Resources:

Seattle Fabric Company The place to go for case fabric, straps, seam sealer, and other case supplies.
McMaster-Carr An excellent source for metal bar and rod, and lots of other good hardware and materials.
Stewart-McDonald Company This is not only a great source for banjo parts and tools, but also for information on banjo
construction.
What do you do if you are hooked on music, and want to take a banjo with you backpacking? You need a banjo that is light,
compact and has a rain-proof, cushioned case. Weight is one of the most important restrictions, because it is tough enough to
carry all your gear and food in the mountains. Some backpackers even remove all the tags from their clothing to save weight. I
could not find a banjo that fits these requirements, so I made my own.
Here is a banjo that weighs 3 pounds, including case. Its main size and
weight-saving feature is a head made from a cat-food can! First, think about a
Dobro: it has a resonator made of spun aluminum. A cat-food can is also made of
spun aluminum, weighs very little, and eliminates the need for a heavy pot, brackets
and tension ring. This banjo has a tone that sounds like a banjo, but is rather quiet.
It is about the same volume as the Martin backpacker guitar, which is about right
for a quiet mountain backpacker’s camp. How about a bigger, steel can for the
tone? It is not as loud, and sounds awful. One catch: make sure to wash the can
very well, so that the bears don’t want to rip apart your banjo in the middle of the
night!
scale drawing, click for a printable enlargement.
fold-out armrest
Other features also make this banjo light and portable enough for backpacking. My first version of cat-can backpacking banjo
weighed 3.75 pounds (with case), which was too heavy. More ways were needed to reduce the weight. Carbon fiber neck
reinforcement rods resist bending of the neck. Tuning pegs are also heavy, so instead I made some “keyless tuners”, which are
used in some brands of pedal steel guitar. These tuners weigh less than half that of a set of mini Grover tuners, and yet are
accurate and compact. The banjo is mostly made of maple, for strength and dimensional stability.
back view
5th string anchor near
the fifth fret
The strings start with the loop end at the nut, and the tuners are behind the bridge. With no peg-head
above the nut, the case can be made like a sheath. The banjo slides into the end of the case, and a cover
closes off the case. It is carried vertically, with the neck down. With plastic-backed nylon outer fabric,
and seam-sealer applied to the seams, it can then keep the banjo dry in the rain.

This banjo requires some woodworking abilities, but the construction is much simpler than many
instruments. The ebony fingerboard was purchased pre-cut for the frets. A rosewood fingerboard will
save you a few dollars, and cost you all kinds of aggravation with the finish drying so slowly due to the
oiliness of the wood. The Stewart-McDonald Company has lots of free information on their website
such as fretting, nut adjustment, neck reinforcement and finishing.
The neck is laminated from two pieces of maple to minimize the chance of warping. The body is glued
up of blocks of maple, and then cut out with a bandsaw. If you don’t have a bandsaw, 20 minutes with
a friend’s bandsaw will do the trick. With the sides ¼” thick, and the face and back 3/16” thick, this
contributes to the low weight of the banjo. Lighter woods and a thinner body would save a little weight,
but would lose some important dimensional stability and sturdiness of the instrument.

I actually developed the case before the banjo. My friend Ray got a Martin Backpacker guitar, and was
disappointed that there was not a case available that was suitable for backpacking. I made for him this
type of case, weighing 10 oz. Then I realized that we would go backpacking, he would have a guitar,
and I would be without a banjo. All of the banjos that I could find available were too big, too heavy,
without a backpacking case and often had a shortened scale.
Head, where the other
four strings anchor
tuning pegs
case
banjo and case
inside before top is
attached
The case is made of laminated closed-cell foam for padding. This ¼” foam is used for sleeping bag
pads. The design of the case is just as important as the design of the banjo, considering the importance
of saving weight. It also must protect the instrument in a rather harsh environment. First, a form was
made from scrap wood shaped like the banjo. The foam was formed around it, gluing the layers of foam
together with 3M “Hi-Strength 90” Spray Adhesive. By the time the second layer is glued to the first, the
resulting case holds its shape and gives a well-padded ½” thick case. An inner liner made of nylon is
soft on the finish, and allows the banjo to slide easily into the case. Even if you have never used a
sewing machine, if you can do the woodworking then you can also handle the sewing.

This banjo is an enjoyable project to make, and now campfires can be very entertaining. I just need to
figure out what else I can leave out of my pack so that I can carry the banjo. My clothing tags don’t
weigh much; maybe they have tent poles made of cat food cans?
click to enlarge
mp3 of Vic playing When You're Smiling