1880s Unmarked 5-String Banjola

What a terribly rare an interesting instrument this one is! Aside from the Pollman instruments of the late 1800s, antique banjolas (or... lute-banjos... or wood-bodied banjos) are almost unheard-of. This one came to me with features right out of the late 1870s or early 1880s and sorely in need of some work. I repaired this, selfishly, during my off-hours and then finished it up this afternoon after a full day of getting things packed and shipped in the back room.

It has the same general "size" as a typical full-scale openback 5-string banjo of the time including a long 27 1/4" scale, generous 1 5/16" nut width, 11 5/8" body width, and 2 3/4" side depth. The build is clean, of good quality, and lightweight... the top is ladder-braced, and the neck is one-piece with a fretboard that seems dense and more like rosewood but with grain more like mahogany. Considering all the variables, I assumed that this was strung with gut when it was made (like period 5-strings) and so I set it up with a set of all-plain fluorocarbon strings which sound awesome on it. 

The tone is somewhere between a classic gut-strung 5-string banjo, a tenor or baritone ukulele (depending on where you are on the neck), and merged with hints of mandolin-ish chirpiness. I'd say the volume is about the same as a good baritone ukulele or period parlor guitar. It plays spot-on at 3/32" at the 12th fret -- my standard height for nylon-strung banjos -- and the neck has just a hair of relief at about 1/64" to hair-under 1/32" overall (on such a long scale this is irrelevant).

The top is solid spruce (and ladder-braced) while the back and sides appear to be flecked, quartersawn hard maple (as you'd see in violin bridges). I'm pretty sure, here, but the stain confuses my eyes. I'm not sure what the neck is made of (maybe oak?), nor of what the fretboard truly is.

My work on this included a board plane and refret, installation of 4:1 geared pegs to replace missing and damaged wood pegs, brace reglue jobs to the top, a replacement bridge, and back crack repairs/cleating. It got a cleaning and setup after that.

The neck was warped a bit when it got here but I planed it and refretted it, then leveled/dressed the new frets up to remove remaining relief (the neck was flexing a bit when I was leveling/planing the board which made this difficult). The results aren't perfect (no relief), though they're good to the point where no one would ever notice (as mentioned -- hair-over 1/64" tuned to pitch).

The ebony nut is original... check out the lovely headstock shape... and also note the tiny nail remnant above the first fret that brightened-up after I leveled the board. That was used when installing the board when it was made.

I know the run-of-the-mill 4:1 pegs aren't period, but when I bought this instrument I knew it had giant violin-peg holes that needed to have something put in them and why not upgrade the functionality of the instrument? At least I found old cream-colored buttons to match the fretboard inlay.

The board is flat in profile and the neck itself is a medium V-shape -- but comfortable. Originally this had copper (!) bar frets, though they were very fussy despite being unblemished on top (which is another reason to suspect this wore gut its entire life). I filled the slots, leveled the board, and then re-cut the slots on the direct paths of the old slots before refretting with modern medium wire.

The rosette is a series of inlaid rings. The top has no cracks and only two braces.

The tailpiece is original and easily holds knotted-up string-ends. The maple bridge is from my parts-bin and I've fit it to the top and spaced it for the wider fretboard spacing on this instrument.

Pretty, isn't it? Note the hairline crack right down the center of the turned, "carved-looking," rear -- that was a chore to fix up but this is how it was done...

The evil-looking big clamps up/down are simply applying light pressure to keep the up/down alignment of the back as close as I could get it.

Don't you love the way that headstock rear is cut? That's some darn clean work.

It's hard to see, but I think the heel was cracked when this was built as there's a very, very small hairline that's dead-tight about 1/2" from the bottom of the heel. On the inside of the neck block there's an old slotted-head screw right at that location that may explain that. Regardless, the neck is set just fine and everything is in good repair.

Note also how the sides are attached to the back and front in this picture -- they're actually wrapped around the instrument -- becoming the "binding" and the sides all in one. Note also a tiny separation of the purfling from the side in this picture -- it's tight and good-to-go. All the inner kerfing is glued-up pat so it's just dryness creep.

Here you can see a bit more of what I mean by the sides being the sides and binding at the same time, when viewed from the front or back.

The tailpiece had one funky screw in-place so I simply replaced the screws with a vintage-looking strap button and a couple of spares from my bins. They're not right, but they work.

Here are some of the biggish cleats I installed inside to make sure that back doesn't separate again.

A brand-new Boulder Alpine gigbag comes with it -- these are great cases and certainly worth their $70ish price tag.


daverepair said…
A very pretty thing indeed! Could the neckshaft be walnut or butternut(I've seen/worked with some old b-nut that's pretty hard).

Corinth, VT
Jake Wildwood said…
I wanted to say butternut -- I don't think it's the right color to be walnut, though. It's a type of wood I also see on guitars from the time and other banjos, too, and I can never quite place it due to the grain orientation.
Warren said…
Wow, love the tone on this! Great work.