Hi All,

In researching on CBN how best to build a banjo, I came across some great ideas that I'd like to pass on to this group, since most folks don't like to dig as deeply as I do.

I.) Routing 5th String to Headstock via Side of Neck Groove

The first idea is an alternative to using a 5th string tuner mounted on the side of the neck. In the past even I have used a under-the-fretboard channel to route the 5th string between the 5th fret and a 5th string tuner mounted on the headstock. Besides a tendency to stick when tuning the instrument, when I had to replace the string I found I could not re-thread the string through the channel and this meant I had to pry up the fretboard, thread the string and re-glue down the fretboard (a "hack job"). The new idea and photo (shown below) comes from Jim Wehrmacher, a CBN member. In this photo, we see an alternate way of routing the 5th string so it is still easily accessible.

As you can see, Jim routed the string to the side of the fretboard, in a slot that guides the string under the fretboard and nut to the 5th String tuner on the headstock. The string is also held it in place with a couple of screws which double as fret position markers on the side of the neck. So, if he ever has to replace the string, it's an easy re-string job, not a hack job as I had to do.

II.) Another 5th String Solution... Mount the 5th String Tuner on the Tail End of the Neck or Sound Box

If you turn the 5th String around such that the tail end is now secured to the neck just above the 5th fret, and then rout the string across the bridge, you can put the the tuner down at the tail end of the neck (or sound box, or banjo rim). Here are a couple photos to illustrate this idea by Scott Winburn, a CBN member:

Secure the loop end of the string just above the 5th fret by any means you find convenient. Then mount the tuner down on the tail end of the instrument like shown here...

Yeah, not the typical banjo, but you get the idea. You can use the same method on your more traditionally designed banjos as well. You should see some of Scott's other build, they are pretty imaginative, to say the least! He also has a video where he demos this instrument. Here's a link to Scott's photos on his CBN personal page.

III.) Tack-Head Banjo Internal Head Tensioning System

The second idea has to do with tack head banjos, and how to tension them. This assumes you have the ability to build wooden banjo rims and wooden tone rings with a fair degree of accuracy such that the tone ring (I hope I'm using the right term), fits pretty well inside the banjo rim. This head tensioning system comes from CBN member Milton Cable. I think the best way to present the idea is through a series of Milton's photos.

1.) First you will need six home-made "tensioner do-ma-jiggies":

2.) Then both a banjo rim and a tension ring such that one will fit inside the other...

Mount the six tensioner do-ma-jiggies inside the banjo rim in a symetrical pattern so that the tension ring fits as shown below...

See how the inside tension ring sits flush with the outer banjo rim and on top the (six) tensioners. Here's a couple more photos...

Maybe if you can't make from scratch two rings that fit together so well, you can find something else to use a a tone ring and then build your banjo rim to fit the ring. But, it will be this inside tension ring which will be adjusted upward via the six tensioners so the tension on the drum head can be increased or decreased as needed. Using a synthetic head material will decrease the need to re-adjusting the tension, but they too need a head tensioning system and this is the easiest home-made head tensioning system as I have yet to find. Here is the final photo...

He uses I think 36 tacks to tack on the skin to the drum. It would be interesting to know how he goes about initially stretching the skin over the rim before he tacks it down. The only time I tried it, I had dismal results. So, I guess before I try this method, I'll have to figure out how to best tack down a skin!

Thanks, Milton Cable, for your photos and idea of your internal head tensioning system. I think some builders will like to adapt the idea to their own projects. You can see more photos, including some on how he builds his banjo rims in the "Photos" section of his home page on CBN. Here's the link...


For information on building round banjo rims, check out my discussion "Building Round Sound Boxes for Banjos". The are other methods, such as steaming several thin lengths of wood and gluing them together around a circular form. I have not tried this method yet. When I do, I'm sure I'll include a write-up of the process. In the meantime, you can check Banjo Hangout and Google to find articles on how other folks build banjo rims.


I suspect I'll be adding more content here as I do further research. My first real banjo like instrument will be a 5-String Box Banjo using a pan for a resonator and banjo strings to see how close I can come to sounding like a banjo without having to build a traditional banjo body (which IMHO is too heavy).

If these ideas stimulate additional ideas from you, please comment on them here.


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Replies to This Discussion

That instrument that I made with the 5th string routed under the fretboard was actually a Dulcijo with a short 3rd string, but the problem was the same. Sorry, for misleading anyone.

Also, in addition to the dulcijo (which had an octogonal cookie tin for a body, I have built a 3-string stick dulcimer with a skin drum (the drum was manufactured and sold as a hand drum and I used it for the instrument's "sound box"). So, I know about the effects that weather (humidity and temperature) have with skin banjo. This is why I recommend to everyone to use some kind of synthetic head material instead of animal skin.

My first real home-made banjo is a current "in-progress" project, which is why I'm needing to do this research.


WOW!...I have just started making my banjo..(it will be a long project I think)..these are two very inovative ideas that I am keen to incorporate. Love Scotts fret positioning..(.just worked out why the bridge was on an angle)...an am going to incorporate the Milton Cable head tensioning system in this also! cheers and thanks for sharing...and Rand, now I have to investigate what a dulcijo is and a 3 string stick dulcimer...

Hi Stringybark,

Glad someone found the info helpful. Here's a link to the Dulcijo discussion I wrote for this discussion group. And a "stick dulcimer" is not widely known because the instrument goes by dozens of different names. Popular names include Strumstick, Strummer, Strumbly, Pick n' Stick, Dulcitar, Dulcimer Guitar, PickStrum, to name a few. A few years ago there was discussion to get a standard generic name and "Stick Dulcimer" was one of the favorites, so that's what I call mine. I have a discussion page elsewhere on CBN about how to build them. Here is that link. The discussion group for this stick dulcimer discussion may be of interest to you as well... Home Made Resonator Boxes 101, v.2.0.

I have been "easing" into banjo building as I learn more building techniques and the like. This past summer I built two octagonal sound boxes and one circular. Next summer I hope to build a fairly recognizable banjo with a round body and tacked on head. Milton's internal head tensioning system will likely be used in that build. My current build is focused more on the head and neck, with a 5th String tuner made by modifying a standard guitar tuner.

Well, good luck with your banjo build.


Thanks for the info Rand...I'm also easing into "the build"..I've made a few ukuleles/4 string tenors and a couple of 3 string slides..(didnt want to stuff up my first banjo  build)...thanks again, with all this new info I dont think I will ever sleep again.

Nice of you to put this together Rand.  I built a tack head salad bowl banjo last summer with good results.  I had seen Milton's tensioning system at the time and it's a great idea.  I might eventually put one in, but it was still (mostly) playable even in the late summer humidity. This is the best pic I have at the moment.

As far as the installation of the tack head goes, I loosely followed the instructions here for a gourd banjo:


I drew a line about 3/4" down the side of the bowl all the way around and laid out the locations of the tacks, then pre-drilled the holes with a very small bit.  I also marked the holes with permanent marker which helped me see them through the skin. Start a tack at 12:00, then pull taught to 6:00, then 9 and 3.  Then I just worked my way around clockwise, pulling as tight as I could and tapping in the tacks with a small hammer.   When I was finished and the skin was still wet I had my doubts, but when it dried it was tight as can be. 

One of these days I want to try to mount a skin on a box.  I think it could work and building the tensioning system would be easier. 

Banjos are fun.

Hi Turtlehead,

That's a real nice looking old-fashioned tack-head banjo. Did you leave it unfretted? I'd have to fret mine or I wouldn't begin to know where the notes are to play it. The drum head looks quite professional. Thanks for the link to the instructions on how to stretch and tack down the skin on a drum head. When I did mine I went all around the perimeter without temporary tacks to help hold things in place and wound up with places where there was too much material "clumped up". It also didn't end up as tight as I'd hope. Guess I just need to keep practicing and not give up so easily.

A square drum seems like a pretty novel idea. "Skinning" a box this way seems like you'd get a lot of clumping at the corners. Perhaps you could slit the skin near the corners and fold the material around the box maybe like wrapping a present. Certainly building two square (or rectangular) boxes such that one fit inside the other would be a lot easier than building two round rims. You could use finger joints for the outer box (as my usual butt joints backed up with corner posts would obstruct the inner box), or maybe use a cigar box for the other box, and then build the custom inner box to fit that, using the simple butt joint and corner post method. Well, good luck on that square drum head project!


Hey Rand - Exactly what I was thinking on skinning the box - I suppose it would be sort of like doing upholstery work.

Maybe I just got lucky on my first attempt, but I would say that the temporary (or permanent) tacks helped quite a bit in getting the skin stretched evenly.  I had a little bit of clumping near the end and had to smooth them out and replace a few tacks along the way.  I also found that I had to use my body to hold down the bowl while I pulled as hard as I could.  Another pair of hands would have come in handy!


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