1894 SS Stewart Champion No. 3 Openback 5-String Banjo

Below, here's the same banjo with its old skin head:

Update 2020: New pics, updated description, new video...

Fancy Philadelphia-made SS Stewart banjos don't just walk into the shop every day. This one appears to be a Champion Number 3 and that makes it a little upscale in the Stewart line. It's definitely fancy -- with quality wood and lots of bling. Said bling includes profuse pearl inlay, a carved heel, and intense marquetry-inlay on the inner edge of the rim. It's lush. The 14848 serial number dates this to 1894, too, and that was at the height of the 5-string banjo craze.

These instruments both look and feel professional. They're well-built, sturdy, and gorgeous to look at. I'd just like to make a note that even the original celluloid pegs are inlaid.Just like other period instruments, they're built for gut strings (modern: nylon, Nylgut, fluorocarbon, etc.) and so, unless you like to play steel with a 7 or 8 on the top-end, I cannot suggest steel with it. Fortunately, it sounds lovely with the Nylgut on it right now -- pronounced, clean, loud, and warm.

Repairs included: inlay replacement, minor chip-out fills on the board, a fret level/dress (including seating the frets beforehand), general cleaning, a couple replacement hooks (but almost identical and from my parts-bin), a new Remo Renaissance head, new bridge, and a good setup.

Made by: SS Stewart

Model: Champion Number 3

Made in: Philadelphia, PA, USA

Serial number: 14848

Rim wood: cherry or maple?

Tonering: integral "hoop"

Bridge: maple/ebony

Fretboard: ebony

Neck wood: cherry

Tone: clean, warm, punchy, loud

Suitable for: old-time, minstrel, folk, Americana, "classic" banjo

Action height at 12th fret: 3/32” overall (fast, spot-on)
String gauges: Aquila medium-gauge Nylgut (all plain)

Neck shape: medium C

Board radius: flat

Truss rod: N/A

Neck relief: straight

Fret style: low/small vintage

Scale length: 27 1/2"

Nut width: 1 5/16"

String spacing at nut: 1 1/16"

String spacing at bridge: 1 3/4"

Head diameter: 11 1/2"

Depth overall at rim: 2 1/2"

Weight: 5 lb 4 oz

Condition notes: the instrument is almost entirely original right down to its pearl-inlaid friction pegs, though the head, bridge, and two of the hook/nuts are replacements -- the hook/nuts being period, almost identical types from my bins. The tailpiece has been "pinched" a bit but serves just fine. The heel was split along the dowel a long time ago but was glued (in the past) so well that it's very, very hard to find the seam.

The original celluloid friction pegs work fine but, like violin pegs, they need to be pressed-in a bit as you tune-up in order to keep them from slipping. If this is going to be a daily player, I really would suggest swapping these out for either Pegheds (violin-style geared pegs) or quality 4:1 geared banjo pegs like Waverly or Gotoh units -- just for ease-of-use.

What's interesting about the neck inlay is that even though I had to replace some, it looks like someone in the past had replaced a few, too. It all blends-together just fine, though.

Beyond the last fret, there was a chipped-out area where additional inlay had been. I replaced the main bit that was vaguely diamond-shaped and then patched the rest that'd chipped-out and was not quite obvious with fill.

The turnbuckle apparatus/neck brace is also a nice addition to old Stewart banjos. It effectively works much like a coordinator rod and allows for minor setup adjustments on-the-fly. If you look carefully, you'll notice that I haven't even added replacement ebony wedges to the hammer-in neck brace that's close to the edge of the pot (update: it's removed but with the banjo at the moment) as the rod already does the job and is better at it, too.

There's plenty of old scratch-marks on the back of the neck. Also note the neat mahogany/maple trim just below the fretboard's edge on the side of the neck.

My sense of humor meant that I replaced a stripped screw-hole for the turnbuckle connector on the dowel with a banjo shoe/bolt. The foam pad behind the dowel mutes the head overtones just a hair for cleaner tone.