Help Topics for Banjo Players
Calfskin vellum banjo heads - care and maintenance advice.
Notes on the care of calfskin vellum banjo heads Vellum is a natural product made from the skin of an animal - ideally a calf but sometimes a goat or other animal. As such, it has several disadvantages when compared to modern synthetic banjo heads. Firstly, it can be a bit tricky to fit correctly - it does require patience to get it right. Secondly, it is susceptible to changes in temperature and humidity and will expand and contract in response to those changes. Lastly, it needs rather more careful adjustment than a synthetic head and will not take as much tension as its synthetic successor. It costs about the same or a little less than synthetic materials or heads. Many players will opt for a synthetic head wherever possible. Sometimes, the player does not have the choice - synthetic heads are made in quite a large range of sizes but won‘t fit all banjos - or the banjo itself may have become quite oval with age so that a perfectly circular head won‘t fit. If you are obliged (or prefer) to have a vellum head, here are some guidelines as to how to care for it. (1) Take care that the head is correctly adjusted for the weather - on a warm, dry day your head will be much tighter than on a cold, wet day. The player with a vellum head on the banjo will spend some time carefully adjusting the tension according to the weather. A tip from the days of the non-adjustable vellum head - instead of adjusting the head tension, you can simply use a different height of bridge on wet days! (2) Avoid exposing your banjo to sudden changes in temperature or humidity - especially sudden heating or drying. A vellum head left in strong sunlight can shrink and split in a surprisingly short time. You also need to be careful of central heating in the winter. It is generally felt to be safer to leave the vellum a little on the slack side in the summer so as to provide a small safety margin. There is no way of avoiding the need for continual checking and periodic adjustments. (3) Cleaning the head is tricky - rubbing it with a slightly damp absorbent material will remove some stains but anything that has “soaked in” will generally be fairly permanent. In days gone by, players used to treat vellum with grease (often dubbin) to try to minimise the difficulties. It now seems to be generally agreed that this didn‘t help much and attracted dirt like a magnet! With care and gentle treatment, a vellum head can last quite a long time (probably longer than a synthetic head) but you do need to be prepared to put in the effort that was an everyday thing to the banjo players of 60 years ago. You do get the advantage of a lovely tone - the sort of sound that most vintage banjos were intended by their makers to have!