Sears & Roebuck Supertone Model 402

"A Little Rough"

I picked up this fine piece on eBay a couple of years ago and set it aside.  Now that I have a few rehabilitations under my belt, it seemed like an interesting challenge.  It was clearly played a lot for many years and really has a lot of character.  I tried here to retain as much of the character while making it a playable instrument again.  Judge for yourself if I was successful.

I read in Vintage Guitar magazine that the first Supertone-labeled guitar sold by Sears was in 1914.  The article was not specific about banjos.  This Supertone banjo is exactly like banjos from 15-20 years earlier so I have a hard time believing that all those 5-string Supertones around are younger than 1914 (by which time 5-string banjos were in little demand).  In 1916, Sears purchased Harmony, which would be operated as a subsidiary until 1940, when it was divested (ending the Supertone brand for a while; it was revived in the 1960s with clearly Kay-made banjos).

Anyway, this instrument was reasonably complete except for a couple of hooks and nuts. 

There was an outstanding issue with the neck.
..and a little damage to the heel.
This instrument featured a home-made neck brace made out of brass, possibly a serving spoon or similar.  It was well secured to the heel with a big wood screw.
The heel was broken along a horizontal plane as well as split vertically.  The split had been repaired with 4 shoe nails many years ago.  Also, a long trim nail was driven in from the fingerboard through the dowel stick stub.  Here's the heel pulled apart with most of the fasteners still in place.
Apparently, there was an attempted reset of the dowel stick as evidenced by the oddly colored wood shims and large amounts of glue.  I suspect this happened in conjunction with the nail-based repair of the heel.
The fingerboard was one of the more worn ones I've seen.  It has some deep grooves plus the first 5 frets had been pulled out (or fell out) to make a semi-fretless.  The fingerboard was partly separated from the neck but held in place with a short machine screw (hole at lower right).
There was also a nail that was driven through the fingerboard and out the back of the neck.  It is shown here pulled about half way out  It actually held the 5th string tuner in place, the hole having been quite enlarged from wear.
Here's another little oddity.  On the bass side of the fingerboard, particularly on the very highest frets, is the worst case of "sawtooth" that I ever saw.  This is when the fingerboard wood shrinks or is worn away, leaving the fret protruding a bit.  You encounter this on many old banjos.  If the cause is wood shrinkage, the frets will stick out about the same amount along the length of the fingerboard.  From abrasive wear, the protrusion tends to be greatest on the treble side of the fingerboard between the first five to seven frets.  There was a little bit of sawtooth all over the fingerboard but was clearly extreme in an area when a player's fingers almost never go.  This remains unexplained to me at this time.
Moving on to the pot, things are in relatively good shape.  If the German silver cladding had ever been plated, it was long gone due to the heavy corrosion.  The nickel-plated brass hex brackets were a little better off.  The steel hooks had probably been plated at one time but the plating was all consumed by rust.  The half-grooved tension hoop had been installed upside down and crooked, pulling the skin head sideways due to the uneven tension.
It has the original "Supertone" paper label with the model number (here, "402") hand-written in pencil to the right. Sorry about the crappy photo.

Other items of interest include this cool homemade bridge carved from clear plastic and these inexpensive but complete set of tuners.
OK, let's move on to the fix-up part.  I'll start with the rim .

This space for rent.

Because the tension hoop had been installed upside-down, the skin was pulled off to one side and was not useable as is.  However, the skin was in pretty good shape and I really liked the great color and dirt it had acquired over many years of hard use.  I have always read that you could not re-mount a used head simply because there is just not enough material to get hold of to pull the damp skin under the flesh hoop and up inside the tension hoop.  I had not tried it but was sure it was true.  If you have not installed a skin head, go look at the article on this site (skin head).

Well, I liked the skin enough to give it a try.  Darned if I didn't get it back on straight.  There was a lot of cursing, frustration, and trial and error.  You don't need to know all that, so here is what did work.

OK, first remove the head and soak it in tepid water for 10-15 minutes.  It will now be soft enough to pull the flesh hoop out - do so.  Flatten the whole skin out and remove any rust and dirt from the flesh hoop pocket.  This is a good time to remove any dirt or stains from the top that you don't want.  On this one, I left most of the dirt be.  Of course some of it came off during the soakings, but there was still plenty left.

Now, drape the head over the rim and center it.  You will see something like the cross-section diagram at top left.  Pull the material down flat on the sides.  You want the flap to be the same width all around. Take several large, wide rubber bands and secure the flap down flat.  Set it aside overnight and you will have something that looks like the photo and diagram to the left.  This helps "train" the skin to its new position. 

Now, slide the skin off of the rim and soak it again until its soft as it will get.  Put it back on the rim, re-center and push the flesh hoop into place.  Get your rubber bands again and put them on the rim below the skin.  Here's the hardest part:  Fold the skin up over the flesh hoop.  It will not stay, of course.  Now, slide the first rubber band up the rim and trap the flesh hoop in the folded skin,  Work your way around the rim until you have it all trapped.  Work the rubber band down to the flesh hoop bulge.  Next, roll the other rubber bands up the rim and over the first one.  Eventually you will have the skin in place as it should be with the exception of having the tension hoop in place.
 S.S. Stewart slept here
Here is the real trick:  You want the edges under the rubber bands to dry and harden.  However, if you let the top dry, it will shrink and pull the edges up too high, popping some of the rubber bands off.  So, invert the rim and place it on a smooth, waterproof surface (like a Formica countertop, for example),  Now get 6-8 paper towels and cut them into a circle just smaller than the inside diameter of the rim.  Place them on the bottom of the skin and saturate them with water.  Cover with foil.  The whole idea here is to keep the top of the skin wet and expanded while letting the folded edge dry flattened on the side of rim and flesh hoop.  Set aside to dry over night or until the edges are quite stiff.
  Finally, remove the still-wet paper towels and now-dry rubber bands.  Pull down on the flesh hoop a bit to get the top slightly but evenly taut.  Slip the tension hoop on, install the hooks, and there you are, "Bob's your uncle".  The head will now dry and get fairly taut.  After it is fully dry, you can tighten it to the desired tension.  Here you can see on the finished item how the head is now back on, retaining the cool patina.  Note how it is shifted back about 3/8" from the lower right to the upper left.
  The other work on the pat was straightforward.  I ran the hooks, nuts, screws, and hex brackets through my usual cleaning and polishing routine.  Steel parts are derusted with naval jelly.  All hardware is cleaned in the ultrasonic cleaner and everything is polished in the tumbler.
The German silver cladding was cleaned using a fiber wheel on a small bench grinder.  Then it was polished with Mother's mag polish and finally, Flitz.  Here it is all assembled.  Remarkably, the nuts and brackets still have some plating left.
Now, we do the poor old neck.

Moving on to the neck, I first glued the peghead back on with Titebond (original).  No problems here, a fairly clean break.  Next, I cleaned all the old glue out of the dowel stick hole and reassembled the heel.  This was a series old breaks, so it did not go back together perfectly.  I sanded the rough edges slightly and let it go at that.  I thought the shoe nails were a contributing element to the character of this banjo, so I drilled the holes out a bit and put them back in with a little cyanoacrylate.

Moving on to the fingerboard, the divots were too deep to allow refretting, so I had to fill them.  I used 5-minute epoxy colored black with furniture powder (which appears to be lamp black).  Then, it was sanded flat and new fret slots were cut.  By the way, the fingerboard is not ebony but the ever-popular "ebonized pearwood".

Oddly enough, the neck had a bit of backbow (probably from whatever force snapped the neck) starting around the 7th fret.  Rather than try to bend the neck, I glued 3 strips Macassar ebony veneer to the fingerboard:  The first from the 7th fret to the nut, the second from the 5th fret to the nut, and the third from the 3rd fret to the nut.  I sanded and filed them flat, feathering the ends, and the backbow was eliminated while adding a little strength to the neck.

Next was staining the fingerboard with Fiebings, replacing a couple of missing MOP dots, and replacing the missing frets, leaving a comfortably playable fingerboard.  I drilled out the holes and reinstalled the machine screw (that held the fingerboard down) and the long trim nail (that held the 5th string tuner in place).
The peghead was in pretty good shape - all I did there was refresh the stain and fill a couple of big gouges with black cyanoacrylate.  I made a new nut out of ebony scrap.
 The tuners have an unusual square shaft, probably meant to turn in a bushing.  However, it appeared that there never were any bushings, so I made some out of an old golf club shaft (from the dump).  Here they are, cleaned up and reinstalled.
The dowel stick was very loose in the heel hole, so I glued some shims to the stub until it sat about right with snug wood-to-wood contact, then glued the dowel stick up in the usual way.
I put the brass neck brace back on using a smaller screw and countersunk the hole so the sharp edges are contained.
That's about it.  I strung it with Aquila Nylgut strings and used an old Grover bridge from my junk box.  I modified the bridge a bit by thinning the treble end while leaving the bass side alone.  This makes the high notes noticeably brighter. 

Here is the finished product.  I tried to retain as much of the character of this old banjo as I could.  It plays very very well, too, so I think it was reasonably successful.

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