Nov 22, 2012

Banjo Boys...

Some readers may remember my foray into the world of cigar box guitars.  That effort resulted in the instrument shown above.  Now, there's a new adventure in the works.  It all started one day when my friend Clint Rankin mentioned that his wife, Sarah, wanted to learn to play the banjo.  I said, "You ought to build her one."  That started the ball rolling.

Jenes Cottrell in the 1970s with
one of his turbine ring banjos
An internet search for various terms like "home built banjo" and "building a banjo" led us to a little-known character from the 1970s named Jenes Cottrell.  According to the West Virginia encyclopedia, "Traditional musician and craftsman Jenes Cottrell (September 14, 1901-December 7, 1980) was descended from the earliest settlers of Clay County. Known for their farming and trading, the Cottrells also worked with wood. During the arts and crafts revival beginning in the 1960s, Jenes Cottrell became one of the best-known practitioners of the old ways. He made toys, rolling pins, chairs, and canes, and he put in chair bottoms of woven wood splits. He had a fine foot-powered, spring-pole lathe which he used to demonstrate his skill at festivals throughout West Virginia and beyond. He drew people as flies swarm to sugar. Somewhere along the way Cottrell had begun to make banjo rims using aluminum torque converter rings from 1956 Buick transmissions. He quickly became known for making and playing banjos."  
The turbine ring

We then found a Website of a young man named Chris Dean who had researched Cottrell's banjos and built one of his own "Dynaflow banjos."  Then we ran across some YouTube videos of a fellow who had built such a banjo and had recorded the construction sequence and some of his playing.  Clint and I were intrigued.  If we could find the transmission part - the "turbine ring" from a 1953-1958 Buick Dynaflow (no easy task) - it might be fun to try building one of these instruments.  Then Monty Love joined the crowd.

Chris Dean's finished banjo

Clint is a Pit Bull in an internet quest.  Within a day, he located a junkyard in New Jersey that had a pile of Dynaflow transmissions.  Within a couple more days, there were three turbine rings on their way to Huntsville.  Watch for progress reports over the next few weeks.

We are officially the "Banjo Boys."


Scott said...

I've built two banjos out of these turbine rings, which was all of the supply I had available. I'm also friends with Chris and have another friend who has an archtop bluegrass banjo made from a turbine ring, built by Bob White (an amazing instrument builder and repairman here in SE Ohio).

Would you mind sharing your source in NJ with their pile? I'd sure appreciate it, these things are rare as hen's teeth.

BTW, there are two tricky things about working with these rings-turned-banjo rims. The first is getting the neck cut to the right angle. The turbine rings taper in at the top, whereas banjo pots are straight up and down so getting the proper 3 degree angle can be tough. Secondly, the tension hoop will be a challenge. I've done it two ways and could offer you some advice there.

If you keep at it you'll end up with a banjo that has great pop, volume and a different but interesting tone.

Scott said...

Hi there. I'm a banjo builder who stumbled across your blog this evening. Strangely enough, I'm also friends with Chris and have yet another friend who has a bluegrass style resonator banjo made from a Buick turbine ring by Bob White (a masterful instrument builder and repairman here in SE Ohio).

I've built two banjos from these turbine rings. One I gave to a friend and the other I have. I'd like to build more, but don't have any more torque converters available to me.

I was wondering if you'd mind sharing your source in NJ with the pile of rings?

BTW, there are two tough things about working with these turbine rings-turned-banjo rims. First, they taper in towards the top making it a challenge to get the right 3 degree angle on the neck so watch for that (I've had mixed success). Secondly, there are no tension hoops the right size available, so you have to DIY. I've made them two different ways and if you'd email me I could offer you some advice there.

You'll need an 11 5/8" head, which is not the easiest to find. Chris was able to order a Weather King head from England I believe, but I used Fiberskyn heads I ordered from Bob Smakula in Elkins, WV.

If you stick with it, you'll end up with a cool banjo that has great pop and volume and a different but interesting tone. Best of luck!