Antique Banjo Restoration.




Introduction: Antique Banjo Restoration.

About: I live on the east coast of Canada, (New Brunswick). I have been tinkering and building things all my life and still manage to learn something new and exciting every day.

I'll apologize up front for not documenting all the processes in this project to my normal level of detail but I think you'll get the idea of how I did things from what I did document.

A friend from work brought me a 140 year old George Dobson banjo that she inherited.  It was in rough shape, over the years the machine heads had been replaced with some odd ducks.  The fret inlays had been obscured and lost.  The head stock had seen some horrific attempts at restoration to say the least. Some one had thought it was a good idea to paint the fret board.  What I did see was enough good things to warrant a complete restoration.   

Thanks in advance for viewing and please consider this Instructable for the Shop Bot challenge, I could really use it to bring my inlay work up to the next level.

Step 1: Assessing What Needs to Be Done.

Before any major restoration project you first need to determine if: 1) is it worth it?, 2) what is the scope of the job?, 3) do you have the skills to do it?, and 4) will the client be willing to pay?

For this job I answered these questions with yes, it is a quality instrument with lots of good years left in it.  The majority of the work will be on the neck. I was confident it my skill set to take on the task, and yes she was willing to pay the price. So lets look at what needs to happen.

Step 2: The Tear Down.

Time to remove the neck from the body, take the machines off and pull the fret wire. 

Step 3: Leveling the Fret Board.

This step in the process is, in my mind, the most difficult. I say that because keeping a true surface is super critical and the job was done totally by hand.  Hand sanding is a slow and laborious task and the temptation to reach for a power tool is great, don't do it, I don't care how skilled you are with a power sander, one slip and you are done. 

Step 4: Filling the Void.

During the sanding process I knew that I would need to do some surface filling so when I got to the point where I was producing pure ebony dust I was careful to save some.  This becomes the coloring and thickening agent for the epoxy. I discovered ebony dust produces a better black than commercial dyes. Who knew?

Step 5: Rebuilding the Head Stock.

I had some issues with the head of the banjo, the holes for the pegs had been drilled out very large at some point and left no bearing surface for the new ones. The ebony veneer had been subjected to what I can only surmise was a heat gun or torch which left charring scars that were ugly as hell. The inlays were shot and the cuts were too deep to sand out. I decided to put a new surface on it that would clean up the look and provide a solid bearing surface for the new and proper machines. For this job I'll use purple heart wood for it's beauty and strength. 

Step 6: Stripping the Neck and Fretting.

Ok, here is where I got slack on my documentation, I took no pictures of how I carved and made the new fret markers nor how I re cut the fret slots for the new wire.  I made the inlays using a method you can see in my electric guitar Instructable, using a slurry of epoxy and crushed stone. I made star shaped carvings at the fret locations using an exacto knife and filled them with the slurry. Then I simply filed and sanded them flat.  You can also see fret wire installation on the electric guitar build or the strum stick build.

Step 7: Dealing With the Frame.

There isn't much to show here. The frame was in excellent shape, just very very dirty. At first I thought it was not original to the neck but upon closer inspection I feel the casting was actually all original. It is very heavy cast iron, and quite rough in places.  Either way it was in good shape.

Step 8: And We Are Done.

Again, I didn't document how I made the new bone nut or installed the tuners, you can see examples of both of these processes in my other Instructables on building an electric guitar or strum stick. I was more interested in showing you the restoration process. 

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    6 Discussions


    4 years ago

    hey, don't know whether or not you still fancy the site. just wanted to say one hell of a restoration good sir.


    Reply 8 years ago on Introduction

    No, no it doesn't. hahahaha


    Reply 8 years ago on Introduction

    Same here, I do know this thing has an amazing amount of volume.


    Reply 8 years ago on Introduction

    hmmm, all of the banjos that i have heard were really quiet... so quiet that i had to stop using a pick...