Babbling Brooks

Sort of like a blog, but not really

Leather Banjo Case

Here are a few photos of the first leather banjo case that Ramon Martin made.

The case is made from boiled leather, which is the stuff folks used to make armor out of, so durability won’t be an issue. The banjo goes in through the bottom and the top part that opens has a storage area for your strings and picks. It is completely hand sewn and tooled. It is treated with heated bees wax for water resistance. Once again I’m amazed at Ramones skills. This case lasted less than an hour in the shop before a customer who stopped by bought it. The customer noticed the case before he noticed his banjo, but then again this isn’t the sort of thing you see every day.

There will probably be some changes made to this model. Changes that will offer a little more protection to the banjo and make Ramones life a little easier while making them. But here you have it, leather banjo cases will be available soon, and the price will be $600. They will be available by placing a down payment, and then a wait time while the case is being made. Orders can be placed through Brooks Banjos until Ramon gets a website up and running. Thanks for looking.

Leather Banjo Straps by Ramon Martin

Lately I’ve been hanging out with Ramon Martin. He is what I would call a leather working genius. He is the creator of the “Chateau a trope”, which is a top hat that projects images on the inside of the hat. He gained his 15 minutes of fame by being an extra on the Portlandia television show (see this scene). He is well known throughout the steam punk movement in the US and Europe. He has moved to Portland from Houston,Texas and my weirdo magnet picked him out of the crowd at our Every Sunday Square Dance, here in NE Portland.

We have been brainstorming over manufacturing leather banjo cases and have a great design in the making. They will hopefully be available by summer. The straps are designed around my favorite thin leather strap I have been using for years. They are narrow and attach to the hooks on a banjo. They will not mar a banjo finish as some other banjo straps I have seen will. Ramone has worked the leather to make it look like they are at least as old as a character in a Mark Twain novel. I’m very pleased with the first batch. They come in Amber, brown or black. They are handmade by Ramon in his Portland leather shop, and are available through me ($35 including shipping and handling).

Check out Ramon’s Facebook page, where you can see some of his other work.

Another fun fact: Ramone and I share the same birth date!

 

Comparing The Banjos

Here’s a video that might help you decide which Brooks banjo is best for you.

Pete Krebs 100 hour banjo break in

For the past few weeks I have had long time Portland musician and good buddy Pete Krebs working in the shop. He bought a banjo a few months back, and has been fervently learning new tunes.

Lately we were discussing how, in order to learn a new instrument (which banjo is to him), you need to put in many hours to really learn these tunes. We were also discussing how new instruments have a break-in period before they start sounding their best. I know this first hand because folks bring their banjos by after having them for a few years and I’m shocked at how much better the banjos sound after they have been played a few years. I was telling him how some instrument makers actually make strumming devices that they put their instruments in, that strum the instrument for hours and hours, before the instrument heads off to it’s new owner.

This is where the idea formed to have a banjo strummer come into the shop. Pete plays music for a living and sometimes that means lean times. So I have decided to have him come into the shop and be “the banjo strummer”. So, for the last five or so banjos Pete has been coming over and playing June Apple over and over again on each banjo. After testing a few banjos we both agree that 100 hours of strumming really starts to bring out the best tones in a banjo.

After this realization, I have hired Pete and he is now playing each banjo I make for 100 hours. It works for me because my banjos are sounding supremely better as I ship them out to customers. The few customers who have received these “broken in” banjos have been emphatic about the playability and sound they are getting out of a brand new instrument.

In order to make this new set up in the shop work for me, I’ve implemented some new policies, effective April 1st: I’m extending the wait time on currently ordered and future banjos by another 6 months, and I’m adding $800 to the cost of each banjo to pay Pete for his time. If this is an option that you would like to opt out of please email me and I will subtract the extra $800 from your order and send out your banjo 6 months earlier.

All in all, I’m really excited to have Pete around the shop and no I never get sick of June Apple. Have a great day!

Please note: This is an April Fool’s Day joke, posted to get a few laughs. Banjos are not played for 100 hours, and you won’t be charged $800 more.

More Great Stuff From Yuki

I just received an email from my good friend Yuki, who is the person who designed my banjo t-shirts (shown here).

Yuki makes some of my favorite art on the planet and he is a very talented writer as well. He sent me some great new links to some of his recent work. The piece on Jim Beam and Mr. Bojangles competes with the quality of any beat nick poet/artists from the ‘60’s in my opinion. A perspective on American culture that goes beyond their grasp, as it comes from all the way across the Pacific! Outside the box.

I received these links last night when I returned home from my trip to Santa Cruz and the Seabright Stringfest (more on that later), where I ran into one of my tightest buddies from back in my San Pedro days. My buddy is Irish and he showed up with his Scottish friend. I didn’t stand a chance against remaining in the upright position drinking with these clowns. I became well acquainted with the back seat of the rental car for a bit.

Anyway, these links seemed very appropriate and the timing was perfect. But for the record, I like my whiskey neat and to be able to drink it at my own pace. I’m too skinny to keep up.

Weathered Skin Heads

I have to admit, I steer most customers into getting their banjo with a skin head. In my opinion a banjo with a properly set skin head has a richer tone, a more vibrant feel and even more volume than synthetic heads. Yes, more volume, I can drown out our stringband if I play too hard and I play bassy sounding fretless.

The biggest concern folks have with getting a skin, is that it will need adjusting and that the banjo is less stable with a skin. I always say that it is much harder to tune a banjo than it is to tighten the head. But after stretching about 300 heads over the last 20 years I have found a process that I believe brings a goat skin head to a stable point. My own banjo is proof, I have taken it to Clifftop, WV and played in the 100% humidity into the we hours of the morning. I’ve played it in Weiser, Idaho with very low humidity hot and sunny one minute and then a monsoon in the afternoon, followed by cold humid air at night. Last fall Flat Rock played a wedding gig at night on the beach in Oregon, under an open sided wooden structure while it poured down rain. I have not touched my head through all of this, it is set and stable in any climate and I haven’t added any water sealer or oils to it.

Here is the trick and this is strictly for goat, I don’t use calf skin so I don’t know if this holds true for calf. First and most importantly is to use a square flesh hoop. The flesh hoop is what the skin is wrapped around and holds the skin against the tension hoop. I used round flesh hoops for a few years and realized that with a round flesh hoop, the head unravels and is continually loosens the more you tighten the head. Using a square flesh hoop actually pinches the skin and crimps it into its place, enabling a stability that round hoops can’t provide.

The second part of my process is in the initial part of stretching the head. When you first wrap the skin around the flesh hoop and tuck it under the tension hoop, it is important to set the head high. I stretch my heads on a jig and on the first set, I only pull the tension hoop 1/8" down over the top of the rim. Leaving the tension hoop 3/8" proud of the top of the rim.

Then I let the skin dry completely, tighten it evenly and trim off the excess skin at the top. After trimming you can see how proud the tension hoop is and I shoot for the head to be 3/8" proud after the first tightening. Now I start exposing the head to high humidity, then tightening it and letting it settle indoors, then setting it back out into the humidity, etc. Until the head is stretched down to the proper tension hoop height and it doesn’t move anymore when I set it out into the humidity. After doing this to a few hundred banjos, it is like a science now. If I set the tension hoop initially 3/8" proud, it will settle at 1/16" proud, which is perfect.

The head will need a few minor adjustments over the first year and then will settle. The 1/16" extra on the top allows for this without the tension hoop pulling down under the top of the head. See pictures to make more sense of this banjo maker jargon.

So now the question is, how tight should I keep the head on my banjo? On my banjos, I set the action to be 5/32" at the 17th fret. That measurement is from the top of the fret to the bottom of the third string. If you notice that your action is lower than that, going round in a circle, tighten the hook nuts 1/4 turn each until the action is back up to 5/32". While tightening the nuts, if you notice that one or two are harder to tighten than the others, skip tightening those as you go around. Tightening the nuts around them will even out their tension. If you notice your action is higher than 5/32", that usually happens when you bring the banjo to a dryer climate than it is used to. I make no adjustments in this situation, the head will loosen back up to the correct tension on it’s own, usually when night time hits again. I learned this at Weiser, during the day for the first day I have to deal with the action being a bit too high, then the second day it is back to normal.

Now that the head is taught and feels super tight and your banjo is singing like never before, you may worry about the head splitting. In general there are three things that will pop a skin. Avoid these three things and your head will last a lifetime:

  • Direct sunlight, like when it is in your living room and that one hour in the summer when at 4pm the sun is finally at the right angle to hit the banjo head through the window. You get home after work and the head has popped, but you don’t see that the sun was baking it an hour ago. Or at a festival when you sit your banjo in the sun for a minute to get a beer and end up in three half hour long conversations with folks en route to the cooler. You return to a ripped head.

  • Leaving your banjo in a hot car for even 20 minutes can pop the head and can also remove your fingerboard for you. Bring your banjo inside when you go get a burger, fries and a shake.

  • Sharp objects will poke a hole in the head and the hole will grow. No stopping that.  Well there you have it, if you have any other questions about the head on your banjo shoot me an email. And oh yes one other thing, if you have a skin and you are playing live, always pull your banjo out 10 minutes or so before your set and let the head adjust to the room. Then you won’t go out of tune during the first tune. It just takes a few minutes for the head to acclimate.

Cover of The Rolling Stone

Well, not really but still pretty cool.

This is a billboard in the St. Louis area that features Ryan Spearman holding the banjo I made for him.

Check out his music and doings here: Ryan Spearman.

More Flat Rock Updates

Since I seem to be not as prolific a blogger as Flat Rock guitarist Eric Bagdonas, following the Flat Rock Blog is a good way to keep tabs on what I do in my spare time.

Two exciting updates this time! One is that we (Flat Rock Stringband) put in some studio time a few months back and we finally went in and EQ’d the mix. Eric has posted some sound clips. On the recordings, I’m playing a 14 shoe Spartan model with a Bacon tone ring, fretless to the 7th fret. It has a walnut neck and a maple pot.

We are also excited to go down to Santa Cruz to play for the Seabright Music Festival on March 2nd. This festival is put on by Earl White, a fantastic fiddler. I had the fortune of being in a stringband with Earl for a few years while he lived in Portland. The Earl White Stringband now has the fantastic banjo player Mark Olitsky playing with them. Needless to say I’m very excited about this little excursion down to the land of Ocean and sunshine!

Here’s Earl and Mark (along with Erynn Marshall and others) having a good time at a jam playing “Candy Girl.”

Winter

Well, it’s been a busy winter around here so far, with travelling to see family and friends for the holiday. The Portland Old Time Gathering is also a bit of work for me, as I’m the vendor coordinator and I play the part of MC for the cabaret show that happens on the last day of the event. Plus I’m making banjo rims daily, in addition to making the banjos. Full plate and loving it!

For fun, I’ve been playing lots of music, and head out to the coast when the conditions are right to spend some time surfing. Music and surfing—two activities proven to put your head back on straight when needed.

I’ve been meeting a bunch of new folks out at the coast as Oregon has a thriving surf scene. As usual when I meet new folks and they are learning my name I get called “banjo” for a bit. In New Mexico they called me “banjo man”, at the Oregon coast it seems to be just pain “banjo”. I’m greeted with “Banjo right? what’s your name again?” I love it!

Here is a picture of one of my favorite Oregon surf spots, Indian Beach. My second home you can call it.

A few months back the stringband I play banjo in, Flat Rock Stringband went into the studio and recorded some tracks. A few weeks back we went in and finished with the EQ and now the project is finished. Who knows what we will do with the recordings, but for now Eric Bagdonas our guitar player and webperson has posted some tracks up on the Flat Rock website. Here is the link. Enjoy! 

Motherboards

My spidey sense told me on Thursday to get my butt down to the lumber yard. The walnut board I wanted was being coveted.

I drove down to the lumber yard, and it was still there. But the yard owner told me a furniture maker was in that morning, wanting to turn it into table legs… Table legs instead of banjos would have been a travesty. (The opinions in this blog reflect only the view of one bias banjo maker.) If that board had been gone, I would be cussing tables for weeks—maybe even the whole year!  But i got it, and a perfect board is what it is. Six feet of perfectly quartered, straight and somewhat figured clear grain. Many colors in the walnut also! A gem.

Then I tried my luck with the yard where I get my cherry from and… bingo! A perfect 10 foot cherry board!

So Thursday was a great day. There will be some great necks coming out of all this wood—plus a few rims too!  A blow to the furniture world, I know. So sorry.

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