I’ve always had a weak spot for the banjo. Especially the older open back types, often homemade, fretless and strung with gut.
But here on the European continent they are quite scarce, although in recent years there has been a revival (probably due to the success of Mumford and Sons).
The idea to make myself a cookie tin banjo started years ago in lutherie school. Probably because nobody took it serious (the same reason I took up the ukulele). But like so many other great ideas it’s hard to find the time to realise them.
Last year Sandra and I were in one of the HEMA stores in Utrecht during sale. “Do you want a pink “Jip & Janneke” cookie tin?” she asked jokingly. “Well, I can always make a banjo out of it…”
“Ehmm…” Sandra looked at me with pity…
“Jip & Janneke” are the main characters in a series of children’s books. They were written by Annie M.G. Schmidt and illustrated by Fiep Westendorp. As generations of Dutch children grew up with these stories they have become a cultural icon.
Just like the store where we bought the tin. The “Hollandse Eenheidsprijzen Maatschappij Amsterdam” is almost synonymous with Dutch culture. A warehouse that supplied lots of the kitchen utensils, clothes, vases, bicycles, stationary, make-up, toys and even food found in Dutch houses. The “HEMA” has it all, for low prices (that’s what the Dutch like most about it, we’re cheap). Some of their products are world-famous in the Netherlands. Like the “rookworst” (smoked sausage) and “Tompouce” (Napoleon or custard slice).
Making a banjo out of a HEMA cookie tin would be too cliché. Let alone a pink one…
Or would it?
Sometimes I just need to undertake crazy projects. Especially when I feel down and bad, making something insane is my way to get back on track. Most of these projects involve recycling and give me an opportunity to experiment. They often lead to new insights and knowledge.
The neck of this banjo was made out of an old teak table leg, saved from the fire pit.
The headstock design was shamelessly stolen from 19th century romantic guitars by Johann Georg Stauffer (Vienna 1778-1853). He was the teacher of C.F. Martin, who worked as a foreman in Stauffer’s shop, before he moved to America. Martin’s early guitars show a great resemblance to those of his master.
But to give it a little twist the front of the headstock painted pink with HEMA nail polish in the same color (dark fuchsia)… And the dot inlays were made from a pink crayon.
It’s probably overkill to equip a cookie tin banjo with a V-joint, but I simply couldn’t help it.
The pegs were made from ebony with little white pips. As a resemblance of the “Jip & Janneke” figures. Although the shape of the pegs is the same as on my Stradivari guitars…
The frets were salvaged from an old discarded guitar and re-barbed with the old PTT-pliers.
Jip & Janneke’s dog “Takkie” (little branch) was engraved on the tailpiece (made from a scrap of old brass).
Because of the small size of the tin, most cookie tin banjo’s tend to sound rather harsh and sharp. To give it a somewhat ’rounder’ tone this one was made with a short scale (23.5″). This also gives the advantage that it’s more suitable for traveling.
It’s my mission to make as many parts of the instrument myself. Even the bridge of this banjo was made myself. It features my burn mark in the middle.
Making this little banjo was a great experience. It’s something out of the comfort zone of most guitar and lute makers. Partly because it can hardly be regarded a ‘serious’ instrument. But that’s just the fun of it.
Along the way I found new information about instruments from Ancient Egypt and the history of the banjo. It opened new perspectives and fields to me. For some tasks I had to make or repurpose tools (like a fifty years old fret saw). Sometimes there is a lot of hidden wisdom to be found in foolishness…
A friend suggested that the head of the instrument should feature a text like “THIS MACHINE SURROUNDS HATE AND FORCES IT TO SURRENDER” or “THIS MACHINE HONORS PETE SEEGER”, like on the banjo of Flogging Molly banjo player Bob Schmidt (probably no family od Annie M.G.). I have thought about that, but decided that the top should remain empty. The pink alone is enough visual bombardement. I will put Pete Seeger‘s text on the inside of the back lid. After all it was his inspiration that lead me to make a banjo in the first place. The back has to be taken of while playing anyway, otherwise it sounds very dull. But the back already has a beautiful depiction of this message…