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1905 Fairbanks Whyte Laydie gets
A "Face Transplant"
© Frank Ford, 2009; Photos by FF

Here's another fine mess. As a result of decomposition caused by the dyeing process used to blacken hardwood to simulate ebony, this fine old Fairbanks Whyte Laydie #2 five-string banjo's neck has split end-to end. While the fingerboard and center lamination have cracked along the entire length of the neck, only the peghead suffered dramatic damage:

Some of the inlay had dropped out and was lost, and a fair bit of the peghead veneer is missing as well. From the back side, you can see right through the top part of the peghead to the towel on my workbench:

Purchased from Jon Lundberg in Berkeley in the 1960s, this banjo was fitted at that time with 4:1 tuners supplied by Chuck Ogsbury of Ode Banjos in Boulder, CO. It still belongs to the same working old-time musician who's played countless gigs with it since then, although since the damage first became evident some years ago, it has been parked in its case.

Now with the availability of cyanoacrylates, we can soak in the thin adhesive to stabilize the dyed veneer and its matrix of internal cracks, and that's exactly what I did over the length of the neck, working mostly from the back where the cracks were most accessible. I didn't take photos of that process because it's really pretty boring to look at. Suffice it to say I felt pretty good about the result of that operation. The fingerboard was not loose from the neck, which was perfectly straight and solid feeling despite the cracks in the center veneer and the fingerboard itself. Filled with cyanoacrylate, those components are about as solid as I can make them.

The peghead is the vulnerable part, for sure, and with string tension or simple bumping of the pegs, the whole thing can split wide open, just as this one did some years ago. My first task was to restore the alignment of the two halves, stabilize the peghead and reinforce it against further damage. I glued center back together the best I could using regular aliphatic resin wood glue, clamping it to a flat plate at the same time:

It was easy enough to pry off the semi-rotted peghead face overlay - it just crumbled apart as I worked a thin knife under:

Over on the milling machine, I clamped the neck in the mill vise, and blocked the end of the peghead to stabilize it and keep it from vibrating as I cut a deep recess about two-thirds of the way through the depth of the maple:

I made a heavy maple spline with diagonal grain to span the split in the peghead, glued it in place, and leveled it to the surface of the peghead:

OK - here's the big deal. A donor appeared from way back in the piles of "stuff we never throw away at Gryphon." It's a seriously damaged tenor neck that has only one really good part - the peghead overlay:

As luck would have it, the engraving even seems to have been done by the same hand. Only a slight difference appears in the expression of the Gryphon's face. Pretty cool!

After the general anaesthetic took hold, I cut the face off the donor's head:

That's a big heavy cast iron angle plate I have clamped to the table as a fence, and I'm pressing good an hard against it to make sure to get a clean cut.

With the overaly clamped upside down on a board, I was able to chisel and scrape off the slight amount of maple left when I made the cut:

I made sure to cut a bit below the surface of the overlay because the donor peghead also had some of that same deterioration, and was cupped slightly. Once I had the back of the overlay cleaned up, it was of uniform original thickness.

Glued on the five string neck and with its outline cleaned up to match, the replacement overlay looks pretty good. There are two areas of mismatch, though. One was just above the nut, where the tenor neck had been slightly off-center and narrower. Additionally, the two upper tuner holes didn't quite line up:

I had some nice scraps of that spongy wood to use to patch that section by the nut:

I glued up that small section and trimmed it to match.

For some while now, I'd been thinking about working out a technique to "move" peghead holes, and I figured this banjo would be a great test case.

In my garage at home, I have a pretty well equipped machine shop by now, having spent the last five years acquiring tools and learning to use them for making tools, fixtures and a variety of projects. This project is a very delicate plug cutter.

To start, I chucked up a piece of 1/2" diameter W-1 water hardening tool steel, cut the diameter down at the end, drilled and bored it to a shade over 3/8" diameter:

The cutting lip is the same depth as the thickness of the Whyte Laydie's peghead overlay, and quite thin - .0065" at this point"

I filed teeth on the end of my new little plug cutter, using one of those cool Japanese saw files that look a bit like feathers:

Once I formed the teeth, I figured I could thin them just a bit more, so I did a final outside cut on the lathe, resulting in a plug cutter that would take only a .004" kerf:

I did my usual trick for heat treating the teeth. I heated just the teeth with my propane torch until they glowed bright orange, and dunked the end of the tool immediately into a cup of motor oil:

By quenching water hardening steel in oil, I get a result that gives me a decent degree of hardness without the brittle quality that would require drawing the temper back in the oven or with a torch. As with so many of the tools I make, this one won't see much use, so if the blade doesn't have the best balance of hardness and toughness; it simply doesn't matter.

Once more on the lathe I cleaned up the blackened surface and polished the teeth with a super fine diamond hone:

Back at Gryphon, I set up to use my new tool. First I clamped a hunk of pine in the milling vise, and drilled a 3/8" hole:

Into the hole went a 3/8" diameter dowel that matched the diameter of the tuner holes in the back of the banjo peghead:

Now, with the dowel precisely located on the axis of the chuck, I was able to hold the peghead on the dowel, flat against the pine board, and plunge my new little plug cutter right down to the joint between the maple and the peghead overlay, with the certainty that it will be exactly centered over the hole in the maple:

See, a nice tiny crescent cut:

With a light tap, that crescent piece dropped right out - intact, despite the delicate condition of the old dyed wood:

Just for show, I stuck a tuner in the hole so you could see how much of the original hole peeks out above the washer:

By carefully moving the locator plug on the mill, I was able to center the cutter right where I wanted it to remove a section around that old hole:

This time, I chiseled out the remainder from the front side:

Then I was able to turn that origianl crescent piece around, and glue it in place, effectively moving the hole downward to center over the hole in the maple peghead:

A bit of leveling of all that cyanoacrylate and a couple of wipes of shellac give a nice view of what's to come:

Not only is the peghead rebuilt to be stronger, it has a new face veneer that looks just as old as the rest of the banjo - because it is.

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