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 The young students have long since been replaced by seasoned luthiers who are known around the world as the master craftsmen of Stelling Banjo Works.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 out.
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″; Fingerboard: Ebony; Peghead overlay: Ebony. All models come with a Stelling case and a limited lifetime warranty.