Choice of head
The options are
Mylar heads, Brown Dog Banjos sells Remo Weather King which have a plastic film welded to an aluminium ring
Natural vellum heads, Brown Dog Banjo sells Goat Skin or Calf skin which have to be lapped round a brass or galvanised steel ring.
Plastic heads provide stability in wet or humid conditions the different finishes produce a range of sounds.
Traditional vellum heads are vulnerable to humidity, rain and drink spillage but have a sound of their own and are still preferred by many banjoist.
Brown Dog Banjos offers a choice from seven Remo banjo head finishes, from brightest to darkest sound, clear, cloudy, ebony, bottom coated, top coated, renaissance, fibreskyn.
Not all sizes are available in every finish.a full range of head sizes from 8” to 12 2/16” in Top Coated, Fibreskyn and Renaissance heads and a selection the most popular sizes in Bottom Coated, Cloudy, Clear and Ebony.
If the size you require is not available in your choice of finish in the web shop if you are willing to wait 6 - 12 weeks Brown Dog Banjos can supply other heads from Remo Production List. Remo will also supply one off heads in non standard production sizes to your specification at a price. Please email the diameter diameter, collar height and finish required for a price quote and and estimated delivery date. Pre payment will necessary for special orders.
Head Measurement plastic heads
Measure the rim with the head off, measure it in 4 directions take an average. The rim is the hoop the head is stretched over, measure past the curves or slopes on the edge to the verticals. This is the head diameter you need to order, a Remo head will have an internal 1/16" larger in diameter order to allow for fitting.
The crown height also known as collar height or head height is the distance from the top of the aluminium ring the mylar is welded into (flesh hoop) to the top of the head.
There are three crown heights available.
Low 3/8" Medium 7/16" High 1/2"
Arch top banjos usually require a low crown, if the tension hoop is over half an inch wide where the strings pass over it, select a medium crown.
Flat top banjos with a plain tension hoop that has no cut out where the string pass over, To have the head flush with the top of the tension hoop measure the width of the tension hoop and select a head with that crown height. With some tailpieces a head flush with the top of the tension hoop will come into contact with the head which is best avoided, Select a head 1/16" or 1/8" less than the width of the tension hoop.
Flat top banjos with a head that has a cut out where the strings pass over measure from the bottom of the tension hoop to the bottom of the cut away and select the head with closest crown height. This will bring the head up to flush with the bottom of the string cut away.
This covers most banjos but there may be exceptions.
Heads for East German Banjos
These banjos were produced by Weltton and sold under their own name, they were also sold under a number of other brands including Kay. Head made to fit these banjos are no longer available.
Replacing the head presents a problem because of the construction Remo heads they do not fit directly on this banjo. This is because the original heads have a 1.5 mm lip on the inside of the plastic ring to which the film is welded (“flesh hoop”), the Remo head does not have this lip. With these banjos a Remo head that fits the rim is to small for the tension hoop, a head which fit the tension hoop will collapse under pressure when tensioned.
The ideal answer would be to fit a new head of the original make. Unfortunately I cannot find a source for them.
To get over this problem I stick a piece of 8mm x 1.5mm guitar binding to the inside of the Remo aluminium ring (flesh hoop) with super glue. Another option is to stick a 1.5mm (1/16") veneer on the out side of the rim.
Measure the inside diameter of the tension hoop in 4 direction and take an average take away 1/16 of an inch. That is the size of the head you require, most commonly 11 3/16" low crown.
You will also need medium super glue, 1.7 m x 8mm x1.5mm white guitar binding, also a cyano-acrylic activator is essential and de-bonder may prove useful
Cut a piece of binding to fit round the inside of the Aluminium flesh hoop, a small gap will not be a problem stick it in place with the super glue use clamps or clothes pegs to hold it in place then spray with activator.
If you get wrong use the de-bonder and start again. Keep your glue closed while using the activator as a minute amount in contact with the glue will solidify the whole bottle by the next time you need it.
I take returns of undamaged goods for swaps plus post or refund less post. Cut the bags carefully please in case you need to return.
Calf and goat vellum Heads
Brown Dog Banjos supply natural off white vellum heads produced in the UK from 10” to 15” in diameter and supply fitting instructions with each purchase. You need a vellum 3” larger than the finished head size to allow for lapping.
Vellum heads are supplied with lapping instructions.
Lapping a vellum head.
You have chosen and purchased your vellum, you have stripped your pot down and while you can get at the bits that are really difficult, you have cleaned and polished everything refitted and tightened you bracket shoes making sure they are square.
Take your dry vellum and with a hole punch, a paper punch works if a leather punch is not available, make a series of holes round the edge of the vellum about 3/8” or 1/2” from the edge and 1”to 1 ½” apart, then put your vellum in cold water for an hour, blot the excess moisture with a clean towel, then thread a piece of white string through the holes.
Lay the vellum flat on the clean towel with the side you want showing on top, take the flesh hoop which you have salvaged from the old head and lay it on the vellum roughly centralised and pull the string taut so that the edge folds over the flesh hoop, try to keep the lap even all round tighten until the vellum is taut then tie off the strings, make sure there are no folds over the edge by spreading the vellum evenly round the hoop. Place this on the rim with the lap up and the tension hoop on top so it is evenly resting on the flesh hoop.
If you have a set of four to eight tension hooks slightly long than the ones that fit the banjo, fit them diagonally opposite and evenly spaced round the head take up the slack on the thread until the flesh is just held firm and is level, evenly placed on the rim, then tighten in single full turns each diagonal pair until you can fit the banjos own hooks..
If you do not have long bolts press down evenly with a piece of 1” x 3” x 14” wood till the head stretches to allow you to fit the bolts. When you have fitted all the hooks check the tension hoop is evenly level all round, that is the same amount showing above the top of the vellum on the inside of the tension hoop.
I tighten from this point with a ½ turn on each nut round the head after the first nut the next one will be slightly loose but just do a ½ turn on each, do not finger tighten then 1/2 aturn. Start at the neck and travel round in the same direction till the head is about ¼” from the inside top of the tension hoop check all the time the head is level within the hoop. At some point the string will become tight then is the time to untie it. If the head is drying out at any stage you can spray with clean water, a well cleaned out kitchen cleaner spray can be used.
At this point trim the lap use a Stanley blade the sort that fits a scraper that is used to remove paint from glass either loose or in a Stanley knife or a narrow snap of blade knife do not cut towards another part of your hand . DO NOT CUT BY PRESSING AGAINST THE TENSION HOOP. Pull the lap away from the hoop at a10 to 15 degrees, cut lightly partway through them vellum as near flush with the top of the head as possible, pulling the tip of the blade over the vellum I do 1 to 2 inches then push the tip through the vellum with the blunt diagonal to the tension hoop and push the sharp of the blade into the partially cut vellum. Take your time and take care not to scratch your tension hoop. Work your way right round and remove all the lap.
Continue to tighten the head as before till it is about 3/16” from the top of the tension hoop make sure it is even. Leave the head to dry out naturally, when dry you can pull the banjo up the pitch you require. Some people advocate tuning G# other say tighten till the feet of the bridge barely dent the vellum some old tyme player prefer less tension. See head tuning. If when it is tight enough it has not pulled the head to 1/8” from the top of the hoop or level with the string notch or the hoop is proud of the finger board when the head is tight enough you will need to wet the head little let it dry and try again until you are happy with how it lies with the finger board.
Where the banjo has an over shot finger board pull the head up till the dowel slides in and the finger board is just clear of the of the tension hoop rim.
Tuning a vellum
Flick the underneath of the vellum about1/4 way to the centre and listen for the after ring, hum that note into the back of the vellum and raise and lower the pitch till you get the most vigorous response, find that note on a tuned instrument or hum that note into a tuner to find out what pitch you have reached, tighten or loosen the head, (undo the nuts and thump the vellum with the heel of the hand), repeat till you have the pitch required. Your head will pass through at least one position of G# an octave to low, it will give a crisp sound like a military snare drum when tight enough.
This not the gospel according to Bob Keeble of fitting a banjo vellum, its is how I do it, give it a try if you know or think of easier more effective technique let me know.
If you spot any errors let me know.