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Woodworking with Jason Stamper


Building a Minstrel Banjo

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A few years ago I was camping with a friend of mine and he brought his minstrel banjo. After getting to play it I knew I had to have one, but funds were short.

So being the practical one, I decided to make one. My friend said I was nuts for trying since I could buy one for $200, but I decided to forge ahead anyway.

1858 Banjo Instruction Book


What is a minstrel banjo you ask? It might be more appropriate to label it as an early banjo. Early banjos were descended directly from African instruments and by the time of the Civil War they were one of the most popular instruments in America.

They were relatively easy to make, and some manufacturers such as William Boucher and James Ashborn even began making them.

The banjos themselves consisted of a wooden hoop with a hide stretched over it, a long fretless neck, and had gut strings. For simplicities sake I decided to make mine what is know as a “tack-head.” We will get back to that in a bit.

William Sidney Mount, The Banjo Player, 1856.

I also decided to pattern my neck after the banjos made by William Boucher in the 1850’s. I started with a big slab of maple and a smaller piece of African mahogany.

Next I ripped out the maple into a chunk large enough to get the neck and headstock out of. Then I cut some pieces close to 1/8” thick that would be used to form the hoop. Finally I made a form to bend the hoop parts around out of scrap wood.

I made the hoop by bending one piece at a time around the form. Before bending the strips I tapered one end so that it would make a nice scarf joint on the inside of the hoop. Then I just used a regular household iron to bend the pieces, and glued up where they overlapped.

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