1890s Cole-made Stratton & Handley 5-String Banjo

This is a customer's pretty old 5-string and it bears "Stratton & Handley, Lowell, Mass" branding on the dowel (just barely). The truth of the matter is that this was built by Cole for said retailers and probably in the late 1890s or early 1900s. When the owner brought it in I noticed the typical Cole neck brace and said "ah," and was then delighted when he answered my question about it himself. When this was built Cole had ceased to be in partnership with the Fairbanks operation (which became, as it went on, simply the Vega company).

It's a high-quality instrument and features a spunover rim, heavy-duty construction, and a mahogany neck with back-strapping and a thick ebony fretboard. There is much original to the instrument but also a lot that isn't: I think the hooks are all later (maybe 20s/30s?) replacements, the tailpiece is a newer No-Knot, the head is obviously a Remo, and part of my work included installing some new 4:1 planetary pegs for the owner.

The other work included a fret level/dress, dowel reglue, mild cleaning, and fitting of a new compensated bridge.

I like seeing how much an instrument is loved by the wear on its head. This has an 11" rim.

This has the usual ultra-fancy, engraved, Cole-style inlay. The bone nut is original.

Elegant, isn't it?

The original frets turned out to have a lot of life left in them -- which is good, because I needed to level out a bit of warp in the neck. I didn't get rid of all of it but it's a lot better, now, and plays with great 1/16" action at the 12th fret.

This instrument has a long 27" scale and was intended, probably, for gut strings -- and while steel is higher tension than gut, the set of 9s I have on it doesn't seem to be hurting it (the owner was using heavier steel strings before, apparently).

These days I've been trying to jack neck angles back to mount a 5/8" bridge if possible. Thankfully, this one went back without much effort and only a small shim-up at the heel.

The chunky ivoroid buttons on these tuners are pretty snazzy.

Don't you love the "detailing" of the pinstripe below the fretboard? Also note the backstrapping from the rear of the headstock's veneer as it extends down the neck.

The interesting neck adjuster mechanism is a thoughtful idea but, in practice, isn't really all that useful since the angle change really needs to be done at the heel. The ultra-common and practical Gibson-style coordinator rods used on modern banjos proves that to be true. 

The problem with this idea is that it helps slightly to adjust action, but the dowel itself is too thin and flexible to really force the heel/rim joint to move much -- especially since the heel itself is held tightly in place with the neck brace to keep it from moving around.

It's really hard to read with the minor overspray of the finish, but the old branding is "Stratton & Handley - Lowell, Mass."

A later (too small) screw was installed in the neck brace, before, but I pulled this same-era one out of a bin of salvaged 1880s piano hardware.

You can't see it, but the top edge of the nickel-plated brass sleeve also curls over a brass hoop and forms an integral tonering on the instrument.


Warren Grice said...

Wow, very cool banjo. Thanks for sharing. I find that neck angle adjuster at the tail side of the dowel pretty interesting too.

Jake Wildwood said...

Warren: just as an aside, Framus banjos in the 60s/70s had a similar adjuster but because their "dowel" was a big piece of steel, the idea worked. :) There are a number of these angle-adjusters in use on banjos from the 1880s through to modern day -- most notably there's a refined design in Lange-made Orpheums/Paramounts in the 20s.