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Frailing on a Blackfork

By the summer of 2009, my itch to replace my Recording King Songster reached the tipping point. My desire was for a banjo that had a deep, warm tone and had a more old-timey look. Bill Van Horn delivered exactly that.

Christmas 2009
I shot an e-mail to Van Horn inquiring about his B&P Banjos after seeing his posts on the Banjo Hangout. By Christmas, I was playing my new Blackfork model, a short scale banjo with a thin 12-inch pot and a Dobson-style tone ring.

Van Horn prides himself on being the first banjo builder to use the combination of a Dobson tone ring on a Keller drum shell. “This is the sound that I’m looking for and I got lucky with this combination of parts,” he says.

Inspiration to use the Dobson “doughnut” tone ring came after Van Horn heard the sound of an original Dobson with an 1881 H.C. Dobson “Silver Bell” patent tone ring.

“I was hoping to get just a little deeper, fuller tone and remember that Roger Siminoff said the more mass in a banjo the higher the pitch,” he says. “So, I bought a couple of 12-inch Keller drum shells and talked Wayne Sagmoen into selling me a couple of his repro Dobson tone rings. I took the first one that I built to Clifftop in 2005, and people were really interested in it. Bob Anderson told me on Friday that my banjo had been the talk of the night at the jams the night before. He said that if I had a booth I would have more orders than I could handle. The best compliment that I received that week was from Mark Olitsky, whose playing I greatly admire. He played the banjo for about an hour and said that if he was in the market for a banjo that that’s the one he’d buy.”

The Keller drum shell is cut down to 3 inches deep for the rim, and Van Horn makes banjos with either an 11- or 12-inch diameter pot. The Dobson tone rings he uses now are made by Bill Rickard of Ontario, Canada. Rickard also makes the brass hardware used on Van Horn’s B&P Banjos.

Van Horn started playing bluegrass banjo around 1976, on an Epiphone model, and built his first banjo about a year later in the woodshop of the junior high school where he taught Industrial Arts. He got hooked on clawhammer banjo after seeing an old-time string band at a bluegrass festival in Marion, Va., while on a family trip to Colonial Williamsburg. He played for a couple years but then quit until the fall of 2000.

When Van Horn began building banjos more seriously, he started by making five-string conversion necks for Vega Little Wonders.

“I used my friend’s shop, and he helped me, as he was an accomplished woodworker,” he says. “I never taught woodshop, and had a lot to learn — still do. I was inspired to build my own banjos mainly because Wyatt Fawley, whom I had bought a few banjos from, would not make a wider neck for Vega conversions.”

Since then, Van Horn jokes that he has “stolen ideas” from Kyle Creed, Dave Ball, and he says he gets a lot of fixture and technical information from his friend, Rickard. He says he most enjoys making the neck of the banjo, but not so much the sanding.

Van Horn uses a variety of woods for his necks, from walnut and maple to mahogany, and different woods for the fingerboard. My banjo has a walnut neck with Chechen for the fingerboard and peg head overlay. The Chechen has a striking, golden look to it that people always compliment.

The necks on Van Horn’s banjos are wider than most, which makes it easier to fret if you have larger hands or long fingers like I do. The Blackfork banjos also feature a shorter scale, with mine measuring 24.25 inches from bridge to nut.

The Blackfork features a paddle-shaped peg head with an inlaid Indianhead penny, a star at the fifth fret, dot position markers, and an S-shaped frailing scoop. He installs a Fiberskyn head, Moon bridge, and medium gauge strings. Mine now has a goat skin head.

It takes Van Horn about three months to complete a banjo, usually building three to four each year and taking them to the Appalachian String Band Festival (aka “Clifftop”) to sell—he’ll have two there this year. If interested, you can contact him at wvanhorn@neo.rr.com.

Van Horn’s banjos are one of the best bangs for the buck at $950. A similar looking banjo retails for $975 and up, but it doesn’t feature a tone ring. Other banjos with Dobson tone rings — except for Sagmoen Banjos — typically start over $1,500. If you’d really like to know how much I like my banjo, you can read my review at the Banjo Hangout.

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