These kits were selling on eBay between $100 and $150. I was intrigued by what kind of banjo one could get for that price, so I tried one.
|It arrived in a big white box. All the parts are securely wrapped so there is little chance of shipping damage.|
|Laying out the parts.|
|You get everything needed to build a working banjo, even strings. You’ll need a few tools and materials to finish the neck. The pieces of hardware are individually wrapped.|
|The neck was a pleasant surprise with a nice Macassar ebony fingerboard.|
|The peghead is fairly ornately shaped, resembling some of the old Paramount and other vintage banjos. It is covered with a veneer of some synthetic material, which I could not identify. The peghead is in two pieces with the joint running parallel to the bottom of the handstop. The plastic nut is already glued in place and a truss rod is installed.|
|The neck itself is of Philippine mahogany, which is fairly soft and open- grained. It has an odd 3-piece heel, obviously to use the smallest piece of lumber.|
|The rim is a robust archtop design. The tension hoop is a heavy plated brass one. The head is a frosted Remo Weather King unit.|
|The instructions are a single folded sheet.|
|OK, so far, so good. It looks like we can make a banjo out of this stuff.|
|A more detailed look revealed why the kit is so inexpensive. For example, the threads on the coordinator rod are really rough and sharp. I smoothed them out a bit with a file and emory cloth. And...|
|The nut was glued down crookedly. After I removed it, I saw it was because a chip of the peghead veneer had not been completely cut away for the nut slot. The worker glued it in place anyway, giving it a forward tilt. Quite a bit of excess glue, too. And...|
|The rim has a lot of rough, sharp edges. Every drilled hole has nasty, sharp burrs. There is a fair amount of machining grease and casting grit on it. The tailpiece is an inexpensive stamped Waverly-like item. The bottom edges are all rough and sharp, too. And...|
On the positive side, the hooks are a robust round type. No need to worry that they’ll bend when tensioning the head. For an open back, I would have preferred round bottom nuts, but these will do.
the instructions, I noted that some of the parts are not shown on the drawing
(tailpiece bracket, coordinator not) and that there is nothing about the
amount of clean-up that will be needed. There is some useful information
of how to finish the neck and tensioning the head. My favorite quote:
|I started by getting out my Dremel rotary tool and removing all the burrs, snags, and sharp edges on the rim casting. The outside is rather nicely polished, so no additional work is needed on that. Be sure to wash it well to remove the grease and grit. This step took about 3 hours.|
|For fun, I painted the lower inside of the rim flat black, reminiscent of many antique banjos I’ve seen. It seems to look a little more classy, too. Next, I cleaned up the hex shoes – about half of them have burrs around the threaded attachment hole – and screwed them onto the rim.|
|Then, I pressed on the head and tension hoop, both of which fit well. Add the hooks and nuts and you are read to move on. I removed the Remo logo from the head (we’ve already paid for it, we don’t have to live with the advertising) with a little lacquer thinner and a paper towel. The top corners of the tension hoop notches are very sharp, too. I used a small file to round them off a bit|
Overall, it is quite handsome.
Moving on to the neck....
|I started the neck by adding the Mother Of Pearl fingerboard position markers. The instructions say you should just take a mallet and pound them in. Don’t. The pre-drilled holes are too small and too shallow. You’ll have to drill them out more. Then, they fit OK and look good. The tiny side markers are already in place.|
|The fifth string pip is a big, thick, soft plastic rod in a hole well away from the fifth fret. I removed it and plugged the hole with a bit of Macassar ebony. I drilled a new hole just behind the fret and made a small pip out of bone.|
|The frets are generally well mounted and dressed. I polished them a bit with 0000 steel wool and put a few drops of oil on the ebony. Looks good to me,|
|Some sanding is needed on the neck although it is well shaped. I stained mine with Stewart-MacDonald ColorTone stains: a mixture of Vintage Amber, Red Mahogany, and Medium Brown dissolved in alcohol. The instructions recommend using Deft lacquer (“Deft Gloss Clear Wood Finish” it says on the can) in spray can or brush-on liquid. I’ve used this product quite a bit and it works fine for me, and it is easy to find at your local hardware store. I used six coats with light sanding between each coat. The final coat was rubbed with 0000 steel wool to cut down the gloss. You can leave it glossy if you prefer.|
|The peghead veneer is an odd dark brownish gray. I dyed mine black with Fiebings Oil Dye (black) and gave it a couple of coats of furniture wax. I dressed up the truss rod cover with a little flag decal.|
mount easily. The fifth-string tuner pushes easily into the soft mahogany.
The fifth string tuner had a nasty binding problem. I took it apart and eventually found that the brass pin that holds the horizontal shaft in place was binding in the retention groove. A little work with a needle file fixed that. I repacked it with plenty of grease and it works smoothly enough now.
|On my instrument, the neck did not mate to the rim properly causing the neck to be misaligned. That is, the centerline of the neck projected across the rim hit the back of the rim about ½” to the left (looking down on the instrument) of the tailpiece centerline. I had to put a thin shim along the right side of the heel. This quickly and easily fixed the misalignment but it was an unexpected problem.|
|Since the instructions are for a kit with no coordinator rod, there are no instructions for mounting it (DUH). If you’ve fooled around with banjos before, it is not a problem but for the novice it could be mystifying. The rod is a little bit too short. The large nut that goes on the outside of the rim barely catches 3 threads. In the 3rd photo down, you can see how the nut is just hanging on. Probably the best solution is to add a few more washers at the opposite end of the rod where it butts against the inside of the rim at the heel. Oddly enough, the instructions have a big photo of a guy with a big wrench tightening a nut at the coordinator rod – lag screw joint. There isn’t one.|
was one final part to mount and again, there was an unexpected flaw. The
tail piece is intended to mount on a T-bracket. That pulls the tailpiece
attachment bolt way back into a rather awkward alignment.
|I cut the bracket down and drilled a new hole: Of course, now the tailpiece attachment nut interfered with the coordinator rod nut. I cut the tailpiece nut down and shortened the bolt. Better, but not great. Also, the tailpiece adjustment didn’t work very well because the attachment bolt head interfered with the bottom edge of the adjustable plate just below the adjustment screw. I ground a notch into it so low string pressure settings were possible|
|There was one small flaw in the 3-piece heel, probably a chip in the wood that was filled with glue and ignored. It is almost invisible until you begin staining. Also, in this shot, you can see that the heel overhangs the bottom edge of the rim slightly. A very minor thing that could easily be fixed. I would also consider adding a heel cap.|
was time for strings. The strings come in a single bundle with no markings
of any kind. A rank novice might have a little trouble distinguishing the
1st and 2nd strings, for example. The gauges are (in inches): 1st - 0.009;
2nd - 0.011; 3rd - 0.013; 4th - 0.020(w); 5th - 0.009
This is the same as a set of light GHS (and other brands) strings. No problems here, they tuned up and behaved like any other set of steel strings I’ve had.
straightforward. The action is fine with no adjustment necessary. I recut
the nut slots to get a little better string spacing. It sounds pretty good.
The intonation up the neck isn’t perfect but I’m still fooling
with the bridge placement. A compensated bridge would probably help. The
supplied bridge seems a little clunky, so a lighter one might be worth a
try. The neck feels a little “clubby” above the fifth fret at
first but after I played it for a while, I came to find the shape quite
It is pretty hefty,
weighing in at 6 ½ pounds, ready to play.
|The finished product. TA-DA!|
Clearly, this kit is the same as RK-2, the resonator model. The only difference is you don't get the resonator and mounting hardware. That explains, in part, why you get the square-end nuts and the tailpiece T-bracket. Both are fine for the resonated banjo but out of place on an open back. It would be better to use a slightly longer coordinator rod and use a conventional tailpiece L-bracket.
I spent the better part of a week’s spare time on the kit. One COULD slap it all together straight out of the box (except for the dots) and be playing it in about an hour. However, few people would be happy with it. If you are willing to put some time and effort into it, you get a decent banjo for the price. Personally, I think it is a good deal, especially for someone who has a little experience with hand tools and who wants to get to know their banjo inside and out.
For the price, the kit could also be used as a test bed for some things you’ve been wanting to try out on a better banjo, such as adding a heel cap and/or peghead veneer, recutting a peghead, practicing inlay skills, trying different tailpieces, different heads and bridges, and different finishes.
T. Smith August, 2004
P.S. Several dear readers have contacted me since this was posted. Everyone who wrote had a common problem with the kit. The lag bolts are placed too high or too low or off center in the heel. Sometimes, the holes in the rim for the lag bolts are drilled at the wrong place. Check this early in the assembly by test-fitting the neck to the rim. The fingerboard should be parallel to the top of the rim and about 1/8" above the rim. The fix is not difficult. Remove the lag bolts, plug the old holes with dowel, and drill new holes. If the lag bolts are off by a only smalll amount (1/8" or less), you can enlarge the holes in the rim with a needle file.