In July 2012 a gentleman named Stan hauled a banjo to my shop. It was a real unique piece of work. The banjo had an ornately decorated rim, and a heavy ebony neck with a nice patina.
The tuners looked like original Champions which were . The fingerboard had partial-fret job.
Interestingly, with some help from Banjo Colleagues, the patent for these particular tuners has been located. That helps date the thing to the late 1880s.
Unfortunately, the neck had a serious wound:
I removed the neck on 23 July, revealing a dowel stick crack. It was clear that the tuners could be cleaned and made functional. But the neck fracture, which radiated north and south of the fifth string peg hold, was another matter.
I spent about three days staring at the part of the neck that was crack, taking photos and blowing them up, probing the crack, poking around without disturbing things too much. The break had twisted out a portion of the fingerboard, but miraculously had not dislodged the frets. It had loosened the star inlay, and then – possibly because of the way the banjo was stored all these years – essentially frozen in place.
That is, it was not a greenstick fracture than could be clamped and coaxed by pressure into place. It may have happened when someone years ago attempted to seat a mechanical fifth string tuner in the hole. I say this because the tuners are clearly after market. It was probably originally equipped with fiddle tuners, simple wooden tuners. The peghead tuners were not made for a convex shaped peghead back, so they don’t quite sit right.
I thought there were several alternative courses of action for addressing the neck fracture.
One could remove the fingerboard – there was, indeed, a separate fingerboard but it was an eighth inch thick board so I doubted it could be removed easily through heating or steaming. And shaving this thin a fingerboard off would be fraught with problems.
One could simply fill the gap in a manner that would allow the fifth string tuning peg to be anchored strongly – that would involve some doweling work to fill the fifth string peg hole and then redrilling to accommodate the peg. However, I thought that wouldn’t solve the problem of the way the break fractured the fingerboard top. Instead, it would be the minimally cosmetic fix to the thing.
Finally, as I saw it, one could remove the 4th and 5th fretwires – the frets flanking the star inlay, cut down through the fingerboard, and level the areas beyond the frets in question, grafting a piece of ebony into the leveled plan, replacing the star inlay, and reattaching the fretwires in channels shaped into the grafted piece. I thought it was possible that the original wood removed from around the star could be reused with a substrate. It would mean that the thickness of the fingerboard in the area of the star inlay would be undetectable thinner than the rest of the fingerboard, undetectable because both the neck and the fingerboard are ebony.
This last course of action was the one I intended recommend, but it wasn’t the final course of action I followed.
What I did first was clean and repair the tuners, ream out the peghead holes for the tuners, and then set them aside. I spent some time recessing the perimeter around the peghead tuner holes in the back of the neck to accommodate the tuners more effectively. The back of the peghead was rounded, and I had to flatten a plane so that the tuners would smoothly function.
The ebony was dry and brittle. One of the ears cracked, but it cleaved in three pieces that I was able to glue and clamp together.
I had to pin the ear that split off, meaning that had to drill a hole in the side of the peghead, insert a dowel for stability in the ear. I did that for the ear that did not split off just to be preemptive; if one ear splits the other is likely to do so, especially given the character and condition of the wood.
I decided to attack the 6th fret separately from the three frets that sustained the brunt of the damage. The 6th fret was the beginning point for the twist or tension that originated the fracture and as a consequence it sustained only minimum damage that did not descend below the bottom of the fingerboard ply.
I sawed through both the south and the north ends of the fingerboard for the 6th fret and removed the fingerboard.
I chiseled and sanded off the glue to reveal the raw wood. I cut a thin piece of rough ebony as a substrate and glued/clamped that in place. On top of that I installed a better quality ebony veneer, and clamped it in place overnight. I sanded the edges to take the shape of the neck, and left enough space to re-insert the frets.
I attacked the remaining frets the same way. These were the real damaged portions of the board where I had to sand, re-dye the ebony, re-sink the fifth string tuner, finish the fingerboard and neck, and do some cosmetics on the peghead.
I shaped maple and ebony for substrate, glued and sanded, accomplished some initial ebony dust filler cosmetics and sanding. I had my friend Zack Deming, a talented banjo player and long time banjo builder and repairman, cut the shield inlay. I reshaped the hole and fit it properly.
The hard part was the excavation of the 5th fret area, and the effort to shape ebony overlay for area around tuner. Given the thinness of the exposed channel for the fifth string peg, I secured fifth string tuner in place (metal glue).
I shaped star inlay, repaired broken point, positioned on ebony fingerboard, dremelled a hole for star, glued, positioned, and started sanding to even fingerboard. I shaped the nut (StewMac white plastic), re-seated the four frets, and drilled the pip hole. While doing that, the bottom of the 5th string area broke out. Glued, clamped, sanded that. I re-dye the fingerboard, and put on several layers of tung oil.
Each application was allowed to dry overnight, and then buffed with 0000 steel wool. Then I coated it twice with bee’s wax, buffed it each time, and let it dry for a day before doing the basic set-up work.
Here’s a video of a test drive of the Stanraci banjo, as I call it after a version of the owner’s name.
The Nylagut strings have a way to go before they are stretched and stable.
Everything is a challenge. There’s usually something unexpected that crops up in working with these real old pieces. That is a big part of the charm of this work.