3/23/2013

c.1895 Ditson (by Fairbanks?) Banjo Mandolin


This is a customer's curious Ditson-branded banjo mandolin. I believe it was probably made by Fairbanks considering the hardware, rim design, heel shape, and build style. At any rate, it has a super thin neck and a long (for the time) scale length of 13 3/4" which means that only the lightest banjo-mando set of strings can be used safely on it (28w-8).

Work included a new skin head (the rim is slightly too small for a synthetic head), new bridge, a fret level/dress and setup, replacement (period) tailpiece from my parts bin, new nut, and the usual cleaning and whatnot. I also had to install a neck brace which meant Dremel-ing out some slots to mount it on the dowel since the period one I had on hand was a friction-set type that is knocked on with a hammer and then tightened up snug with a screw.


Isn't that an interesting headstock? Very plain shape.


The board is rosewood with pear dots and the frets are bar stock. The (very long) extension over the head is actually unsupported so on the bass side it's warped down a little bit (though on the treble it's still straight). I've compensated for that slightly by adding some foam between the bass side of the board and the head's top. This also serves as a light overtone dampener on the head as well.


These $10 skin heads from Elderly Instruments look grand compared to the fancier grades of skin available. I like the cloudy look you get from these medium-weight ones.


I would usually use a mandolin-style bridge on one of these but I figured the tone would probably need a little brightening-up with the lightweight strings combined with a mellow skin head on a wooden arched-rim design.



The rim is a cool-looking design with black-painted interior and maple exterior finished in natural to match the neck. 2/3 of the rim hardware is original while the rest is a mix of stuff I added and stuff that was retrofitted before I got to this instrument.



I love that heel shape. When playing high up the neck it's also very comfortable and natural, too.


The Waverly tuners work great. Note that often the manufacturers wouldn't use all the mounting holes when installing the tuners. Here, only 3 out of the 5 holes are used on each plate.





The original tailpiece was exactly the same as this one and mounted in the same fashion, though it had broken and missing its cover (I still don't have a cover for this, though). Because the neck doesn't make a perfectly straight line down its length to the dowel, I had to mount this tailpiece slightly off-center. This doesn't matter at all (often banjo necks don't hook up perfectly on-center) but looks a little funny with the screw mount off-center on the tailpiece itself.

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