Dowel Stick Removal

One of the most common issues encountered in rehabilitating old banjos is that the action is too high.  Sometimes you can treat this with a shorter bridge or drilling a lower hole in the end of the dowel stick.  If that does not provide adequate action, you will need to remove the dowel stick and re-set it.  You may also need, then, to reshape the heel but this article will focus on getting the dowel stick out.

Sometimes they are loose and wobbly and will pull right out.  That is rare.  I had a banjo once where the dowel stick had broken off and was simply butt-glued back together.  Needless to say, that banjo had action problems.  More often, it is tight as a tick and more severe means are needed.  Below is a method that works just fine sometimes.  Other times, this just will not work and you must resort to Plan B.  The text of this section comes from Wayne Norman who was the repair man at Mandolin Bothers in New York for many years.  We thank him for passing along this bit of his experience and knowledge to us.  I have edited his original text slightly.  It was originally written as an e-mail from Wayne to someone who had inquired about the technique:

To remove the dowel stick, you will need a woodworking vise ideally, but a regular steel vise will work. Or you could contrive to use a big clamp. Use two thin pieces of soft wood such as pine or spruce on the bottom of the heel and on the fingerboard to act as cushions. Clamp the neck in the vise vertically with the dowel stick pointing up. Tighten the vise just enough to hold the neck firmly; too tight will press the frets in.

Look for any stray hide glue, usually light brown or tan in color, around where the dowel enters the neck. Remove it with a small-bladed pocket knife or X-Acto knife. The dowel stick is square just up until where it enters the neck, and is round inside the glue joint.

Put 1 tablespoon of vinegar in a cup of warm water. This will be used to soften the glue. Use a wad of cotton or a wad of paper towel. Wet it and wrap it around the dowel at the joint. Keep this wet but not dripping, for a couple of hours. Now gently using your hand, twist to rotate the dowel stick clockwise and counter-clockwise. If it moves a little, it means that the glue is softening. If not, keep it wet for another two hours or so, checking it once in a while. DO NOT FORCE the twisting. Just hand tight. YOU MUST BE PATIENT with this softening process. It could take all day. Just keep the joint wet. After a while the dowel will start to loosen. Keep dribbling water around the joint. Sooner or later it will loosen and come out. When it finally comes out, take this time while the glue is soft to remove all traces of glue and get down to the wood. Use a long, thin blade to get inside the neck and to scrape off the glue on the round end of the dowel. You may find shims of thin wood inside the hole or on the dowel.

If this does not work, it means you will have to go to the steam injection method. This is what we use to remove a guitar neck from the body for a neck re-set. It requires a pressure cooker and some tubing and a football inflation needle. This is a whole other ball game.

Good luck, and BE PATIENT.

Wayne

Well said, Wayne.


OK, now we'll look at Plan B, the steam injection method.  Other people may do this a little differently, but this is what works for me.

 

The following can be dangerous and result in first and/or second degree burns.  Don't try this unless you have some familiarity with hot, pressurized fluids.  Wear eye protection.  Read the manual for your cappuccino maker.  Make sure the steam tip is not clogged and that the pressure release mechanism works properly.  If you hurt yourself, I am not responsible.

First, one needs a steam source.  A good bet is to get a used cappuccino maker on eBay or at a garage sale.  They seem to be a common gift that winds up being unused and sold cheap.  Note that there are two sorts of these exotic machines.  An ESPRESSO maker is for making small cups of real strong coffee by blasting hot water through a chamber packed with ground coffee.  Steam is not involved.  Do not get an espresso maker for steaming dowel sticks.  A CAPPUCCINO maker has the parts to make espresso AND a steam tip for making the steamed, frothy milk that characterizes cappuccino.  Be sure the machine you buy has the STEAM TIP.  They may be mislabeled.  On the upper left is a machine listed on eBay as I write this called an espresso maker.  It is also a cappuccino maker.  On the lower left is one I got for $5.00.
Next, your machine will need a hose to get the steam from the steam tip to the banjo neck.  I went to the hardware store and got some automotive heater hose.  This is intended to carry hot, pressurized coolant from the engine block to the heater core and it works fine for this banjo job.  You need two or three feet.  Securely clamp one end to the steam tip.  Remember, there will be some pressure and the steam is HOT.  You don't want this blowing off unexpectedly.  Three-eights inch inside diameter is large enough if they have it.  Larger sizes are OK, too - it just takes more effort to fit it to the steamer.

Then, you'll need some sort of small diameter tubing to actually insert into the banjo's heel.  Here, I an using a rubber stopper with a length of brass tubing stuck through it with a basketball inflation needle soldered into the end.  Be sure this is well-clamped, too.  The hose will get very hot so you'll need to wrap this end with rags.

If you want to spend the $$, get a nice one from Stewart-MacDonald: Neck joint steamer

Next, select a drill bit that is just larger than your steam needle.  This one happens to be about 3/32" but it depends on your needle.
The central notion is that we want to get steam into the pocket behind the end of the dowel stick stub as visualized here.  I like to use a hand drill because it gives me more control and feel.  If you hit the pocket, you'll feel the bit go right in. 
This is what it actually looks like, except you might not have a feline helper.  Dowel stick stubs are generally about 1" long and 5/8" in diameter.  If you think you will have trouble hitting the pocket, try drawing a small diagram of the heel cross-section and tape it to the heel.  This will help you angle the drill.  After you've done it a couple of times, you can eyeball it pretty well. 
On the example above, I hope you noticed that I am drilling into the bottom of the heel.  If you banjo has a heel cap, I recommend that you remove it.  Then you can drill straight down and discover nasty little surprises like this: a big wood screw holding the dowel in.  Some banjos have a wooden peg here.  I drilled into the wood screw hole.

Here the screw head is covered by a big blob of hide glue.  After chipping that out, it was easy enough to loosen the screw.  See why I like to take the heel cap off?  No amount of soaking or steaming would ever get that dowel stick out.  If there is a wooden peg, simply drill it out.
OK, finally we're ready to start steaming.  Turn your machine on to the "steam" position.  At first, it is going to blow some hot water out of the nozzle.  Catch this in a cup or something until it is blowing more-or-less dry steam.  Then, plunge the needle into the hole you have drilled.  There are no photos of this part because I am pretty busy watching that everything is working right.  My feline helper has fled at this point.
Here is the dowel stick just after it came out.  Notice here that I had used the dowel stick brace (and bits of wood, not shown) to put some pull on the stick.  This steaming part takes patience, too.  What I have found that works pretty well is to let the steam blow into the heel for 5 - 10 seconds, then unplug your steam maker.  This leaves the pressure valve open but cuts off the heat.  Now, low pressure steam will float into the heel for a minute or two.  Just let it sit quietly for about five minutes.  The old glue is not going to soften instantly.
Try wiggling the stick.  If it moves, good.  If not, repeat the step above.  You may have to repeat two or more times.  Eventually, it WILL come out (unless somebody put the stick in with epoxy - then you are scrod).  Nearly all dowel sticks have a round stub.  This one happens to be square but that does not alter the technique.

Keep the steam pressure low.  I have seen steam actually blowing out the back of the heel - it goes right through the wood along the grain lines.  This will likely blister the finish and discolor the adjacent wood.

There will be a certain amount of gooey old hide glue in the hole.  Like Wayne says, clean this out now while it is still soft.

Here you see the hole that I drilled for the steam needle.

Sometimes the dowel stick stub may be cracked.  Inspect it carefully.  Glue and clamp any cracks you find.
On the right, I have plugged the hole with some dowel rod.  This isn't really necessary.  The next step is to fit the neck to the rim at the angle you want.  Then you must devise some sort of jig to hold the neck and rim in place while you replace the dowel stick.  Some shims may be necessary for a good fit.  I leave that to you.

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