That was all they had here in town. It sounds good, but a little too bright. I'd like to learn how to frail better & these sound too loud or something. Not plunky enough. Maybe something in bronze? Maybe it's just been too long & I've forgotten what it should sound like, or I was just used to playing with a cracked head too long before it became unplayable. And that was many years ago. collieguy...What do you suggest?

  2. There is a music store in the old Mayfair Shopping center. Oh, wait...The Marfair store closed 30 years ago. Hmmm, The Doughnut Place, nope closed, A take and bake pizza place? Next to The Outdoor Store, nope closed also.
    Across from Fisher's. Nope, closed and sold and moved to outside of town.
    Oh, across from Lumberman's.
    Next to Grocery Outlet.
    I bought guitar strings there.
    Speaking of your father... Is it not ironic that you gave his turntable and preamp to someone who not only listens to Banjo music but also plays the Legendary Stardust Cowboy.

    1. There is a music store next to the grocery outlet? I will look. Didn't it used to be an antique store?
      Yes it is ironic. I thrive on irony.
      Actually it is ironic that anyone plays the Ledge and worries about the quality of the stereo he is playing him on. Unless he worries that the equipment will not hold up to the Ledge.