Sawfret Banjo

(this banjo is currently up for auction on ebay)

(probably Edwin J. Cubley of Ravenswood, IL ca. 1878)
© Luke Mercier, 2005; Photos by LM

Click image to enlarge

Audio Clip : The 8th of January

performed by Luke Mercier

Some Words:

This is one of my favorite fretless banjos of all. It has that deep, earthy tone that is so hard to get out of a banjo. Unfortunately it is time for me to clean house as I am moving onto bigger life projects...(all this time I thought the banjo was a one of those bigger life projects)...This was one of those rare dirty old attic finds that you always hear about that I stumbled across a few years back that has been ressurected by myself. I've really enjoyed every aspect of it and now it is time for it to find its way back out into the world to a new custodian; hopefully to survive yet another 125 years.


The Peghead design is a classic rounded square shape which is often dismissed as just another Buckbee but it is a shape that was very commonly executed by many of the 19th century banjo makers and still today. It has a small old chip on the back, top end which in my opinion is a part of its history and does not detract from its value.

The friction tuners are closely based on the originals which did not survive. I got the banjo with one and a half of the original pegs which were made from oak. Unfortunately the head was partially split on one and the shaft of the other also partially split. I could provide these with the banjo for the true 'die hard' that would want to restore them which is quite possible. I chose to make a new set out of a more tenuous material that was less likely to split. Willow...

The neck with its classic swirl at the 5th peg and partial sawcut at the heel is constructed from what I believe to be darkened mahogany. The varnish being very dark, chocolate brown.
The length of the neck from the back of the nut to the rim is 18 7/16" and the width at the nut is 33mm and 50mm at the neckroot.
Neck Thicknesses: (16.7mm at nut, and 27.8mm at 12th fret position)

The string length is the same as the early fretted Dobson banjos. 25 5/8"

Entire length of the banjo is 34 1/2 "


The body is 10 7/8" across the back and 2 5/16" deep with a very deep, earthy tonal quality. The rim is 5/16 " thick and is composed of mahogany veneers. There are several dry pockets between the laminates which were likely there since its first year of construction. These rims were assembled using hide glue which is the right glue to use but is water based. Mahogany is a very porous wood which doesn't fair well in veneer applications unless it is gluesized a couple of times before laminated otherwise the water in the glue quickly absorbs into the pours of the wood and causes the glue to gel. When it gels it will not bond. However, this is something we've all seen before on old furniture. Mahogany veneer was used to make cheese and hat boxes because it was attractive, cheap and easy to bend. I've rubbed hideglue in all of the loose parts and the instrument remains fairly stable.


The eight centennial eagles are original castings. Each one is fastened with a brass slot head machine screw and large washer. The hooks and nuts are also brass. The nuts are cylindrical with a slot and extend up through the shoe, protecting the thread on the classic bent hook. This hook and nut system is illustrated on the Edwin J. Cubley patent No. 253,849 dated February 21, 1882. The object of this invention was to permit the use of a shorter hook and to conceal the end of the thread to protect the player from injury. Further, the nuts are slotted to allow tension adjustments to be made using a slot screwdriver. The tension band is folded brass, joined by two rivets, also a characteristic of Cubley banjos.

The tailpiece is an original Cubley tailpiece which can be viewed at the Mugwumps tailpiece page. Unfortunately the tailend fastening section was broken off and missing but I've braised a new section to it in order to make it useable. It has held for a few years now and there is enough material to reshape it closer to the original if you felt so inclined. What a cool tailpiece!!!

Setup and Sound:

This banjo is strung in nylon with good positive tension.
The 1/2" bridge is made from Walnut and the skin is real.(Goat Skin)

More than just a plunk!


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