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Viola-Head Banjo with Bracket design by Hank Schwartz
Commissioned by Hank Schwartz
During many years of experience in the field of violin making I'd thought, on numerous occasions, of making a violin scroll headed banjo. Because of the amount of time required for such an undertaking I could never really justify the pursuit without knowing what demand there was, if any, and more directly, I could never afford the expense of such an experiment.
Hank Schwartz, already a proud owner of one of my instruments, had long dreamed about such a banjo and independently approached me with the concept as a possible commission. I was absolutely beside myself with excitement and was all over the idea in an instant.
It's not very often that a maker has the pleasure of a commission by somebody with such infectious enthusiasm, tremendous eye for detail and superior knowledge of musical instruments.
This, combined with ongoing correspondence throughout regarding every last detail, made for an incredible experience and what we both feel to be an outstanding result.
A grand project that I'd planned for myself much later in life had suddenly become very real and immediate; a wonderful collaboration was born!
We began with the peghead scroll on an otherwise usual banjo but quickly extended the concept to the entire instrument.
The Violjo exhibits many features borrowed from the Violin family. Most obvious is the scroll that is patterned after the famous Antonio Stradivarius 'Archinto' Viola c. 1696 only slightly enlarged (by scale) to accommodate standard banjo string spacing at the nut. The spiral of the mirrored heel scroll, also patterned after the Archinto, ascends from the classic early Fairbanks heel cut. Continuing onto the body, the scroll theme is accentuated very tastefully in the hardware brackets - a Hank Schwartz whimsy.
Other violin inspired features include:
. Baroque viola pegs - unstained Boxwood
. Violin purfling staggered flush frets
. Bridge design derived from a viola bridge
. Fiddlish tailpiece
. Scroll-like dowel stick end.
. Premium curly maple
. Violin Spirit Varnish
All of the wood used on the Violjo is from the same maple block. The veneers used to compose the pot were sawn from the profile of the neck as was the material used to make the bridge. The entire neck including the dowel stick is one piece.
The banjoistic influences present are derived from 19th century American banjo makers such as: James Ashborn (design of the 5th peg area and it's blending into the neck), William Boucher Jr. (use of early-style cast nuts inside the pot and on the hooks), and A. C. Fairbanks (early heel cut leading into the lower scroll).
String-length ~ 26"
Body dimensions ~ 12" x 3"
Rim composition ~3 ply, top grade curly maple. Each layer hand bent over a hot iron, fit and glued with traditional hide glue on an outside mold.
Thickness ~ 5/16"
Scroll patterned after Antonio Stradivari 'Archinto' Viola ca. 1696.
Slightly enlarged to accommodate banjo string spacing.
The scroll, neck and dowel are of one piece, top grade Curly Maple. The layers of the body were taken from the same piece as was the bridge.
The Baroque style pegs are unstained Boxwood.
The fifth peg feature is taken from early banjos by James Asborn. The staggered fret arrangement is typically common of the period.
Mirrored heel scroll also patterned after 'Archinto'
Inside bracket nuts and hook nuts are cast as on W. Boucher Jr. banjos
|The scroll end to the dowel stick was derived from an early tackhead banjo as was the fancy neck wedge shown in the picture above."|
Added Note by Hank Schwartz:
This banjo exceeds my greatest expectations. The look, feel and sound of it constantly gladden my heart. The balance, in the lap and in the hand is perfect. I feel genuinely blessed to have been part of this more than enjoyable project and to be able to live with such an instrument. Luke's openness to my evolving ideas, his meticulous attention to detail and his consummate skill as a violin and banjo maker made this my best banjo project ever!
Luke Mercier Handmade Banjos
346 Bateman Road.
RR1 Spring Brook, Ontario