Building a Better Banjo in Heards, Virginia
In what was once a one room school house, built on the side of
Heard's Mountain in 1900, where sons and daughters of those who
worked in the mountainside apple orchards learned their "3 Rs"
and minded their "P's and Q's", you will now find a myriad of
woodworking equipment, handtools, and supplies suitable for
creating the world's finest banjos and other stringed
instruments. The young students have long since been replaced
by seasoned luthiers who are known around the world as the
master craftsmen of Stelling Banjo Works.
About 35 miles from Heards (as the crow flies) is the historic
site of Appomatox Court House. This is considered by many to be
the place where, in 1831, Joel Sweeney invented the 5-string
banjo. There are, of course, intellectual discussions as to
whether he invented it, developed it, or just played this thing
in a new and unique way. Undoubtedly, Joel Sweeney was inspired
by the beauty and serenity of these mountains just as we are
today. What better place could there be than right here in the
midst of a forest, surrounded by walnut, maple, and cherry
trees, the very wood from which our banjos are made?
In addition to finding wood locally, some fancy varieties of
walnut and curly maple are obtained from the forests of
California and Oregon. In either case, the raw slabs of wood
are cut to useable dimensions and then air dried in a
climate-controlled room for up to five years. Once the wood is
dry enough to use, it is milled to the dimensions of a banjo
neck and aged further. After a few months, if the neck blank
appears stable, it will continue through the six to eight week
process of becoming a finished banjo.
All Stelling banjo necks are final-shaped by hand which is one
of the reasons they are so easy to play. Another hallmark of
Stelling banjos is the hand work that goes into our resonators.
Whether it is just the simple elegance of ivoroid/black/ivoroid
binding or the artistic carving or inlaying available on
several models, the craftsmanship is clean and consistent.
Once the neck, resonator, and rim are sanded out, stained (if
necessary), and sprayed with a virtually indestructible finish,
they are all sanded and buffed to a glossy sheen. At that
point, the components are ready for assembly and final set-up
by Geoff Stelling.
What Makes Stelling the Ultimate Banjo?
Since 1959, while still in high school, Geoff Stelling has been
either playing the banjo or trying to improve on its design.
Stelling Banjo Works was established in 1974 while Geoff was
stationed at a Naval Base in San Diego. As a semi-professional
banjo and bass player in various bluegrass bands since the
mid-60's, Geoff developed an ear for banjo tone and
experimented with the mechanics of banjo construction until he
patented a revolutionary design that his banjos are famous for
today: the wedge-fitted pot assembly.
Prior to Geoff's design,
tone rings and flanges were machined to slip-fit over the wood
rim. Such a design proved to be less than perfect when changes
of humidity and temperature manifested themselves as changes in
tone and volume. The patented Stelling wedge-fit assures the
best possible tone ring and flange to wood rim fit possible
under all circumstances. The resulting purity of tone and
unrelenting power are unparalleled.
In addition to a structurally superior pot assembly, Stelling
has designed and patented a most useful "pivot-pin" tailpiece
for the banjo. Strings are easily changed without having to
thread any of them through a hole in the tailpiece because each
string has its own access slot. The tailpiece is also
completely adjustable six ways: up, down, left, right, in and
Another feature unique to Geoff's banjos is the Stelling
bridge. The birch is chosen for its grain direction and number
of growth rings. The shape is artistic yet functional with a
design that maximizes volume and minimizes harsh overtones. The
standard height is the popular 11/16 inch size, although 3/4 or
5/8 inch are available on special request (requiring a slight
heel adjustment during assembly).
Since intonation has been an inherent problem on stringed
instruments, Geoff has since devised a compensated nut that
nearly perfects the intonation on all models of Stelling
banjos. By selectively notching the nut slots to different
lengths, relative string distance from the nut to each fret is
adjusted. This adjustment to the nut is one of several final
operations Geoff Stelling performs on every banjo.
When each banjo is strung up and adjusted to standard Stelling
specs (which includes the installation of fifth string "RR"
spikes), Geoff puts on his picks and plays a few tunes. At this
time, any minor adjustments deemed necessary are made and the
banjo is ready to be shipped out.
Some specifications of Stelling banjos are as follows.
Weight: 11.7 pounds on average, depending on wood;
Width of nut: 1 1/4";
Thickness at first fret: 3/4";
Peghead overlay: Ebony.
All models come with a Stelling case and a limited lifetime warranty.