My Gourd Banjo Project
For my pal, Barry Grant
CIRCA 2000

This will be the banjo that he sits and plays to me out in front of his cabin.

I am going back to the old days of to when the slaves made crude instruments from the "Calabash", or common  Southern gourd.
I will of course employ many modern techniques to this process, to add durability, and hopefully enhanced tones.
(The Southern gourd will come back to haunt me.)

You may see many BEAUTIFUL examples of gourd banjos on this fine website.

That is what inspired me to attempt this project, and as a banjo builder, I find it necessary to transverse into the "Genesis" mode to see what started all this ruckus!

Gourd, with top off, and seeds removed

What I have done, is cleared the dried calabash of its seeds and pulp which was like a dried out pumpkin, sort of, and I then scraped it clean with my scraper.
My first upgrade, is to add a 10" embroidery hoop as a reinforcement to the edge and to be used as a tack strip as well.
There will be more strips added later, for added rigidity.

Here, you see it after it has had lacquer pored into it and swished around to seal the pores, another upgrade.

Hand rubbed lacquer on the outsides

The bearing edge has been rounded and lacquered then sanded smooth

The neck
Time compressed (Started with blank)

This is a piece of English white oak, a more traditional wood, for this period.
After all rough shaping , cutting in the 5th peg ramp and sanding, I am starting the detail work .
I will leave a thumb rest

I have made a little "Vinnie" styling here.
I have radius sanded an area in under the neck, to the heel that will feel very good to the thumb while playing up high on the neck

And I have also relieved the heel sides and the cap for a cool design.

 I am starting to make the heel cut that will fit an irregular surface like a gourd body.
It will take a lot of indicating to get where I want to be.

You have to chose a place on the gourd and mark it, then keep indicating the neck for that spot.
That's the best way to get it to match tight

Getting real close now with the right height, and neck angle.

Now a little modernization, with some bracing, and some CA
This gourd has to last until Barry and I can sit and play together on our porch.

I am using a traditional style minstrel peg head.
I chose the short string on the top string because that seems right to me.

Peg holes drilled and outside smoothed up.

I am doing a little relief carving to enhance its looks.
Made it look like a "note", with a backwards tail, like its owner
There will be many things not common, on this project.
Speaking of.
Hey Barry,
 How bout some Elk bone, for the nut
You got any?

I have a little bow left in the neck so I will plane it down before putting on the Cocobolo fingerboard.

All flat now, and ready to add the board.

Board on and profiled.

The swirl grain worked out so that I could put it right at the 5th peg ramp.

These are pieces of "Lightning struck"  OAK.
The dark one is from my Granma's White oak tree that was 3 ft in diameter.
That was turned dark by the bolt and the light one oddly enough, is Red oak, from a tree in my Dad and Mom's yard that was turned white by a bolt.

I will be using these for some inlay stuff.
Lightning and I have a close relationship, nuff said.

That is a piece of whalebone and the eye of the center of the White oak
I will use a strip of cocobolo for the long piece.
Remember, this is supposed to be as rudimentary as possible.......with modern refinements!

Adding in some color, with stains

Just a look
I will stain the gourd next.

6 coats.
Good enough I say for this baby.

Reminds me of Goldie, a little bit........Maybe Farrah :)
Fade job, no silicone!


A much better color match now

I have drilled out and profiled the neck to fit a standard Vega style dowel with a 3/4 pin.
It has been glued and allowed to set.

Dowel cuts complete .
First "sound holes" drilled.

Final cut in work.

Nice snug fit on both ends.

I will now be able to create the outside shim and inside reinforcement plates, front and rear.

Dowel bears directly on bracing dowels.
I think the end assembly will carry sound well.

Sanding down to final height

This is the level I want to be at.

Rounding the bearing edge

Now back on the shelf, until the next "play time"
I save the weekends for pet projects I like!

Heel shim

I studied long and hard (about 2 min) on the method I would choose for making a good contact between gourd and heel.
 I decided to revert to my life before banjo.

That would be Fiberglass repair.
This will please Barry's brother Kevin, who is also a banjo player. and a fiberglass man himself, so I'd better do it right!

Basic area to be filled.
I left this rough cut so that the glass would adhere to the heel

I am using West Systems 105 /205 marine epoxy, because I am totally familiar with its properties and characteristics.
I will use a 7oz woven cloth for the glass, and will be using a standard "Mold release" compound which allows the contact point to remain un-adhered so that I can get the neck back out, trim the shim, finish out the neck.
The compound is basically a waxy substance which will allow the release after cure time.

Applying release compound in all necessary areas, to inhibit "locking"

Taped areas for protection and release compound onto the tape.
I left a tad of wood showing, I want the glass to ride up onto it.

Wiping on the release compound

Here is the glass, cut to fit.
It will be removed, and the resin will be floated into it, and then back in it goes.

This "fluff", is chopped up glass cloth to use as filler, in tight areas.
It will form a reinforced paste, commonly known as "kitty hair"
I will pack it in the cracks and then cover it with strips of glass fiber strips.

Mixing the two part resin.

All glass is laid and curing under lights (2 hrs).

Cutting back the "flashing",after tape removal.

Ready to release...............

..........and successful !!
Always a good thing.

With some "fuzz" ground away, on the outside.

Just a couple of tiny spots where the epoxy stuck.
I will strip the gourd of the temp finish, and prepare it for the final stain and lacquer coats now.

With the shim ground to profile and ready for final "fairing"
This means I will add compounds to smooth all visible imperfections before refinishing the heel to make it all look like one piece again.

It adhered well to the roughed up wood on the heel.

And now we have a perfect fitting neck heel, to an imperfect gourd surface.

Well worth the effort, since I am building this thing to take higher tension strings than normal.

Well, I got all the sound holes cut in, and used some leftover resonator trim grommets from a 1920's Slingerland. 
I only had a partial set so they are now re-purposed.
Here is the first stage of the tailpiece, which will become more elaborate, as I go on.
Vintage Brazilian rosewood, ready to go back to work.

Re-stain of the shim area, and I will "pinch more stain in, between layers of clear.
It will finally be "gone", except for close scrutiny.

The re-staining of the "globe"



Getting some starter tacks ready

An old Ludwig head, nice vintage skin

Wet down

Start a tacking'

Glued, and pulled tight





Oh yeah.I had no plan...

Well, no pics of the disaster in the morning, but when it dried, it pulled a 3/8" strip off the top of the gourd, and busted some of the support, which obviously wasn't enough.
Learning processes, can be "stressful"
Now to try and save the gourd.

Going try it with an arch ring
All sealed in

Nice and level

Smoothing the bearing edge

Got the new calfskin, wet, and on a piece of Mylar, will hold it down, and push in my starter tacks.
I'm alone, and this seems easiest for me.

A few tacks in

The dogs love the head scraps!

Well, here it is, after a lengthy sweat.
I got decorative with it
Now lets get it dry.


Drying process crushed arch ring, broke 2 supports, shattered top stretcher ring........oh, and ruined a 30 dollar head.
(I slashed it, when I saw the busted down arch ring)
I do have a temper

Total loss?????

Lets see...............
I am a head headed so and so,,
New design, back to flattop!

Inside band, and new head bearing glued to gourd top.

Repairing dowel junction area

Got the new profile for the neck

This time I've added a steel ring, that is "tension'ed" to create all the support.
Now the gourd will maintain its rigidity for a long time to come.


Added a couple of side blocks, to make a tighter dowel fit.

Color match back, and lacquer back on.

Ready to go again
Glue on.

Starter tacks in place

Pulling and tacking

Getting down on it

All tacked and glued and drying.
It looks like it will be fine, as it is already real tight now.

Just a look with the neck on.

And a look with the tailpiece.

I will now add the painted artwork and tack trim, to the gourd .
All the tacks will be pulled and aligned properly.

Adding Lacquer to the neck
I will be inlaying it next, after gourd is complete.

Now I have to get it "Barry-ized" !!

 A little "Southwestern" flair, with a few Rhinestones, and no telling what else.



Inlay work

I am using pyralin blocks, from an old Concertone and inlays from Tyler Jackson's old 50's Vox 3 neck.
I am cutting them all in with my hand gouges, and making them less than perfect.

All in.
I may add some more stuff too.

Made tailpiece triple layered for strength and drilled the tie down holes which will be covered by this Injun "bauble"

I will remove the neck to finish the finish, taper the peg holes, drill in the 5th peg.

OK, she is back apart, ready for the final run.
Got my ID tags in place.

One stamped

One Autographed and Dated

Now, the rest of my inlay idea is completed!
This was the fun part.
Picking out all kinds of "Barryizing" type things.....:)

Music note, paper clip,arrowhead,tomahawk............

 I ended up in this "array"
Note, Clip, Tomahawk AIR EVAC chopper
Dancing Indian,Arrowhead, and my BG buttons.

Classy eh? :)

Added leather trim to head edge

Tailpiece mounted with  Hemp cord (cough)
Its very harsh, but works well as cordage :O


Little feathers have to go, they vibrate with playing.
This thing has VG tone.
It aint just a wall hanger...WHEW~:)

Back apart, adding dowel to heel for lateral rear support.
My thanks to Wally Schimidt, for the special drill out tool!

And into the neck block.

Nice action, good sparky old time tone.

Feathers have been plucked.

Vega armrest  

Rest was nice touch, and will keep sweat off the head better.

Gotta have beads, It's Barry's

That "screw" which is now a 5th string "nut" and the one holding the tailpiece coverlet is from the Liberty Banjo collection, and I thank Paul Morrissey, now departed, for his contribution.
I miss his conversations :(

It'll take ol BG a few Coors Lite  to figure out these tuners.
He can fly a plane, SURELY he can tune a banjer!.
It actually holds well and is OK after 2 hrs of practice

Ground down and "Coppery" now.
I had to flatten all the inlay stuff, as it is irregular, and causes a few buzzes.
Most gone now.
Play around them.:)

  Against a Trujo Plectrum, it holds it's own.


That's about it, other than it needs to go home to the "Cabin" where it will live the life I would like to live!
 The Tribulations far outweigh the Trials, and it was a great experience.
Lets get this into BG's hands and see how it goes.
Thanks for watching

It was years later before I learned that Northern Gourds had thicker walls!!!
Live and learn! VM