Help Topics for Banjo Players
Calfskin vellum banjo heads - fitting instructions for zither banjos
Fitting a vellum head to a zither banjo
The following notes give some guidance on one method of fitting a head to a zither banjo. This method has served me well but it is by no means the only way of doing this job. It is specific to the zither banjo and does not necessarily apply to any other type of banjo. Please follow the steps carefully - especially the “preparation” section. This method works both with the metalwork in place inside the banjo and with the metalwork removed from the banjo.
1. Prepare the banjo components
All the metal components should be clean and dry. Zither banjos commonly have a tension ring (the upper ring which goes round the outside of the vellum), a tone ring (the lower ring which goes inside the vellum) and a series of machine screws or bolts (tensioners) which pull the tension ring down onto the tone ring. Make sure that any corrosion is thoroughly cleaned off and the tensioners work smoothly - clogged or corroded threads will make the job unnecessarily difficult. You should also have a flesh ring (a metal ring) which will normally be round the edge of the old vellum. If possible, carefully cut this flesh ring from the old vellum, leaving a “tube” of old vellum still attached to it - it will help to keep the flesh ring from moving about too much. If this isn‘t possible, ensure that your flesh ring is a complete circle - join up loose ends with a spot of solder, superglue or whatever you have.
2. Prepare the vellum
Ensure that you have a circular piece of vellum at least 3” larger than the diameter of the tone ring. Punch a series of holes about 1/2” in from the edge of the new vellum, about 3/4” apart. One end of a standard 2-hole punch will do this job pretty well. Thread a piece of string through these holes to make a “drawstring”. Take care not to use coloured string that will bleed dye into your vellum! Loosely tie off the drawstring and soak the whole thing in cold water until very soft and pliable - this takes up to an hour.
3. Make the head
Place your flesh ring in the centre of the wet vellum and use the drawstring to pull the vellum tight. You should finish up with a flat disc of quite tight vellum. Secure this by tying the drawstring quite firmly. This is where you can run into trouble if your flesh ring isn‘t a complete circle - if you‘ve left the ends loose, they can ride over one another and you finish up with a circle that is a good deal smaller than you intended it to be!
4. Fit the head
Place the head (drawstring side up) on top of the tone ring. Push the tension ring down over the head until you can engage the tensioners. Once you have all the tensioners in place, gently tighten down the tension ring until it is about 1/8” down the tone ring. Make you sure you tighten down evenly. Undo the drawstring and gently pull the vellum to ensure that there are no loose folds anywhere round then flesh ring. If you got the skin pretty tight at stage 3, you shouldn‘t find any loose folds at all but it’s always worth checking! At this stage, there should be no visible wrinkles or saggy bits in the head. Leave the head to dry thoroughly - this can take up to 2 days in the winter. Do not be tempted to try to speed the process by applying heat!
5. Finishing the head
Once the head is dry, you can pull it down to the correct place. This varies from banjo to banjo but, as a general rule, the top of the tension ring should be just a little below the top of the wooden body. Pull the tension ring down gently and evenly to the required point. It should be quite tight - you should be able to push down the centre of the vellum about 1/8” with gentle pressure. If the head won‘t go down that far without having to use undue force on the tensioners, wet the centre of the vellum and gently stretch the head downwards. Tighten it down a little and leave it to dry. You may need to repeat this process several times. If the head goes down too far, you have to dismantle the whole thing, re-soak the vellum and start again. Try tightening the drawstring a bit more next time! Once you are happy with the position and tension of the head (and you’re sure it’s dry!), trim off the “frill” of spare vellum with a sharp knife and the job is finished.
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