Building a Piccolo Banjo
Here are brief descriptions and pictures of most of the steps involved in the building of “Tosh”, Seeders Instruments #003 Piccolo Banjo.
This is the ring gluing jig that I made for gluing up the block rings that I make the banjo pot out of. There are eight pieces in each ring. Depending on the design and layout of the pot there could be three or up to eleven rings in a pot (or as many as you’d like!).
Here is a stack of rings that have been glue up. Some are 3/4″ thick, some are 1/4″. I glued up two pots at once being that this was the first time making a piccolo banjo and having a birthday deadline I wanted to be prepared for anything. The second one is still in the rough and waiting to be turned.
After thickness sanding the individual rings to make them flat I glue them into a stack, making the full height of the pot.
The pot is then glued to a plywood ring with a thick paper bag in between the plywood and the pot. The plywood ring is what the faceplate for the lathe is attached to. The paper bag in between the pot and the plywood allows for an easy separation after the pot is turned.
Here’s the pot on the lathe being turned.
After turning the pot, using a hole in the center of the plywood as a pivot point, I drill the holes for the hardware and the dowel stick using a multi-router. Here’s a picture of the raw brass hardware and the head attached to the pot.
All of the hardware before the antiquing process. Hardware is made by Bill Rickard.
After the antiquing process. This is done with a chemical that reacts with the brass and nickel turning it a brownish black. I then use steel wool to rub through to the raw brass giving it a well handled look.
Here is a handy jig from Stew-Mac that uses a template to cut perfectly spaced fret slots. I had to custom cut an 18″ scale length template for this. Stew-Mac only sells a template for Gibson’s scale length but they are easily cut with our CNC.
This is the jig that I built for cutting the angle and the curve on the neck to match the pot. The geometry of the banjo neck seems simple at first glance but is actually very tricky. There is a compound angle and a curve that all have to line up just right to make the banjo playable.
Here is the pot, the fretboard, truss rod and the neck blank together. I made the neck just big enough to use a Stew-Mac two-way mandolin truss rod so I didn’t have to cut down a full sized one. The neck blank is usually not this large for such a small neck. The wood that I had to glued up was much too large but I figured I’d be turning it into sawdust at some point anyway so I left it oversized. By doing this I was able to cut the dowel stick from the cutoff of the neck and make some nice kindling for someone’s woodstove.
Here is the neck after cutting the rough profile with the pieces placed on it.
Here are the frets cut to rough length and ready to be pressed into the fretboard.
Here’s an earlier shot of the inlay layout before the pockets are cut for the pearl. The inlays are gold mother of pearl inlaid into white mother of pearl.
The peghead shape with the swan inlay being glued. It’s hard to see here but the figure on the pearl worked out to be in just the right place making the illusion of feathers and a beak on the swan. Sometimes you eat the bar…
This is one way to glue a fretboard. If you’ve ever wrapped a rubber band around your hand a couple times you know how each time you go around it gets tighter and tighter. I usually clamp it fretboard down to the perfectly flat jointer or shaper table but being a small neck I felt this would work well. It’s a great way to keep the fretboard from moving while gluing it to the neck.
Here’s a shot of the neck after some more shaping. The sharpie next to it will give you a scale reference. It’s a tiny little neck. For other players out there it’s similar to putting a capo on the fifth fret.
Here’s where the paper bag comes in really handy. Before I learned this trick I was turning the pot off of the ring which can be a simple task but more likely will be disastrous. The paper bag holds really tight while turning but a simple tap of the chisel separates it quickly. I finish the ‘bagged’ edge of the pot with a orbital sander or you could put it back on the lathe with a jawed chuck.
Here you can see the holes for the hardware and the profile of the integral walnut tone ring. It’s shaped similar to a flathead ring.
The pot with the dowel stick before it is tapered and the tenon is cut to length.
The banjo together before finishing with the tuner holes drilled and the hardware on. It’s leaning against a column I turned that is part of a sixteen foot quartersawn white oak kitchen island we were making for a client. Their were eight columns all together and they started at 32 pounds rough before turning. I turned them down to 15 pounds apiece. There was roughly ninety pounds of sawdust that we cleaned up after turning most of them and that was the second cleanup! You can see more of the project on my fathers blog, Dorset Custom Furniture.
Back of the banjo which shows the dowel stick that was cut from the same blank as the neck.
Side profile before the fifth string tuner hole is drilled.
First coat of stain on the neck and the pot. This is sanded down almost to bare wood. This is to raise the grain of the wood to make it very smooth and to catch any spots I missed while sanding the first time. Mark Dalton of Huss & Dalton guitars said in a recent Fretboard Journal, “..guitar building is 60% sanding…The difference between a really good guitar and an OK guitar is the amount of sanding that was done.” Building a banjo is a little different than building a guitar but the sanding still applies.
After the second coat of stain and the first coat of finish.
The final touch is a maple and ebony bridge that I made. I went with a greater neck angle and taller bridge hoping for a better volume and tone than other piccilo banjos that I’ve played. I can’t say for sure that it helped but it has good volume and sounds great!
Finished! With plenty of time to settle in and make any adjustments before the birthday deadline. This is is going to be one happy four year old. Just the other day his father told me about when the two of them were playing, not having any idea of the gift being built for him.
Tosh to dad: “Ok dad, now were going to be musicians.”
Dad: “Cool, I’m going to play the mandolin. What are you going to play?”
Tosh: “I’m going to play the banjo! My friend Will taught me.”
I can’t wait to see the look on his face and give him his first lesson.