Date: Mon, 1 Oct 2001
Subject: skin head stuff

I just put my first skin head on a banjo.

I had been warned by many good friends that this is an awful task, but that it's also some kind of test of courage, a blood ritual which banjo players must endure.

So, I put off doing it as long as I could. I found other tasks to do. Actually spent time doing another job -- yardwork -- that I had managed to avoid like the plague. I went to school soccer games. I painted 3/4ths of the house. I stripped and refinished furniture. I asked endless esoteric questions about flesh hoops and brazing of BANJO-L experts, and spent hours studying responses to those questions. I hunted down websites.

Then, I ran out of excuses. I ran out of other jobs (though I volunteered to put linoleum on the floors of every kitchen in the neighborhood).

So, I got me a skin (the modern, urban way: hunting one down right to front door of Bob Smakula's store.)

I lined up my arsenal of pliers, exacto knives, long bolts, etc.

I soaked that skin until it felt workable. Cold water. Patience. I found it helped to rub the water into the skin rather than just let it soak. I'm sure that this could be explained scientifically. But I'm not going to go down that route. Rubbing the skin under running water gave me a sense that I had some control over this foreign substance.

As it turned out, that was the last time the skin was under my control. Trying to attach a wet skin to a wooden hoop is essentially the same experience as trying to rope and brand a live calf. Now I know there are some cowboys out there who will dispute this. And I have little interest in challenging the credentials of these real life cowboys. However, it strikes me that anyone who disputes my "calf skin/live calf" hypothesis has either never actually targeted a calf from horseback, or been wrestled to the ground by a dead, inert, but very wet calf skin.

I'd like to be able to say something to the effect that the next step -- which is placing the skin on the head, pressing the flesh hoop onto the rim just right, and setting the tension hoop into place -- is just a matter of science, physics, leverage, tactics, and so forth.

Unfortunately, all things rational count for nothing at this stage. For each step that makes sense, there's a follow-on part of the drill that defies logic, scoffs at gravity, or ignores the innate characteristics of wet hide.

There are several tricks I can recommend, some of which are mentioned in the useful articles and website discussions by people such as Bob Smakula. Others would not necessarily occur to individuals trained to think in linear, reasoned, logical ways:

1. Get a large enough piece of hide so that you have enough overlapping beyond the tension hoop so you can get a good grip and stretch the hide over the flesh hoop, into position behind the tension hoop, clear out the air bubbles by working to get the skin tight. Just have enough leeway to make it easy to grab onto the "threaded" hide with a pincer.

2. When wrestling with the hide, as you try to pull the skin through the tension hoop and into position, don't wrest your palm or any other part of the hand on the hide while looking for leverage over the skin. That defeats the purpose of this drill.

3. Be prepared to make at least one mistake, and to have several things beyond your control go wrong.

4. When trimming the excess skin at the end of assembly, use a blade over which one has perfect control. For some, including me, an exacto knife isn't always the most easily managed cutting tool. A sharpened surgical knife, or dissecting tool might work better.

5. Let it dry when you're in a position to keep an eye on it. loosen the tension as necessary, or pull the plug on a failed experiment. Leaving it to dry overnight eliminates the option of checking in on the top during the course of drying to regulate tension, etc.

6. Don't let your 120 pound Rhodesian Ridgeback drool on the thing, though recognize that dogs over 70 pounds drool where they please.

7. Make certain that you don't wait too long before putting a skin on another banjo. I plan to do another tomorrow.