For a warning about "old wood," "submerged wood" and similar items, click here.
What's all this about old wood and submerged lumber ... anyway?
A very special kind of wood
One of the missing ingredients in obtaining the pre-war sound on a modern instrument is the right kind of wood. The Gibson banjos that were built in the 1920's and 1930's came from "old growth" wood, from Canada and the Northern U.S. This type of wood came from trees that were grown under adverse climatic conditions. The growth was slow and the grain was very tight. Some of this wood had aged for many years after being cut down. When this wood was made into a banjo rim, it produced spectacular sound, and it kept getting better with each passing year.
But the supply of this wood was finite, and much of it was used during World War II for various types of construction. Conservation efforts produced tree farms that were to replace much of this old wood. But the tree farms are generally in areas with better climate than the frozen North. These trees are actually almost pampered. They don't have that tight grain.
A few years ago, divers exploring the bottom of Lake Superior made an interesting discovery. At the bottom of the lake, buried under several feet of mud, there were logs that had been harvested over a century ago. They had been buried in the mud as the logs from the north were floated downstream from the big forests. And they had lain there undisturbed. When some of these logs were brought to the surface, it was quickly determined that they were not only old growth wood, but they had not actually been damaged by submersion. While there was some penetration of the surface of the logs by water, the amount of water damage was minimal. Much of the wood was completely dry, and it had aged anaerobically. This produced a cellular structure very similar to the wood in a pre-war banjo rim.
Banjo Rims Made of Submerged Wood
In 2000, Bill Stokes of Showcase Products introduced his Timeless Timber® banjo pots. Actually, what you get when you order a banjo pot from Bill is a complete rim, resonator, tone ring, flange, tension hoop, armrest, brackets, coordinator rods, presto tailpiece, bridge, head -- basically everything but the neck. The rim and resonator are unfinished (both made of Timeless Timber®), and the resonator is routed for binding. You can have your favorite luthier make the neck for you. Bill recommends Robin Smith. The cost of the pot assembly is $2095 including shipping in the U.S.
At SPBGMA this year I got to hear and play several of these instruments. They have a remarkable sound -- very close to the pre-war ideal, and if the indications are correct, they improve with age.
But I don't have $2095. And I already have a resonator, tone ring and neck. Do I have to buy one of those banjo setups?
Not any more. During the past year or so, an additional supplier of old wood rims has emerged.
Tony Pass makes block style rims from submerged lumber. These rims appear to be similar in construction to the old Stelling block rims; however there are significant differences. They have a very powerful sound. They also mellow with age. The prices are quite reasonable -- $350.00 + $10.00 shipping and handling, fitted to your hardware, ready to stain and finish. The workmanship is flawless. Geoff Stelling is offering them both as a retrofit and as an option on his banjos. I have tried a couple of different tone rings on these rims. For some insight into the differences in the construction of these block rims and conventional block rims, click here.
One thing that ALL of these rims have in common is this. When you first install them, they may sound good, perhaps even impressive, but often they sound pretty much like any other rim. But after a few days of playing, sometimes even a few hours, these banjos open up and really sound fantastic. I have heard of this in the Showcase banjos and experienced it myself with the other rims.
And there is one thing that I cannot emphasize enough. There is a "feeding frenzy" involving pre-war Gibson banjos, especially pre-war Gibson tenor banjos. The prices of these instruments have risen sharply during the past year or so. They will continue to do so. In fact, people are converting lower end pre-war banjos such as TB-Jr., TB-0 and TB-00 instruments in their quest for the pre-war sound. Some of these old instruments have been irreparably damaged in the quest to sound just like J.D., Earl, Sonny, Don or Ralph. These submerged wood rims offer a solution that is cost-effective as well as nondestructive.
This Just In!
Bill Stokes -- the fellow who started all this -- has decided to issue his Timeless Timber® rims as a separate product, without the resonator, the flange, etc. For more information, visit Showcase Products. More details to follow soon.
Other Old Wood Products