Building a banjo, part 1: intro, tools, and materials

I prepared this document specifically for two students who are interested in building banjos. If you found your way here, feel free to reach out at chris.witulski@gmail.com with any questions, comments, or (more likely) suggestions. I’ve built a handful of these and I’m happy with how they came out. I hope that this can be helpful for anyone who is interested in giving banjo building a try.

This process comes out of many late nights of reading the extraordinarily helpful building and repair forums at banjohangout.com. I also drew heavily on other sites that I link to below. The influence of the folks at the BGSU School of Art wood shop who invited me in and taught me the little bit that I know about woodworking, cannot be overstated!

I’m not someone who comes from a background in woodworking. My first banjo was my first building project. But I like how they have come out so far and am happy to share, in case there are others who are coming from a blank slate as far as cutting wood goes. For what it’s worth, here are some photos from two recent builds. The first is cherry and ipe and the second is Ambrosia maple and purpleheart. Click for larger images.

Cherry body

Cherry back

Cherry neck

Maple and purpleheart body

Maple and purpleheart peghead

Maple and purpleheart neck

Tools and Materials

I had a few goals in building an instrument when I first did it in 2018.

  1. This should be cheaper than buying one.
  2. Since people have been building banjos for longer than power tools have been around, I should be able to do it without buying a bunch of stuff.

With that in mind, here is a rough list of necessary tools and materials. I’ll give some other useful alternatives below, in case you have access to them.

When I did this the first time, I didn’t have much in the way of tools. Just a drill and some similarly basic things. Being cheap, I went to Harbor Freight and bought a handful of things that looked useful. Harbor Freight being what it is, they were hardly useful, but they got the job done. It’s been a pleasure replacing those things one by one. This is to say, you can get by with super cheap tools on softer wood. They don’t make the work any easier and certainly don’t make it any more pleasurable.

I’ve since learned more about hand tools (this is a good read) and have been replacing things one by one with older tools. These are still pretty cheap and I’m pretty sure I would have started this way had I known about it as an option. This guy has some really great stuff and it’s worth keeping an eye on his listings. The other advice: don’t bother with sets of things. Spend the same amount and get the one that you need, but of a higher quality. Most of these are things that I’ve since used in everyday life. They’re good to have around.

Joe and Zachary: I’ll be able to lend you a belt sander, files, rasps, coping saw, peg reamer, and sharpening stone. You can use my radial arm saw for the block rim segments and a hand saw for the string slots. We may try using my router for the rim pieces, if that’s the best way to go. This means that you’ll need clamps and a drill. I can give you some wax and steel wool. You’ll go through enough of the other things that you’ll want your own. I also don’t have much finish left, otherwise I’d let you borrow it. I can also give you some fishing line.

Useful power tools

A rigged up belt sander

Hand tools

Tools or materials, not sure

Materials

Some optional details

Cherry neck

Go to Part 2