Rob Attempts To Make A Gourd Banjo

(Or, How To Build An Obscure Musical Instrument
Without Knowing What The Heck You're Doing)
The satisfactions of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence have been known to make a man quiet and easy. They seem to relieve him of the felt need to offer chattering interpretations of himself to vindicate his worth. He can simply point: the building stands, the car now runs, the lights are on. Boasting is what a boy does, who has no real effect in the world. But craftsmanship must reckon with the infallible judgment of reality, where one's failures or shortcomings cannot be interpreted away.
-Matthew B. Crawford
There is a very fine line between "hobby" and "mental illness."
-Dave Barry

I've wanted to make a gourd banjo for some time now. In 2001 I created the banjomakers forum on Yahoo! Groups, where a bunch of us banjo nerds talk about making banjos, particularly those of the 18th- and 19th-century style. There are a number of gourd banjo makers on the list, and they've collectively given me the confidence to tackle this project.

Before this, the most complicated thing I've ever made out of wood was a bookshelf, and it was no thing of beauty. I've done a bit of carving, but nothing more than a few inches in size.

Here's a good overview of the historical context for these instruments. Here's another good overview of banjo history. And here is David Hyatt's excellent website. David's banjos have been my primary inspiration on this project.

There are a few good banjo project websites out there, including John Peterson's, Vinnie Mondello's and Curtis Harrell's.

Anyway. Here goes:

About a month ago I bought a couple of gourds. A local import/home decor store was selling them for $5 a piece. I should have bought more of them.

Anyway, I cut the top off one of them with a handsaw and scraped out the dried crud inside:

(Click on any of the images for a larger version)

Today (July 6th, 2004) I found three neck blanks in the ends bin at a local hardwood supply store. One is oak, one mahogany, and one American Yellow Poplar. For my first attempt at making a neck, I chose the cheaper 2¾" x 1¾" x 35" poplar blank, which cost $4. Poplar was, uh, popular as a neck wood in the 19th century, but it's not in common use for this purpose today.

I pencilled in the cuts to rough out the side profile of the neck (highlighted in blue here for clarity):

I decided to include a volute to strengthen the headstock. I suspect that this is historically incongruous with the rest of the instrument; I really don't care. What I'm trying to make here is essentially a 19th-century minstrel banjo with a gourd instead of a steam-bent wooden hoop.

The piece of stock removed from the bottom of the blank will be joined (pegged and glued) to the main piece to form the dowel stick, which will run through the gourd, more or less as depicted in this diagram:

I then pencilled in the face of the neck and Sweeney-style headstock:

The fretboard tapers from 1 11/16th" at the nut to 2¼" where it will join the gourd.

That's as far as I've gotten. Stay tuned!

July 12th, 2004
Well, I've made two decisions since I last updated this page six days ago. First off, I'm using a different gourd. I decided the one shown above is too small for the neck I'm making, so I cut the second, larger gourd. Here they are, for comparison:

My second decision is to cut the dowel stick out of the same piece of wood as the rest of the neck; that is, to abandon the plan in the above diagram. There's sufficient length in the blank, and, as my wise friend John said, you can't improve on Nature's joints.

So I borrowed my neighbour Dave's small bandsaw and roughed out the neck:

The remainder part of the neck blank that will form the dowel joint is easily seen in this pic - it's the part the gourd is sitting on.

I learned several things while roughing out the neck:

  1. Norm Abram, I ain't.
  2. Bandsawing is not the precise, controlled operation that, say, using a spokeshave is;
  3. I should have cut more wide from the mark. It's much, much easier to shave down the stock than to add it back later.
I cut a nasty ding in the underside of the tip of the headstock. I'll either have to replace some wood there, or just thin the back of the headstock near the tip to remove the ding. Either way, it's a lesson learned.

July 13th, 2004
Tonight I roughed out a maple fingerboard with my coping saw and glued it to the neck:

I only have a couple decent clamps, so I wrapped the mess up in surgical tubing, a trick I learned from a Lee Valley catalogue. Hope it works - I don't have access to a jointer so I did my best truing the surface of the neck with sandpaper mounted on a wide, flat block.

The astute reader will have figured out by now that I really don't know what I'm doing here.

Anyway. It seemed the sensible thing to glue the fingerboard on before the final shaping of the neck; hence all the extra maple overhanging the side of the fingerboard. I'm gonna let the glue cure overnight and hope for the best that it's a sufficiently strong bond to hold during the rasping and spokeshaving to come.

July 14th, 2004
This morning I unwrapped the neck - the glue & clamping seems to have been a success:

However, there's the ugly overhang of the fretboard to deal with:

So tonight I spent a few minutes with the spokeshave and rasp and started the final shaping of the neck's side contour and the 5th string peg bump:

I also sketched in a profile for the frailing scoop and neck heel. I've always liked the boat-shaped heel of some 19th century banjos:

More updates soon!

July 27th, 2004
I've made some progress with shaping the neck in the last two weeks. I'm almost finished the final shaping of the headstock, and I've begun rounding the back of the neck.

The back of the headstock has an unusual curved profile. This wasn't part of my original design; however, that nasty bandsaw ding in the tip of the headstock's underside was unreperable, at least with my meagre skills. So I rounded the tip as shown:

I also cut a slot for the nut:

This probably wasn't necessary with that thick fingerboard, but it seemed like a good idea at the time

Next, I hope to finish rounding the back of the neck and shaping the heel. Then, I'll finish cutting out the dowel stick, and it's gourd-fitting time. Eeep!

August 11th, 2004
So, over the last couple of weeks I've shaped the heel and finished rounding the back of the neck:

I'm pretty happy with how the 5th-string bump turned out...

...but less so with the peghead. It's not so much the unusual curvature of the back of the thing that I pointed out earlier; I can live with that. But that volute just isn't happening; I like the curve from the peghead side, but not so much from the neck side (see above). I'm not sure just where I'm going with it, I guess.

There is the distinct possibility that I'm obsessing here.

Oh - I also finished cutting out the dowel stick. That, I am not obsessing over. Er, much.

Stay tuned...

April 16th, 2005
Wow! An update!

Yes, after eight months, I'm actually posting an update on this project. Life got kinda busy in September when my wife returned to work after three years at home with our daughter, and the banjo project has sat untouched ever since.

Well, until this week. With spring has come some nice warm evenings and I spent an hour or so this week poking away at some more sanding of the neck. I've also got the gourd attached to the dowel stick - I'll try to get some pictures up soon.

April 11th, 2006
Wow! Another update!

Yes, I am still alive. No, I haven't touched the bloody banjo in the last year. Yes, I do plan on finishing the thing Real Soon Now. Sigh.

February 26th, 2007
Sigh. Still alive. I need to redefine "Real Soon Now", apparently.

April 22nd, 2007
Hey! Guess what? I'm still alive, and... I've made actual progress on the banjo.

Over the last couple weeks I've managed to carve a bridge and nut. They're kind of crude still, but they should do the trick. Hey, if we left luthery to people who actually know how to build proper instruments, then... well, then I'd never own a self-built banjo.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Way back when in '05 I posted that I had fit the gourd to the stick. Here's the gourd, showing the square holes:

You can see in the larger picture where I've pencilled in roughly where I'm gonna drill and/or cut a soundhole. I've also decided to steam-bend a thin strip of maple inside the rim of the gourd, just to strenghten it a bit. The walls are significantly thinner than the 1/2" thickness favoured by most builders. I've cut the maple strip and built a steam-box; still haven't figured out how I'm gonna get the steam into it yet. I'll probably jury-rig a stove-top boiler with a lid with a hole drilled in it right under the steam-box.

Here's the gourd joined to the neck. I managed to get the fit nice and tight, surprisingly. I still may cut a frailing scoop, though - click for the larger image to see where I've pencilled in the scoop's profile.

Another pic of the almost-assembled beast. It's starting to look a bit like a gourd banjo, eh?

That's the bridge in the front of the picture, sitting on the scrap of heavy leather that will hopefully become the tailpiece. Here's a closer look at the bridge:

Stay tuned! At this rate, I'll have this thing built by 2034 or so.