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Thread: Tenor Banjo Rebuild

  1. #1

    Default Tenor Banjo Rebuild

    Early last year I purchased a vintage tenor banjo (c. 1915-ish) just to learn to play. It needed a little work, which I knew when I bought it. After it arrived, I saw some potential and began the renovation/rebuild process. I partnered up with a local luthier/technician. It took several months, some stopping and starting, and itís finally finished.

    The specifications, as finished are:

    -mahogany neck, poplar pot with mahogany veneer, spruce resonator with mahogany veneer
    -brass hardware, nickel plated
    -original tuners, tone ring, flesh hoop and hold-down ring
    -all original shoes brackets and connecting hardware
    -headstock cover, pot inlays, heel, nut and saddle all 10,000 fossil mastodon
    -hand carving on the headstock (initials), back of the headstock, heel and neck, resonator back and side. (I have been a woodcarver for 25 years and did all the hand-work) The carving was done in the Swiss style with the carved areas being backstained for highlighting.
    -tail piece from an 1890ís banjo
    -new fretboard, 12Ē radius, Brazilian rosewood with fossil mastodon fret markers. Bound in stained white walnut
    -Brazilian rosewood arm rest,
    Moustache style
    -vellum head made from a 400 year old antiphonal page, hand-inked by monks, from a monestary in Spain
    -DíAddario tenor banjo strings
    -Trophy Strap
    -TKL tenor banjo case

    Click image for larger version. 

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    It plays and sounds awesome. The set-up is excellent. The tone is perfect for Celtic music. I have it tuned one octave below my mandolin. It functions as my octave mandolin for now.

    It is a one of a kind.

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  3. #2
    Mando-Accumulator Jim Garber's Avatar
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    Default Re: Tenor Banjo Rebuild

    Wow. High craftsmanship on this renovation. Do you know who the original maker was of this banjo? What kind of tone ring is on it?

    My only question is how that vellum head will hold up. I have one of those and IIRC they are pretty thin. I would never thought of using it for a banjo head tho I suppose it makes sense, sort of. Post some sound files?
    Jim

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  4. #3

    Default Re: Tenor Banjo Rebuild

    The original maker is unknown.
    That’s one of the reasons I chose to do so much work to it.

    It has a simple brass/bronze tone ring.
    This project is my first attempt at anything like this.

    I’ll try to make some decent sound files and post them.

    The antiphonal vellum is holding up nicely.
    It’s 400 year old goat skin with some character and color.
    Something a little different.
    It is thin, which aids in the sound vibrations and gives it nice sustain.
    I’m going to keep a close eye on it. I was able to purchase another fragment as a spare.

    Thanks!

  5. #4
    Registered User Jill McAuley's Avatar
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    Default Re: Tenor Banjo Rebuild

    That's an interesting tailpiece on it - do you get much downward pressure with it? I play irish traditional music on the tenor banjo meself and we tend to like our tailpieces cranked down on the tighter side, not sure what the preference is for tenor banjo players of other styles though.
    2012 Collings MT-O gloss top
    2015 Ome Juniper 19 fret open back tenor banjo
    2017 Herb Taylor tenor guitar
    1969 Martin 00-18, & a 20?? Mid-Mo mandola




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  6. #5
    Registered User Ivan Kelsall's Avatar
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    Default Re: Tenor Banjo Rebuild

    Keep your eye on the skin tension. Vellum 'skins' can dry out or absorb moisture very quickly, & if it does dry out like that,you could end up with a burst skin,especially if it's thin. If the temp. does rise,as long as the humidity is fine,the the skin should be ok - but ! . If the temp.rises & the humidity drops,slacken the skin off a tad.. If the humidity increases,the skin will absorb moisture & you might have to increase the tension - an even greater risk if the temp./ humidity goes the other way again.

    I used calf skins on my banjo for many years,& i've fitted dozens of others to banjos that i renovated - i only had one burst on me. Realistically - it's a matter of common sense,it simply needs checking every now & again - & nice work with the carving,
    Ivan
    Weber F-5 'Fern'.
    Lebeda F-5 "Special".
    Stelling Bellflower BANJO
    Tokai - 'Tele-alike'.
    Ellis DeLuxe "A" style.

  7. #6

    Default Re: Tenor Banjo Rebuild

    Quote Originally Posted by Jill McAuley View Post
    That's an interesting tailpiece on it - do you get much downward pressure with it? I play irish traditional music on the tenor banjo meself and we tend to like our tailpieces cranked down on the tighter side, not sure what the preference is for tenor banjo players of other styles though.
    It is a very unusual tailpiece. I have not seen another one like it. There is a good amount of downward pressure and the break angle is good. I’m considering placing a small piece of bone at the very top of the lyre shape, on the underside, to give a little steeper break angle. We’ll see. For now, it’s ok but some adjusting will be necessary as I play more.

    Click image for larger version. 

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  9. #7

    Default Re: Tenor Banjo Rebuild

    Quote Originally Posted by Ivan Kelsall View Post
    Keep your eye on the skin tension. Vellum 'skins' can dry out or absorb moisture very quickly, & if it does dry out like that,you could end up with a burst skin,especially if it's thin. If the temp. does rise,as long as the humidity is fine,the the skin should be ok - but ! . If the temp.rises & the humidity drops,slacken the skin off a tad.. If the humidity increases,the skin will absorb moisture & you might have to increase the tension - an even greater risk if the temp./ humidity goes the other way again.

    I used calf skins on my banjo for many years,& i've fitted dozens of others to banjos that i renovated - i only had one burst on me. Realistically - it's a matter of common sense,it simply needs checking every now & again - & nice work with the carving,
    Ivan
    Thank you for that information. I play the tenor every day and check it. It is kept with my other instruments in a temp and humidity controlled room most of the time. It’s a really interesting look and I really like the way it sounds. I knew it would be higher maintenance when I put it on there and it’s worth it. I pull the tenor out of it’s case and it starts all kinds of good conversation. Thank you again. I’ll be very aware of temp and humidity, particularly when I take it out of the house.

  10. #8
    Registered User Ivan Kelsall's Avatar
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    Default Re: Tenor Banjo Rebuild

    Hi Rootes - Despite having used 'plastic' banjo heads for 50 years,i still can't help feeling that they're 'artificial'. I do know that many Bluegrass banjo players hold to the notion that Earl Scruggs' 'finest' banjo tone was when he was still using 'hide heads' on his Gibson,
    & REMO brought out the 'Fiberskyn' banjo head out in order to try to replicate that tone.

    True 'hide heads' do require a degree of care & they don't respond well to heat & humidity together. I remember, going back 40 years or more,jamming with some guys at a UK Bluegrass festival on a really hot summer day,on a nice green hillside = plenty of moisture rising from the grass. My Banjo head sagged beyond belief. I literally didn't have enough of the head wrapped around the wire skin hoop to tighten it up. If i'd tried to,it would have come off completely. Even plastic heads expand & go 'flat' when they get hot. This pic. of me playing banjo 'in the shade' came about because of exactly that. I'd been playing in full sunlight, my banjo got hot & the tuning went all over the place
    Ivan
    Click image for larger version. 

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    Weber F-5 'Fern'.
    Lebeda F-5 "Special".
    Stelling Bellflower BANJO
    Tokai - 'Tele-alike'.
    Ellis DeLuxe "A" style.

  11. #9
    Mediocre but OK with that Paul Busman's Avatar
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    Default Re: Tenor Banjo Rebuild

    That's a spectacular rebuild. Congrats.
    For wooden musical fun that doesn't involve strumming, check out:
    www.busmanwhistles.com
    Handcrafted pennywhistles in exotic hardwoods.

  12. #10
    Registered User resophonic's Avatar
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    Default Re: Tenor Banjo Rebuild

    Nice bit of work, you have taken a mediocre banjo and turned it into a very lovely instrument.

    I have mounted many skin heads and soaking in water is the first step. I would think though that soaking the skin would damage the calligraphy. I would also expect some distortion on a pre-mounted, existing graphic, especially one with straight lines like your's. I would appreciate some comments on how you got it mounted so nicely without any appreciable distortion or the colors bleeding. Process pictures would be great, if you have them.

    Venturing a guess, I would say Supertone is the manufacture.
    Sucker for a hard luck case

  13. #11

    Default Re: Tenor Banjo Rebuild

    Quote Originally Posted by Paul Busman View Post
    That's a spectacular rebuild. Congrats.
    Thank you!
    I appreciate you taking the time to look and comment.

  14. #12

    Default Re: Tenor Banjo Rebuild

    Quote Originally Posted by resophonic View Post
    Nice bit of work, you have taken a mediocre banjo and turned it into a very lovely instrument.

    I have mounted many skin heads and soaking in water is the first step. I would think though that soaking the skin would damage the calligraphy. I would also expect some distortion on a pre-mounted, existing graphic, especially one with straight lines like your's. I would appreciate some comments on how you got it mounted so nicely without any appreciable distortion or the colors bleeding. Process pictures would be great, if you have them.

    Venturing a guess, I would say Supertone is the manufacture.

    Thank you. Yes, it was a very mediocre instrument. The original intent was to add a little carving and make some necessary repairs. The project grew a bit as I learned more about construction. Garyn Jones, the luthier at the Woodshed in Oberlin went through the build with me. The end result is a nice instrument, one of a kind, with me getting a good education along the way.

    The head was a challenge, to say the least. That is the second skin I put on it. The first one did not fare so well. I ended up mounting the first one twice and then discarding it after makeing a bunch of mistakes.

    For this head, I started with a large antiphonal page that had been damaged over time. It was a fragment in many ways. I did not want to ruin an intact artifact. Here is a pic of what I started with.

    Click image for larger version. 

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    I cut a corner off the page and soaked it in water to see what was going to be dissolved or washed away. The dyes used in the Spanish monestaries were, in large part, mineral dyes and inks. They used some plant dyes, but the mineral dyes had better color density and resisted fading. I got lucky and nothing dissolved or faded.

    Then I put the rough-cut vellum in water and started the process.
    To minimize distortion, and make my chances of being successful higher, I did the following things:

    1. I soaked the vellum for the minimum amount of time to make it flexible. I didn't want it to be too pliable, which would have made it riskier in terms of distortion.

    2. As I mounted, stretched and tightened, I used a soft brush to add more moisture so it was consistently soft, but always just on the edge of pliability.

    3. I was not concerned with any leftover vellum, so I used the largest piece possible so as it came up and around the flesh hoop, I'd have a lot of material to work with and lots to grab and stretch.

    4. Once I got the flesh hoop on , the tension ring mounted and all the hooks in place, I barely tightened the hooks and tried to make them all the same tension, at least as far as my fingers could sense. If I were doing this every day. I would build a torque wrench to use for equal tightening.

    5. Then I let it start to dry. Every 2-3 minutes I'd check pliability on different parts of the head just with my fingers pressing down gently. I added water to parts that were drying too quickly.

    6. Once it had been in place for about 30 minutes, I started tightening down the tension ring using a half-turn on each nut. I would go around, tighten, let the vellum dry a few minutes, brush with water as needed to keep it drying evenly, then tighten the nuts again using only a 1/2 turn. I repeated this process, slowly and carefully, until the tension ring was down where I wanted it. Then trimmed some of the excess away so it was not resting on the head. I wanted it to dry as evenly as possible.

    7. Once the tension hoop was where I wanted it, I let it dry. I checked it every 5 minutes and brushed on small amounts of water where needed to keep it drying as evenly as possible. This went on for about an hour.

    I trimmed the remaining excess off and put in a cardboard box with a lid to slow down the remaining drying time in an attempt to keep it drying slowly and consistently. It was kept in the box for two days and then left on the counter to adjust to humidity in the air.

    It was a slow process. But there is very little distortion and wierd stretching. The patterns stayed fairly straight and even. Luckily I had a large enough piece of vellum to place the illuminated "B" in the center, at least visually.

    That's how I put it on. Very slowly and gently.
    This is the only banjo I’ve tried to install a vellum head.
    I figured if I took it slowly and carefully and did not let it get too wet or too dry, I would have the best chance of it working out well.

    I’m no expert. I’m guessing I got lucky in many ways.

    Here are the pictures I managed to take along the way.

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    I hope this is helpful and I'm open to comments and suggestions.

    Thank you again.
    Last edited by Rootes; Jan-12-2018 at 3:58pm. Reason: Added pictures

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  16. #13
    Registered User resophonic's Avatar
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    Default Re: Tenor Banjo Rebuild

    Wow, thanks for the essay and images!

    What you have outlined is a pretty standard way to go about the process of mounting a skin head and there looks like plenty of material with the sheet size. In you're case, the process is slightly modified to control stretch and very well done at that I might add for you're second head. Yes, you did luck out with the antique ink behaving, the result is beautiful. Where did you get the inked sheets?

    I generally leave the tension hoop just a bit higher initially, than where I want it to finish up. I'll leave that way for few weeks or so and pull it again after the head is good and dried out. I also leave some room between the bottom of the tension hoop and the clearance cut out in the neck heel. The head will need tensioned again at some point, so it's a good plan to leave some wiggle room to do that.

    You're comment in #4 about the torque wrench, I won't use them. It is more important that the tension hoop be pulled down evenly around it's circumference. I use a steel ruler that will span the diameter of the tension hoop. While holding that rule across the tension hoop, I measure from it to the surface of the head along the tone ring with a 6" machinist rule. I pull the head about a 1/32" at a time or less and just go sequentially around the pot measuring at each hook as I go. I have done a bunch of banjo heads over time and have learned feel pressing with my hand when the tension is about right.

    Thanks for putting up the great pictures.
    Sucker for a hard luck case

  17. #14

    Default Re: Tenor Banjo Rebuild

    “I generally leave the tension hoop just a bit higher initially, than where I want it to finish up. I'll leave that way for few weeks or so and pull it again after the head is good and dried out. I also leave some room between the bottom of the tension hoop and the clearance cut out in the neck heel. The head will need tensioned again at some point, so it's a good plan to leave some wiggle room to do that.”

    I actually did exactly that. I left the tension hoop high and tightened it down a couple of weeks later. There is still some room to bring it down if the need arises.

    I got the antiphonal vellum sheets off of Ebay. There is one seller, tuscanybooks, that has them regularly. I just look for the damaged or fragment pages. They can be quite reasonable depending on the quality and how much illumination is done to the lettering. I’ve seen nice pages go for as little as $10.

    And Thank you for your comments. I appreciate knowing details and fine points. I’m looking for another project. This tenor was an excellent learning experience. Even posting here and receiving comments like yours continues that learning.

    Thanks again.

  18. #15
    Registered User Ivan Kelsall's Avatar
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    Default Re: Tenor Banjo Rebuild

    I've literally put dozens of 'skins' on old banjos. When wet,'The Dilllard's' Mitch Jayne's remark - ''Deer guts on a doorknob'' comes to mind - they can be slippery little critters !. I used to use a strong needle & thread to criss-cross the skin edges to pull them all together into the center & keep them from slipping back.

    Quote - "....so it's a good plan to leave some wiggle room to do that.Ē. Absolutely !. Better to have the head a tad high,with enough 'skin' available for more tension if required,
    Ivan
    Weber F-5 'Fern'.
    Lebeda F-5 "Special".
    Stelling Bellflower BANJO
    Tokai - 'Tele-alike'.
    Ellis DeLuxe "A" style.

  19. #16
    Chu Dat Frawg Eric C.'s Avatar
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    Default Re: Tenor Banjo Rebuild

    Quote Originally Posted by Rootes View Post
    Thank you. Yes, it was a very mediocre instrument. The original intent was to add a little carving and make some necessary repairs. The project grew a bit as I learned more about construction. Garyn Jones, the luthier at the Woodshed in Oberlin went through the build with me. The end result is a nice instrument, one of a kind, with me getting a good education along the way.

    The head was a challenge, to say the least. That is the second skin I put on it. The first one did not fare so well. I ended up mounting the first one twice and then discarding it after makeing a bunch of mistakes.

    For this head, I started with a large antiphonal page that had been damaged over time. It was a fragment in many ways. I did not want to ruin an intact artifact. Here is a pic of what I started with.

    Click image for larger version. 

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ID:	163943

    I cut a corner off the page and soaked it in water to see what was going to be dissolved or washed away. The dyes used in the Spanish monestaries were, in large part, mineral dyes and inks. They used some plant dyes, but the mineral dyes had better color density and resisted fading. I got lucky and nothing dissolved or faded.

    Then I put the rough-cut vellum in water and started the process.
    To minimize distortion, and make my chances of being successful higher, I did the following things:

    1. I soaked the vellum for the minimum amount of time to make it flexible. I didn't want it to be too pliable, which would have made it riskier in terms of distortion.

    2. As I mounted, stretched and tightened, I used a soft brush to add more moisture so it was consistently soft, but always just on the edge of pliability.

    3. I was not concerned with any leftover vellum, so I used the largest piece possible so as it came up and around the flesh hoop, I'd have a lot of material to work with and lots to grab and stretch.

    4. Once I got the flesh hoop on , the tension ring mounted and all the hooks in place, I barely tightened the hooks and tried to make them all the same tension, at least as far as my fingers could sense. If I were doing this every day. I would build a torque wrench to use for equal tightening.

    5. Then I let it start to dry. Every 2-3 minutes I'd check pliability on different parts of the head just with my fingers pressing down gently. I added water to parts that were drying too quickly.

    6. Once it had been in place for about 30 minutes, I started tightening down the tension ring using a half-turn on each nut. I would go around, tighten, let the vellum dry a few minutes, brush with water as needed to keep it drying evenly, then tighten the nuts again using only a 1/2 turn. I repeated this process, slowly and carefully, until the tension ring was down where I wanted it. Then trimmed some of the excess away so it was not resting on the head. I wanted it to dry as evenly as possible.

    7. Once the tension hoop was where I wanted it, I let it dry. I checked it every 5 minutes and brushed on small amounts of water where needed to keep it drying as evenly as possible. This went on for about an hour.

    I trimmed the remaining excess off and put in a cardboard box with a lid to slow down the remaining drying time in an attempt to keep it drying slowly and consistently. It was kept in the box for two days and then left on the counter to adjust to humidity in the air.

    It was a slow process. But there is very little distortion and wierd stretching. The patterns stayed fairly straight and even. Luckily I had a large enough piece of vellum to place the illuminated "B" in the center, at least visually.

    That's how I put it on. Very slowly and gently.
    This is the only banjo I’ve tried to install a vellum head.
    I figured if I took it slowly and carefully and did not let it get too wet or too dry, I would have the best chance of it working out well.

    I’m no expert. I’m guessing I got lucky in many ways.

    Here are the pictures I managed to take along the way.

    Click image for larger version. 

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    I hope this is helpful and I'm open to comments and suggestions.

    Thank you again.
    Not to de-rail, but do they still have an Irish session in Oberlin? Nice looking banjo!
    Kentucky KM950 and loving it.

  20. #17

    Default Re: Tenor Banjo Rebuild

    Thank you.

    Lots of things go on in Oberlin. Iím still finding out about new things.
    Iíve only been playing for about a year and I mainly play the mandolin. (Yes, 58 years old and just starting)
    I spend most of my time at the Woodshed, where I take lessons.
    Kevin has an open stage every Friday.
    There are a couple guys that are in Celtic or Irish groups and would know more about what else is happening.

    Open stage
    Friday, 12:00 noon to 1:30
    The Woodshed in Oberlin.
    Come on out.
    Or contact Kevin on FB @woodshedlessons

    Thanks!

  21. #18
    Registered User resophonic's Avatar
    Join Date
    Oct 2007
    Location
    Mid-West flatlands
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    202

    Default Re: Tenor Banjo Rebuild

    Thanks for sourcing the vellum, I should have guessed it was Ebay.

    The only other tip that comes to mind is the flesh hoop. When I started working on banjos, I would just salvage and re-use the round wire flesh hoop that was on it or make a new one out of round rod. I was frustrated more than once, pulling a head down after it was good and dry and then have the flesh slip and give some over the round rod. I now only use 1/8" square Brass rod for this, the flesh never slips with that profile and no need to glue or stitch.
    Sucker for a hard luck case

  22. #19
    Registered User Jill McAuley's Avatar
    Join Date
    Jan 2009
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    San Francisco, CA or forgotten East Galway, take your pick.
    Posts
    2,613

    Default Re: Tenor Banjo Rebuild

    Would love to hear a sound file of this banjo some time!
    2012 Collings MT-O gloss top
    2015 Ome Juniper 19 fret open back tenor banjo
    2017 Herb Taylor tenor guitar
    1969 Martin 00-18, & a 20?? Mid-Mo mandola




    my Youtube channel
    Blog: rural.trad.punk

  23. #20

    Default Re: Tenor Banjo Rebuild

    Iím working on that.

    The problem is that Iíve been playing Mandolin just a year now.
    I have the banjo tuned as an OM so I can use the same chord patterns on the tenor.
    The scale length is much different and my skill level doesnít allow me to move back and forth from the mandolin to the OM easily.
    On top of that, I have some nerve damage in my left arm/wrist/hand that makes playing a challenge to begin with.

    I started playing mandolin to help get some motion and feeling back in my left side.
    It has worked out well, but itís still quite painful and a real challenge.

    Iíll work on some scales and a fiddle tune and try to make a decent sound file.

    I play because I love doing it, certainly not because Iím any good at it just yet.
    (Emphasis on the Ďyetí)
    I get there, just more slowly than most.

  24. #21

    Default Re: Tenor Banjo Rebuild

    Quote Originally Posted by resophonic View Post
    Thanks for sourcing the vellum, I should have guessed it was Ebay.

    The only other tip that comes to mind is the flesh hoop. When I started working on banjos, I would just salvage and re-use the round wire flesh hoop that was on it or make a new one out of round rod. I was frustrated more than once, pulling a head down after it was good and dry and then have the flesh slip and give some over the round rod. I now only use 1/8" square Brass rod for this, the flesh never slips with that profile and no need to glue or stitch.
    The 1/8” square stock for the flesh hoop is an excellent idea. I can picture in my head the value of the corners holding everything in place. Great tip. I’m going to remember that for the next project, or for when I change or tighten the head on this tenor.

    Thank you!

  25. #22
    Registered User
    Join Date
    Mar 2014
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    SE Texas
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    21

    Default Re: Tenor Banjo Rebuild

    If the neck is original I would guess that is was made by Slingerland. Late Teens/20's. The bowtie mounting ring for the resonator looks like it came from a 30's Maybell. Could be very wrong of course. Beautiful work not matter who made it, you have enhanced it beyond the original. Well done sir.

  26. #23

    Default Re: Tenor Banjo Rebuild

    Quote Originally Posted by Iaen View Post
    If the neck is original I would guess that is was made by Slingerland. Late Teens/20's. The bowtie mounting ring for the resonator looks like it came from a 30's Maybell. Could be very wrong of course. Beautiful work not matter who made it, you have enhanced it beyond the original. Well done sir.
    Thank you!

    It’s hard to tell who the original maker was. Your assessment seems appropriate. Lots of different labels used common parts back in the day. There are other instruments in my collection that I’ve been able to identify with old catalogs and ads. Not this one.

    Thank you again

  27. #24
    Registered User
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    Mar 2014
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    SE Texas
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    Default Re: Tenor Banjo Rebuild

    Might want to pop over to the Banjo Hangout if you haven't already. They could help you more on the identification. If not I can guarantee they will appreciate the work you have done for sure.

  28. #25
    Registered User Ivan Kelsall's Avatar
    Join Date
    Mar 2006
    Location
    Manchester - Lancashire - NW England
    Posts
    13,564

    Default Re: Tenor Banjo Rebuild

    Simply Google - ''Slingerland May Belle'' & you'll find a lot of similar banjo headstocks :-http://www.banjobuyer.com/banjo/65566
    A good friend of mine played a Slingerland 5-string for many years & it was a superb banjo,
    Ivan
    Weber F-5 'Fern'.
    Lebeda F-5 "Special".
    Stelling Bellflower BANJO
    Tokai - 'Tele-alike'.
    Ellis DeLuxe "A" style.

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