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A modest restoration for a modest instrument
1960s Kay Banjo Setup
© Frank Ford, 2003; Photos by FF

It's a regular old Kay five string banjo from the 1960s and it was just about the best banjo you could buy for about eighty bucks back then.
No frills, no fancy stuff, and nothing particularly wrong with it, except 30 years of neglect in storage.
With its plain "open back" shell, this is a generic banjo reminiscent of today's Deering Goodtime banjo. The Deering is a better instrument, of course, more solidly made of better materials.
It would be a heavy understatement to say that the action had crept up over the years. As it stands, this banjo was actually unplayable.

While these old Kays are not known for their brilliant tone, there was no reason for it to continue with this original all-maple bridge. The maple top is soft enough to suck up what few high frequencies make their way down the strings. What was needed here was a nice ebony topped banjo bridge.

And, the friction fifth peg is a difficult little piece of hardware that we don't need to suffer any more. It could have been cleaned and oiled, but it would always be a cranky thing to try to tune, so I replaced it with a modern geared peg.
The fun part - clipping off those old rusty strings.
A few quick sideways blows helped to loosen the fifth peg so I could pull it out without chipping the neck or its finish. If I had knocked the peg perpendicular to the neck, I'd run the risk of splitting.
Once it had been loosened a bit, I was able to pry the friction peg out safely.
The fifth string nut is just a simple round head slotted screw. I removed the screw so I could deal with the fingerboard and frets.
These are some crusty rusty frets! Years of sitting around have deposited a heavy layer of corrosion.
I used my Stanley #5 jack plane sanding block and 600 grit waterproof paper to do a quick leveling and cleaning of the frets. Just a few swipes was enough to reassure me that the frets were reasonably level.
Ordinarily, I'd spend some time rounding each of the frets, but this is a very simple instrument, and I don't want the repair bill to climb too high!
So, a nice scrub down with the same 600 grit paper was enough to make them presentable.
Then, a cleaning with naphtha followed by a bit of mineral oil gave the fingerboard a nice look.
The new geared peg fit into the same type hole as the original - with a tapered splined shank, but there was this little brass assembly pin that might have interfered with the insertion.
So, I filed off the ends to keep it from gouging the hole as I pressed the peg in place.
I needed to ream the hole for the new peg which was a bit oversize, so I used my cut off Sears "repairman's reamer."
A few light taps with my plastic hammer and the new geared peg seated nicely.
El Kabong got this one! Instruments that spend a lot of time kicking around often take some hard knocks, so this bent tuner was no surprise.
And, without too much trouble, I was able to bend it back, mostly. It works fine, too.
If it moves, oil it. I always check and often oil open gears when I'm restringing instruments, because they are so often neglected. A bit of oil can easily transform a sticking, slipping gear into one that works as well as new.
To gain a bit more brilliance in the high end, I tightened the head. Gotta be careful with these old lightweight banjos - too much tension can break the head or cause the entire shell to deform with time.
Now, here's a little piece of engineering that literally saved this instrument from the scrap bin. It's a neck angle adjustment that really works. Without it, the repair cost would have been prohibitive
This big coupling nut tightens the neck against the shell.
Once the nut was loose, I was able to rock the neck backward to the correct angle for reasonable action.
Notice how you can see more of that curved shim now that the neck has been tilted back.
I find it convenient to stick the appropriate bridge way down at the end of the shell where the tailpiece mounts. Then, I adjust the neck angle so that a straightedge laid on the frets just touches the top of the bridge. Then, when the bridge is back in position about 1/3 of the way across the head, the action works out just about right.
Replacing the fifth string nut/screw, I filed the slot to make sure the string would bear only on the leading edge.
I did the same at the nut, filing the slots for correct action, and angling the cuts back toward the tuners.
And, I filed the slots backward toward the tailpiece, too, so the strings wouldn't buzz at the bridge.
Now, the banjo has very reasonable action. Thankfully, the neck was quite straight. Without an adjustable truss rod, this banjo would have been impossible to set up if the neck had not been straight.
And, the nice ebony topped bridge coaxed a bit more high end response out of this modest instrument.

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