New banjo, old twang Craftsman: George Wunderlich makes banjos the way Baltimorean William Boucher Jr. made them in the 1840s.

January 27, 1997|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,SUN STAFF

When Susanna's true love sang, "I come from Alabama with a banjo on my knee," in Stephen Foster's 1847 ballad, he was probably strumming a five-stringer made in Baltimore.

Between 1845 and 1870, William Boucher Jr., an immigrant German drum maker, became the country's first commercial banjo maker, in a shop on Baltimore Street near High Street. Only a handful of his originals survive and are much sought after by museums and private collectors.

Now, George Wunderlich, a 33-year-old former insurance executive, is building handcrafted replicas of Boucher's distinctive instruments in a renovated shed behind a white Victorian house in western Frederick County.

"The banjo is coming back strong," said the Myersville resident, a giant of a man at 6 feet 8 inches and 300 pounds. "The country is looking back at its roots more and more. Even bluegrass is having its fifth revival."

Though there are several styles of banjo, Civil War re-enactors, banjoists and collectors crave the distinctive shape and deep, resonant twang of the old-time banjo with its gut strings and stretched rawhide head.

The beauty of the old-time banjo is its "duller, more bassy sound; modern banjos have smaller heads and higher pitch, a sharper, brighter, metallic sound," said John Dwyer, of Danbury, Conn., a Civil War re-enactor and banjo player who has built two banjos.

But period instruments are rare and expensive. To help meet the demand for banjos in that style, Wunderlich, who moved to Maryland last summer after giving up a career in a family insurance business in St. Louis, took up the traditional tools of the craft.

His only concession to modern technology is a band saw to rough shape large blocks of wood. "Other than that, everything I use is what they would have used back then," he said, pointing out the draw knives, scrapers, gimlets and wooden planes he uses.

His specialty is Boucher's distinctive style, with its scroll-shaped head for tuning pegs. "There are other banjos I'd like to make but no one will commission them. But everyone knows Boucher, and that's what they want," said Wunderlich, who is working on his 50th Wunder Banjo Co. banjo. They sell for $400 to $600.

Wunderlich's work has drawn national attention. He has made instruments for Hollywood, including a cigar-box banjo for "Miss Evers' Boys," a television movie due next month; two guitars for a remake of the Zorro story starring Antonio Banderas; and has been contacted by Steven Spielberg's organization to make instruments for a movie set in the 1830s.

It takes

three to six weeks to make a banjo. The critical factor is heat and humidity, which affects the drying time of glue and varnish, he said.

The banjo hoop, or pot -- the instrument's body -- is made by steaming a thin piece of wood, usually oak, ash, cherry or maple, until it is flexible and can be clamped around a circular form to dry into a permanent circle. Most hoops are 12 to 13 inches in diameter and "green wood is the best," Wunderlich said.

Then he carves the neck, the long piece with four pegs at the top and one on the side to tune the five gut strings.

Nylon strings, which sound like gut, are best for beginners, Wunderlich said.

The neck is attached to the hoop with the perchpole, a stick through the hoop. The head, a thin piece of rawhide or parchment dampened so it will dry taut, is stretched across the hoop. The head is held in place with a circular piece of metal, and, in a Boucher banjo, four brass hooks to maintain the tension on the head.

Banjolike instruments, made from gourds, apparently originated in Africa and were brought to the New World by slaves as early as the mid-17th century. By the mid-18th century these three- or four-string instruments had reached North America. In the 1820s, Joel W. Sweeney, of Virginia, added the fifth string, and the American banjo was born, Dwyer said.

The "modern" banjo era started about 1880, Wunderlich said, with steel strings and metal reinforcements to strengthen the instrument for the tension of those strings, Wunderlich said.

Wunderlich's opportunity to devote himself to his craft full-time came in 1995 when he and his father sold their insurance firm to the other brokers in the company.

"It was the quintessential corporate life," said Wunderlich, who has four young children and whose wife, Irene, is a Washington native. "Suits in the obligatory three shades of gray; pink, white and blue oxford shirts and whatever power tie was in that year. It was terrible; I hated it."

But Wunderlich, a Civil War re-enactor with his father since he was 12, also lectured widely on historic themes and on the American flag, as did his father, which is how he expects to make his living.

Re-enacting eventually led him into banjo-making. He first heard a recording of an old-time banjo at a Civil War encampment in Kansas in 1991. "It wasn't the bluegrass version," he said.

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