Tin Can Banjo


This is my second attempt at a home-made instrument. The first one came to an abrupt end…yeah. Let’s just say I learned an important lesson about leaving wood to dry in communal spaces without a note. Le sigh.

Two things to note before you continue reading. First off, I took a lot of photos while I was doing this. It’s a long post. I made many mistakes along the way, and they’re all on display here. Learn from my blunders!


I really want to learn 5-string banjo. Only problem is I can’t afford one. So why not make one, right? I’d seen some great oil can guitars from Africa, and there was at least one precedent of a tin can banjo. I found some plans online (From Bluestem, sadly no longer available) for a simple 5-string banjo with a neck design I thought I could use. I’ve found that with making cigar box stringed instruments, you’re mostly making necks, and them sticking ’em on a box. The trickiest thing in a 5-string banjo neck is the 5th-string tuning peg. Unlike the other tuners on the headstock, it lives halfway up the neck. This usually requires a different kind of tuning machine and a reamer to install it. The Bluestem design just makes a bump in the neck, to which a normal tuning machine can be affixed. IMG_2068The Body of the banjo will be made out of this lovely can of olive oil. I figured the hardest part of the project would be finishing all the olive oil so I could use it (we did). Famous last words!

IMG_2069I picked up a 1×3 poplar plank at the hardware store. Looks like this’ll do just fine for neck length.


I found some nifty old headstock patterns online. It looks like they’ll be too wide for this plank. I’ll be designing my own, I suppose.IMG_2072

The poplar has some bowing to it. That’s fine. I’ve read that some guitar companies actually select wood with some backbow for necks, so that it can resist the pull of string tension better.


Most acoustic string instruments have a headstock that’s angled 15° to the neck. This keeps the strings at a good angle as they go over the nut. You’ve got two ways to get an angled headstock. One is to start with a thick block of wood and carve it all in one piece. Since I only have a 1×3, I’m gonna do it the other way: cut off part of the neck at an angle, flip it over and glue it back in a scarf joint. Here’s the theory:

Screen Shot 2014-03-15 at 6.09.32 PM

So I dutifully marked off where I’m gonna cut.


My plank is set up for sawing. Please bear in mind, as this project progresses, that my modest Brooklyn apartment’s living room is all I have for a workshop. That means the rickety dining table we made out of a plank and pipes will have to serve as a work table.


Between the various saws lying around, I finally got the piece off. Yeesh…that’s a rough cut.


My kingdom for a belt sander! In its absence, I honed up this little Japanese block plane and did my best to clean up the edges.


First time using a plane, but it seems to have done the trick.


This is where the magic happens. The cut-off piece gets glued on underneath the neck. I clamped it and let it cure for a few hours.


First experiment with wood glue. It’s staying on! Jubilation!


There’s a bit of space where the headstock piece meets the neck. I guess they weren’t planed as smooth as I thought. Not a project-killer.


For the upcoming steps, I’ll need a reversed printout of the plans.IMG_2091

As I mentioned, I’ll need my own headstock design. I started with a mockup of the headstock on my trusty Epiphone Viola bass guitar. From there, I slowly shaped it into something closer to the old-timey fiddle-body designs of the late 19th c. models I like.

Screen Shot 2014-03-18 at 11.08.43 AM

To get the design onto the wood, I’m using a neat trick Adrienne taught me, called a toner transfer. You print out the design you want with a laser printer, or photocopy it. You then tape it to your surface, face-down.


I made a blue tape hinge so I can check on my work as I go.IMG_2093

To transfer your designs, you trace over the lines with a blender marker, then rub over it with a bone folder. It’s important to go bit by bit, so that the liquid from the blender marker doesn’t dry up.IMG_2094

And there you have it! The pattern is transferred to the wood. I couldn’t resist adding a Painless Parker logo on the top.IMG_2095Now that the design is on there, I can cut off the excess.IMG_2096

While I had the saw out, I did some rough shaping of the design.


Before I get too far, I wanted to transfer the neck pattern to the wood. I’m using the same toner transfer method here, with a bone folder and a blending marker.


From here I can start carving out the headstock and neck.


I love the feel of carving away at wood with my printmaker’s chisels. It’s a very meditative activity. When I’m an old man, I’m gonna take up whittling.


Dremels are also nice, though not as spiritual. Some forther shaping and sanding, and the headstock is starting to look pretty good.


The neck is progressing well. One thing I’m worried about is that the 5th-string “bump” will be too thick for the tuning machines I’m using. Better test it.


I got some simple tuners online, and they came with instructions for drilling proper holes. Easy peasy!


Well, looks like it’s not too thick. The tuner fits fine.


The bushing fits nicely as well.


I traces the footprint of the tuning machine, so I don’t carve away anything vital while shaping the neck.


While I’m at it, I’ll do the headstock tuners as well. First, I need to eyeball their position.


All four marked off and ready to drill.


Without a drill press, blue tape is my depth gauge. Gonna drill me some pilot holes

IMG_2114Kids, using a notch before you start drilling helps a bunch!


Holes drilled. Had some chipping towards the end, but the bushings will hide that.


All tuners fit.One of ’em has to go on a bit crooked so that the screws go into the wood, but that won’t affect functionality. Only aesthetics and my pride.IMG_2118

There’s a lot of wood to remove from the neck, and I’m not a total masochist. No way I’m gonna do all that with my little printmaker’s chisel! Time to pull out the drawknife. I got tired of the table wobbling, so I have the piece clamped to the banister in the hallway. Hey, it works. Plus, less wood shavings in our living room.IMG_2121

I used a divider to scratch a mark for the depth of the frailing scoop. Using dividers this way is a trick I picked up from leatherworking.


Carving out the scoop.


I’m gonna carve out a deeper section here, at the point where the neck meets the body and the wood goes through it.


When the wood comes out the other side, I’ll need some extra room for a “tailpiece”.


Hours later, chisels, drawknife, planes and sandpaper have done their job. IMG_2129

As you can see, the neck is getting more neck-like and less slab-like. IMG_2130

Prepping to cut holes in the can. First I find the center of the can and mark it. IMG_2151

Next I need to figure out how wide the neck is at the point of entry, so I can mark and center it. We’re looking at about 1-3/4″, half of that is…let’s see…carry the 1…aw screw it, I hate doing arithmetic. And you know what? I don’t need to! IMG_2152

Why bother with numbers when I can grab a piece of paper, mark the width… IMG_2153

…and then fold it in half to get the center? IMG_2154

Same trick to get the depth. Fold over the paper… IMG_2155

…and mark it on the can. That’s how deep a hole I need to cut here.IMG_2156

Various and diverse means are herein employed to cut out the top hole, where the stick will go into the body. Not too pretty. Of course, after all this was done, I remembered that I have a Dremel with a cutting wheel. D’oh. This was a dumb way to do it. IMG_2157

Sighting down the front of the can, I mark the center for the bottom hole, where the stick will emerge.


Again, using a paper strip to transfer the measurements of the bottom of the stick to the can. I like this trick. See? Sometimes I’m smart. IMG_2159

This is much easier than doing math. Gotta love it.
IMG_2161Cutting the bottom hole with the Dremel. Faster, cleaner, sparkier. I was planning on cutting it so the metal peeled away from the top of the can, but I got carried away and did it this way instead. Oh well, next time. By the way, ALWAYS WEAR EYE PROTECTION when you’re using a wheel to cut or grind metal.
IMG_2162I had to use pliers to widen the opening, but it’s a good tight fit this way.

Holy mother of mountain moonshine, Batman, it’s actually starting to look like an instrument! It’s that stage in the project where things really start coming together, and I couldn’t be more excited. IMG_2165

Side view of the banjo. I made a slight miscalculation in my hole placement, so the part of the neck that passes through the body is very close to the top. I’m gonna try to remedy that by widening the top hole a bit and inserting a shim, which should also give the neck some angle to the body, which makes for better action (the distance between fretboard and strings). IMG_2166

Further adventures in “Noam will do anything to avoid using numbers”: I’m gonna style the bottom end of the neck, something similar to the top of the headstock. First step is getting a width measurement. Enter my trusty paper strip, folded across the end. You may have noticed that the wood’s getting a bit dinged up. That’s from pulling it out of that tight-fit hole in the bottom of the can. Oops?IMG_2167

After folding, it’s cut to size…


…and folded in half.

No fancy Illustrator tricks this time, just a freehand design in pencil on one half of the paper.


Just like those paper doll cutouts we made in school: unfold and voila! Symmetrical tail design without a single measurement. Easy Peasy. As you can see, the wood got a bit chewed up when I pulled it back out of the can. That’s fine, most of it is coming off anyway. IMG_2172

Where some people see a fork, I see a tailpiece. picked up at a Park Slope flea market for a buck.


See? Tailpiece! Despite any rumors going around, I did not bend this with the power of my mind alone.

Here I determine where to position the tailpiece on the wood. I’ll mark that for drilling.

Tracing my freehand design onto the wood for later shaping.

That long oval shape is where the hole for the fork will go.


Mighta gone a little too close on that one side with the coping saw…at least the fork fits. IMG_2184

The fork is sitting nicely. I’m a little worried that the tines are too far up on the body. I need enough room for the bridge to go on in the right spot for the scale length.IMG_2186

I also deepened the neck groove, so I could shim it up closer to the body.


In the absence of a belt sander or a reliable saw, a little wedge is carved for that neck joint.


A bit more neck shaping, with my recently acquired spokeshave. Hard to do without a proper woodworking vise, plus the table wobbles.


Got in some extra supplies from C. B. Gitty, an great resource for cigar box guitar builders. Extra tuners and rough blanks for making bridges.


I ordered two blank bone blocks for my previous cigar box guitar project. Using this one for the nut.


Initial cuts for the nut groove. Later on in the project, I realized that making a groove for the nut was a mistake. I’m not sure what I was thinking. If I’d looked a little closer at some other instruments (like, say, the 4 or 5 I have around the house), I would have seen that generally the nut sits on the surface of the headstock, flush with a raised fingerboard. I will pay for this mistake later.


Chiseling out the rough groove.


Fine tuning the groove with files. What a waste of time. If I knew then what I know now…it hurts to look at these photos.


The bone nut fits in the groove. Yay.


Shortened with a coping saw and shaped with sandpaper, the nut is in place. Let’s move on to something else.


I spent the better part of a weekend afternoon sanding the neck. First, some 50 grit for rough shaping.


After shaping and smoothing with 80, 100, 220 and 320 grit paper, the neck’s looking gorgeous. I spent about 2 hours out on my front stoop sanding away. I coulda gone for three but it was getting dark and chilly. Time well spent!IMG_2278

Close-up detail of the 5th-string tuner extension. Silky smooth. IMG_2279

I decided, perhaps foolishly, to make a fretless banjo. Even so, some fret-like position markers won’t go amiss as I try to learn to play. Before I did anything drastic on the actual neck, I took a leftover piece of scrap and set up an experiment. First, I carved some grooves of varying depth and thickness into the wood.IMG_3036

Next I tried different combinations of wood filler and pigment, working it into the grooves.IMG_3037

After drying and sanding, it looks like this’ll work. I’m hoping I can get the grooves straight, and the filler flush with the surface of the fingerboard.IMG_3038

I carved grooves where the frets would go.


The pigmented wood filler is set into the grooves and left to try.


The next day I sanded off the excess filler and it’s looking good.


Applying a clear satin polyurethane finish to the neck. This time, I managed to finish the job without anyone breaking the neck. IMG_3058

Let’s put some tuners on this baby! Notches are in place for the screws.IMG_3059

This is a delicate operation, so I opted to use a hand drill.IMG_3062

Bushings are in place. As you can see, there’s a bit more chipping around the drill holes than the bushings can cover up. Oh well.


Here are the tuners installed.IMG_3065

Okay, it’s no Gibson, but it’s starting to look pretty cool.


I marked where grooves for the strings need to go on the nut.


You can spend a lot of money on a set of nut files, or you can get this nifty set of round files used for cleaning welding tips that work just as well.


I did some measuring and determined that the fork tailpiece was a bit too long—the bridge needs to be 25.5″ from the nut, putting it too close to the tailpiece. so, off with its tines! I used the Dremel cutting wheel for some shaping as well.


Not quite as elegant as the originals but it’ll serve.


Pro tip: a mallet makes for a decent ad-hoc anvil. Initla tine bending done with hammers. I’m sure there’s a “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” joke in there somewhere. I leave it as a riddle for the reader.


Some additional “persuasion” supplied by this lovely pliers. IMG_3084

For the final tine-bending, it’s back to the hammer. Such fun! Cue the MC Hammer jokes.IMG_3085

Roughing out the details on my maple bridge blank IMG_3086

Take it to the bridge, y’all! Sanded, carved, filed and ready to rock. The design is based on something I saw on Banjo Hangout.IMG_3087

Strings are on, and it looks an awful lot like a banjo!IMG_3088

It stayed in tune for about 5 minutes…and then weird things started to happen. As in, I could actually hear the strings detuning as I sat there. Probably because the tension was pulling the tailpiece right out of its slot! This clearly needed to be remedied. Yet another “teachable moment”.IMG_3089

This is where the tailpiece SHOULD sit. I’m gonna have to screw it down. IMG_3090

Preparing for some invasive surgery…


I cut a hole in the back, where I’ll insert a plug to hold the screw. IMG_3092

The fork now has a hole big enough for this lovely bolt I found amidst our random hardware bits and bobs. IMG_3093

It’s a fit! Now I need something to anchor it in the body.IMG_3094

I sawed off a piece of poplar left over from the neck, which should do the trick.IMG_3095

I drilled a hole just a bit smaller than the bolt going in.IMG_3097

Lining up the tailpiece with the bottom of the tin, so I can mark the hole. IMG_3098

Punched through! Let’s bolt this sucker down. IMG_3099

Now the tailpiece is secured to the body. It ain’t going nowhere.IMG_3100

Banjo 1.0 complete. The action (distance between the strings and the neck) was a little high for my liking. The further you have to press down on the strings, the worse the tuning is.


Here’s a side view showing the action height. Not playable! If I tried lowering it by shortening the nut, it would reduce the angle of the strings and that’s not good. The other option is to raise the neck, by adding another layer of wood for a fingerboard. This is how professional instruments are built, and how I should have done it from the start. Live and learn right?

It just so happens I have a thin board of cherrywood lying around from a previous project that never went anywhere. It’s a lovely shade of red, too.


The cherry is 1/8″ thick, and long enough to cover the current fretboard area on the neck. IMG_3109

Looks like 1/8″ is maybe a bit too thick for the strings to clear it once they’re over the nut. If I’d used a separate fretboard from the start, I wouldn’t have cut that groove in the neck for the nut. Now it’s too deep and I need to bump it up just enough for the strings to be close to the fretboard, but not touching.


Matches will do nicely! This banjo is getting even more down-home the more I work on it. Really hardcore cigar box guitar builders use eye bolts instead of tuning pegs and all sorts of other improvised stuff.IMG_3111

Testing to see how high the match raises the nut. This is a much better string height. IMG_3114

Two matches are just a hair too wide to fit side-by-side in the groove, so I used the block plane to shave one of then down. It made the most adorable tiny wood shaving.


Now the matches fit snugly in the groove. I snipped them off as close as I could to the neck. IMG_3116

I finished up the ends with an x-acto, so the matches are flush with the sides.


With the new fretboard on, the 5th string peg will no longer be tall enough. I’ll have to remove the tuner and thin down the little “bump” it lives on.IMG_3122

In preparation for thinning out the 5th string peg bump, I marked off the space the tuner needs.


using the fingerboard wood, I marked the depth I’d need to remove. IMG_3164

Laying out the fingerboard, with the nut in place for reference IMG_3165

I don’t need the whole piece, and it’s nice cherry wood, so I’ll cut off just enough to overhand the frailing scoop by a bit and carve back. IMG_3167

Initial carving out of the peg bump. Once again my handy printmaker’s chisels and gouges save then day.IMG_3168

Some sanding and smoothing, and the peg bump is looking spiffy.


Gluing the cherry board to the neck. The fretboard is under there somewhere. I used just about every clamp in the house to glue that sucker down. IMG_3172

Now the fretboard is glued down, I can trim away the excess.IMG_3173

Some glue oozed out along the edge. I will attempt to trim that bit away.IMG_3174

Initial trimming, all done with carving tools because a) I don’t own a band saw and b) I’m a glutton for punishment.IMG_3175

The trickiest part was carving around the peg bump. IMG_3177

After much work, the fingerboard is starting to look flush with the neck. IMG_3178

Getting the frailing scoop scoop flush required some Dremel work. IMG_3179

Final touch up with sandpaper. The neck and fingerboard are now flush, and the sides of the fingerboard have a slight round bevel for comfort. IMG_3180

Re-drilling the 5th string peg hole.IMG_3181

Oopsie…went a little too hard with the drill!IMG_3182

Lucky for me, the bit that came off glued right back into place.


I decided to re-stain the edges of the fingerboard. First things first, taping up the neck! IMG_3184

Applying the stain. Do this outdoors, or in a well-ventilated space.IMG_3186

Looks good so far…time for the big reveal IMG_3187

Little bit of splotch, but that’ll sand right off. IMG_3188

The worst offenders removes, looking significantly better. IMG_3189

While I have the opportunity, I opted to shorten the scale length of the banjo. This means the bridge will be a bit further from the tailpiece, giving me more room to fine-tune the intonation. I went from 25-1/2″ to 24″. IMG_3190

Instead of a fancy toner transfer I’m just gonna draw the fret positions on with a pen. Can you tell I’m losing steam?IMG_3191

There we go. Fret markers drawn on.IMG_3192

Professional instruments usually have inlaid position markers along the neck to help players orient themseves on the fingerboard. While I have zero inlay skills, I do have a great collection of fancy rubber stamps. Well, more like Adrienne has a great collection of fancy rubber stamps and she lets me use ’em. IMG_3193

Some of the likelier candidates, stamped on scrap wood. I like the leafy one. No, the other leafy one.IMG_3194

That looks pretty classy. IMG_3195

Polyurethane finish applied over the top. Shiny! IMG_3196

With the matches back in the notch, the nut is better situated now. I can shave them down further to fine-tune the action. IMG_3197

The 5th string peg’s bushing, back in place. Looks real nice against the red. IMG_3198And there you have it! My completed 5-string banjo. 

IMG_3497 IMG_3498 IMG_3499

Proof that even a dork like me can look pretty badass with a home-made banjo:

NI-EAABC-19Here it is, in action:




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *