Dry cleaning is best
Banjo Head Cleanup
© Frank Ford, 11/29/09; Photos by FF
Here's a little piece on how you can do a pretty good job of cleaning a dirty skin head. Now, one thing to remember is that really old skin heads can become seriously discolored with dirt, oil, dust and whatever gets on them, and it may not be possible to clean them effectively. But even reasonably "young" banjo heads accumulate a lot of grunge from the player's fingers, and they can be cleaned rather easily with a little careful attention.
This antique Whyte Laydie banjo has a lot of built up finger grunge, and it looks mighty yuckky, if you ask me:
The owner's kid did some nice decorative painting, so I'll try not to disturb any of that artwork, of course.
My first operation will be to scrape off as much of that heavy surface dirt as I can, so I'll prepare a single edge razor blade for the job. I take hold the blade against the smooth shank of a screwdriver at about a 45 degree angle, and strike it along the length of the blade to roll the cutting edge into a slight bur:
If you're soing this for the first time, it may take a few tries to get a nice little bur - just pull your finger or thumb across the blade to feel the bur:
Next, I bend the blade, bur side out into a curve, so when I scrape the head, I won't drag one of the blade's corners and cut the head:
As a bit of extra protection, I tape over the corners:
Now, I can scrape the head with the blade held almost vertically, and the fine sharp edge just lifts the dirt right off, without damaging the head:
If I were to dig in too hard, I suppose I could accidentally thin the head, so I take it easy.
See the nice pile of shavings:
My second most powerful cleaner is #0000 steel wool, and I use it to scrub lighter patches of the dirty head, being sure to go ever so lightly the delicate painted spots:
Here's a big deal - BE SURE TO GET OIL FREE STEEL WOOL. Most steel wool is processed with oil, and that oil will stain a skin head for sure. I get the oil free fine steel wool that comes from Belgium. LMI is among the sources for that stuff, often sold under the "Liberon" brand.
For a final detailing and evening out of the job, I turn to my old friend, "Pink Pearl." This eraser, common from childhood and stationery suppliers, is not only the best light duty banjo head cleaner, but it also makes a terrific samall size reslient sanding block. For lightly soiled skin heads, and plastic ones, too, Pinky is often up to the entire job:
Now, that looks better, I think:
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