Sharleen Simmons turns a cookie tin into a banjo.
Banjos, ukuleles, mandolins, oh my! If you’re anything like me, you may have a slight obsession with musical instruments. To feed this addiction I often search the interweb for new, interesting, and cheap instruments. That’s where I came across the 4-string cookie tin banjo. Brilliant! I may not be able to afford all the instruments I want, but I sure can try and make them—and so can you.
First, the fun part: finding a cookie tin. Call up every granny you know. You’re bound to strike one, and maybe even get some hard candy in the process. If Nan doesn’t pull through, your next stop is going to be the local second-hand and antique shops.
Make sure the cookie tin is between 10-12’ in diameter or length. Sure, you may get some funny looks running around the store with your measuring tape—I know I did—but that’s all part of the fun. You also want to look at the sturdiness of the tin. Older tins are often made of thicker metal and are stronger. Finally, you should consider the shape. I recommend a round tin. It’s going to be less likely to warp than a rectangular tin.
When you find the perfect tin, you’ll feel an immediate “that’s my banjo” connection. Trust me.
Now for the neck. If you can find an old guitar or banjo neck, go ahead and use it. If not, you’re going to have to find a piece of wood and build your own. I recommend a hard wood—poplar seems to be popular. (Groan!)
Cut your piece so that it’s approximately 1 ½” wide, 1 ¼” thick, and about 35” long. Those 35 inches are divided as follows: The tail of the neck is the diameter/length of the tin – about 11”, the fretboard (from the top of the tin to the nut, the little piece with the grooves in it that guide the strings) should measure about 19”. Leave 5-6” for the head (nut to the top of the neck). If you’re lost with all these terms, check out this diagram at www.tinyurl.com/guitarparts.
Shape the head however you like, just make sure you have room for your four tuners, those knobs you twist to tighten the strings. Drill four holes for them – two on each side of the head, evenly spaced apart.
You can add frets if you like, but this is a little more complicated. I suggest leaving the neck fretless, or simply drawing them on.
Now let’s put it all together! I recommend using the back of the cookie tin as the front of the banjo. This way, you can access the inside of the banjo. Plus, it’s great for storage!
The first thing you want to do is cut a slot in the tin for the tail of your neck to slide through. Use a boxcutter knife and try to make this slot as tight to the neck as you can. Slide your neck through the slot so that the bottom sits on the bottom of the inside of the cookie tin. Then, secure the neck in place by driving a screw from the outside of the cookie tin into the bottom of the neck.
All you need to do now is install the tuners, tailpiece, nut, and bridge. There’s another diagram to orient yourself with at www.tinyurl.com/banjoparts.
Either grab these parts off an old banjo, guitar, or ukulele, or check the local music stores for new or used parts. They’re fairly inexpensive items.
Attach your tuners to the headstock, where you drilled the holes earlier.
Install your tailpiece at the bottom of the front side of the tin.
Place the nut at the top of the neck. The nut should stay in place from the pressure of the strings, but a dab of wood glue doesn’t hurt.
As for the bridge, I glue two pieces of grippy fabric to the tin, under the bridge. This way, the bridge will not slide around on the tin. Now, put your bridge in place just above the tailpiece, and install your strings. Tune it up, and you can start pickin’ out some tunes!
Remember, there are unlimited variations on this plan, so feel free to improvise, pimp it out as much as you like, and have fun with it! Make sure to send any pictures or videos to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Illustration by Tara Fleming