Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

Hi all, after trying my friend's Prust tack head last summer I fell in love with the sounds of minstrel banjos. Being a woodworker I wanted to take on the challenge of building a Minstrel banjo. I am going for a tack head with a Boucher neck and a scroll headstock. I do, however, have some initial questions.

First, I opted fot a 3 ply maple pot, but when I took it off my form I noticed that it had a few spots that were out of round. I was able to smooth the outside of othe rim to make it reasonably round. However, on the inside there is a section about 4 inches long that is a eighth inch out of round only along the bottom edge of the rim. The entire top edge is reasonably round. My question is should I fuss over this some more and try to build it up, or is it nothing to worry about?

Also, do most folks cap the laminated bottom edge of their rims? Mine is all solid maple, but you can see the lines.

I am sure I'll have more questions as I go along and I really appreciate any comments and suggestions. This is a great resource!

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Hi Jason,

I guess if you don't have a steamer that goes to 210 degrees, then lamination is the choice. But truly, laminated rims will not give the best sound. It's not a bad sound, it's just not the best sound. Write to me if you want to rig up a steamer, or buy a solid rim from me. When you play a minstrel banjo that really barks, you'll FEEL it as well as hear it.

Your glued out of the round rim will probably stay that way because it's glued. There is no 'cap' on the back.

For the great tone, you also need the scalloped rim, not the ovals. Your heel / rim connection must be PERFECT and tight. The dowel system Boucher had was great. But don't cut the inside square dowel too long so it pushes against the inside wall too hard, that's another tone killer. These banjos have to be lightweight to ring in that certain wonderful way. Here is a photo of Strumelia's rim now in progress. It's like all the rims I make - 1/4" red oak with 7" scarf joint. Boucher style.

Thanks a bunch. In regards to the top of the rim on a tack head. I know the top outer edge should be slightly rounded, but what about the inside edge. My gut says to round the inside a little more than the outside. All this with my 7/16" thick rim in mind. Again I really appreciate all your great advice!

Jason

Don't round the inside top edge at all. None. The skin will set on the highest point of the rim and while vibrating up and down, will touch any lower point, and there will be lots of them if you round the top inside. If you DO round the inside and are lucky enough not to hear buzzes, what you WILL hear will be an overall dullness due to the same reason. So keep the inside edge sharp  and let your skin vibrate to its full potential. Again, vibration. It seems that your ideas of a multi ply rim, kind of thick and a rounded top sorta resemble later clawhammer banjos. Forget them. This is a big, lightweight vibrating machine.

Awesome, thanks so much that's just what I needed to know!  Is it ok to round both inside and outside edges on the back of the rim? 

I must admit that while part of my motivation is to make an instrument with my own two hands, with two young boys, a house, and car payments, part of my motivation is cost (though I'd not trade my boys for anything in this world).  So you advice means more to me than you know.  Thank you very much!

Terry: Do you have any tips for cutting the heel to get a perfect match with the rim? I've made 5 banjos (still learning) and have found this to be the most difficult part of the process. Last time I got so frustrated that I cheated and used an epoxy-based gun barrel bedding compound. It's not noticeable and it produced a perfect match, but it's not period-correct. Thanks!

I don't have any tips. I have experience and my own way of doing it. I believe I have the advantage of having an artist's eye, which really helps. It's about a 20 step process but I can fit a heel perfectly in about 5 minutes. It used to take me all day. It's just experience. And if your compound works and is not noticeable, that's pretty good. All I can say is that the more you do it, the better you get at it.

Round them a little, not much. Keep the flat, wide look. But your rim's kinda thick, so it'll look nice ... but no, don't ROUND it.

Jason Stamper said:

Awesome, thanks so much that's just what I needed to know!  Is it ok to round both inside and outside edges on the back of the rim? 

I must admit that while part of my motivation is to make an instrument with my own two hands, with two young boys, a house, and car payments, part of my motivation is cost (though I'd not trade my boys for anything in this world).  So you advice means more to me than you know.  Thank you very much!

Terry, I am still trying to decide if I am going to be satisfied with my rim. It is mostly round on the top and only out of round on a few spots inside on the back edge. This will be a tack head banjo, so how important is it to be perfectly round, is there such a thing? Are small inconsistencies in rim thickness in a few spots going to be an issue?

IF I was to make a new rim, still laminated, would a heavy 1/4" be ok for a tack head? I know you said thinner is better, but i did not know if the heavier rim was needed for the tacks. Just trying to decide how to proceed from here, thanks!

A 1/4" thick rim is GREAT for a tackhead. I don't think there are too many "perfect" minstrel banjos. That's about 80% of the visual charm, to me. I started out making rims like yours and I had to try many things to make them round. So keep working at it. A steam setup is about a hundred bucks and a LOT of monkeying around to understand this crazy 'art' of bending wood.

Ok, here is my current rim.  I figured out that I had 2 issues.  First I did not make the scarf joint long enough so it made a bit of a flat spot inside the rim.  Second, my piece I was wrapping ended right on top of the scarf joint.  I thought it would be enough, but once it was shaped to match the curve of the rim I got a little flat spot on the outside too.  My plan was to put the joint at the tail and use the more uniform opposite side for the neck joint.  I did a slight round on the outside edges only, kept all inside edges square.  Will the flat spots cause any issues?

I may end up making a new rim anyway...  I am a perfectionist.  Though I should probably just go with this one and get to playing.

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Hi Jason,

I htink your current rim looks great!  I can be a perfectionist too, so one of my first e-mails to Terry after getting started on my tackhead kit from him was about the rim not be perfectly round.  Bugged the junk out of me at first, but now I can't picture it without it and can't say I even notice it much anyhow!  Like Terry said, it gives it character

Your rim is certainly hefty, almost bucket banjo-esque sans the back.  I'd stick it out and see what happens.  You could always make another later and switch the neck onto it if it bugs you or the sound isn't what you'd like.  I guess it'd be that easy considering that the link between rim and neck is fit with a peg on the interior of the rim, typically.

 

Anyway, my two cents only after putting together a kit, not doing one from scratch!  :)  Best of luck! 

Hi Everyone,

So I decided to make a new rim for my banjo.  This one is a LOT thinner at about 5/16th of on inch.  It is also more consistent in wall thickness and more round than the first (still not perfect though, and that's ok).  I have also started working on the neck and the neck to rim connection.  I put a picture on here, but I am going to try and get the fit a little better.  I think my next step will be to cut the back of the neck down close to size, cut the headstock, and then the ogee on the neck.  I was planning on installing the perch pole and fitting it to the rim before I did the rounding on the neck.  What do you all think?

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