Maintaining and Restoring Vintage Banjos and Other Vintage Stringed Instruments
In this brief piece I will discuss some issues that confront vintage instrument owners as they attempt to maintain and/or restore pieces to something like their original condition. I have written this piece because I increasingly encounter valuable instruments that have been subjected to such abuse by owners either by neglect or via “restoration” or “modernization” efforts that their value has been markedly reduced. So, here’s a few do’s and don’t's gleaned from my own experience:
Don’t bore out peghead holes to replace old friction tuners with modern planetary geared tuners. This action damages the instrument and decreases value more than you might think. “Original” and “authentic” are the words that interest potential buyers the most.
Don’t replace guitar or mandolin tuners with modern tuners. Same reason as above.
Don’t re-plate hardware unless it is in really poor condition. See above.
Don’t refinish wood parts unless the finish is practically worn off. See above.
Don’t reset the dowel stick on a banjo by boring another hole through the rim at the tailpiece end. In general, originality is valued more than playability, and in many cases the action can be lowered to acceptable levels by shortening the bridge.
Don't try to change the neck angle by altering the shape of the heel. See above.
Don’t attempt repairs or restoration unless you know what you are doing. You will probably do more harm than good.
Don’t give an instrument to a luthier for repair or restoration without getting a firm date by which the work should be completed. Many luthiers seem to enjoy making your instruments part of their collections for up to a year without ever working on them.
Don’t re-fret an instrument unless it is unplayable as it. Removing the old frets can damage the fingerboard and reduce value. Also, modern fret wire is not the same in cross-section as the older fret material.
Do show respect for instrument luthiers and repair and restoration shops by appropriately valuing their work and paying them accordingly. It is worth a higher price to get good quality work done in almost every case.
Do replace missing or mismatched hardware with identical period hardware. This requires patience, and I have even bought a few project banjos just for the parts in order to accomplish this. Most of the banjos on this site that are shown with mismatched hardware have since been restored to “all original” status (I confess to being too lazy to re-take the pictures).
Do replace torn skin heads, bridges, etc., as needed. It’s difficult in most cases to determine if these are original, so replacing them is usually not a problem.
Do replace modern planetary tuners on old banjos with vintage “Champion” tuners when you can find them. These tuners accommodate the bored out peghead holes better than other vintage friction tuners.
Do consider using nylon banjo strings on banjos originally designed for gut strings (almost all pre 1900 banjos were made to use gut strings). I don’t obey this rule myself universally, and some classic-era banjos are strongly enough made to take steel strings, but I use extra-light steel strings on those banjos without fail.
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