Banjo #006 – Hard Maple / Black Walnut / Wenge with Dobson tone ring

Banjo #006 – Hard Maple / Black Walnut / Wenge with Dobson tone ring
Banjo #006 – Hard Maple / Black Walnut / Wenge with Dobson tone ring

This banjo has a block rim of hard maple.  Rim cap is black walnut, as is the upper rim layer, which supports a brass Dobson style tone ring.  Neck is 3 piece laminate black walnut.  1/8″ x 3/8″ carbon fiber reinforcement assures stiffness and stability.

Fingerboard is oiled wenge.  Headstock laminate and heelcap are also wenge.  Instrument is finished with waterborne lacquer.

Banjo is set up with  brass hardware and brass Gotoh planetary tuners. Currently set up with an “Elite” fibreskin head.  (upgrade to goat skin available)

Set up is with a modest frailing scoop level with the head. Scale is 25″ with 17 frets.  Bridge is custom Beartown 11/16″ curved bridge.

Tone is pure and ringing, with good sustain and clarity.  Responsive in lower positions and up the neck.

This is an early photo gallery early after banjo was finished.

This Banjo is SOLD and living its life in Ithaca, NY with its new owner.

This banjo was my favorite player for a year or so before it went on to its next owner.  Here’s a more recent shoot with skin head and many hours of love.


Banjo #005 – Sapele / Wenge with brass rod tone ring

Banjo #005 – Sapele / Wenge with brass rod tone ring
Banjo #005 – Sapele / Wenge with brass rod tone ring

This banjo has a block rim of sapele.  Rim cap is hard maple, as is the upper rim layer, which supports a 1/4 brass rod tone ring.  Neck is 3 piece laminate of sapele with center rib of hard maple.  1/8″ x 3/8″ carbon fiber reinforcement assures stiffness and stability.

Fingerboard is oiled wenge.  Headstock laminate and heelcap are also wenge.  Banjo is finished with nitrocellulose laquer.

Banjo is set up with  brass hardware and brass Gotoh planetary tuners. Initially  set up and photographed with an “Elite” fibreskin head.  Since fitted with a Remo Renaissance head, offering more precision and clarity in tone.

Set up is with a slightly deepened frailing scoop level with the head.  This raises the finger board slightly relative to the strings to provide lower action, while maintaining a more traditional frailing setup with nice clearance between strings and head.  Bridge is custom Beartown 3/4″ curved bridge.

Sound is comfortingly plunky with bell tone clarity up the neck and good sustain.  Responsive in lower positions and up the neck.

–This banjo is on its way to a new life in Australia–

Banjo #005 key of D – Johnson Boys

Banjo #005 key of A – Cluck Old Hen

View in online store.

Banjo #004 – Cherry / Purpleheart

Banjo #004 – Cherry / Purpleheart
Banjo #004 – Cherry / Purpleheart

This banjo is a sweet instrument all around.  Block rim is made up of two full layers of cherry with a thickened rim cap and tapered tone ring layer of purpleheart.  The neck is s three layer laminate of cherry with a purpleheart rib. Neck reinforcement is  1/8 x 3/8 graphite fiber epoxied in place.

Cherry is one of the less dense woods that we use, so this banjo is comfortably light and warm sounding.  The purpleheart tone ring provides clarity and definition to the tone.  Set up with moderate frailing scoop to the 15th fret,  fiberskin head, nickle plated brass hardware and nickle plated Gotoh tuners.

Fingerboard is oiled purpleheart with a beautiful whorled figure and headstock and heelcap are pupleheart as well.

This banjo is a joy to play, and sounds beautiful.

This Banjo is SOLD and is living its life in Missouri with its new owner.

Banjo #003 Curly Maple / Bubinga

Banjo #003 Curly Maple / Bubinga
Banjo #003 Curly Maple / Bubinga

For this banjo, I sourced a beautifully figured plank of flat sawn maple from central PA  (there are still two banjos worth left).  After working with Black Locust, the hard maple cut like butter with carving tools and on the lathe!  The integral tone ring is Black Locust.

This banjo will be heading back to the shop in a little while.  I made an oops in finishing the end grain of the head stock, leaving a couple of unsightly chips at the top edge.  And also, as beautiful as the figure is in this plank, there is some graying in the center grain.  It doesn’t show in the side grain of the neck, but the end grain on the back and end of the headstock have an unattractive dirty look.  To date, all of my banjos have been finished without stain… just letting the beauty and color of the wood show through.  This re-work will be my first foray into staining!  Should be fun!

This banjo is living its life with a new owner in Catharine, NY!

Banjo #002 – Black Locust / Bubinga

Banjo #002 – Black Locust / Bubinga
Banjo #002 – Black Locust / Bubinga

Black Locust is considered to be a “weed” by many.  It grows quickly and tenaciously in difficult environments.   It is stiff, and hard.  Very hard.  It is also very beautiful, with a finely textured grain and beautiful yellow/gold color.  It was my choice for the primary wood in banjo #2.

The entire pot and neck are made of Black Locust.  It’s fairly heavy and very stiff.  With its initial set-up, the tone was a bit on the bright/tiny side.  It’s since been back to the shop for some very fun modifications that I’ll write about soon!

Banjo #001 “Chester” – Wormy Chestnut / Black Locust

“Banjo #001 “Chester” – Wormy Chestnut / Black Locust” is locked Banjo #001 “Chester” – Wormy Chestnut / Black Locust
“Banjo #001 “Chester” – Wormy Chestnut / Black Locust”

This banjo was my first banjo project.  It is made from a single plank of wormy chestnut salvaged from a renovation project of my old farm house 25 years ago, and the fingerboard and laminates are black locust from the trimmings pile at a black locust sawmill just up the road.  It was a lesson for me in many ways; planning,  patience, and precision.  When it came to carving the neck and finishing the headstock, I discovered that the worm boring damage was much more severe at that end of the plank, leaving only enough wood for an exceptionally slender headstock.  I could have worked around the blackened nail holes in the pot that used to be the homes for hand forged square nails.  But I like the visual reminder of history, life, and afterlife of this Chestnut tree.

I still enjoy playing this sweet little banjo, and it is a comforting reminder to me of how far my banjos have come.

Why “Beartown Banjo”?

The first question may be to ask, “Does Beartown refer to a place, or a state of mine?”  It just may be the latter.

About three decades ago, I was living a simple life.  I had earned a BS in college, and had no clue what to do or where to go.  The good news is, I had a banjo.  It was (is… I still have it) a kinda crummy Hondo banjo with a cast aluminum pot.  Sounded tinny, and the neck seemed to be made of willow.

Bus in death valley
Bussing in Anzo Borrego

After about a 6 month jaunt on the west coast squatting with parents and family, and travelling/living in my VW camper I had returned returned to the Finger Lakes to follow my dream… to be in the wine business.  Being dead broke, I secured a job in a local vineyard (actually a good place to start a career in wine) as a vineyard laborer.  Jobs included “suckering”, fruit thinning, pruning, pulling brush, digging holes, and so on.  It didn’t pay much, but I do look back fondly on that kinder, simpler era of my life.

Beartown road
Beartown Road circa 1987

I was fortunate to have a place to call home for a few years at that time.  It was my little piece of heaven nearby the vineyard at the end of a dead end road… you guessed it… “Beartown Road”.  There was a big wood stove that could hold several large armloads of wood, and burn it all in a few hours.  It sure heated the place when it was going, which was good because on a windy night the breeze would blow through the living room.  I had electricity, and a phone!  There was a well with a pitcher pump right in the front yard, and a sweet 3-hole outhouse: for momma, Pappas, and little one!  In the summer, it was sitting on the front porch, hanging at the swimming hole down the hill, playing around the bonfire.  In the winter it was hunkering down near the wood stove.  Plucking on the banjo, mostly by myself.  I had a strong belief that the banjo was the perfect tool to “woo” pretty ladies, which it proved to be.  Beartown road is where I met my late wife, Debra.

Hondo Banjo
First banjo (a few years later ~1995) and captive audience.

Life moved on faster that I can even remember.  Married, started a career as a winemaker, became a father, started a winery/restaurant with my wife.  It left little time for the banjo, other than entertaining the kids.  Truly my favorite audience!

After a 25 year run in the wine business, and over a dozen years owning a winery  and restaurant, Debra passed away.   My perspectives and roles in the wine & food biz shifted, and I spent more time playing the banjo (a Deering banjo that Debra had given my 10 years before).  And then, I realizing the need to have more banjos… Banjos from builders Steve Selin, Colin Vance (his #001) and a sweet turn of the century unmarked banjo (maybe Rettberg & Lange).

First “project” banjo.

This old banjo was in pretty rough shape… so off came the finger board, which was half falling off.  Twisted neck sanded close to flat, heel cut adjusted, dowel stick hole squared and shimmed, disassembled, cleaned up, etc, etc.  That’s when I said to myself, “Dave, you should just build your own banjo”.

So I did, and that’s a story for another day.

Thanks for reading!

Banjo #4 – “Josie” from Board to Banjo

Today Josie (I’m really not sure why she has that name) was strung up and played her first note.

Josie got her start about 6 weeks ago… cherry from nearby, purpleheart from South America.    I chose cherry due to its reputation for warm, rich tone.  This cherry wood is beautiful, and a joy to work with.  Purpleheart is very hard and stiff like black locust, which I’ve been very pleased with for tone rings, *and* it’s strikingly beautiful. (And a bit of a bear to work with!)

Slice, dice and glue…

12 identical cherry blocks ready for glue.

…glued and clamped to make one layer of the pot.

Fingerboard comes from a piece of purpleheart with a beautiful whirled figure, headstock and heel cap from a flat sawn, straight grained piece that displays an almost iridescent sheen.

Neck blank on the right is cherry, with a center laminate of purpleheart.

Turned around a time or two…  I love the grain figure of the cherry.

Everything almost ready for assembly.  Most of the hardware (exception: Japanese tuning machines) are made by craftsmen in the USA. 🙂

And it’s all together.  Dowel stick comes from extra neck blank material… chery & purpleheart.

After a day or two and a few hours playing, Josie is settling into her new skin.  Warm, focused, precise sound.  String spacing is a couple mm wider at nut than my other banjos. And strung with light gauge strings (25″ scale tuned to A/D) it’s easy to spend all day playing.

(Video is in Double C with med gauge strings)  🙂