Category: Building a Banjo

Laser and CNC thoughts: Hand work vs. Machine Work

If you are doing luthier work for a hobby you can hand cut templates (and everything else) all the live-long day because it doesn’t matter if you get it right or wrong or even if you ever use it. If you are doing this for a living you will rely on the precision of lasers and CNC machines when producing things in your shop (or purchase them from a reliable source) because you don’t have the luxury of spending 25 times as much labor doing everything by hand. That is the romantic notion of a lot of outsiders looking in.

I’ve even had armchair luthiers who’ve chastised me for not making more of my own tools like clamps, etc. … really? LOL… It just doesn’t make economic sense if that tool is available for purchase and it makes things impossible to keep up with and it damn sure prevents you from making a living wage if you are attempting to shop build everything. So, this pile of templates (as are most things in my shop) are a mix old and new, hand made and laser/CNC made.

If you work for people like myself who handle and own old prewar Gibson banjos (not conversions, but RB’s) then you will get corrected along the way when you make mistakes in your templates, headstock shapes, nuts, neck profiles, etc. Most people who want a banjo neck built for their conversion don’t know what a pre war RB (5-string) Gibson banjo sounds like, feels like or looks like when it comes to the 100s of details that make them up and to make things even more complicated, different years of production between 1925 and 1944 changed things, sometime subtle things that you need to know. Bottom line … you don’t copy a copy, you get your hands on the real thing/s and you pay very close attention to details and you can’t get any more precise than a laser and a CNC when it comes to scanning original factory templates and banjo necks.

I farm out some inlay work now but I am about to start doing all of that in-house because I KNOW what I need an inlay pattern to look like. I work with my current inlay guy and he works with me. The confusion usually comes in when someone other than a pre war person starts complaining about his work not looking the way they THINK it should look. As a result I have a file containing my pattern requirements and the only way to produce that consistently and in a way that makes it affordable to me so that I don’t have to charge my customers $3,200.00 for a banjo neck is to rely on modern technology. It’s a good thing. 🙂

When I hear someone complain that a neck don’t feel right or a particular inlay pattern isn’t right (especially when I know it is a dead on reproduction) it is hard for me to keep my filter working… sometimes it is real hard, LOL. I think if people have an opinion, it shouldn’t be presented in such a way that it convinces other people who are even less knowledgeable than they are that they are right. Some folks get a really mean attitude and are so passionate about what they believe is right that they just go on and on about what is “wrong” with something… and the problem is that everyone is right, just ask ‘em.

I say this in love. Rant over. 🙂 (more…)

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