Gourd Banjo


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Me and my banjo

The banjo is done and playable, so I thought that I would spend some time summarizing the project.

To the left is a photo of me with my new banjo. The banjo looks very large in that photo. In fact, I find that holding the instrument steady while I play it is a chore. The gourd is so big and round that the banjo tends to twist in my lap when I play it, and it ends up with the head facing up toward the sky. I have not figured out how to hold it so that it will stay steady. Even so, it looks like a handsome instrument, no?

The tone is big and mellow. Since I put that one inch bridge on it, the voice has deepened so that it sounds a lot like my minstrel, which has a 12" head on it. The tuning pegs work well. In fact, I like their action better than I do the action of the violin pegs that are on the minstrel. I think that it has something to do with the thickness of my peghead. The minstrel's peghead is only 1/2" think, whereas the peghead on the gourd banjo is closer to 1". That gives the pegs on the gourd banjo twice the surface area to hold them in place. They are very smooth.

The figure in the wood is quite pleasing, and the color of the neck turned out very close to the color of the gourd, which is what I wanted to do. From the distance that I took this photograph you cannot see all the mistakes that I pointed out on my Confessions page. Hooray.

Now I would like to add up some numbers that I have been keeping track of.

You may have noticed that on each page I estimated how much time I spent on that session. I added them up and I came up with approximately 62.58333333 hours spent. That is a lot of hours. If I had to pay my auto mechanic his hourly rate (now up to $85.00 per hour in 2007 dollars.... I don't earn nearly that much) to build this banjo it would cost me $5319.58 ..... just for the labor.

So, how much did the materials and tools cost me? That question is a little more difficult to answer because I had to buy more of the materials than I used. For example, I bought five gourds but only used one of them. To keep track of both numbers I have added up what I spent and also added up a value for what actually went into the banjo. See the table below.

Cost of materials.

Item Total Cost    Amount Used Cost
Gourds $155.00    1 of 5 $31.00
Neck Wood $21.90    2/3 of it $14.60
Finger Board Wood $4.72    Bought 2, used 1 $2.36
Skin Head $33.25    1 out of 4 $8.31
Strings $5.00    Used all 5 $5.00
Tacks $7.96    Used half of 'em $3.98
Stain $16.99    1/4 oz. of 2 oz. $2.12
Acrylic Spray $5.00    Used most of it. $5.00
Tru-Oil Finish $4.89    Spilled half, used half $4.89
Cherry (who knows?) $1.00    Just scraps $1.00
Glue $2.77    Max 1/10 of it $0.27
Baling Wire $1.69    One foot. $0.03
============== =====    ============= =====
Total $260.17   $78.56

Cost of the tools.

Reamer $40.72    
Peg Shaver $48.91    
Shipping $10.00    
Wire Drill $1.99    
Dust Masks $3.97    
Compass Saw $8.66    
Coping Saw $5.97    
Sandpaper $11.91
Spokeshave $27.50    
========= =====    
Total $159.63    

If I add up all of the money that I spent I get $419.80. If I take into account only the materials that actually went into the banjo and the tools, I spent $238.19. Of course, if I decided to make another gourd banjo next Summer, it would be practically free because all I would need to get would be some more neck wood, some strings, finish, and other such things (I have plenty of stain!). I would not need to buy gourds and tools again.

And now I come to the question, "Was it worth it?". For the amount of time I spent plus the cost of materials and tools (worst case, $5739.38), I could have bought a really marvelous gourd banjo made by a professional with far better quality of workmanship. However, I doubt that my auto mechanic would know how to make a banjo like this, or want to. But, if I view the project as a lesson in banjo making, I got a crash course in lutherie for the modest sum of $419.80 and a few weekends spent in the warm sun cutting wood. Plus, I get to keep the banjo in the bargain. I also get to keep the tools to make the next one. That sounds like a pretty good deal to me.

One last postscript to this tale:

Way back at the beginning of this project, I picked up each of the gourds and held it to see which one spoke to me. I picked the one you have seen used for this project for the reasons stated, but the fact is that two others spoke to me as well. The image of the proper banjo for each of them simply popped into my head. Those other two gourds are sitting on the shelf in the garage for now, but..... tune in later. You never know what is going to happen.


December, 2007

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Last updated December 2, 2007