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Master and Apprentice: Banjo Builder Workshop in Historic Peninsula, Ohio

The 191-year-old Peninsula, Ohio, provided the backdrop to a parade of pedestrians making their way from station to station across the bucolic village for Music on the Porches on Saturday.

Doug Unger (left) and Mark Ward playing tunes.
Inside the close confines of Bronson Church, founded in 1835, a master and apprentice presented a free workshop on the art of instrument building. That master being the renowned banjo builder and artist Doug Unger and his former apprentice Mark Ward.

Unger and Ward began the workshop by playing several old-time tunes, discussing their work and the music, and taking questions from the audience. Unger then invited the spectators to step up to the front to see the instruments.

On display were samples of his dazzling inlay engraving and carving craftsmanship. Unger explained his process to onlookers, detailing the time and focus necessary to complete instruments of such a rarefied caliber.

Ward, an accomplished builder in his own right, showed off a pair of handsome fiddles he built, one a two-point Stradivarius style that really caught my eye. Ward apprenticed with Unger in the 1990s through a grant from the Ohio Arts Council and now lives in the Cincinnati area, where he builds banjos and fiddles and performs repair work.

Unger explains his process.
Including his own player, Unger showed off three complete banjos, a neck that was basically finished and another neck still in the rough, with a chubby dragon inlay in progress. He also showed off a full size mandolin and a handful of "pocket" mandolins, along with his various tools.

Unger said he got his start building banjos because he couldn't afford to purchase one. A friend told him to build his own. There weren't resources available at the time on how to go about building a banjo, but Unger said that's not necessarily a bad thing.

"Any artist worth his salt doesn't want to be told how to do something," he said. "He wants to figure it out himself."

Unger spent a lot of time researching the old masters. He would take measurements and make drawings of inlay patterns. He said it took him a couple years to build one he could compare to the old Fairbanks he coveted. Now, his mastery belongs on the level of the great Consalvi.

It can take up to three hours of work to complete the inlay of a peg head, and up to two months to finish a banjo. Unger uses a variety of materials for inlay, including mother of pearl, black pearl, snail shell and abalone. He also repurposes antique celluloid and tortoise shell for binding and other decoration.

Unger displays his instruments.
Near the end of the workshop, Unger took me on a personal tour of his workshop and painting studio, a small building that he built behind his house. His banjo workshop feels warm and inviting, despite the dim lighting. Instruments in various stages of completion hung from the ceiling. When he's working, Unger said he doesn't let anyone else in the room except for the cats, as he has to talk to himself and psyche himself up for the intense focus it takes to work on the inlay.

Unger's banjos can be found for sale at various vendors, including Elderly Instruments, Bernunzio and Smakula Fretted Instruments. He said Smakula will be carrying more of his banjos in the future.


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