In early August John Bunge from Ithaca, NY sent me a Buckbee 5-string open-back, probably 1890-1900. The rim was stamped number “36,” which matched the branding on the dowel. The pot is in good shape but the neck is warped, and the neck angle is forward, leading to a minimum 3/8” action at the 12th fret (!). Nate Clark at Finger Lakes Guitar Repair made a new fingerboard and straightened the neck by making an ebony shim placed under the (new) fingerboard. He put new Grover Champion friction tuners on the banjo, with the intention of accommodating Nylgut strings.
The dowel was loose in the neck. Somewhere along the line for this banjo a previous owner had apparently plugged the hole with a wine cork, wrapped duct tape around the butt of the dowel, and glued it into the neck that way.
John was looking for a reset for the neck, using the original dowel stick. The perch pole was in good shape, but the tail end of the dowel had to be filled & redrilled to accept the tailpiece screw. All of the original hardware was present except for the tuners. The neck attached to the rim relying on an old wooden wedge configuration, which seemed to work fine.
My first plan of action was to plug the dowel stick hole in the neck and recut it. I also thought I’d probably have to remove the cork from the perch pole and recess a large dowel into the stick. I've found that the hardwood shaving approach is sort of like depending on quick sand so I try to rebuild the dowel and get as close a fit as I can in the redrilled neck. The taper is pretty dramatic on most Buckbees so I figured that the butt end of the dowel would have to be plugged and recut.
Frequently, setting the action on a Buckbee involves modifying the heel/rim joint -- reshaping a part of the heel, etc. I always look to do something less dramatic before I follow that course.
The banjo also needed a new 5th string “pip.”
I decided to use nylon on this banjo, especially since the dowel stick joint with the neck was a graft repair. We knew action would be an issue and my think was that I’ll do the best to achieve your preferred setup but that much of the string height tweaking on this kind of banjo will be achieved by tailpiece and bridge choice. I intended to try to maximize the string spacing on these banjos.
Here’s what I did:
Ø Installed the StewMac pip for the fifth string, slotted the pip, secured it with a dot of carpenter’s glue (reversible with heat).
Ø Light sanded the neck to remove the partial finished. Stained the neck and applied three rounds of tung oil over a 48 hour period (12 hour dry time), finishing off with a bee’s wax coating, buffed out, reapplied and re-buffed.
Ø Cut the tendon off the original dowel stick, drilled a channel to accommodate a dowel, carved a new, extended tendon and joined it to the dowel stick via the dowel. That is, I cut off about a third of the joint end of the dowel stick -- the part that goes into the neck. I drilled a test hole in the joint end of the dowel stick. I decided tat would be possible to drill a seat for a dowel, which I'd plant in original and then seat a portion of the new plug that I shaped yesterday. This would give the stick a better anchor. Wood glue ended up creating the firmest bond -- Titebond II to be precise. Short of shaping a new dowel I thought this is the best bet.
Ø Reshaped the slot for the nut, cut the nut from bone, shaped the nut and installed (reversible with heat). Note: looking at the peghead, there is a 32nd of an inch difference in depth of the fingerboard plane which had to be reflected in the shape of the nut. There is slightly more depth to the nut channel – and consequently slightly more height to the nut itself so that it sits even with the fingerboard.
Ø Ordered and installed a dowel stick neck brace: cut the channel for the metal dowel, seated the collars, adjusted the tightening screw. The wedge configuration was no longer possible after I grafted a new tenon onto the old perchpole.
Once I had the thing wired up, I made several “test drive” videos as the strings were stretching:
John Bunge sent me this email note on 17 January 2013 after receiving the banjo via the USPS:
Got the banjo yesterday afternoon. Turned out it only took a phone call to the post office, and they sent it to my box address, so that was no problem. They even called me to say it was there. Overall it’s very good, and I thank you. Before I forget let me say that your finish work on the neck is amazing – I wouldn’t have believed it possible. The “carpentry” on the dowel and all is also very impressive (even if some of it is invisible!). The main issue is the action, of course, and after a bit more tweaking I got it within my playability zone. That’s probably as good as it’s going to get for this old fellow. The sound is excellent – I’m actually quite surprised at how good it is, “even” with the nylon strings. And I *very* much appreciate your preservation of the original dowel, endpin/tp mount, etc. (Also I do think that the cam no-knot works well here.) So overall a successful project, and I am grateful for your very low price on the work, which made it a reasonable approach for this banjo. Thanks!
All the best,
17 January 2013
I love it when a plan comes together.
Here’s a series of photos walking through aspects of the repair job on the John Bunge “Old 36” Buckbee.