All-Wood Banjo

A pictorial tour of the construction of a 5-string banjo.

I set out to make an all-wood banjo over Christmas vacation 2001. By "all-wood", I mean even the head is wood as opposed to a more conventional drum head. I had seen some old-time banjos like this, and thought it might be fun to try it out. The following are some picture of the process. (Click on any of the pictures to get a larger view.) By the way, I am writing this some 5 years afterwards, so some of the details are a bit fuzzy.

You will notice quite quickly that I am not a professional instrument maker. I don't necessarily recommend any of these methods, but the resulting banjo is fun to play and has a nice mellow sound (compared to bluegrass resonator banjos with drum heads). The goal was to make a rustic old-time banjo with materials I bought at Home Depot or found laying around the garage, so don't expect to find any fine mahogany or rosewood anywhere near this banjo.

I started with a piece of sycamore for the neck.

I don't know if sycamore is a good choice or not, but the grain seemed tight and it looks nice, so I went for it.

This was a rough-sawn piece of wood, and I didn't have a planer, so it took a bit of hand-planing.

Once I had a respectable board, I cut the end off at an angle and glued it back on to make the headstock. You can see how the short peice is just flipped over to create the angle.

Meanwhile, I needed to made the wooden head. I didn't have a single piece of wood big enough, so I took two 6-inch wide pieces of poplar and glued them together. These are 1/4-inch thick boards, which turned out to be at least 1/16-inch too thick. The sound is deadened somewhat by the thickness.

Here you can see my method of gluing. I used a bar clamp to squeeze the sides in, and put a heavy box of nails on top to keep the boards from buckling upwards. The tin foil is under the box so it wouldn't stick to the wood.

For the body of the banjo, I used 3/4-inch red oak. I went with an octagon design because it was far easier than a round design. You just cut all of the pieces at 22.5 degrees, and glue them together with a band clamp. Incidentally, real instrument makers use hide glue or something similarly fancy. I used polyurethane glues for the most part. (e.g. ProBond, Elmer's Ultimate Glue, Gorilla Glue, etc.) On a few parts I actually used 5-minute epoxy because I was impatient.

Once the neck was dry, it looked like this:

The headstock face needed to be smoothed down due to the joint; planes and chisels seemed to work the best. Then I cut out the rough shape of the neck and the headstock.

I just eye-balled the pattern. I was going for a rustic look, so I didn't want it looking too good. You can see the start of the notch for the 5th-string peg.

The next step was shaping the neck. I started with a drawknife, and then moved to a flat-bottom spokeshave. I think I'm faking in the next picture; I don't see any shavings. I also used a miniature spokeshave (maybe 3-inches long) to do some of the tight areas.

In some areas, like where the neck transitions to the headstock, you can't use a spokeshave at all. I found that rasps and files seem to do a decent job.

Next, I glued the fingerboard to the neck. I used a 1/4-inch thick piece of red oak. I cut the slots for the frets before gluing it down, but I didn't put the frets in until nearly the end of the project. From the looks of the picture below, I think I used all of the clamps that I owned at the time.

The headstock looked rather plain, and I didn't like the joint showing, so I put a thin piece of walnut on top of the headstock. I think I planed it down to just a 1/16th of an inch. It was basically a veneer.

You can also see that I have added the nut, which is synthetic bone that I got from Stewart-MacDonald. I used some very small files to cut the grooves in the nut. I probably could have used a very hard wood instead of the fake bone, but I like the look. Besides, a real old-timer would have used bone, so I'm staying true to the genre, I guess. You can also see in the picture below that I added inlaid dots to the usual frets. (You can see the 3rd and 5th in the picture.) I drilled 1/4-inch holes and filled them pieces from a 1/4" walnut dowel. Okay, so it isn't exactly "inlay", per se, but it looks like it.

Next, I attached the neck to the main body. Here you can see I got a little crazy with the epoxy. This looks a little cheesy, but my piece of sycamore for the neck wasn't long enough to reach through the end of the body, so I screwed on an extension. (It will all be hidden, so who cares?) I also inexplicably carved my initial "B" in a place where it will never again be seen by human eyes. For some reason, I do that on most of my projects, and I get a kick out of just knowing it is there.

The biggest mistake I made at this point was failing to angle the neck down enough. The result is that I had to make a really short bridge, and the action is too high when playing up the neck. I generally chord in 1st position, so it isn't a deal-breaker for me. (But I won't make the mistake twice!)

more to come...