c.1890 Buckbee 5-String Banjo

This was a one-day banjo fixer-upper project. My first 5-string banjo was an A-scale gut-strung Buckbee from the 1890s, my current 5-string banjo is an A-scale gut-strung Buckbee from the 1890s, and this banjo here is an A-scale gut-strung Buckbee from the 1890s. (or very possibly late 1880s) I must have clear preferences, huh?

At any rate, this is the only one of those three that's actually stamped "JHB" on the side of the heel ("John H. Buckbee") and one of only three Buckbees I've worked on (I've worked on a good two dozen) that bears that stamp as definitive proof of its progeny.

Because folks love a "show and tell" (everyone is asking me for "before" pics all the time!) I'm going to give you one!

Here was the banjo at 10:30 AM this morning.

Good nickel-silver frets, but I had to replace this fret and level them all. Like most old 5-strings, this has a very slight warp to the neck, but after the fret dress/level that warp is essentially nonexistant.

This only has 8 of its original hooks/nuts but it does have all but 2 of its original shoes.

The neck and dowel are mahogany and the rim is a thin hardwood (probably maple) one with a "single spun" German-silver wrapping. The top part of it is exposed wood so there's no tonering on this fella.

And here we begin the "finished" pics around 4:00 PM. The banjo had its 5th string peg intact (and perfectly functional) but I replaced the headstock pegs from my violin parts bin.

Here you can see all the frets have been leveled and dressed and I've installed an old screw for the 5th string "pip." Note that on a lot of these older 5-strings the pip (nut) for the 5th string is often below the 5th fret, whereas since around 1900 most 5-strings have the pip before the 5th fret.

The original head is pretty dirty but I cleaned it up a bunch and patched a small puncture to the middle of it (the dark spot). Gel superglue and a patch of old skin from a damaged head will generally solve small punctures on old heads. Small punctures in the center of old skins aren't generally a huge problem but it's any punctures near the edge of the rim (where the head will naturally tear) that cause the most worry.

I would normally replace the head but it has a cool inscription on the back and completes the antique "look" of this banjo just fine -- and also sounds and functions just fine, too!

Here's the "A.G. Wood" tailpiece, dated 1887. I'm sort of thinking that this might be a later addition as this banjo otherwise fits the bill for an earlier (early to mid 1880s) Buck.

Two of the pegs are fortunate enough to have pearl dots.

Note the v-shaped neck profile. It's wider (side to side) than a modern 5-string and a little shallower (front to back). I love the feel of necks like these -- very fast but with enough room for complex fingering.

Here's that inscription -- probably someone in the original owner's family scrawled this assumed date (1885) on the back of the head.

The rim cleaned up some and the hardware, after a dip in vinegar and my ultrasonic cleaner, came out quite a bit nicer. It was really filthy on arrival.

JHB stamp. The action on this is pretty typical for 1880s banjos -- 1/8" at the 12th fret (top of fret to string bottom) -- because when one lowers it and plays hard the nylon/nylgut strings will snap against the frets on the rebound.

I also had to shim the neck angle between the tension hoop and the top of the heel for better back-angle and to help secure the neck correctly (the "neck brace" on these is two screws that adjust all the tension to the middle of the heel join rather than the bottom, so to tighten up the heel correctly shims are often necessary).

Tailpiece, cool big end bolt, too! 2/3 of the hooks and nuts are from a 1920s tenor banjo rim I had hanging around as spare parts.

Here are the neck attachment screws -- I've replaced them with some old Phillips style ones and some washers so they're less likely to strip upon removal for any reason. The original screws were also too small (they'd stripped their sockets).

Overall this is a good player with that fantastic old-timey tone I've come to expect from old Buckbees. It's nice to have the headstock and 5th peg holes unaltered as well so installation of violin-style pegs can be achieved. Usually these 'jos were "upgraded" in the 20s, 30s, and then the 50s and 60s to more modern-style geared or friction pegs that required drilling out or modification of the original violin-style holes.

1 comment:

Paul Stanley said...

I have an old banjo that is a Buckbee Columbia. It sounds pretty nice, but it needs some work. The tail piece on mine is metal and Jan. 4 87. It has a 10" pot and a v neck. Someone put machine tuners on it. It has a plastic or ivory inlay at the base of the neck that says Columbia Trade Mark it also has 13 stars, and a US flag crest, with 7 white stripes and 6 red. The top of the crest has three stars.