5/13/2018

1870s Fretless 5-String Banjo




A customer/consignor dropped this little fella off for sale along with a very fancy SS Stewart that I also need to get to work on. This one is decidedly plain and typical for its time -- which I estimate to be the mid-1870s. I almost want to say this is a Buckbee product because it shares essential Buckbee features that became established in their 1880s designs. These are a factory double-bolted neck attachment to the rim, short-ish scale length, and a heel shape that is very familiar to me from 1880s Buckbees made for other brand names (and not with the "usual" boat heel).

Anyhow, it came into the shop playing "ok" and even had a Remo Renaissance head installed and a nice, home-made, minstrel-style ebony tailpiece. Fortunately for the banjo, I'm obsessive about playability so I set-out to make it play on-the-dot. To this end I secured the neck with an additional bolt, ground-down a section of tension hoop that was making it "fret-out," shimmed the neck angle some more, added side dots, and set it up for 3/32" action at the 12th "fret" position. It came with very light-gauge nylon which is fine, but the devil in my wonders what it'd be like with Aquila Nylguts.

After work it sounds and plays just like you'd expect an old fretless to sound and play -- it has a sweet, mellow tone but not a ton of volume due to its smaller (and very lightweight) rim. Strings-wise it feels like playing air -- it's easy and fast. The fretboard is "lined fretless" in that there are simply grooves for guiding finger placement. That's what dictates this one's scale, too. This practice was pretty common around the time this was made.

Specs are: 24 3/4" scale, 1 3/16" nut width, 7/8" string spacing at the nut, 1 1/2" spacing at the bridge, 10 1/8" rim, and a medium C/V neck shape/depth. The action is 3/32" at the octave (12th fret). The neck seems to be poplar with a darker stain while the dowel is oak and the rim is maple, possibly. It has its original hooks, eagle shoes, nuts, nickel-silver rim sleeve, and bone/ivory friction pegs.










The friction pegs work and hold just fine. If you're not used to them from fiddles, however, they'll take some getting used-to.





How about those eagle shoes? As you can see, the rim hardware has been cleaned-up at some point and is beginning to tarnish again.





Whole bolt number 3 may be unprofessional, it does keep the neck sturdily-attached to the pot -- something I can't quite say for the two originals under it.

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