Building a Cookie Tin Banjo with How & Why!
December 22, 2010 — by Rio / Microcosm Publishing
I'm a banjo enthusiast. That's something I've made peace with. But building a banjo? I never thought I'd be capable of managing a hacksaw while keeping my jugular intact, let alone make a scrappy instrument that sounds rad! While editing How & Why, our latest DIY guide for the next apocalypse, Matte Resist's instructions for building musical instruments gave me the push to try it out myself—and build a fretless banjo from a cookie tin.
Cookies plus banjos. It wasn't a hard sell for me.
I bought an old cookie tin with a 9” diameter for $1. It provides a sturdy base to hold the neck (along with the tension of the strings) while being a good carrier of sweet tunes. Bigger equals louder. Then I cut a slot for the neck with a box cutter (see below) on what would be at the bottom of the tin's side—that way, I can still take off the lid when the banjo's done!
I came across a 2x1 piece of hardwood to use for the neck. Now, that's a little narrow for a 5-string banjo, but this was becoming a small banjo. I decided to have a 22” neck (again, on the small side), which meant the wood should be 31” long (to account for the 9” head). So, I cut the 2x1 with a hacksaw into that length and fit the neck into the cookie tin's slot.
To secure the neck in place, I screwed five screws through the tin into the neck (see below). I tapped holes through the tin with a nail to start the screws, as I doubt my strength to drive objects through metal. I used five screws because—conveniently—each will have a string tied to it later on! I also put a screw through each flap made from cutting the slot in the tin earlier, mostly cause it seemed like a good idea.
I did some work on the wood with a knife and sandpaper, but this is mostly cosmetic and makes the neck more comfortable to hold. Don't sweat it. But I did use some of the leftover hardwood to carve a bridge and a nut (see below). They both hold the strings above the banjo (creating action) while evenly spacing out the strings. I did a pretty bad job at making the nut—the notches for strings were such large cuts that the strings moved around and created a buzz. Keep it simple! I thought about using a large threaded screw in place of the nut I carved, so feel free to improvise. I didn't attach the nut and bridge to the banjo because the strings hold them in place.
Almost there! As per Matte's suggestion, I bought zither pins (which are usually on a harp) for tuning the strings. They are remarkably simple and cheap (30 cents each), though they are fussy—you need a specially-fitted wrench for tuning them and it's difficult to be as accurate as the average tuner on a guitar (16 times more difficult, actually). I decided to house all of the pins on the top of the neck, rather than having the fifth string partway down the neck. So I hand-drilled five 3/16” holes through the neck and threaded the pins through.
I bought a set of banjo strings and put them on the banjo! Each came with a loop tied on one end, which fits around those screws drilled into the neck earlier. Thread the other end through the zither pin as tightly as you can and start tuning—very, very carefully. It doesn't take much to break a string (ahem, okay, so I bought two sets of strings). Make sure each string fits over the bridge and nut, then play it to see if there's a buzz. If it buzzes, it's probably not secure on the nut, or it's not high enough over the neck. My strings buzzed because of the angles they bent from their place in the nut to the tuning pin, so I drilled screws to route the strings and hold them down (see below). Yeah, that's sloppy. Oh well! I found a nice screw to use as a makeshift nut for the fifth string close to where the fifth fret would be.
Now you're wondering: what about frets, dood? Pssh. Frets are like the lines on college-ruled paper. I love the range of what can be done with a fretless instrument; plus, not having frets gave me one less step to do. Find a guide to tune the banjo however you want. The standard open G tuning is gDGBD (the lowercase “g” is one octave higher than the uppercase “G”). Now strum. Hear that? That's the sound of a cookie tin banjo.
That's about it! There are endless variations and additions that could be done—the important thing is to know that you don't have to be some master carpenter or go buy stuff already made for you, because you're probably capable of making something quite rad within your means. That's what I got out of How & Why, too. Now go on a tour with your cookie tin banjo—but don't forget to put some cookies inside it for the road.
Urgent DIY banjo questions? Email Rio!