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Edinburgh zither banjo restoration


Here's another zither banjo restoration I've been working on over the last couple of months. This one took some structural repair to get it playing again, but overall is a beautiful instrument. It bears no maker's mark so I'm not certain of its original creator, but on the side of the heel it's stamped with 'B. Chiltern, Edinburgh.' A search for that name brought up an issue of Banjo, Mandolin and Guitar magazine from 1929, listing B Chiltern as a banjo and zither banjo teacher in Edinburgh, and citing as his credentials that he was a pupil of A Cammeyer. Cammeyer was a New Yorker who moved to England in the 1880s, and claimed creatorship of the zither banjo. With Clifford Essex he built and sold Vibrante zither banjos in Soho - to which this one bears some resemblance.


It's been very well played in its time - I was shown a couple of photos from it's heyday, being played by Alan Roberts alongside Alex Campbell and Dougie MacLean in the mid 1970s.


Since then, it had acquired some damage. The back of the pot is a single-ply shallow bowl (rather than a slightly more sturdy cross-grained lamination) so with fluctuations in humidity and temperature had gradually warped out of shape. As it did so it had pulled away from the rim, splitting grain and shedding banding as it went.

At some point it had also lost a section of veneer from the front of the rim, around a spot where the tailpiece pressed against it.


The slots in the top nut were worn (and re-slotted as a stop-gap fix) so the strings buzzed against the first fret, and it had lost its fifth string pip.

The skin was wonderfully worn but still strong and taut, and the tuners had at some point been replaced, but the slightly oddly-fitting replacements were in perfect working order. It also had a bridge and tailpiece still in place. So aside from the obvious repairs, the only thing it needed was a clean.


I started by taking off the back of the pot (clearly warped into a pringle-shape) and reinforcing the inside of the splintered rim with a thin strip of oak (the lighter wood visible on the inside of the pot below).


I then re-attached the back of the pot, now secured more firmly to a more sturdy rim.

I cleaned up the veneer gap at the front of the rim, fitted a new section in, and then ebonised it to match the existing wood.

Returning to the back of the pot, I added new banding where the old had fallen away. Rather than attempt an exact match, I found a sympathetic solution in a nice strip of zebrano, and used a dark ebonised band for the outer edge, to mirror the front of the banjo. With a few coats of shellac and a revived french polish across the rest of the pot, I think this has settled in very nicely.

A new bone nut was shaped and fitted, as was a new fifth string pip.

The fretboard was oiled, the metalwork cleaned up, and a new set of strings were put on.

And it's ready for a return to active play! Hopefully I'll get a chance to take a little video with it before it returns to its owner..

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