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.