Hello and welcome to my blog. What I'm doing here is documenting my personal expression of "hands-on history" from a craftsman's perspective. I've been on this path for a large part of my life and it's taken me to some interesting and challenging places. I hope to share the processes and the historically inspired objects I've crafted along this journey into our past. This adventure has deepened my appreciation for past craftsmanship and the intelligence of common place things in Early America. Besides, now I have all this cool stuff to play (teach) with.

Jim Miller

Monday, January 17, 2011

My Great Banjo Adventure or How I Crafted a Thoughtful Piece of Musical History

     Sometime in the mid 1980's, I was reading a copy of Smithsonian Magazine and a picture of an early Minstrel Banjo grabbed my attention. The banjo was like none I had ever seen. I didn't play the banjo and really hadn't paid that much attention to them but there was something about that primal version, with its "difference", that got me. Around 1986 I read about a major banjo exhibit at MIT called "Ring the Banjar". I sent for the exhibit catalog and began to learn about the banjo's history and its evolution. In the catalog there was a photo of a Boucher Banjo from ca. 1845. It had a double-head design that really surprised me.

Foxfire's Sweeney Banjo and
Ring the Banjar! Catalog
     A little while later I discovered the Foxfire books by Eliot Wigginton and his students.They are an amazing resource for Appalacian Culture, past and present. In Foxfire 3, there was considerable information on Banjos, mostly from a home-grown perspective. That's my cup-of-tea ! On page 165 there is a picture of Mr. Wigginton holding an antique banjo, identified as "The Sweeney Banjo". The banjo's design reminded me a little of the Boucher Banjo at MIT. On the same page are some sketches of the banjo with descriptive text, with more photos on the following page.  This so-called Sweeney banjo had that primitve appeal and I was inspired. I made up my mind to try and copy it. With no real knowledge of how a banjo should be made, I plunged ahead. This was sometime around 1989.
     I had a nice plank of walnut that would suffice for neck material. I improvised a tube-like box to serve as a steam chamber for softening a strip of oak that would become the hoop. I knew enough to thin the ends of the oak strip for a lap joint. That lap would eventually be tacked together with copper tacks.With no real knowledge of scale, I traced out the neck design, based solely on the Foxfire pictures. With the neck carved to form, I started on the hoop. The hoop was bent around a large can I had, then the ends were tacked together. It was close to round. This was a primitive banjo after all.

My first Banjo with present owner
 Floyd Oydegaard
     As parts were starting to come together, I realized that finding a skin for the head might be a problem. Luck would have it, my neighbor Tony Sutton had just returned from a successful deer hunt. That luckless doe would soon be immortalized as a banjo head and remembered long after those venison steaks disappeared. So there it was, my first banjo. With a tacked on, scraped deerhide head and whittled pegs, it sure seemed authentic, except for a set of nylon guitar strings from the local music store. I wasn't even sure it was playable although it sort of sounded right. At this point in the adventure, my banjo was demoted to a wall hanger, as I had no idea how to play it. Years later a musician in a music shop, tried to tune it and managed to play part of a song. He thought it was interesting, and not the worst homemade banjo he had seen. I was "sort of" encouraged but back on the wall it went.

     For some reason that crude banjo stayed with me through life-changing events. It eventually ended up decorating the wall at the Carpenter's Shop that my wife Lindy and I opened in Columbia State Historic Park in 1998. It was a topic of converstation to many visitors and occasionally a musician would try to play it. My wife wondered why I never really learned to play and wouldn't accept my excuse that it was the banjo's fault. Being the practicle and generous person she is, she gifted me with a Minstrel Banjo kit from Bob Flesher .

My Flesher / Boucher Banjo
     So now it was time to do my research and build an authentic replica of an early banjo. I purchased a copy of "America's Instrument" by Philip F.Gura and James F. Bollman and began to read. I think this is the best book written on the banjo, in 19th century America. The book is filled with photos of the rarest and earliest banjos known to exist.  Bob Flesher's kit claimed to be based on an original Boucher but I soon discovered I had my work cut out for me. In the end, I achieved a more Boucher-like instrument than my first banjo, but not quite a replica example. For the moment, that was fine. After all, it was very playable and had the "look" I was after. Along with the kit came an instruction book on playing in the Minstrel Stlye. I tried to learn, I really did, but the more I worked at it the more frustrated I became. Maybe I just wasn't cut out to be a musician.

Ed Sims, Banjoist / Bonesman
     My frustration ended when I met Ed Sims in June of 2002. Ed had come to Columbia to participate in the annual living history event known as" Columbia Diggin's 1852". In keeping with the spirit of an authentic Gold Rush camp , Ed had brought his Minstrel Banjo to add his music to the historical experience. He kindly played a couple of tunes for me in my Carpenter's Shop and I was stupified. I had never had anyone play a period piece competently, on a period style banjo for me. The amazing part was that Ed was self-taught. Eureka !! This could really happen for me and Ed promised to help. He did more than help. Ed sent me taped music, played at a pace I could follow and page after page of tabbed period music. I actually began to get it and practice payed off. Besides a great teacher, Ed is a great historian and early banjo advocate. Through his guidance, I even began to connect with the early banjo community. In the world of banjos, the Minstrel niche is miniscule but alive and well. I continued to practice and learn about early banjos.

My sketchbook and the Exhibit Catalog
     Towards the end of 2003, I heard about an exhibit at Katonah, New York called "The Birth of the Banjo". It was rumored to include the largest collection of antebellum banjos ever assembled. Equally astounding  was a simultaneous banjo exhibit on Long Island at The Museums at Stony Brook. Ed and I had no choice, we had to go and go we did. January 2004, we were in Katonah, at the Museum of Art, surrounded by the most amazing collection of early banjos and related material I could have imagined. Being in the presence of these rare survivors swept away all my book learned notions about design and function. In the round, these banjos radiated their artful intellegence and the ingenuity of their designs. The first thing I noticed was that many had a lightness and even an airiness about them. Not at all clunky like my pseudo- Boucher. The museum did not allow any photography so I came prepared to sketch. I wanted to collect as much info. as I could glean from this opportunity. My focus was the two Boucher Banjos on display. One was the classic scalloped hoop version and the other a double-head. I couldn't get enough. I sketched and sketched. These Bouchers were speaking to me and I was listening.

"The Banjo Player" by
William Sidney Mount
courtesy Banjo Clubhouse
       Later that day I had the opportunity to meet Jim Hartel, one of the Country's best historic replica banjo builders. What a great guy and I got to see some of his work as well. Just before the Museum closed we chanced a meeting with Peter Szego, a guest curator of the show. Many of the banjos belonged to Peter. Lucky guy. He was curious about these banjo geeks from California. Just before everyone was about to leave,somebody asked Peter if he would play something for us on the replica minstrel banjo that was available for visitors to handle. Peter decided to play Circus Jig when all of a sudden my friend Ed produced two sets of Bones. Besides a great banjoist, he's kick-ass on the Bones. Peter played away and Ed rattled his way into getting us invited to dinner. My buddy had planned this all along and the best part was that it worked! We hit it off with Peter and his friends and promised to keep in touch. The next day, during a snow storm, we took the ferry to Long Island.  What we discovered at The Museums at Stony Brook, (now known as The Long Island Museum of American Art, History and Carriages, ) was a collection of collections, but we managed to keep our focus and finally found the banjo exhibit. There weren't as many examples of early banjos as Katonah but still worth it. The highpoint for me was to stand in the presence of William Sidney Mount's painting "The Banjo Player", one of the most recognized banjo paintings in the world. I was amazed to see that it was life-sized. Unbelivably cool. Under the painting, in a display case, was a Boucher Banjo of a third design. I got busy sketching. After this great adventure of banjo discovery, Ed and I talked all the way home about the possibility of my building an accurate copy of an original banjo. The problem was, which one ? I'll bet it will be a Boucher !
Some of the data collected by Ed Sims
     A short time after returning home, a friend of mine showed me a copy of The Magazine Antiques. It was the December 2003 issue and featured a great article about American Banjos. The article was written by Peter Szego and Robert Shaw to promote the exhibit at Katonah and the appreciation of early banjos. On page 88 there was a picture of a double-headed Boucher that I hadn't seen before. The neck was birds-eye maple and the hoop was birds-eye veneered. I thought to myself, this is the banjo I want to build. The best part was that it was owned by Peter. My friend Ed agreed that it would be great to copy this rare banjo if Peter allowed us to study it in detail. I promised Ed, that if he did the survey of the original, I would build one for him as well as me. That's exactly what happened, Ed went back east, armed with my instructions and Peter Szego graciously allowed him to document this beautiful banjo. Now it was up to me to do the rest.

      As with many of the projects I've undertaken, there is considerable research before any actual work. I needed to do a lot of digging and experimenting, before I could gain the confidence to pull this one off. Like, practicing hammer veneering with hot hide glue.Yikes ! As always, other people were involved, who kindly shared their knowledge and expertise. George Wunderlich  and Jim Hartel were both extrememly helpful in explaining their views on the mysteries of Boucher's construction methods, like the offset dowelstick and three piece neck. Both of these guys have handled enough original banjos to become leading authorities on the subject. 

     Gathering the neccessary matierials was next. Curly Woods of McKinney Texas turned out to be the best source for select birdseye maple. Pricey but worth it. Certainly Wood of East Aurora, NY supplied the maple veneer. These banjos deserved nice round hoops and I decided to let the experts do the bending. Sean McGinnis at Cooperman, in Bellows Falls, VT came to the rescue with two beautiful, white oak hoops, built to my specs. I decided to use existing violin pegs that could be altered to match the originals. I located a Hill style peg from Dov Schmidt of English boxwood. I eventually dyed them with India ink to resemble ebony. In order to have the bracket shoes reproduced, I carved a model to be sand cast by Roller Foundry of Missouri. An anonymous donor gifted me with replica Boucher wingnuts. That I am grateful for. My friend Nick Kane traded me some rosewood for the nuts, tailpieces and peghead buttons.  Last but not least, my friend George Cantrell, a great blacksmith, helped by bandsawing out the sheet steel needed for the tension rings.

The Classic Boucher Peg Head
     The rest was now up to me. The most daunting challenge was to keep tabs on the quirkier details of the original banjo. As I crafted my replicas, I didn't want to "fix" the parts of the original that seemed a little off. I wanted to celebrate them in my work.  In the 1840's, Boucher banjos were being cranked out to fill  the growing demands of the public. Surviving examples rarely meet our criteria of finely crafted instuments. Still, their form is iconic and an important part of the banjo's evolution. That is why I've been drawn to them ever since I saw the first one. In 2006, I finished the two banjos and fulfilled my dream to craft a thoughtful piece of musical history. Heck, it only took 20 years!! I will always applaude the good and talented people who are trying to make a living at recreating early banjos.

Finished Double-Headed Boucher Banjos
Front View


Rear View


  1. Testing this comment situation but also wanted to say that I remember this whole banjo process and it was so fun to read through it all again. You are one and a million Jim. I have never known anyone so exacting and continue to admire your zeal in making sure that you do not just recreate the history but constantly press to do it right.

  2. Cool and interesting I wanna hold that kind instrument coz it's my first time to see this kind of instrument. This is truly a kind of antique and old string instrument so better to keep it for longer and get Banjo Display case. Thanks!