Nice No Name

I got this banjo on eBay a couple of years ago. Unfortunately, that is all I know of its history. It is completely unmarked. At this time, I have not found any other banjo that looks exactly like this one, so I am not making any attribution to a particular manufacturer. The peghead is shaped a little like some of the earlier A.C. Fairbanks banjos but they all lack the sharp central point.  The neck profile is very like the Haynes Bay State ones I've seen.  Also, the peghead shape appears to be like those shown in a ca. 1890 Bay State catalog I have.  However, the illustrations are not very good. It is rather well made. It has a good walnut neck. Nearly everything on the pot is nickel-plated brass except the machine screws holding the brackets to the rim, like the 1880s S.S. Stewart banjos.

Here are the measurements:

   Overall - 35”
   Rim diameter - 11”
   Rim depth - 2”
   Rim thickness - ¼"
   Scale length - 25 1/8”
   Neck width (at nut) - 1 ¼”
   Neck width (at rim) -1 15/16”
   24 brackets
(click on thumbnail for larger image)
As Found

as found top

As found, it was relatively complete.  All the wood was very sound and the neck finish was in remarkably good condition.  As usual, the tailpiece was missing and the head was shot.
pot bot
A couple of brackets were missing as well as 8 of the original hooks.
The fingerboard was worn but did not have deep "divots". It is ebonized pearwood like the peghead overlay, and has some shrinkage cracks. I didn't bother to fill them.
I have rarely seen an instrument that was so uniformly and thoroughly corroded. Even the frets were green!
It has a nice matched set of May 8, 1888 patent Champion type tuners.
The ebonized pearwood peghead overlay has some nasty shrinkage problems resulting in many cracks.

The Rim Assembly

Alrighty, let’s get started. I like to do the pot first. Make your own jokes.

Upon disassembly, one can see how nasty the hardware is. First, I gave everything a good cleaning in my ultrasonic cleaner. It is great for getting loose dirt and grime off of all those small parts. I am also experimenting with a rust removal solution formulated for use in ultrasonic cleaners. So far, I've found that it works well for lightly rusted steel parts but doesn't quite remove heavy rust. I've recently acquired a Lyman “Turbo 600 Tumbler” (Tumblers). These are used in ammunition reloading to polish the brass casings. The polishing medium is either crushed corncobs or crushed walnut shells. I tried both and found that the corncobs were too soft to do much for this set of hardware. The walnut shells were quite effective and removed the great bulk of the corrosion after a couple of hours in the tumbler.
As usual, I began cleaning the rim cladding with Formula 409, followed by Mother’s Mag & Aluminum polish. Very little of the nickel was left, leaving only the brass. This I polished further with Brasso followed by a light coat of carnauba wax. The wood inside the rim required no further action beyond cleaning with 409 and paper towels.
Two of the original brackets were missing. I didn't have anything in my parts boxes that were a very good match. I did find a couple of old brackets that were in the ballpark and I was able to reshape them using a sanding drum in my Dremel rotary tool. I electroplated them with nickel to differentiate them from the originals. Original on left.
The missing hooks were more of a problem. They have a rather distinctive long beveled face on the hooked end. I didn't have any reasonable matches for them either, so I set out to make my own replacements. The original hooks are made from No. 8 brass rod (0.16” diameter, close to 5/32”). I could not find any brass rod of that diameter anywhere. During a long visit to the local hardware store, the only thing I could find that was the appropriate diameter was ordinary 16d bright nails (also 0.16” diameter). Original hook on the right.

First, I bent the nails into a “U” shape using the vice. Then I cut off the point, leaving enough of the shaft to form the hook "face".   Original hook is second from left.
Then I cut them off on a bevel comparable to the original hook using a hacksaw. I used various grinding attachments on the Dremel to get them as close to the originals that I could, with moderate success.  Original hook at top.
Then, I cut the other end to the appropriate length and threaded them. The originals are threaded at 26 threads per inch (TPI). This threading convention is virtually extinct all over the world except among banjo hardware makers. I don't know why.  Taps and dies for 8-26 rod just do not exist outside of the few companies in the Europe that make banjo hardware. Hence, I was forced to use an ordinary hardware store 8-32 tap. Mechanically, this is OK, perhaps even a little better in terms of finer adjustability and strength, but they are different in appearance. Original on left.
Steel hooks cannot be directly nickel-plated. First, they have to be copper plated. This was done by electroplating using the Caswell solutions (Caswell). Then, the usual nickel plating followed.
Nuts were another problem. The originals were 9/32”. I tried to find some brass hexagonal rod of that size but was unsuccessful. So, I went to my local hardware store and tried to find anything that would work. After a long, frustrating visit, I found some scribing tools with hexagonal aluminum handles for about $4. Unfortunately, they were ¼”. I decided they would have to do.

I cut the handles up into segments about as long as the original nuts. Then I drilled a hole through the center and tapped them to fit the replacement hooks (8-32 thread). Then, I put each “proto-nut” on an 8-32 screw and chucked it into the Dremel rotary tool. Using this set-up as a miniature lathe, I shaped each nut to approximate the shape of the originals.
I left the aluminum unplated for two reasons. I don’t have the pretreatment solutions for aluminum. I wanted future owners to easily discern the replacement nuts since a ¼” socket will be needed to adjust the tension, compared to a 9/32” socket for the originals.
Well, it could be worse.  The original is on the far left.  The others are my "replicas".
Then, I made a brass flesh hoop out of 1/8” square stock with the trusty ring roller and mounted a new skin head in the usual way. The pot is now ready to go.

The Neck

Moving on the neck, I removed the frets in the usual way, sanded out the fingerboard slightly, refreshed the dye, and installed new 0.043” frets in the usual way. These very narrow frets are the same width as the originals and are the narrowest frets that I know of in production today, available from Dunlop, number 6330 (Dunlop frets).
The next major issue was the peghead overlay. It is made of ebonized pearwood (I think). This was used fairly commonly as an inexpensive substitute for ebony but typically suffers from serious shrinkage and cracking over time. This one was getting pretty unstable and had already lost some bits, so I undertook to rehabilitate it as best as I could.
First, I removed the overlay from the peghead by heating it with a household steam iron. This softens the ancient hide glue enough to gets the fragments off with a razor blade. Not a very pretty site.

I reassembled the pieces on top of a piece of Macassar ebony veneer stock and replaced the missing bits with scraps of the ebony veneer. Then, I sanded the whole thing flat, trimmed the veneer backing, and reglued it on to the peghead. The nasty cracks were now mostly filled. 
However, the overlay was about 1/16” too small all around due to the shrinkage. I filled the gap with a bead of thick black super glue (Stew-Mac adhesives). With a little careful sanding , rubbing with 0000 steel wool, and refreshing the black dye, it looks reasonably good.

An interesting buy minor problem was the 5th-string pip. It appeared to be made of lead. I could not tell how it was attached to the neck. It would not screw out, so I tried to gently pry it out. It broke. On closer inspection, it appeared that the pip was indeed lead, possibly cast, with a tiny shoe nail melted into it. The nail shank broke off but I was able to remove it from the neck with needle-nosed pliers.
I cut the point off of a thumb tack and soldered it into the existing depression in the pip using Tix solder (Tix). I used the Tix specifically because it has a lower melting point than the lead pip material, leaving the pip unmodified. Then, it was a simple matter to replace the repaired pip into the original hole in the neck.
The tuners were a nice set of May 8, 1888, patented Champion tuners. I only had to disassemble and clean them. They were, however, missing the original fiber washers. I made new ones out of automotive gasket material using punches made from an old plug cutter and an X-ACTO®–type knife handle (with the end sharpened). While this is a fair amount of trouble, I find that friction tuners hold better and work more smoothly with the washers than without.

NOTE: This image is from a different project.

I was now ready to trial-fit the neck and pot. As I often find, the action was inordinately high. I steamed the dowel stick loose, cleaned out all the nasty old hide glue and reglued the dowel stick at the proper angle. I do this by making a thick paste of Titebond wood glue and fine sawdust, smearing an excess amount of it into the dowel stick hole, and assembling the neck and pot upside-down on a flat surface. I prop the pot up with a piece of wood about 5/8” thick, placed in the approximate location of the bridge. When all goes well, this results in the action being about 1/8” with a ½” bridge
Finishing Up

I made a new nut out of bone that I get at the pet store (sold with a bit of flesh and grease left on for dogs to chew). The original tailpiece was long gone, so replaced it with a reproduction No-Knot. By the way, this is about the only ca. 1890 reproduction tailpiece that I know of. I wish some enterprising person out there would make some others. These reproduction tailpieces are inappropriately shiny for an old banjo, in my opinion. I borrowed an idea from the great Wyatt Fawley, universe-class banjo maker, to cut down the gloss. There is a nifty little home kit for etching glass called “Sand Etch” (Sand Etch). It is basically an air brush adapted to use fine abrasive medium. A few quick bursts and the gloss is gone, making the repro look much more acceptable.

Finally, I mounted a set of Mark Horowitz’s light Clawhammer Cannonball nylon strings and this handsome old banjo is ready for a new life. I am pleased to say it was sold well before it was finished to an enthusiastic young banjoist in the New York area. Enjoy it for many years to come!
Peghead all finished.  It is a rather handsome design.  Wish I knew who made it.
Pip reinstalled and 5th string tuner.
Original "Champion" type tuners. Quite smooth working nylon strings, particularly with the new washers .
Pot assembly ready to play.  Here you can see the replica hooks and nuts I made.