A Schall tale

J.B. Schall started making banjos in the city of Chicago during the 1870s. Within a few short years, the Schall name became associated with some of the most celebrated banjos of the day. A skilled mechanic and experienced banjo player himself, J.B. Schall worked beside his five employees – ensuring the quality and craftsmanship of every instrument that came off the line.

A few years ago, I came across a vintage J.B. Schall banjo from the 1890s. It had a beautiful double-spun nickel rim, and the original skin head was intact. But the neck was cracked in two at the heel.

When I asked the seller if he knew anything about its history, he shared with me the story of his grandmother. This particular banjo had been given to her in years past by a young man who had wanted her hand in marriage. He presented this banjo to her just days before becoming a Klondiker – one of the many thousands of amateur prospectors who departed for Canada and the Yukon gold rush of 1896.

Out of an estimated 100,000 prospectors to the Klondike region of the Yukon in north-western Canada between 1896 and 1899, only between 30,000 and 40,000 managed to arrive. And only about 4,000 of those actually struck gold.

The man left Chicago in search of this faraway gold, but was never heard from again. Weeks and months turned into years, and this banjo endured – undoubtedly a bitter-sweet reminder of that lost love.

Struck by the story, I felt compelled to bring this broken old banjo back to life. I bought it immediately and took it into my shop. As I worked on reconstructing the neck, I observed many of the finer details of the banjo’s construction. In particular, the outline of the peghead caught my attention. It was a classic old-time shape – darkly decorative, with flourishing curves and points that only a banjo could own. I was so attracted to the shape that I adopted it as a model for my own banjos.

Progress was slow, as I was also working on other banjos at the time. But eventually, the remaking of old J.B. Schall was complete. And when I played the first few phrases of music on it, I thought of that young lady so many years ago.

The Winifrede Longneck

This 4-string longneck mahogany banjo is custom-built for plectrum-style playing. With three extra frets on the end of the neck, it allows the player to perform in a variety of circumstances and tunings. And the 12-inch rim provides a richer, deeper bass sound with added volume.

handmade mahogany longneck banjo

A large one-dollar coal scrip coin adorns the peghead, hailing from the old Winifrede Coal Company of Winifrede, West Virginia. The rich mahogany tone wood provides a warm, rounded sound. And the hand-rubbed oil finish allows the character of the grain to show through. A natural skin head and raw brass hardware complete the aesthetic. The combination of a longer scale neck and the 12-inch rim makes for a banjo with a truly unique look and sound.

handmade banjo peghead
handmade mahogany banjo heel and rim

An interview with The Banjo Reserve

Recently, the fine folks at The Banjo Reserve reached out to talk to me about my banjos, and about life in general as a part-time banjo maker. The interview gave me a chance to think a little more deeply about the work I do – which is an exercise I highly recommend to anyone. Special thanks to Jim Van Zile from The Banjo Reserve for reaching out to me with such great questions. Here are a few excerpts from the article:

Why did you decide to become a custom banjo builder?

I didn’t set out to become a custom banjo builder in the beginning. I had made a modest banjo for myself, of course. And in time, I started to make similar banjos for a few close friends. Along the way, I studied banjos from the past. I looked at old banjos from the 1890s – instruments that were made by hand with no power tools to speak of. And I grew to respect their enduring qualities. These objects, built from such humble beginnings, were somehow still being played more than a hundred years later.

I thought, “If I can make something that’s still being played in another hundred years, that would be a good thing.” So, here I am making banjos for whoever will have them.

Do you work alone, or are there others involved in your construction process?

I work alone. But when I’m building a banjo for someone, I never feel like it’s a solo endeavor. I enjoy getting to know my clients. And I love the collaborative spirit of building a banjo “in the air” before we settle on materials and a specific design. In this way, I feel like every new commission is also the forging of a new partnership. From start to finish, I share updates and photos of the entire construction process. Over time, this experience – or story – becomes part of the finished banjo. It arrives at their doorstep with a history already built in.

Where do you get your design inspiration from?

I am a designer by trade, so design is a very important part of my process. I am inspired by the very old styles – mostly from the 1890s and early 20th century. I fill my shop with tools and materials from the 20s, 30s and 40s. I have learned that if you spend enough time with these old objects, their design just starts rubbing off on you (sometimes literally). But design is more than just aesthetic. A design approach is an approach that considers things like playability, tone, construction and durability. Sometimes this calls for innovative solutions, and a fusion of things that traditionally may not have been put together.

 

This is just part of the interview. See the rest here.

The Avis Eagle Fretless mahogany banjo

This fretless mahogany banjo captures a true vintage look with simple, well-placed ornamentation. A large one-dollar coal scrip coin adorns the peghead, and a matched one-cent piece sits in the ebony heel cap. Both are from the Avis Eagle Coal Company, which hailed from Logan County, West Virginia.

handmade fretless mahogany banjo

This fretless mahogany banjo captures a true vintage look with simple, well-placed ornamentation. A large one-dollar coal scrip coin adorns the peghead, and a matched one-cent piece sits in the ebony heel cap. Both are from the Avis Eagle Coal Company, which hailed from Logan County, West Virginia.

handmade mahogany banjo rim and peghead

Below are a few photos from my workshop, showing steps along the way to building this custom banjo. If you would like to see more process photos like these, along with recent updates from my shop, feel free to follow my account on Instagram.

The Canadian Lefty Travel Banjo

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

handmade cherry travel banjo

The Canadian Lefty features numerous improvements over the original prototype design – including a deeper, stronger internal maple tone ring frame and geared Peghed tuners. In the spirit of the city to which it is being shipped, its peghead is embedded with a vintage 1914 Canadian One Cent piece. It is fitted with 4:1 geared Peghed tuners and a patented internal maple tone ring frame.

handmade cherry travel banjo

The American KC Travel Banjo

Designed to be lightweight, economical and portable, this little number is fit to play just about anywhere. It’s an informal travel instrument with the heart and soul of a high quality banjo.

handmade maple travel banjo

This handmade travel banjo features numerous original components – including a custom ebony tailpiece with vintage Kansas City transit token inlay, a handmade ebony-tipped maple bridge and a custom fit ebony peg to secure the dowel stick. The natural skin head is stretched over a graduated maple “rim” that is installed along a shelf inside the rectangular pot. The pressure of the strings keeps it in place. This allows for simple removal if the head needs to be replaced in the future.

handmade maple travel banjo

The A-scale neck is shorter than a standard banjo, and the overall width of the instrument is only 4 inches. The small friction tuners keep the neck lightweight and in balance with the rest of the instrument.

A simple ebony tailpiece

This is a newly fashioned all-ebony tailpiece, built specifically for a smaller diameter banjo rim (around 9 inches or so). The silhouette mimics the shape of some very old ebony tailpieces. But the smooth profile and sloped bevels give it a uniquely modern aesthetic.

As with all of my wooden tailpiece constructions, it consists of two pieces of Ebony that are joined with grain in opposing (perpendicular) directions. This guards against warping, splitting or shearing of the wood under tension from the strings. This tailpiece attaches to a banjo rim with a standard tailpiece post.

The Camberwell fretless

This handmade banjo is named for the town in England to which it was shipped. It’s a fretless affair, with clean lines and minimal ornamentation. The shape of the headstock follows the simple lines of old minstrel banjos from the 19th Century.

handmade fretless walnut banjo

The body is American Black Walnut finished with a light application of tung oil – allowing the natural grain to show through. The all-brass hardware, minstrel-style bridge and mottled calfskin head add to the overall vintage appeal.

handmade fretless walnut banjo

The village of Camberwell is located just south of London. Some say its name derives from an older reference to the mineral springs that were known to exist in the region. In fact, an alternate version of Camberwell is referred to as “Cripple Well” — a place where those with sickness or disease were sent to be healed. As possible proof of this theory, the old church in the village is named after St. Giles, the patron saint of the poor and the crippled.

handmade fretless walnut banjo

It is said that medicine heals the body but music heals the soul. And so it seems that Camberwell would be a fine place to play.

Rim Logic

Old-time banjos were simple and straightforward when it came to wood. For the most part, there were just four species from which almost all of them were made – Maple, Cherry, Walnut and Mahogany. They all have their own aesthetic. And they all have their own sound.

Maple has always been hailed as the clearest and brightest of the bunch, producing a bell-like tone with quick response. Cherry has a density and reflectivity approaching that of Maple, but with a midrange that is more rich and complex. Walnut falls somewhere between the extremes of Maple (bright) and Mahogany (warm), with a sound that is earthier and darker than Cherry. And Mahogany rounds out the group, producing the warmest tone paired with a slower, gentler response.

Each of these tonewoods has its own distinct personality. Banjos made from these woods – and the music they play – tend to adopt these same traits.

But what if we were to borrow the best quality of one of these woods and add it to another? What if we crafted a banjo rim that enjoyed the responsiveness of Maple, for example, with the added warmth, character and finish of another wood?

The standard Bad River rim has a core of rock hard maple. Its density provides a tonal foundation for whatever wood surrounds it – or so the theory goes.

That’s the theory behind every Bad River banjo rim. Each is built from the inside out in three sections. The inner and outer walls each consist of a 1/8″ steam-bent ply of premium tonewood, with a 1/4″ ply of rock hard Maple in between. Capped at the bottom edge with matched or contrasted wood, the resulting rim carries the finish and tonal character of a classic banjo tonewood (Cherry, Walnut, Mahogany) with the added density and response of Maple at the core.