Monday, July 16, 2012

Rescuing Simple Heirloom Banjos

Above are the BEFORE photos of the babnjo that is the subject of this note on restoring heirloom banjos.

Lately I have received a slew of requests to repair an instrument so it may serve as a lasting memento to the family member who owned and played it, not as a performance piece.

This requires a different take on both functional repairs and aesthetic improvements, so I thought I’d follow one recent banjo repair and restoration job, and offer some observations on the work of making a wallhanger playable.

We should accord some dignity to the term “wallhanger” and the banjos to which that term applies.  The designation implies that the banjo does not have what it takes to sound good and right without major investments disproportionate to the value of the banjo. 

Indeed, that’s the first step required in these instances: direct and frank assessment of what the banjo is, and what it can be made to be with some work, as opposed to what it represents intrinsically. 

But the people bringing these banjos for “restoration” are focused on what the banjo was.  “My Daddy’s banjo.”  “My Great Great Grandfather’s banjo.”  “An instrument unearthed in our attic that might have belonged to a family member, but certainly belonged to someone in this family house.” 

On 8 June 2012 a gentleman named Sam brought a no name, factory made banjo to LBBH.  The banjo was quite common in type, and still widely available in aftermarket sales – resale value 50 – 150 dollars depending on condition.  It was in essentially good shape.  The resonators on these model would frequently bind to the pot metal flange and distort the banjo rim, but this one was probably stored with some care in a stable climate/humidity and the resonator is in good shape – the separation was repairable.  Actually, that’s the first clue that an old, simple and factory made banjo means holds some value for the owner: it was cared for, stored inside, didn’t live with the livestock in a barn, and shows none of the rough handling signs of a banjo dumped in a dank closet or stored in the unbearable heat of an attic.

The friction pegs needed to be replaced to make the banjo playable; in the end, because the neck, home made, was real thick at the peghead the new tuners had to be countersunk.  The 5th string peg was shimmed into the neck at some point and was pretty solid so I merely changed out the button so it would match the new peghead tuners. 

The neck is fabricated, not uncleverly.  The resonator screwed into a round dowel stick that was soundly seated but not quite cut to the best effect; there’s a gap between the end of the stick and the rim at the southern end of the banjo, but the setup was basically sound and would not result in an appreciable difference in playing terms were the neck to be reseated.   I removed the metal rod that was bent to form a tone ring, coated it to prevent further oxidation, removed and reused the flesh hoop, and mounted a new skin – treating it after it is dry to minimize distortions with weather changes. 

This is one of those old banjos that people frequently ask me to restore as a display item because of sentimental value.  I think these banjos can be made basically playable – though without a neck reset the action on most of these banjos would be too high up the neck.  However, neck resets on these banjos would probably have little effect on overall playability.  I usually recommend adjusting setup with either a new nut or bridge choice and, when necessary, neck shimming. 

The fact of the matter is that these banjos and their owners are looking for something that goes beyond this clinical sort of analysis of what it would take to make one of these machines playable.  These owners have bonded with the banjo, or what it represents, and require something more than just a technical recommendation on how to make this thing work again.  They seem to want to know that these banjos can be honored, as modest as they are, for what they were and what they represented to the original owners and players who were usually relatives. 

Sam sent me an email partway through the restoration process:

My eldest son just contacted me with interest in his grandfathers' banjo … My point Lew is that I'm so very excited that my son would like to own his grandfathers' banjo and I am more excited that I [now understand more about] the construction and structure of not only the banjo but it's history.  …  I look forward to seeing your finished work.  I will give the banjo to my son Lew...after I've played it for a while of course.  He will be here in August--so that should be enough time for me.  I will only give it to him with the guidance that if ever it needs repair...he sends it to you. 

I’m paying more attention now to rescuing these kinds of banjos, and the specific kinds of capabilities necessary to rescue the instruments and the memories loaded into these banjos.

Below are the AFTER photos.

Have a great banjo day.

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