A banjo is made up of two primary materials: Wood and metal. There are a few other materials that are used too, although in much smaller quantities; such as various glues, inlay material such as mother of pearl, and plastics, which I avoid wherever possible. Here is a guide to what my banjo’s are made of. skip to metals
I see no need to import tropical woods, as beautiful and traditional as they may be, because there is an abundance of the best stuff right here in the USA. I live in the Pacific Northwest, home of many species of the best instrument tone woods on the planet. I have a number of sources, often direct from the millers, for woods such as highly figured maple, walnut, myrtlewood, Port Orford cedar, spruce, chinkapin, locust, redwood and many more. If there is a specific imported wood that you cannot live without on your banjo, however, I will certainly work with you to make that happen. I just see very little reason to import something where a local product of equal or greater quality exists just because tradition dictates it.
The important thing for a builder to know about the woods being used are the characteristics a wood needs to have to impart a specific outcome. Is it more important to be stiff or light weight or responsive? How does each species rate for these and other things? Knowing these things reduces the reliance on only doing things the traditional way.
A great example is the fretboard. Traditionally only ebony or rosewood are used for fretboards because of the characteristics of strength and hardness that they have. Both of these woods rely on dwindling supplies imported from the tropics. I use hickory, a tree which is grown abundantly in the USA. According to the USDA, “There are woods that are stronger than hickory and woods that are harder, but the combination of strength, toughness, hardness, and stiffness found in hickory wood is not found in any other commercial wood.” But it is rare to see it used for a fretboard for the simple reasons of tradition. It’s color is a very even, rich, reddish brown that is quite striking. For those who prefer the look of dark or black woods, hickory also “ebonizes” better than almost any wood I’ve seen (Ebonizing is a not a stain or artificially added color. It is a chemical reaction that is created between the wood’s tannic acid and an iron/vinegar solution). I can get a very rich, dark black that looks very much like ebony from hickory, although I personally prefer the natural look.
My rim is made of hard maple for its tonal qualities and curly maple for its beauty. Maple has been used as a tone wood for centuries for good reason. Its combination of visual and tonal beauty is hard to beat. Hard maple generally comes from the eastern states. The hard maple I am currently using was harvested and aged for over 50 years. Its grain is tight and very straight, which makes for a very bright tone. The soft curly maple (Oregon Big Leaf Maple) grows natively all around us here and its characteristics can vary widely from tree to tree and area to area.
I believe that the field is wide open for which woods to use for resonators. For my first run of banjos I have chosen curly maple for its beauty and to match it to the rim, but I believe many locally grown woods will make excellent quality resonators. Walnut and cherry also grow locally (although most of the cherry grown commercially is from the east coast), and have proven themselves to make very good sounding resonators. Myrtlewood is another wood of little-tapped potential that only grows in a small part of the southern Oregon/northern California coast, and in Israel. It has a great crisp tone and extremely varied coloration and figuring patterns. Back to Top
Metal plays a more vital role in a banjo than almost any other common stringed instrument, save maybe a resonator or steel guitar. But the combination and balance of wood and metal is felt literally nowhere else. Metals create a far different sonic realm than wood, and the choices and treatments of alloys enjoy just as much variety as there is in wood, with each factor changing the tone.
I have used cast bronze and wooden tone rings as well as brass hoops. The cast rings give the power, volume and tone that many have come to expect in high-end bluegrass banjos. I will likely start casting my own tone rings as well in the future, but am waiting until I have something to add to the field. As of now there are many great rings available and I don’t want to simply copy them. But ideas are churning!….
A simple brass hoop tone ring is also an option for those wanting a lighter weight (or a lighter price). The sound of a brass tone ring also has its devotees and there is no reason to knock these – simplicity is often a beautiful thing.
I make all of my brackets, shoes, tailpieces, stretcher bands – just about everything except some of the screws, and even those I often have to modify. I simply could not find off the shelf parts that did what I wanted them to do, so I learned how to machine my own. Most of them are bronze or brass, but some parts are stainless, where more strength is needed (mostly in threads). There are no plated parts to worry about wearing through. The brass and bronze can be patina’d to a beautiful rich brown or left to develop their own with age and use. The change in color on these metals is a natural process that adds to its character and does not in anyway degrade them as rust on steel would.
Off the shelf parts are very limited in materials and shapes, and as a result, most of the banjos on the market have a very similar look. I wanted to start with the premise that the banjo should do what I wanted it to, not what the availability of parts said it should.
I use Jescar EVO Gold fret wire. This is the finest fret wire I have found. It is a copper alloy that includes tin, iron and titanium. It is harder than standard fret wire, but not quite as hard as stainless. It works and finishes beautifully, with a gold color that goes well with the bronze rim and hardware. It has incredible playability and will be hard to wear out in your lifetime.