In last week's post, devoted to the inaugural gig of the Sigogglin' Stringband (here), I frequently referenced the mysterious "El Hefe," my go-to banjo for C and G tunes at the K'zoo square dance. This week I decided it was high time for El Hefe to get a bit of time in the spotlight; after all, my Buckeye did get a whole post to itself (here), doesn't El Hefe deserve the same? Undoubtedly...so here we go!
El Hefe will always have a special place in my banjo quiver, because I actually built it (note: I decided against "him" as El Hefe's pronoun to avoid going any further down the pathway of instrument anthropomorphizing....) in a workshop run by the guys at Pisgah banjos (www.pigsahbanjos.com) this past January. The workshop was conducted at John C. Campbell folk school in Brasstown NC and it was just an amazing experience: In one week, with little previous woodworking experience, I walked away with not just a playable, but exceptional, banjo. Also, I got to know Patrick and Adam from Pisgah Banjos, along with several other people in the workshop including Jeff Johnston, a civil engineer from New Mexico who thankfully took a bunch of pictures during the construction process that he's given me permission to share (below). Note - I'll refer to him as "JJ" to avoid sounding like I'm writing about myself in the 3rd person : )
Building a banjo!
I could go on and on about the workshop, but there are a lot of Pisgah workshop reviews (particularly on banjo hangout), and this post is supposed to be about El Hefe - so I'll just go through some photo highlights in roughly chronological order below. It should be noted that Patrick has been conducting workshops every ~6 months for the past couple years, sometimes at JCCFS, sometimes at Warren Wilson college; if you'd like to build a banjo of your own, I'd urge you to contact him and find out when the next one is coming!
Starting at the beginning (pic courtesy of JJ) - Each of us was given a pre-glued 3-piece neck blank. The area at the heel was already cut to fit the pot, the headstock angle was already cut, and the truss rod slot was already cut. It would have been nice to start from unglued wood so that we could learn all of these steps (particularly the neck to pot fit, which is hyper important in my opinion) but hey, we only had a week. Here you can see what JJ's neck looked like after putting in the truss rod and gluing in the truss-rod cover.
Rough cut neck (pic courtesy of JJ) - Since the last pic, JJ has glued on his pre-fret-slotted richlite fingerboard, rough cut the neck on the band saw, and drilled holes for the tuners. Notice the other big piece of wood - this was cut away from the back of the neck; eventually, we shaved these pieces down to make the dowel stick!
Neck after shaping (pic courtesy of JJ) - Between the last pic and this one was a LOT of rasping and sanding. It was pretty rewarding to see a banjo neck emerge! Note that the dowel stick hole is cut as well - believe it or not we did this with a carefully aimed hand drill....and it ended up working out surprisingly well!
Fretting demo (pic courtesy of JJ) - The hands you see are those of Patrick, who owns Pisgah banjos, and Adam (in the background) who works at Pisgah, and plays a sweet version of "Whiteface" : ) You can also see a rim blank to the right of the picture; we did a demo of bending and gluing these but I didn't get to actually bend "El Hefe's" rim due to time constraints. We did get to trim rims down to size and smooth them out on the lathe however.
Rough fitting (pic courtesy of JJ) - We had to make sure our parts fit together prior to staining and finishing. This is JJ's banjo, which he named "Brasstown Belle." You can see the holes for shoes drilled in the rim here as well.
El Hefe's pot (pic courtesy of my flip-phone...oh yeah, I still rock a flip-phone) - While most people built a banjo very similar to Pisgah's "Woodchuck" model, you may be able to tell that I took a bit of a left turn in specs....more on that later : ) A note here: Patrick has routinely reminded us that we did not build a "Pisgah" banjo, but rather a "Pisgah-esque" banjo.
El Hefe's rim post staining (once again, flip phone pic) - My buddy Lindsey, a classmate with a background in woodworking, was responsible for the awesome finish! We created the stripey pattern by rough sanding the rim (thereby leaving some grain raised), staining it black, then putting the newly-stained rim on the lathe and sanding down the raised grain further to expose the color underneath....freaking sweet!
Banjos drying after staining (pic courtesy of JJ) - As you can see, a couple people chose to make spun over banjos similar to Pisgah's "Rambler" model; there is a wood lamination inside of those rims that had to be stained (obviously the stainless steel outside was not stained).
Brasstown Belle all finished (pic courtesy of JJ) - I thought I'd put JJ's banjo up for you to look at - just beautiful! I got to play this banjo and really liked the sound as well! You'll see El Hefe at the end of this post.
El Hefe's Specs:
I've been a little cagey about El Hefe's specs until now (though some are obvious in the pics above) so that I could talk about them all at once: In my post on the Buckeye, I identified eight specs to pay attention to when buying a banjo: Scale length, truss rod, fret size, rim depth, rim thickness, number of hooks, head type, and tone ring; I'll rehash these decisions in relation to El Hefe below. I didn't get a choice about 2 other specs on the Buckeye since the neck was already done: rim dimeter and wood choice - I'll add these on the list below.
While I didn't get to pick all of these specs, I did get a say on a few of them....mostly because I emailed Patrick beforehand and asked whether or not they could be incorporated in the design. What I didn't realize was that Patrick finds it easier to have everyone build the same banjo; since I was the only one asking about certain specs, everyone in the workshop ended up making something close to the banjo that I wanted to make (particularly in regard to pot diameter and scale length) - sorry guys : )
El Hefe spec rundown:
1) Wood choice - I didn't have a lot of say here in the workshop as you might imagine. Some people were essentially building Pisgah "Rambler" model banjos, which have 3 piece necks and spun over rims. Those of us building wood rim banjos were putting these necks on Pisgah "Woodchuck" model pots ("Woodchucks" normally have a 1 piece neck). The neck woods were mostly mahogany with a strip of (what I think is...) maple (??) running down the center. El Hefe's pot is black ash, which is kind of a surprising choice for a banjo rim; Pisgah prides themselves on using sustainable materials (persimmon, richlite, and now ash!) and we followed suit for our Pisgah-esque creations.
2) Pot diameter - Lately I've been enjoying 12" banjos and I asked Patrick if I could build one in the workshop - once again, I didn't realize that this would determine the type of banjo everyone built : ) These banjos have a bit more bass though this sometimes comes at the expense of cut...(but my tone ring choice below certainly compensated in the "cut" department....)
3) Scale length - Due to my reliance on left-hand positions in my playing (see here), I prefer the slightly shorter scale lengths (25-25.5") used by many old time banjo makers today. Pisgah typically uses the more-common 26 & 3/16" scale length, though they have shorter scale (25.25") banjos available as well. I urged Patrick to let me build a short scale...once again, everyone else had to go down this road as well : )
4) Truss rod - Patrick uses a truss rod of his own design and installing it was just about the first thing we did to the banjo neck (see first pic above). Interestingly, the truss rods we used were reverse-threaded so that you turn them clockwise to loosen them and counterclockwise to tighten them. I'm usually glad to have a truss rod in my banjos from a comfort standpoint : )
5) Fret size - El Hefe ended up with large frets (which I prefer for my playing, though this is a matter of personal preference) - according to Patrick the smaller fretwire is actually easier to work with, but he prefers large frets as well so I lucked out here.
6) Rim depth - Once again, I ended up with a 3.5" deep pot to match my Buckeye! I was thrilled about this but it was actually a last-minute realization that made it work out this way (more in the tone ring section below). I had to drill the shoe-mounting holes higher up on the pot to accommodate the deep rim with shorter hooks (Greg actually used special long hooks on the Buckeye).
7) Rim thickness - Patrick prefers rims that are ~9/16" thick for a couple of reasons: they are thick enough to resist warping; they fit the shoes built by Pisgah's sister hardware company Balsam banjo works. He pre-glued El Hefe's Ash rim in Pisgah's amazing rim press, but I turned it down to size on the lathe, which was pretty nifty.
8) Number of hooks - El Hefe ended up with 18 hooks, much fewer than the 26 on the buckeye; this has yet to be an issue. We really could have used any number of hooks we wanted since we used a grooved, rather than notched, tension hoop. However, Patrick had a template made up for 18 hooks and had only brought enough for each person to max out at 18...so I followed his lead here : )
9) Head type - As usual, I went for a Renaissance head (though obviously this is easy to change in the future) - I just like how much bass you can get with this type of head. Funny story about this - despite Patrick's insistence that we don't market our banjos as "Pisgah" banjos, he provided us with Renaissance heads with the "Pisgah seal" stamped on them. Apparently he can actually get these cheaper from the manufacturer than non-stamped heads; supposedly they structure the pricing this way so that a builder doesn't buy a bunch of plain heads and flip them for resale.
10) Tone ring - If you've got an eye for tone rings, you've noticed that El Hefe actually has a White Laydie tone ring! Not sure that too many 12" diameter, 3.5" deep white laydie banjos exist in the world, but someone should make this a standard model! The sound is fascinating - its not overly brash right next to it (though its hard to call it a quiet banjo) but it travels for miles! People have told me they can hear my banjo across a parking lot...which I kinda love!
I ordered the tone ring from Rickard and it made a last-minute arrival to the folk school (relayed by my loving wife) just in time to get it on the banjo. Patrick's pots are ~2 3/4" deep uncut and we stacked the 3/4" tone ring right on top to make a 3.5" deep pot. His natural inclination would have been to cut this down to size but I protested...I absolutely love the way it came out! One nifty thing about Rickard's tone rings - the "scalloped band" from the white laydie and the "curved tube with holes in it" from the tub-a-phone are actually interchangeable; if I ever wanted I could buy the tub-a-phone piece and change it out for fun.
Here's a pic of the final product, complete with my buddy Lindsey (fiddler, banjo player, woodworker extraordinaire!) in the background.
El Hefe in all his glory...and Lindsey with his new creation as well : )
I saw Lindsey's banjo at Clifftop and he's done some work since this picture: he used some paint effects to "age" the pot and added a skin head. Lindsey has gone on to make a second banjo (and maybe even more by now!) - he's a really talented woodworker and has decided to add banjos to his commercial woodworking repertoire.
To finish out, just a bit about the name: Lindsey actually came up with it as a play on the name "Jeff." Given the gravitas of this banjo, El Jefe (which means "the boss" in Spainish) is certainly fitting! As a guy who spent many hours listening to NOFX in his teens, I decided to go with the anglicized "H" version of the spelling after their guitarist - El Hefe certainly has more of a punk rock vibe than any of my other instruments : )
Thanks to Jeff Johnston for the building pics!
About this blog
I have lots of ideas about banjo playing and music in general - this blog allows me to get them all out of my head and see what you think.