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  How I made my First Banjo by James Brown 1 of 3  

Back in 1969 I was an assistant professor of Chemistry at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.  One of my students heard the bluegrass on my office stereo, and asked if I played an instrument. 

Since I didn't, but he did, I began lessons with him on a cheap open-back Kaye banjo.  I eventually left teaching to work in a small testing laboratory, but kept up with the lessons and the friendship, which continues today, although at a distance.  I decided I wanted a good banjo, but didn't have the cash for the Gibson Mastertone I had my eye on.


James Brown

One day in the basement of the lab where I worked, I saw a block of hard maple, 8"by 8" by 30", and just knew there was a banjo in there somewhere.  It seemed like a perfect outlet for at least two of my interests; bluegrass music and woodworking.  I had the block cut into the necessary pieces by a local lumberyard, and went to work. 

The result of on and off spare-time work, spanning a few years and a couple of changes of occupation, is shown here:


Like most woodworking projects, the process of how you get from a block of wood to the completed item is perhaps as interesting as the object itself.  In this case, I was early in my career, and financially unable to purchase a lot of the equipment which would have made this an easier process.  Therefore, I was forced to improvise techniques which fit the tools I had, as well as design and make a variety of jigs and forms in order to make the individual components.

First I made a pair of forms to make the circular portions of the instrument; the inner hoop to which the neck attaches, and the rim of the back, or resonator.

I did not yet have a bandsaw, so I used my sabre saw to carefully cut and remove circular holes in four pieces of 3/4 inch compressed fiberboard, stacked and glued them and smoothed the inner surface with files and sandpaper.  This yielded a 3 inch thick form for the main ring.  I then used two pieces of the same material to make a larger 1 1/2 inch thick form for the resonator.  Locator-straps of metal screwed to the forms, then removed, allowed the forms to be bisected with a handsaw and re-assembled using the locator straps to maintain the shape of the circle.

1 of 3  

Stanley Chisels



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