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Antique Banjo on the Workbench

This post documents my work on a Windsor Popular Model 3, a 5-string open back banjo with a calfskin head made at the Windsor factory in Birmingham some time in the 1920’s. I would hesitate to call this project a ‘restoration’ because I am not trying to keep original features. My focus is on repair and improving some things for my playing. The banjo is pictured to the right.

This banjo has a lovely tone and the light weight and narrow neck make it fun to strum. It has a few problems however. The tuning is set with 100 year old ‘friction tuners’, which were probably already awful before they got old and sticky! I will replace these. There is also some damage to the neck which for the most part doesn’t affect playing. At the sixth fret however, a chip to the fingerboard has dislodged the end of the fret (pictured left). It is now raised a little and makes a buzzing noise when the fifth position is fretted. I will try to repair this.

On the bench

Banjo on the workbench

To begin with, I need to remove the all the strings and the bridge. The bridge is simply held in place with the pressure of the tightened strings. Unfortunately, the strings will not be reuseable as I need to cut through the knot at the tailpiece. I will add a new set once the work is complete.

With the strings removed I can start work on the tuning pegs. The pictures below show the old (left) and new (right) tuners:

Replacing the tuners

The old friction tuners are evil things. They work just as the name suggests: with friction and nothing more. A screw is used to adjust the level of friction, making the shaft clamp onto the wood of the banjo head. There is a microscopic happy window between being too loose that the string unwinds itself, and too tight that you can’t turn the tuner. Thankfully, they are easy to remove by fulling removing the tightening screw. The new replacements are called ‘planetary tuners’. A wide cylinder found in the middle is a miniature gear box with a 4:1 ratio, allowing for smooth and precise tuning – ah bliss! You can see from the picture that the new tuner has a wider diameter than the original, so I will need to enlarge the holes in the headstock for them to fit.

Reaming toolI use a reaming tool to achieve this. This tool is designed to enlarge circular holes in a clean fashion. My tool has a 5 degree angle and can enlarge from something like 4mm to 12mm. I carefully turn it clockwise for half a turn and then anticlockwise for a full turn while applying gentle pressure. This seems to be better than turning clockwise only. It takes me about one hour to replace the four tuning pegs on the headstock. They have a threaded nut insert included which holds them in place, the red arrow in the picture above points to a small spike that will bite into the headstock wood to further secure the tuner.

Finished tuners

I have decided not to replace the fifth string tuner. This tuning peg is usually found about a third of the way down the banjo neck, which is the case with the Popular Model 3. This peg is somehow inserted into the side of the neck, and possibly with glue or with a thread. I don’t feel confident that I can remove this tuning peg without causing damage to the neck, and the replacement I have has an even larger diameter insert. I can live with the original in this case!

Fingerboard repairs

The neck of this banjo has an ebony fingerboard, but instead of being a solid piece of wood, it is a veneer which is about 1mm thick! I guess this would have looked posh in the 1920’s but would have been a cost saving measure. It was probably never intended to last this long. The fingerboard is of course very old and thin, and this banjo has had multiple owners who have put it to use. This has led to the fingerboard being worn down in frequently used places and I think the sixth fret damage is probably the result of a drop or bash. The first fret has a hole in the fingerboard that is about 1cm in size. It doesn’t affect playing the banjo, but it looks like it will get worse with time. I will start here.

I have a small Ebony work toolsblock of ebony which I picked up from Isca Woodcrafts in Newport for about £4 – I think it is intended for wood turning to make a luxury pen or something to that effect. There is wax on one side of the block, but I can avoid that. I am using a file to get fine shavings from the block which I will use to fill in the damaged areas of the fingerboard.

First fret fingerboard repairI carefully prepare the area using masking tape, then I apply layers of clear setting superglue with ebony shavings to make a resin. I use a cocktail stick to make sure the shavings are well packed in. I have found that you do not need to allow the glue to dry between layers but it will need to set before the repair can be cleaned up. I keep adding layers until the resin is a little higher than the fingerboard. Now I need to let the glue set overnight. 

Once the glue has set, I remove the masking tape and start finishing the repair at the first fret.

Failed first fret repair

I try to carefully level the resin using a small and very sharp chisel, but the veneer is so degraded at the first fret that I just cause more damage. I carefully file and sand the resin back, but now there are new holes next to the repair, so I need to do it again. I am more careful with the second application. I can’t finish it as well as I would like bacause the fingerboard is so weak.

Finished fingerboard repair

It is obvious that I made a repair attempt here, and there is still some flaking at the edge of the fingerboard. I might return to this at a later date.

As a sidenote, I have been chatting about this repair on Banjo Builders group on Facebook and one suggestion made by a member there was to completely cut away the veneer on a damaged fret and replace by glueing a new piece in place, and finish by staining. Perhaps I will try this next time I need to change the strings.

Sixth fret repair

As pictured at the top of this page, there is damage at the edge of the fingerboard on the sixth fret. This is more than an aesthetic problem as the fret itself is dislodged and will buzz when the fifth position is fretted on the first string. Before I began this repair I did a little research to decide what to do. I had hoped to pull the fret out, repair the damage and then replace with a new fret. It turned out that this was not simple as this ol’ banjo uses unusual fret dimensions which I have not been able to source in fret wire. After reviewing my options I have decided to glue this fret down and then repair the fingerboard with a resin fill as I did at the first fret.

Clamping to glue fret

Glueing is not my favourite option in this case, but it is the least painful I can think of. I carefully apply masking tape over the surrounding area and use a cocktail stick to apply clear setting super glue. I use Gorilla Glue Clear which is good and I can buy locally at a Wilkinsons store. The image to the left shows the glued fret clamped using a flat plastic thingy, the neck support is soft and is used to clamp in order to protect the wood.

Once the glue has set I remove the clamp and spend a little time carefully filing down the fret. I have a thin piece of steel or aluminium which has the shape of a fret punched out, this allows me to file without damaging the fingerboard. I can now set to work with the resin using the same procedure as in the last step, protecting the fret with masking tape. The pictures below show the repair before and after cleaning up the resin. As the fingerboard veneer is in better condition here, I can use a chisel to take away excess resin and then finish with a nail file.

Sixth fret unfinished

Waxed neckI finish up this stage by cleaning and oiling the fretboard, and waxing the rest of the neck and headstock. The grain in the neck is beautiful, I use carnuaba wax to protect and make it pop!

New strings and bridge

Sanding the bridgeNow it is time to get this ol’ banjo strumming again. I have a new bridge to use and new nylgut strings. The bridge is a few millimeters higher than the previous one, so I need to sand it down to avoid raising the action. I use the old bridge as a reference to get the height that I want. I sand the bridge very carefully by pinching it in the middle and moving it from side to side on the sandpaper. I check constantly that I am not making it uneven or causing the angle to change. Once I have leveled the bridge I can restring the banjo.

Bridge positioned

The bridge is a little different to standard. The fifth string is slightly raised, which is better for my style of playing which is called ‘frailing’. The thumb catches the fifth string as part of the strumming pattern, so this is designed to make it easier to do so. The bridge is placed at an equal distance from the 12th fret as the 12th fret is to the nut at the other end. I use a measuring tape to position it, then I adjust it for intonation once I have added all the strings and tuned them up.

I hope you enjoyed this write up. I plan to do much more stuff like this at Newport Makerspace, a lot of the techniques used in this project were new to me, so I am keen to pass them on and share my experience! I think the Red Dragon laser cutter and Workbee CNC machine will be great machines for instrument making, repair and embellishment so I am sure I will be exploring this in due course.

I think I will revisit some of the neck repairs on this banjo to get it looking beautiful again – but for now I will be getting my strums in! Please feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments below. See you next time, TTFN 🙂