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Back From the Brink - A 5-string Rescue Banjo Story

Written by Paul Race for Creek Don't Rise™
and School Of The Rock™

A young friend who thought about learning 5-string banjo told he me had one that belonged to his father in law but had "issues." I offered to take a look at it.

The Banjo was a mid-20th century beginner's banjo with common "features" of that genre.

The brink banjo as it came into my house. Click for bigger photo.

  • The brink banjo's headstock, with the brand name painted over. Click for bigger photo.An aluminum pot (this preceded the "pop-top" banjos whose aluminum pots added a flange for more tone and "flash."
  • Guitar-style tuners, except for the fifth string, which has a friction peg, all 90% "stuck."
  • Brackets to which the resonator attaches (instead of a resonator flange). These brackets screw on with little wood screws instead of the thumb screws that became more popular later.
  • No tone ring (of course).
  • An unremarkable wooden resonator.

In addition, the manufacturer's name had been painted over - perhaps the original owner was ashamed to own some bottom-line banjo and thought he would disguise that fact by painting out the brand name.

When I took the banjo home the drum head was not fastened on correctly and had big wrinkles in it as a result. In addition, the plating on the pot was pretty cloudy-looking and starting to corrode from finger oils a few place. The wood on the neck was very dried-out-looking.

However the neck looked like was adjustable, and it wasn't too bad at that. So with a little cleanup, and adjusting, it might be made playable. With new tuners, it might be made quite playable. I actually priced tuners for it. I figured for $40 I could get a nice set.

Getting Down to Brass Tacks

The first thing I noticed when I took the strings off was that the frets closest to the nut were worn almost flat. The second thing I noticed was that the plastic nut wasn't glued down, so it came off with the strings.

The bad part about the frets being worn flat was that the banjo was going to have a limited lifespan no matter what else we did to it. It would be cheaper to replace the banjo than to replace the frets. So replacing the tuners would be - as a friend used to say - polishing the brass doorknobs on the Titanic.

:TheI unscrewed the little plastic cover that said "Steel Reinforced Neck," hoping to get access to the neck's adjustment rod. Instead, what I found was that there was no ajustment rod. Like my first Kay guitar, the "steel reinforced neck" consisted of a static iron rod shot down the length of the neck. I supppose it had done its job, since the banjo's neck is still fairly playable, between 50 and 65 years after its manufacture. But that meant that it could not be adjusted in any meaningful way.

I also noticed that the "rosewood fingerboard" was actually plywood with a rosewood veneer, The fancy binding along the neck covered up the multiple plies. Ironically, this cost-saving measure - which would probably anger some folks to find that their banjos had it, wouldn't have hurt the sound as much as you might think, so that didn't put me off. However, that made the case against ever refretting or putting money into the thing even stronger.

What to Do, What to Do?

Keep in mind that this was a friend's banjo. If I had passed this at a flea market for more than $15 I wouldn't have looked at it twice. But what gave me a little more respect for this particular instrument than the thing deserved on it own merits, were the flat frets and the messed-up headstock. At some point in this banjo's history, a young owner who wanted to fit in with his friends painted over the off-brand headstock logo, then proceded to wear the frets off the thing - not as easy as it might sound. Not unlike my first Kay guitar, which was basically a wall decoration before I stripped and refinished it and made playable in spite of its ridiculous construction shortcuts. Back in 1966, I couldn't afford anything else, so I made due. Why? Because what I was learning on the thing was more important than how I looked holding it.

Unlike all the import banjos that I see on Craig's list six weeks after they leave the store (or arrive on the doorstep), my friend's banjo had been "loved on" in spite of its built-in deficiencies. The previous owner of the thing - and probably the original owner - was still alive, so I thought it would be a nice tribute to the man to restore it as much as I could without spending real money.

The brink banjo with its tension loop and drum head removed. Click for bigger photo.

Clean-up

Since the head was going to have to come off anyway, I took the thing apart and started cleaning it up.
  • The drum head just had a couple of smudges, which came off quickly with Fantastick.
  • The aluminum pot needed a good wipe-down with Simichrome, a cleaner motorcycle owners like to use on their chrome exhaust pipes, and which many Deering users use on the nickle-plated parts of their banjos.
  • The neck, fingerboard, peg head, and resonator were buffed down with Liquid Gold and an old, but clean sock. I repeated the process on the fingerboard several times until it was both much cleaner and much "warmer-looking."

By the time I was finished, it looked much, much better than it had when I started. Now for the easy part: putting it back together.

Reassembly

Oooops! I figured out pretty soon why the head wasn't on the thing right when I got it. The tension loop was about 1/8" too wide - it had stretched out of "spec" over the years.

What this meant, was that it would reach out over the little metal strip on the drum head in places. Instead of forcing that strip down, it would slide over it. Then that part of the drum head would lose tension, resulting in a wrinkled appearance and relatively dead sound.

For one brief shining moment, I toyed with the idea of replacing the tension loop. On legitimate music sites, they wanted $40 or so for one. But on eBay, several Chinese vendors were selling them for about $11 each. If that was all that banjo needed, I may have been tempted to try one. But I remembered my decision NOT to put a bunch of new part on a banjo whose neck limited its eventual life span. So I didn't.

The Brink banjo, cleaned up and reassembed. Click for bigger photo.Instead, I spent some time going around and around the banjo again and again trying to get the loop to sit as directly on the edge of the drumhead as I could. Eventually the head was as tight as I dared make it. I restrung the thing, which included putting the nut and bridge back on. Then I used the turnbuckle to adjust the angle of the head and replaced the resonator.

The next morning, the tension loop was still holding the drum head down all the way around, so I thought maybe I had finessed it into working, for a while at least. Guess again. An hour after the photo to the right was taken, one edge of the drum head slipped up and inside the the tension loop again. But the banjo was in tune and playable the last I saw it.

Conclusion

Once again, I do not go to herculean measures for just any old instrument. In fact I turn down the vast majority of such "opportunities." But I thought this one would be a useful experiment. And it might encourage readers to see what it would take to bring an old instrument like this one "back from the brink."

With about $60 worth of parts, I could have easily turned this into a $60 banjo. With $200 worth of parts, I could easily have turned it into a $70 banjo. The owner and I elected not to take that path early on, although if the banjo belonged to one of my kids, I'd probably replace at least the tension loop at any rate.

Let me know if you have a family heirloom you think might be restorable, or questions about some project you've gotten into and don't know how to get back out of easily.

Best of luck, all, enjoy your music, and support the arts.

Paul Race Click to see Paul's music home page Click to contact Paul through this page. Click to see Paul's music blog page Click to visit the Creek Don't Rise discussion forum. Click to learn about our Momma Don't Low Newsletter. Click to see Paul's music page on Facebook Click to see Paul's YouTube Channel.

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All material, illustrations, and content of this web site is copyrighted © 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006,
2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016 by Paul D. Race. All rights reserved.
Creek Dont' Rise(tm) is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising
program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.

Note: Creek Don't Rise (tm) is Paul Race's name for his resources supporting the history and
music of the North American Heartland as well as additional kinds of acoustic and traditional music.

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