How to Build Your Own Banjo
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Save Money and Accomplish Something
This addition to the banjo set-up pages is in response to many e-mails asking how to build a banjo.
The first thing that you must do, before you do anything else, is to figure out what type of banjo you want. This is also the first step in buying a banjo. If you are not sure what kind of banjo you want, then here are a few ideas.
The kind of music you want to play will determine the kind of banjo you will build. If you are interested in playing clawhammer style, then an open back banjo, such as a Whyte Laydie instrument might be a good choice. You might want to build a banjo with a simple wooden rim and no tone ring. This is up to you.
If you are interested in bluegrass and related styles, then a resonator banjo such as one based on a Gibson Mastertone®
would be more appropriate. I should mention here that there is no reason not to play clawhammer on a Mastertone® style instrument or other resonator banjo.
You might want to build a tenor banjo or a plectrum banjo. These can be built either open back or resonator style. The style of banjo you build is up to you. The best part about building a banjo is that, with the exception of the old-time banjos that had a dowel stick running through the rim instead of coordinator rods, banjos basically bolt together, so you can change parts out, etc. You can modify your banjo any time you wish.
After you have selected a design, then you should purchase one or both of the following books:
Constructing a 5-String Banjo by Roger Siminoff -- this is a complete guide to constructing a resonator banjo from the ground up -- literally. It almost approaches the “let's cut down a tree, smelt some bronze and build a banjo” level of construction. When you build your first banjo, it doesn't need to be that complex. The following information will simplify this for you quite a bit. You need his book for some basic construction information and some finishing techniques. There have been advances in technology that make some of the information in this book obsolete. But the basic construction is the same.
Complete Banjo Repair by Larry Sandberg. This shows how to repair a banjo and set it up. If you don't know this material, you should have the book.
Both of these books are available from major musical suppliers and amazon.com.
You should also order catalogs from First Quality Musical Supplies, Janet Davis Music and Stewart-MacDonald. These suppliers carry almost everything you will need.
Open Back or Resonator
Once you have decided on the type of banjo you want, then you must order the proper parts. The chief difference in your order will depend not on whether you want a 5-string or tenor banjo (or something else!), but on whether or not you want a resonator banjo. If you build a resonator banjo, you will need a resonator and a resonator flange. If you build an open back banjo, you will need either bracket shoes or the tube from a tube and plate (two-piece flange) assembly. One advantage of the tube style construction is that you can convert it to resonator use after the fact simply by adding the plate section, the resonator, and the resonator mounting hardware. If you opt for the tube construction, get the plate at the same time, just to make sure the bracket holes match up. There are at least a half dozen different configurations of the tube and plate assembly and they are not interchangeable/
By the way, individual flange plates may be added to a bracket shoe banjo, if you decide to add a resonator later.
The Parts You Will Need
A banjo can be constructed by ordering the following parts:
Tuning pegs -- for a tenor or plectrum, you will need four. For a 5-string, you will need the 5th string peg, also.
Coordinator rods or mounting nuts
The pot assembly.
and, in many cases, a resonator and its mounting hardware.
The pot assembly consists of a rim, a tone ring, a resonator flange (or a set of bracket shoes), brackets (usually 24), a stretcher band or tension hoop and a head.
The neck, resonator and tone ring offer the most variability of the parts of the banjo.
If you purchase a pre-finished, already inlaid neck from a major luthier, it will cost you somewhere in the neighborhood of $500-$750. A resonator, finished to match will cost you about $250-$400. A special tone ring can cost you from $160 - $400, depending on type and additional factors, such as plating, customization, etc.
Assuming that you buy a preassembled pot assembly, a finished neck and a finished resonator (using the tone ring that comes with the pot assembly, figure on paying between $1050 and $1450 for that much of your instrument. If you add the cost of the tuning pegs, coordinator rods, tailpiece, bridge, strings, truss rod cover, armrest and resonator mounting hardware, the total cost becomes about $1225 to $1700. Gold plating will add some cost to the final total, as will engraving. However, when you finish, you will have a very nice custom made instrument. Comparing this to the street price of a comparable Gibson Mastertone, you will save anywhere from $775 to $2000, perhaps more, by building the banjo yourself.
If you opt for a ritzier tone ring, you might add another $200 - $350 or so to the cost of the instrument, if you purchase the tone ring at the same time that you order the pot assembly. Some companies will do this for you, and you are not stuck with the “house” tone ring.
Also, please note that some of the suppliers I mentioned do not figure the cost of the brackets and tension hoop into the cost of the pot assembly. These figures have been adjusted to add this to the finished total.
If you are a really skilled woodworker, you can order semi-finished necks and unfinished resonators from the above sources, for considerably less money. Stewart-MacDonald does not offer quite the options that First Quality Musical Supplies and Janet Davis offer. Stew-Mac has semi-finished necks without fingerboards or inlays. First Quality and Janet both offer necks in further stages of development. They also offer a wide range of choices in inlay patterns, etc.
If this is your first attempt at building a banjo, remember that ordering a semi-finished neck will mean that you will need to install frets and binding, as well as drilling the 5th peg hole. You will probably also have to do a lot of shaping on the neck.
Some semi-finished necks are already inlaid. The fingerboards are slotted, which eliminates a lot of tedious work. Installing binding can be as difficult as you make it for yourself. I would want the neck as finished as I could afford for it to be.
On the other hand, finishing a resonator is not very difficult. There is no shaping to do. You stain it, install the binding, apply a finish and cut the heelpiece notch. Figure that it will cost you about $150 - $200, depending on the binding and whether you have special inlays or purfling in the resonator. You still save anywhere from $100 - $250 by doing this yourself.
Installing the binding is the most tedious part of finishing the resonator. Formerly, the builder would apply the binding using Ducor® or some other similar glue. This is messy, and it takes a long time to dry. Now that we have cyanoacrylate glues -- basically types of superglue -- it is possible to do this job in about a half hour the first time you try it. Don't try this with the glue you get at the hardware store. Get the kind that woodworkers use. It is more consistent and easier to work with. It is available from the suppliers I have already mentioned.
In any case, if you finish the neck and resonator yourself, you can save between $600 and $800.
Yet Another Option, Requiring Less Skill
Let's suppose for a moment that you don't have the skills to take a semi-finished neck to the point of being ready to finish, and that you have a really tight budget. There are a couple of other options.
One is to purchase a banjo kit. Currently, the best value on the market is the Gold Tone banjo kit. These are available in several different models with different options, starting at $339 MSRP for an openback banjo to $799 MSRP for a full-blown resonator banjo with a really nice neck. Some dealers offer hefty discounts on these.
You will have to install the frets yourself on these, but it shouldn't be too difficult, Installing frets is not a difficult as removing them. The fingerboards are pre-slotted.
You can also purchase finished Gold Tone necks and resonators from Gold Tone dealers. Both Janet Davis and First Quality Musical Supplies are Gold Tone dealers, so you should check with them for banjos and parts.
I have not discussed Gold Tone products on this site before now. This was not because of any lack of quality -- far from it. They offer the best value in a banjo for under $1000 that you will find anywhere. A player could earn a living with a Gold Tone OB-250. They offer many options. In fact, for a couple of my test banjos, I have purchased Gold Tone necks, just to have a nice neck without spending a fortune.
If you don't want to install your own frets, or finish a resonator, and you want to build a banjo, you could order a Gold Tone neck and resonator, prefinished, ready to go, for around $450 (for the OB-250), or less, if you don't mind cutting the heelpiece of the neck yourself (not a job for a beginner!). Add the cost of the pot and the rest of the hardware -- figure about $450 for the lowest priced material, and you are in business. This only amounts to a difference of about $100 below the cost of a factory assembled OB-250, but you have the pleasure of making your own banjo, and there is something to be said for that.
Also, consider this. If you have a banjo pot assembly already, such as one from an old Gibson, and you need a neck for it, the Gold Tone would be a good choice, if you can't afford to have a custom neck made for it.
Putting the Parts Together
Putting it all together is not too difficult. Briefly, it is done as follows:
Install the tuning pegs. You will need a 5th string peg reamer to install the 5th string peg.
Install the nut for the main strings. Put a shallow groove in the 5th string nut and install it, but don't glue it in permanently yet.
Remove the head from the banjo, and attach the neck to the rest of the pot assembly by means of the coordinator rods and the lag bolts that came with them. Make sure that the neck is square to the body and that the centerline of the neck aligns with the coordinator rods.
Install the head, the tailpiece, the armrest, the bridge and strings. Then check the action, put the grooves in the nuts and make the necessary adjustments. Make sure everything is solid.
Install the resonator hardware -- see the above-mentioned books for details-- and attach the resonator.
Now perform the basic banjo setup described elsewhere on this site.
Finally -- PLAY IT!
I realize this description of assembling the banjo is somewhat terse, but if you have either (or both) of the above-mentioned books, you will find detailed instructions there.
If you are a supplier of banjo parts, and I have not mentioned you in the above text, please send your information to me at Bill@billpalmer.com. I will remedy the situation ASAP.
Since I originally wrote this material, some of the prices have gone up, but you can still save substantial money by doing this yourself.
Let's assume that you know exactly what you want. I'm going to give you a few ballpark price options.
If you want the FQMS professional tone ring, order the complete pot assembly for $517.95. Apply finish to the rim and send it to a neck maker, such as Frank Neat. His price for a neck is about %950. You will need a resonator and the pegs. The Resonator will cost you about $300 with finish, and the tuning pegs will cost you about $100 for a good set. So the total would be around $1825.00. That's not a bad deal, when you figure you have specified what you want.
If you want to build it with a Tony Pass rim, here's what you do. Purchase a tone ring -- let's get a really nice one -- %300. Add a Prucha flange, stretcher band, hooks, coordinator rods and armrest -- $210. -- and a tailpiece -- $25 -- and a head -- $15 -- pegs $100. The Tony Pass rim will cost you about $350.00. That makes the cost of a complete custom pot assembly with the best rim available and the tone ring of your choice somewhere around $900. This increases the cost of the banjo less than $400.00. You still end up with an excellent instrument for less than $2500.
I have left out the cost of the strings and the bridge, but those are not extremely expensive.
If you get the metal parts, send them to Tony and he will fit the rim. Then you can send it to your neck maker and he can do what he needs to do. If he does his own finishes, chances are, he will work a package deal on the resonator, so the finish will match.
The downside of this is that it will always be a "parts" banjo. The upside of it is that you will not have to pay a premium for someone's name.
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©2006 Bill Palmer. All rights reserved. For permission to republish contact Bill Palmer. The opinions expressed on this page are strictly Bill Palmer's. Mastertone, Stelling and the other brand and model names are the property of the manufacturers and other people who own them.