Gourd Banjo


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Another banjo is done. It looks pretty nice, if I do say so myself.

To the left is a photo of me with my new banjo.

The banjo has a nice tone. It is easier to hold than the one I built last year because the gourd is a bit smaller. The tone is smaller than the other banjo for the same reason, but it still sounds nice and has good note separation.

The figure in the wood is not as spectacular as it is on the other banjo, but there is some curl in the neck. The figure also appears to be getting more visible as the weeks go on. I like the shape of the handstop between the neck and the peghead much more than the one on the other banjo.

After I had the banjo strung up for a week or two it developed a buzz. This was a really loud buzz that happened when I played any of the strings but fretted at different locations. It was apparent that it was something rattling in resonance with the strings.

I looked at all the usual suspects. I checked again that the fingerboard is flat - it is. I looked at all the string notches in both the nut and the bridge, and everything looked tight. None of the tacks were loose. The vertical tailpiece was not even touching the gourd, and it was tight. I thought maybe the gourd was rattling on the dowel stick, so I twisted the neck around while I played a note. No luck, the rattle was still there.

When the weekend got here I took the bridge off and flattened the bottom of the feet on some sandpaper since they were somewhat rounded. I have never heard of a buzz coming from rounded feet on a bridge, but I was getting desperate. While I had the bridge off I looked at the notches under a magnifying glass and cleaned them up with some sandpaper. Then I put it all back together and tried it out. Still there was a buzz.

Finally out of frustration I grabbed the tailpiece and bent it into a new position. That simple act bent the baling wire that is holding it on. Glory be! The buzz was gone! So I guess the buzz was the tailpiece vibrating against the baling wire somehow at a resonant frequency.

So I am once again in search of something better than baling wire to use for the tailpiece gut. For now I will keep the baling wire for now since I don't know what to replace it with.

I really like the wide fingerboard that I was fretting about before. I have at least 1/8" of board on either side of the outside strings. That seems like a lot, but I find that I can do pull-offs with great ease on it. There is a lot of board left to grab the string on. I also like the higher action, which also allows for easy pull-offs and hammer-ons.

So much for my review of the banjo. I like it a lot. Just like last year 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 all the numbers and came up with a total of 86.75 hours on the project, but 11 1/2 of them I spent on cleaning up the other gourds, which really did not have anything to do with this banjo. So I figure I worked 75 1/4 hours on the banjo itself. For some reason this one took about 10 hours longer to finish than the other one. I thought that it would be faster since I had done one before. Anyway, if I had to pay my auto mechanic his hourly rate (now up to $95.00 per hour in 2008 dollars.... I don't earn nearly that much) to build this banjo it would cost me $7148.75 ..... just for the labor.

I also added up the cost of the materials that went into the instrument. Since a lot of the materials that I used were purchased last year I suppose that I could claim that I built this one for free, but that would not be quite right. So I borrowed the table from last year to take a guess at the real cost. 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
Nylgut Strings $7.25    Used all 5 $7.25
Tacks $7.96    Used half of 'em $3.98
Stain $16.99    1/4 oz. of 2 oz. $2.12
Acrylic Spray $10.00    Used most of it. $10.00
Tru-Oil Finish $4.89    Used half; the rest will rot. $4.89
Walnut (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 $267.42   $85.81

Cost of the new tools.

Diamond Stones $100.00    
New Drill Bits $10.00    
60 Grit Sandpaper $3.97
Spokeshave $27.50    
========= =====    
Total $141.47    

If I add up all of the money that I spent I get $408.89. If I take into account only the materials that actually went into the banjo and the tools, I spent $227.28. That is not a whole lot of money for a banjo, but then I also put a lot of my time into it as well.

And now I come to the question that I always ask, "Was it worth it?". For the amount of time I spent plus the cost of materials and tools (worst case, $7376.03 if I were an auto mechanic), I could have bought a really marvelous gourd banjo made by a professional with far better quality of workmanship. But, if I view the project as a lesson in banjo making, I got a crash course in lutherie for the modest sum of $227.28 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.


October, 2008

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Original post date October 16, 2008

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Last updated October 16, 2008