1894 SS Stewart Lady Stewart 5-String Banjo

SS Stewarts (before the factory's demise and the name moving to jobber instruments around 1900) are all good quality, no-nonsense banjos. This one's serial number dates it to 1894 and it's labeled as a "Lady Stewart" on the dowel stick and, considering the specs, is almost perfect as a descriptor for a "pony banjo." It has a 9 1/16" rim, short 21" scale, and a full-width/heft neck. This is a fairly rare size and, at least I think, very cool.

I would gather that in a banjo ensemble, this might be tuned up like a banjeaurine due to its short scale, but the owner wanted to use it for regular G tuning and so I strung it with a set of Aquila Minstrel Banjo (heavier gauge, meant for lower E/D tuning) strings and then tuned them up to G. Perfect!

The other work included a full refret, replacement friction pegs (from my parts bin -- this originally had ebony violin-style pegs), some adaptation of monkeyed work at the endbolt, installation of the 9" Renaissance head provided by the customer, a swapped bridge, and general setup. It plays on-the-dot at 1/16" at the 12th fret and has a chunky, robust tone. I like it a lot! It's a convenient size, too.

The custom 9" Remo head was just shy of the 9 1/32" or 9 1/16" rim width (it's a little out-of-round). and so the owner couldn't get it on the banjo. Since it was unlikely that the owner would have any other use for the head, I decided to break the mounting ring on the head to give it a bit more give. It worked! Now this thing won't have to deal with inclement (damp) weather sag. It also sounds excellent.

All of the hardware, by the way, is original on the rim save for the new (old parts-bin) 5/8" bridge.

Original ebony nut... and replacement (1920s with later buttons) friction pegs. I figured these would be easier on the owner than the original wood pegs which were getting a bit worn. The pearl star is nice, no?

I like the pearl diamonds! The board and headstock veneer are thicker-than-average (for the time) ebony. I decided to refret this instrument because the original frets were all loose on the edges and would've had to come out and be reglued and clamped in place, anyhow.

By refretting I was also able to dial out a bit of warp and now, considering the gut/nylon string use, it won't have to deal with fret issues for a very long time.

The simple tailpiece is nice and elegant.

See the weirdness? There's an extra, filled, hole in the headstock and a replacement "wing" at the lower-right (low D) tuner area. I'm assuming that the headstock broke and someone simply drilled a new hole to put that 4th peg in. It's nice that someone took the trouble to replace the missing bits, though!

The original shims for the neck brace were even intact.

Here's a repair to a monkeyed section. The endbolt's shaft (the screw-type bit that goes into the dowel) was replaced and I found that the dowel was split.

Since I can never seem to get dowels to remain together after they've split (because you're basically driving a wedge into a split section), I decided to forego mounting the endbolt into it and glued the dowel and then installed an old rim "shoe" into the dowel with a bolt from behind locking it in place and also serving to "clamp" the split dowel. The endbolt (which had acquired an actual bolt instead of a screw for mounting) is then tightened to this shoe with that square washer. It works darn well and looks, at a glance, alright.


Warren said…
Jake, love the way you used that old shoe as a dowel "elevator" bracket. What a good idea you had there, will have to try that myself. Nice work again. Warren
Unknown said…
I owned one circa 1895-98. What a great little banjo. You did a great job on this one Jake. Mine had steel strings (very, very light set) and I tuned it to open G as well. Neck was straight but there was a shim type thing and the dowel rod had been messed with. I guess with nylon strings (which I would prefer) or minstrel strings it would easily go to "A" as well.
Steve Eddy said…
Hi Jake,what a page of info!!!! Thank you....where can I get a 9" head for my Lady Stewart??? Steve Eddy/Blue Room Guitars
Jake Wildwood said…
Straight 9" is hard to get, but just-over 9" can be found from Elderly Instruments. They've got the best selection of available odd-size banjo heads.