The Bad River mark

Before I finished building my first banjo, I realized I would need to design a permanent mark to represent my brand. This was no small task, as I wanted to capture an aesthetic that was both timeless and timely. And I had to be okay with looking at it for a very long time!

I set about searching through pages and pages of vintage wood type specimen catalogues from the 1800s. I landed on a combination of elements that would eventually become the mark that I’ve used ever since.

The finished design is definitely “of a period” without feeling specifically victorian or western (which I wanted to avoid). The tapered bounding shape and additional typefaces in the expanded mark capture the energy of many vintage handmade signs.

The dowel stick of every Bad River banjo is branded with this maker’s mark, in keeping with the tradition of many old-time builders from the past. It’s a simple decorative addition that my clients have come to cherish.

Bad River Banjo branded dowel stick

In addition to banjos, the Bad River mark has found a home on a series of other objects — most notably a collection of hand-dyed shop rags. I make sure to include one of these inside the case of every new Bad River banjo that ships out of my shop. I have also been looking into some small batch runs of t-shirts and caps. Stay tuned!

The truth about scrip

If you’ve looked at the banjos I’ve made, you’ve probably noticed the coins that are embedded into many of them. They are all remnants of a very old form of currency called coal scrip.

The use of coal scrip dates back to the late 1800s, when many coal companies looked for ways to keep miners in a never ending cycle of work, repayment and debt. Rather than receiving compensation in US currency, many miners received payment entirely in scrip, which could be used only at the company store. This eliminated any hope for workers and their families to break free or to acquire any form of wealth.

Merle Travis captured the sentiment of the common laborer of these times in the song Sixteen Tons with the chorus, “another day older and deeper in debt,” and the line, “I owe my soul to the company store.”

These coal mines took root in the same regions where folk music thrived. Places like North Carolina, Kentucky and West Virginia. And the people who worked in those mines were the same people who would have picked up and played simple folk instruments like fiddle and banjo.

By adding coal scrip to my banjos, I am embedding a small portion of these peoples’ stories — knowing that these coins passed through many different hands through the years. For me, it’s a meaningful way to keep their memory alive.

The EC Minter cherry banjo

This custom banjo sports a timeless headstock in the spirit of vintage Lyon & Healy models. It is embedded with a vintage 25-cent coal scrip from the E.C. Minter Coal Company, which was founded in Rhodell, West Virginia in 1921. This particular peghead shape is one of two new shapes that I recently added to my menu for custom banjos. To see the entire menu along with other standard options, see my banjo specifications page. The peghead veneer, heel cap and fingerboard are all fashioned from Richlite, which replaces ebony in all of my newer banjos.

handmade cherry banjo

The 3-ply steam-bent rim contains a maple core, with cherry on both the outer and inner surfaces. It is capped with an integrated maple tone ring, which lends a subtle “old-time” quality to its sound. And the dowel stick is cut from excess neck material, providing continuous, perfectly matched grain pattern and coloration.

handmade cherry banjo peghead

As part of this custom build, a single railroad spike was installed at the seventh fret. This took a bit of finesse, knowing that my client planned to use both Nylgut and steel strings with the banjo over time. As a result, I gauged the spacing beneath the spike to accommodate both.

Custom banjo railroad spike

Below is a historical photo of E.C. Minter (pictured third from left) atop a natural stone formation at Blowing Rock, North Carolina. For more context on coal mines and why I include coal scrip coins in my banjos, see my recent post regarding the truth about scrip

E.C. Minter and company

Here are a few process shots from my shop as I worked on this banjo project. These images are an example of content updates that I regularly share with clients as their custom banjo is being built. Please feel free to follow my account on Instagram for more process photos like these, along with the most recent updates from my shop. 

custom cherry banjo process photos

The Freedom fretless walnut banjo

This traditional fretless model is built along the same lines as the original Camberwell Fretless banjo, with a few notable exceptions. It sports a simple minstrel style headstock with minimal ornamentation and raw brass hardware throughout. The steam-bent rim is 3/8″ thick for lighter weight and a throatier tone – also in keeping with old style models from the late 19th Century.

handmade fretless walnut banjo

The Freedom Fretless is made from American Black Walnut with sustainable Richlite fingerboard and peghead. The rim is fitted with a simple rolled brass tone ring for added brightness. The vintage-style heel is boldly capped with a raw brass plate, hand-stamped with the word freedom.

handmade cherry banjo peghead and fingerboard

In keeping with historical accuracy, I found a vintage set of steel hand stamp letters to create the custom freedom wordmark on this banjo’s raw brass heel cap. I don’t know exactly how old this set of stamps is, but I love the round wooden case that holds them all together.

vintage steel hand stamps

Below is a collection of photos from my workshop showing some of the steps that went into building this custom banjo. I share content like this with every client — along with detailed descriptions — as part my process. If you’d like to follow more updates from my shop, and to see my banjo-building process up close, feel free to follow my account on Instagram.

The Wyatt and the Southern twin banjos

Two clients approached me, asking for a pair of banjos that they could play together. They even provided a large block of walnut, which had been harvested from land that one of them owned. As a result, these two banjos were built as a matched set. Each has a walnut rim that is 3/8″ thick and 11″ in diameter. One peghead sports a vintage 25-cent coal scrip coin from the historic Wyatt Coal Company of Laing, West Virginia. The other is from the Southern Mining Company of Colmar, KY.

handmade walnut banjo peghead

Both banjos have necks shaped from the same stock of American black walnut with ebony fingerboards and pegheads. Each rim is fitted with a brass tone ring for clarity and volume.

handmade banjo tailpiece and peghead

Below is the original block of air-dried walnut stock. I was careful to select sections of the wood that were free of defects and that would match up well for the 2-ply, laminated necks.

walnut-stock

I built these banjos together (at the same time) to maintain consistency. This not only saved time, but ensured that they would be a true matched pair — down to the smallest detail.

The process images below are examples of content I share with each of my clients while their banjo is being built. Additional images and features list can be viewed on the work page for this project. And if you’d like to see more timely updates from my shop, feel free to follow my account on Instagram.

twin walnut banjos process photos

The Deutsch Fretless walnut banjo

This traditional fretless model is built along the same lines as the original Camberwell Fretless banjo. It sports a simple minstrel style headstock with minimal ornamentation and raw brass hardware throughout.

handmade fretless walnut banjo

The Deutsch Fretless is made from American black walnut with ebony fingerboard and peghead. The rim is fitted with an integrated ebony tone ring for a warm, woody sound. And the natural goat hide head adds to the vintage aesthetic and tonal quality. The steam-bent rim is 3/8″ thick for lighter weight and a throatier tone – also in keeping with old style models from the late 19th Century.

The owner of this banjo wanted the option to switch to higher tension steel strings in the future, so I installed a 2-way adjustable truss rod. As you can see below, I look to maintain a high level of precision and craft — even when it comes to functional parts that are hidden from view. All of my truss rods are installed so that the access hole is in the heel (rather than the headstock). This helps to maintain a clean, minimal aesthetic on the banjo exterior.

banjo truss rod installation

Below are some process photos taken during the build of this banjo. I like to share images like these with my clients as part of the journey while their instrument is being made. Feel free to follow me on Instagram to see more workshop updates like these.

fretless walnut banjo process

The Bad River name

The Bad River name comes from a region of northern Wisconsin that played a significant role in my family history. If you look for it today, you will likely find it associated with a Native American settlement and reservation. The Ojibwe indians, also known as the Lake Superior Chippewa or Bad River Band, migrated to the area during the seventeenth century. They were the first to give the river its name – Mashkiziibi, or Swampy River – which French explorers translated as “Bad” River.

But during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the area became known more for its rapidly growing timber industry. Sawmills and lumber camps dotted the land, and waterways like Bad River became the backbone of numerous logging operations.

 

My grandfather George Corrigan worked as a logging man during this time – eventually running his own camps and owning his own logging company. He saw firsthand the devastating impact that logging had on the land. In later years, George became one of the timber industry’s first conservationists, leading efforts to replace the trees that axes and saws had taken away. He wrote a book about what it was like back in the day, and the evolution of the logging industry “from horses to tractors and from crosscuts to chain saws.”

My dad grew up working for his father George in the woods and on the family farm. He has told me many stories of what that life was like. When I was just a kid, Dad would take me along to trim branches with him in the Corrigan pines. And in recent years he showed me a path through the woods – hidden to most – that leads to a large stand of maple that is still in the family name.

A few years back, Dad and I were salvaging the modest little building that grandpa George used to call his office. Back in the day, this shack was moved on skids to wherever George was working at the time (mostly in the woods). But more recently, it has settled in across the drive from our family’s summer cabin.

Over a long Wisconsin winters, the old chimney had given out, and nature was having her way with the rooms inside. As Dad worked to patch up the walls and ceiling, I cleaned up what was left of the office. I found some personal stationery in George’s old desk that bore his signature, and the mark of the Bad River Timber Company. I could hear Dad working outside and it made me smile, thinking of the three of us together at that moment, and the spirit of the great north woods that surrounded us.

My dad still uses the Bad River name for the timber property he owns – land that had once been part of my grandfather’s logging operations. Part of that land still yields maple timber. And that maple wood can still be found in banjos that bear the Bad River name.

The Cleage-Wills Travel Banjo

This lightweight and economical travel banjo is fashioned with a walnut neck and pot assembly. It’s built to travel easy, with a short A-scale neck and a narrow 4-inch width.

custom handmade travel banjo

This travel banjo is fitted with old-style Champion friction tuners and a patented internal maple tone ring frame. It comes with a custom case that is designed in the tradition of an old wooden shipping crate – with a sliding lid, leather handle and matching leather support straps.

custom handmade travel banjo

The Bad River travel banjo is designed for comfort, playability and economy. It is naturally lower in volume for solo practice sessions, and sits as well in the lap as it does in your back seat. The Cleage-Wills travel banjo is adorned with a vintage coal scrip coin from the old Cleage-Wills Coal Company of Clearfield, Tennessee.

 

The Weyanoke cherry banjo

This 5-string cherry banjo is built with an 11-inch rim that is 3/8″ thick. The peghead sports a vintage 50-cent coal scrip coin from the historic Weyanoke Coal and Coke Company of Hiawatha, West Virginia.

handmade cherry banjo

The cherry rim is built with an integral matched cherry tone ring for a more rounded “woody” tone. Ebony is featured on the rim cap, heel cap, fingerboard and peghead. With a thinner rim, wooden tone ring and fewer bracket hooks (12 total), this banjo is purposely built to be lighter than most standard banjos. This lighter weight – especially around the rim – provides less sustain without effecting tone or relative volume. When played, this equates to faster note decay and more definition between individual notes.

handmade cherry banjo

Instead of a scooped neck, the last six frets are set flush with inlaid maple. This allows clearance for playing up the neck and the added ability to fret strings accurately at the highest points.

handmade flush fret cherry banjo

This banjo includes a handmade ebony tailpiece. These days, I make these out of Richlite, a sustainable substitute that is also excellent for fingerboards.

handmade banjo tailpiece and peghead

These are some images from my workshop that show the process of this banjo being built. I enjoy taking these and sharing them with each client — along with detailed descriptions — as their banjo is made. Feel free to follow my account on Instagram to see more process photos like these.

cherry banjo process images

The Laurel Creek Special walnut banjo

This 5-string walnut banjo is custom-built with a 12-inch rim for a deeper bass sound and greater volume. The peghead sports a vintage large 50-cent coal scrip coin from the historic Laurel Creek Coal Company from West Virginia.

handmade walnut banjo ogee scoop

The walnut rim is built with an integral ebony tone ring and a matching ebony rim cap. An ogee-shaped scoop in the fingerboard allows for higher fretting on the bottom strings. The figured walnut neck was specially sourced from Oregon, and the hand-rubbed oil finish allows the character of the grain to show through.

handmade walnut banjo
handmade walnut banjo rim with Dobson neck

This banjo features a unique ogee-shaped frailing scoop. I created a custom jig that would allow me to remove fingerboard material along a precise path. The frets were cut to follow this path, terminating with rounded ends along the shaped edge.

ogee shaped banjo scoop

In addition to the custom scoop, this banjo features an ebony rim cap and integrated ebony tone ring. The process photos below show these elements in various stages of completion, including the precise gap built into the neck junction to accommodate the tension hoop. Feel free to follow my account on Instagram to see more process photos and the latest updates from my shop.

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