The banjo men: At woodworking class, skills are honed, instruments produced
Jack Connell will never play his new banjo.
He expects to hang it on a wall inside his Delmar home, maybe just talk about it. He’ll show off the silvery shamrock inlays on the back of the peg head, the copper-colored Irish two-pence coin flattened on the pot. If visitors look hard enough, they’ll find the small garment button from the 1800s — “Boston Elevated Railway” — on the five-string instrument. Jack is from Boston.
Connell has spent the past year making the banjo in a class sponsored by the Northeastern Woodworkers Association. Guys have gathered twice a month at a workshop located inside Precision Valve and Automation in Halfmoon.
They’ve carved, rasped, sanded, finished and installed strings, bridges, pegs and other parts for a bluegrass companion. A new group of men started projects last October, and will be strumming instruments by year’s end.
The classes have inspired the students’ interests in music and woodworking.
“I dream about this stuff,” said Connell, 70, a former senior youth counselor for the state Division for Youth. “I used to dream about women. Now I dream about banjos.”
Ken Evans, a retired Stillwater Central Schools chemistry teacher, instructs the class. On a recent Friday morning, he was setting the bridge piece over the circular pot, using a ruler and pencil. Strings ran down the fretboard and crossed the bridge attachment to the bottom part of the instrument. With three other men standing quietly around him, Evans looked like a surgeon on the job.
Evans developed an interest in the banjo through late night television — actor George Segal used to regularly appear with Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show,” and Evans saw one of George’s segments.
“I said to my wife, ‘When I retire, I’m going to learn how to play the banjo,’ ” Evans said.
There was already an old family banjo in the house. Evans read a book about the instrument, which included a chapter on the instrument’s construction. He made his own, and soon had a couple friends over to the house for more banjo building.
“Players of most instruments find so much joy in playing instruments with the hands that made it,” Evans said. “Some of our people are just building a banjo. They have no interest in playing it. They just want to hang it on the wall and look at it.”
It’s not exactly a lost art, but Evans wonders if many young people will ever take up the craft. “There are no wood shops in schools any more,” he said. And banjos do come with nostalgia — perfect for old songs such as “Satin Doll,” “Sweet Georgia Brown” and “Oh, You Beautiful Doll.”
Many of the finished banjos will be on display next month at the Northeastern Woodworkers Association’s 23rd annual Woodworkers Showcase. More than 500 wood pieces — including furniture, toys, carvings and miniatures — will be in the show, scheduled for the Saratoga Springs City Center March 29-30.
Andy Foster’s banjo will not be ready by then. Foster, 81, who lives in Niskayuna, is still manufacturing his five-string. He had neck, fretboard and tuning rod in hand during a recent class.
“You get wrapped up in it; it’s very absorbing,” Foster said of the work.
He looks forward to the three-hour class, which meets twice a month. As a retiree — Foster worked 16 years as Ellis Hospital’s director of communications before retiring in 1997 — Foster believes it’s important to keep busy. “You’ve got to find something that gets you out of the house,” he said.
Wood experts George Jones, 63, of Brunswick, and John Heimke, 67, of Troy, are helping Evans in the instruction phases.
“You’ve got to have patience, and you’ve got to go step by step,” Jones said. “It takes approximately 80 hours to make a banjo.”
If someone worked about eight or nine hours a day for eight or nine days, he’d have a banjo a little quicker. Jones would rather take his time. He believes working with the guys has helped him become a better woodworker.
“You learn a lot by instructing,” Jones said. “You remember a lot of things as you’re instructing someone else how to do it.”
Heimke, a professor of genetics and molecular DNA at Russell Sage College in Troy, likes the practical applications that come with the project. “You can do something with it,” he said, preferring a homemade banjo over smaller wooden pieces. “You can use it. It’s just not a dust collector.”
Howard Reznikoff, 85, of Austerlitz, acknowledged that finished appearances are important. But he said the banjo also must have aural appeal. “It not only has to look good,” said Reznikoff, a former college computer center director. “It has to sound good.”
Tysen Sherry, 28, who works with animals, drives over two hours from Westchester County to Halfmoon to make each NWA class. When he learned about the course, all spots had been filled. He asked Evans if he could attend the classes just as a spectator; Evans said if Sherry was willing to make the drive north, he would be a class participant.
Sherry’s banjo is nearly done. Unlike Jack Connell, he plays the instrument. He’s looking forward to strumming it for the first time.
“I think my fingers are going to be sweaty,” he said. “But I think I’m going to like the way that it sounds.”
Connell might listen. But he might be too busy working on his second banjo.
“Nothing like matching banjos on a wall,” he said.
Reach Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 395-3124 or at email@example.com.