Official music page and soapbox of Matt Snell

Friday 20 January 2012

Building a Soapbox Banjo, Part II

(If you haven't read Part I of this series yet, check it out here first)

Last week I waxed eloquent about history, that of the banjo and of my great-grandfather both. Spurred on by these anecdotes, I finally got down to building the soapbox banjo I had dreamed about so long.

As I mentioned, I worked from a kit, and when I first took the neck out of the box I was disappointed. It was pencil-marked and slightly splintery, not the kind of thing you could easily picture jutting proudly from a full-fledged instrument. As it turned out, I only lacked vision and faith in the power of sandpaper. The rough cut was just the thing to keep me occupied and flatter my sense of industry.

Sanding away
I threw on some mood music from the Smithsonian, so the banjo would know what it was being born into. As per the instructions from Bell & Son, I sanded the edges down with 100, 120, and 250 grit sandpaper. Sanding brought out the qualities of the wood and the neck began to look downright handsome - the scrolling on the peghead particularly benefited. The neck was squarish, so I tried to round it out at the back where my fretting hand would be, at least up to the fifth string peg. I had read that because of the difficulty of keeping the banjo in tune, traditional fretless players seldom played beyond fifth position anyway. Also, although the action eventually proved so high it was unnecessary, I dug out a scoop where the neck would meet the body. Another trick traditional players use is to play with their right hand at this spot, which lends a sweet, mellow tone. This spot is also where "the cluck" lives, the chicken-y, surprisingly musical byproduct of a well-placed stroke. Because the best tool I had was a hunting knife I bought on a street corner in Mexico, I decided the scoop would only be under the fifth string, what I have heard called a Nechville Scoop. I whittled out a span about two inches long and sanded it to my satisfaction.

Ready for staining
With both neck and dowel stick (a piece that runs through the body and connects to the neck for stability) sanded, I was ready to get staining. I am partial to dark colours, but Bell & Son's instructions advised that a lighter wood like maple would not take to a serious contrast, so I chose a tone in between called Puritan Pine. Funnily enough, my mother later told me that was the stain on the floors in the house where I grew up. The neck had come wrapped in a copy of the Tuscola County Advertiser, which I read with interest before laying it down as drop paper. I applied three successive coats of Puritan Pine and the neck and dowel took on a lovely golden colour.

Finished pieces
I applied a couple coats of shellac, sanding in between, and then a third when I couldn't seem to get it even. At least when I turned it in the light, the shellac seemed to prefer some areas to others. I finally got it right by sanding with an impossibly delicate grit of sandpaper, and the neck was ready to be fitted to the body.

Or almost ready. My great-grandfather's soapbox lacked a lid and the bottom was very thick, so I needed a thin piece of wood to glue over top and act as a soundboard. I went to the big hardware stores around town, but it seemed I would either have to buy an 8' x 8' sheet of quality wood or a very poor piece of pressboard. That, and the fact that shopping at a box store did not seem to suit the mojo of the box itself, started me dreaming ways to find a soundboard with mojo to match. I didn't and don't understand the acoustic properties of different types of wood, but I knew that spruce was the most common material for guitars, you can build a cajon drum out of white birch, and the non-musical, accidental proportions of the soapbox itself would be the limiting factor anyway. I looked at cannibalizing a cheap guitar, but found that expensive and a waste. I went around to thrift stores looking for a smaller object to cannibalize, and thought I found an old jewelry box about the right size made of handsome thin wood. But when I turned it over I realized some tween of the nineties had pasted it over with New Kids on the Block stickers.

There was one more place I knew to look. My girlfriend Rebecca and I were planning a trip to visit our friends in Montreal over New Year's, and once I had bought her a birthday present at curio shop that was floor to ceiling mojo. I used to walk past it on my way home from work every day, and the display of Javanese puppets in the window intrigued me every time. Eventually I decided Rebecca had to have one, and I went in.

It was dark inside; I remember it with birdcages hanging overhead, but there probably weren't. "I want to buy a puppet," I said.

"Ah-ha," said the proprietor, before I could point it out. "For one man, there is one puppet. You will go outside, and I will divine which one speaks to you."

I stood out on the sidewalk while he climbed into the window and hovered over the display. He paused with a serene look on his face, and his hand drifted over the row of puppet heads. Slowly his lowered his palm onto the head of a pointy-nosed lady in a yellow dress. I shook my head.

Calmly the man nodded and withdrew his hand, touched his nose, and indicated the puppet three rows down. "No," I said. He raised his eyebrows and stroked his chin. Intrigued by my sideways spirit that was so much harder to read than most, he closed his eyes and the lids fluttered. A moment later he put his hand decisively on the last puppet of the row.

I pointed out the right one to him and came back in. "I knew it," he said. He lifted it carefully off the wine bottle that supported it and took it to the counter. He laid it there and looked at me seriously.

Happy Birthday Rebecca
"Now he is  yours, you must never pack him away," he said. "The people who owned him last, it was gypsies. They kept him packed up in a chest - it's very bad luck."

"I think we'll keep it on the dresser," I said.

"Also they would smoke," he said. "Smoking near the puppets, you never smoke around them. Look, his dress, you can see it is dirty." He lifted the hem of the puppet's faded skirts with dismay.

"That's terrible."

"Yes, on the dresser. Always you keep his eyes pointing to the door. When you go away, maybe you have a problem, and when you come back, maybe he help you." He smiled mysteriously.

I paid the forty dollars and left. His last words as I have written them are a direct quote - we have always followed the advice religiously and it has never steered us wrong. All of which is completely beside the point when it comes to building a banjo, but the story was inside me and dying to get out.

There was a different man behind the counter when I went in this December, and he very reasonably pointed me to the selection of cigar boxes and supplied me with a tape measure. I thought I might be able to remove the lid for use with my soapbox, and I found one whose dimensions were within a third on an inch and bought it.

Nostalgia had apparently gotten the better of me, because a third of an inch is a lot when you're looking for an exact fit. Also, every surface of the cigar box was branded, and since the soapbox already read "Dominion Crystal White Starch" I didn't want to go into brand overload. The cigar box is in my studio waiting until the next time I'm feeling handy.

Removing the vestigial lid
So long asides aside, for the next phase of the soapbox banjo project I drove down to visit my parents, to make use of my dad's tools and gung ho attitude. He had a slab of white birch lying around leftover from one of his own inventions, and he donated it to the banjo. We cut it out to the 7" x 11" dimensions of the box, and I finally had soundboard. Next I had to make some slight modifications to the box itself so the board would lie flush - the box at one time had probably had a lid, and there was a little lip that raised one side higher than the other. I sawed it off carefully and managed to preserve all the text on either side of the box.

Making holes for the dowel s
The next and probably most crucial step was to make holes on either side so the dowel stick could run the length of the box. Starting with a drill and graduating to a jigsaw, I made a square hole 3/4" down from edge of the box where the neck would meet. As per the instructions we raised the exit hole on the other side by an 1/8", which would make for better action and string tension. When both holes were made I gently filed them both to make a snug fit for the dowel stick, and then I tapped the stick into place with a rubber mallet.

With this done we were entering the home stretch, but there was still some finicky work to be done with the smaller components. The kit came with triangular wedge of wood to make a tailpiece, and I drilled five holes along the top for the strings, two along the bottom to tie it in place, and several in the middle for decoration. I sanded it smooth and was quite pleased with the appearance.

Don't make this mistake
Then I made an idiot mistake which you must never make if you build your own banjo. Hypnotized by the tailpiece, I reasoned that if there were five holes at the one end, the nut (a strip which holds the strings in place at the opposite end) would need five notches as well. One of the strings on a five-string banjo, of course, is the drone string, which being shorter and higher ends closer to the body than the rest. I filed and sanded the nut carefully, with the grooves angling back towards the peghead, but I soon realized that the useless extra notch would make the spacing for my fretting hand quite cramped.

Thankfully, the nut is hardly bigger than a matchstick, and I'll be able to make another from a scrap of hardwood without too much trouble. The last element was the pegs, which needed holes drilled in them for the strings to pass through. Bell & Son suggested this be done with the peg lying in a groove, rather than rolling against a flat surface, so we filed a notch in a board and clamped the pegs to it. With this technique it was easy to drill all five pegs without cracking them.

The final bit of woodworking for the day was to make a sound hole, which at least according to my lazy understanding of physics, could be just about anywhere and any shape. After some discussion of what was desirable and what was possible, we agreed that a simple moon and star motif was evocative without being hackneyed. I traced out the pattern and jigsawed it out, but the saw went a little hard on the thin wood and I was forced to file out my celestial shapes by hand until the chipping wasn't visible anymore. I discovered it is nigh impossible to get a five-pointed star to look even, but I worked until I felt the design looked artfully handmade rather than sloppy.

With that done, we retired for the day. With all the major cuts made, the rest I would be able to assemble at home. Assemble it I did, but I think I'll save a bit of suspense for the next installment of this series. Depending on whether my faux-catgut strings arrive in time from Alaska or wherever they're coming from, I may even be able to post a recording by next week. Stay tuned for more soapbox banjo...

1 comment:

  1. If I had a nickel for every time I said "I want to buy a puppet..."

    Oh, wait. You don't have nickels up there and probably don't that idiom. Anyway, I think the buying-a-puppet-story is my favorite thing I've read in a really long time. Thanks for that!

    Will look forward to installment three in the soapbox banjo saga.

    And hey, I've been meaning to ask you more officially (have dropped hints on my blog here and there but you didn't bite): Do you want to be a participant in the Oprah Movie Club? All you'd have to do is pick a movie for everybody to watch. I don't know whose turn it is for February. There are no rules really, but a couple of the guys will get all pissy and refuse to watch a movie you pick if you didn't comment on one they selected. You know how people are...