Staining and fitting a vellum.
Hello again , I was talking to a mate the other day and we got onto banjo stuff. Anyway, he asked if there was a proper , or prefered way to fit a banjo vellum / skin. Meaning , if you examine most calf or goat skin vellums, you often find one side is rougher than the other. Should the smooth side always face out , or should it be the rough side? ( Yep, I really do have these chats , I dont think MI5 will ever be asking me to wear a ‘wire’ 🙂 Now personally , I really don’t think it makes any noticeable difference to tone, I feel it’s just a matter of personal taste and esthetics. The smoother side (sometimes refered to as the grain ) , is the outside of the animal . This is the side that had the hair on and you can see the skin pores . The rough side is the inside ( blood and guts etc ) . What does this mean to the banjo player ? Ok , well the rough side will pick up dirt more quickly and may pick up the sound of your hand on the head a bit more. The smooth side will be well…. smoother ! 🙂 , possibly stay clean a bit longer and not give you quite as much right hand noise. I think it’s probably fair to say, I tend to see them mounted smooth side out for tenor banjo players ( who often prefer smooth , un frosted or bottom coated Remo heads anyway ) but on old time banjos it can go either way.
Ok, I thought I’d just run through fitting a vellum for anyone who feels like having a go . I decided to tint this vellum , using an alcohol based wood stain. I just wanted that particular effect for this banjo. You can completely skip over that bit , if you prefer .
The vellum (skin) before staining.
The pot I’m fitting the skin to is a newly made one ( if you look you can see I haven’t cut the hole for the dowel stick yet) . So at the very least, you will want to loosen the neck on your banjo. Or better still, take it right off and put it safely to one side . You will find it much easier to work without it. Also , as this particular pot hasn’t been together yet , the hooks are shown detached . On your banjo you only really need to slacken them right off. You don’t have to completely remove them from the pot, although personally , I prefer to remove about half of them . I find it makes the job easier , a whole set of hooks and nuts jangling around can get in you way a bit.
What you’ll need:
Tools to remove your banjo’s neck . So that would include a screw driver , maybe a spanner and a nail if you have co-ordinator rods.
Sharp craft knife ( possibly scissors too )
Bowl of water.
The flesh hoop is shown in the middle
You may also need a flesh hoop. This is the wire band the edge of the vellum is wrapped around. If you’re replacing an old skin head that has split , you can cut the old wire out and reuse it . But if you banjo was previously fitted with say , a synthetic Remo head , you will have to find or make one that fits. This isn’t a difficult job . You will need a length of soft wire about 3mm ( 1/8″) in section . This will need to be bent into a circle and joined at the ends. The inside of this circle needs to be slightly bigger than your banjo’s pot. The overall size of the finished ring should be roughly the same size as you your banjo’s tension hoop. As for the ends , try and make the join as smooth as you can . If possible , file a chamfer on the ends so the wire meets at an angle and has less of a bump. This can then be bound with cotton thread and covered with tape.
Right, the vellum above that I’ve chosen for this banjo is un bleached goat skin in this case. Vellums can vary quite a bit in appearance and quality and are priced accordingly. Generally speaking goat skin is often at the cheaper end. It can sound great but watch out . It can sometimes get a bit too thick and heavy for some banjos. Calf skin tends to be thinner and often smoother in appearance. They are both available bleached , giving the skin a cleaner , paler appearance . The calf skin is more likely to be free from scar tissue so is often of a more consistent thickness. But a lot of this is down to how carefully the animal was skinned and how much time and care was taken to prepare the skin after removal. Actually, some skinners have moved over to using compressed air to separate the hide from the ( slaughtered )animal . Claiming this is a more effective way of getting an even thickness hide , quickly , with less damage . A small cut is made in the back of the neck, an air line is inserted . The skin is then blown up like a balloon away from the flesh. So it might be fair to say some of the recent price increases are just down to ……………inflation . I’m really sorry .
Ok, so here’s our vellum . Decide which side you prefer the look of and put a mark on it near the edge. A soft pencil or a fine indelible marker is usually ok for this . We will be soaking this skin in a moment and once it’s completely wet it can be difficult to tell which side was rough and which one was smoother, so best to mark it now if you have a preference. Also , once wet you will see your mark from both sides so don’t put a number 11 on there ! 🙂 something like a letter F for front will be easier to read later.
Now , this one is a bit on the small side but I still wanted to use it anyway. I just liked the mottled look of it . You should really use a vellum that’s at least three inches larger in diameter than your banjo . It makes things a lot less fiddly . So if your banjo measures 11 ” , the vellum wants to be at least 14 ” really.
I chose to stain this one a little . I used an alcohol based wood stain which I thinned slightly with methylated spirits ( wood alcohol in the US ) . I just wiped it over both sides of the dry vellum and then let the stain dry for twenty mins. Make sure you wear protective gloves if you do this , this stuff is even better at staining hands. Incidentally, if you do decide to try staining , you ll get more contrast with a blotchy or mottled vellum. Also , the colour difference will be even more on the rough side of the skin.
Note to self: coffee’s on the right. Don’t mix these up.
Next , the vellum is placed in a sink or bowl of water and given about 30mins to an hour to soak. Make sure the whole skin is completely under water. If it keeps floating , weigh it down with glass jars. Make sure the whole thing is completely soaked and softened. If in doubt , just give it a bit longer.
Take the vellum out of the water and place it on an old towel , or clean cloth. Dab off the excess water and position it as you want it to look , on top of your banjo rim. Go for a nice even overhang of skin all around . Then place your flesh hoop on top of the skin. I like to position the join of the flesh hoop so it ends up under the banjo’s tailpiece . This way any slight bump is hidden when the banjo is restrung .
Now, offer up the banjo’s tension hoop . You need to make sure the neck cut away is in the right place , if it has one . This bit gets a bit awkward. You need to tuck the edges of the skin under the inside of the tension hoop , as shown in the picture. This is one reason why it’s easier to fit a vellum that’s got plenty of over hang. Once you’ve done this , get a few hooks in place . They only want to be loose at this stage, just tight enough to hold everything gently in place.
Once you’ve got it held in place , add the other hooks . Now you can begin carefully and gently pulling the skin to remove any wrinkles and bits when it’s bunched up until the whole thing looks smooth.
This is where some guess-work comes in , I’m afraid 🙂 . Gently take up the slack on the hook nuts until your tension hoop has sunk no more than a third of its depth , below the top of the skin. All skins behave slightly differently . So just carefully tighten each nut ( in about an eighth of a turn increments ) in a star pattern around the rim. Make sure the tension hoop is coming down evenly all around the rim. The top of the tension hoop should be an even height above the skin, all away around the rim. The skin will shrink quite a bit as it dries and you don’t want to over tighten it at this stage. On the other hand if it’s too loose now , when it dries your hooks may run out of thread and bottom out before correct head tension is reached. So , aim for about a third of the tension hoop below the head and two thirds showing above it on the inside and you should be in the right ball park.
Next stage is to let this dry slowly. Don’t try and speed it up , be patient. The very last part of the skin to dry is the bit you can’t see. That’s the bit that wraps around the flesh hoop and holds everything in place. So if you try and speed things up with fan heaters or …. Gulp ! …a hair dryer. All that will happen is the middle will shrink while the edge is still damp and it will slip off the flesh hoop. There will be a sickening “thoink ! ” sort of noise and where once was you beautiful smooth English calf skin , ….that you posted on Facebook , you where so proud… Now , a hideous , crinkled popodom of shame stares back at you from its bath towel covered alter , that is your coffee table.
Ok, it’s still not quite the end of the world , we haven’t trimmed anything yet so still have all the extra skin for adjustment. We can always take it all apart and re soak it. In fact, if you are worried you’ve pulled the skin too tight or loose when fitting . You can always put it back in the water at this stage.
If you are pleased with the results and feel confident , we can think about trimming the edge and tidying everything up. There are two main option now. If this is your first try at fitting a vellum , you can just leave the whole thing to dry completely , if you want . Then , either trim around the top with a craft knife or blade as shown in the picture . Or, loosen off all brackets , remove head and carefully cut off excess skin with a sharp pair of scissors. Whichever way you do it, you will need to be very careful not to nick the skin and cause a split when you reassemble the banjo.
In the picture above you can see I’m holding a thin peice of stainless steel against the inside of the tension hoop as I trim the skin. I’m just doing this to prevent the blade from scratching the inside of the tension hoop. A lot of people don’t bother doing this , you don’t have to of course , I just prefer to.
I personally , also prefer to trim the skin before it’s completely dry. I like to trim it after about a day and a half ( maybe a bit less in summer ) , when the skin still feels fairly soft and leathery . I find I get a much neater , easier cut and it all looks better , at least to my eye. I won’t begin to tighten the head at this point though . I’ll leave that until the skin is completely dry and do the tightening gradually over the following days.
Each skin stretches a little differently , but as you go on to fit more you will become a better judge and gain the confidence that comes with experience. So don’t be too shy ! It’s not the total black art some people would have you believe. Just go easy and be patient . Feel free to contact me and let me know how you get on , good luck 🙂