KOKOMO, Ind. (AP) - Brian Carver built his first banjo when he was 17 years old using a piece of plywood, paper clips and an old frying pan.
He got the idea to make one after he bought a cheap Bean Blossom banjo for $100. The instrument came with an instructional book, and in the back, it described how you could make your own.
So Carver decided to give it a try. That first banjo wasn’t anything fancy, and it sounded strange, but it worked. And it was fun to make, he said.
“It was playable,” he said. “It was simple, but it was a banjo.”
Now, the 27-year-old Kokomo High School graduate is giving other people the same kind of build-it-yourself banjo experience.
In March, he launched a new business selling banjo kits. Each kit comes with all the parts necessary to build one of the instruments, and the buyer puts it together.
It isn’t the first banjo business Carver has started. It wasn’t long after building the plywood-and-frying-pan banjo 10 years ago that he started seriously honing his craft and making polished, high-quality ones that he could sell.
He sold his first one on Ebay for around $60 when he was still in high school, and has kept at it ever since. In fact, he helped pay his way through flight school at Purdue University by making and selling handcrafted banjos.
After graduating with pilot’s license and moving back to Kokomo, though, Carver said he realized he didn’t want to fly airplanes. He wanted to make banjos.
“Piloting was so high stress, and I don’t like stress,” he said. “I just wanted to do what makes me happy, and this was it. I love woodworking, because it feels like I’m not really working. I turn my iPod on and head out to my shop and cut wood all day, and it’s fun.”
That’s where the idea came from for the banjo kits. Carver said he was looking to get rid of some of the excess banjo parts he had around to make a little extra cash, and decided to just try selling the pieces and let the buyer put it together.
“I just wanted to get rid of them so I could start some new projects, but they sold instantly - and they were just pieces. Not even assembled,” he said. “That’s when I realized that people who want a handmade instrument want to make it themselves. That’s when I realized I was onto something.”
Carver eventually put together kits for three different kinds of banjos. There’s the mountain banjo, the fretless, old-timey banjo and the gourd banjo, and they’re all the kind of instrument that you would have found before banjos started getting mass produced in the early 1900s.
That means all the banjos are pretty basic. There aren’t any fancy parts or elaborate inlays. But that’s what makes them so easy for people to put together.
And it also makes them pretty easy to make, Carver said. That’s a big perk, since he handcrafts every piece of each instrument inside his small, tidy workshop setup inside a garage on South Armstrong Street.
He carves the neck piece from plywood. He turns the tuning pegs on a belt sander. He cuts the bridge using a scroll saw.
He used to grow the gourds in his yard that he uses for the gourd banjo kits. Now he just picks up 50 at a time from gourd shows.
He even builds the wood boxes he uses to ship the kits.
The only parts Carver doesn’t make are the bolts, the dried goat skin used for the head, and the strings, which are just cut fishing line.
“I know these aren’t fancy, professional show instruments, but that’s the whole point,” he said. “It’s just an organic, grassroots type of thing. They’re simple banjos, but you don’t need something really fancy to be happy with it.”
That’s been proven by how well his banjo-kit business has taken off. In just five months, Carver said, he’s sold around 150 kits to folks all over the country through his website, www.carverbanjos.com.
He’s even shipped them to banjo players in Germany, England, Australia, France, the Czech Republic, Canada, Japan, Finland and Norway.
Carver contributes a lot of the success so far to a guy named Patrick Costello, a sort of guru in the world of old-time banjo music. He was one of the first people to buy one of Carver’s put-together banjos when he started crafting them 10 years ago.
When he decided to get his banjo kit business started, Carver shipped him a free kit to see what he thought of it.
Costello ended up posting a YouTube video singing the praises of the instrument and giving a small musical demonstration to show how it played and sounded. Carver said a lot of sales have come from that video.
It also led to an offer from Costello, who runs a banjo manufacturing company. He asked Carver to build him a banjo prototype for his company, and there’s a chance that could land him a contract to build banjos for Costello.
The kit business has also been helped along by the fact that there isn’t any competition, Carver said. The only business he could find that was similar to his was something on Ebay. A person there is also selling banjo kits, but they aren’t simple and require people to have some kind of mechanical prowess.
In the end, all of Carver’s pursuits have put him on track to do what he’s always wanted: To become a full-time banjo maker. He said he’s already gaining some recognition in the small but dedicated group of old-time banjo aficionados who talk about his instruments in online forums.
“That’s awesome,” Carver said. “I never thought I’d get to that level where people are talking about my banjos.”
With the kit business and making put-together, top-of-the-line ones on the side, he’s on the verge of breaking into the profession.
For now, though, Carver said it feels good to give people the chance to put together their own banjo and start playing on one of the few truly American instruments out there.
“There’s a saying that I heard that I really like,” he said. “A guy I met in West Virginia told me, ‘Do the best you can, with what you have, where you are.’ That’s what I’m trying to do here. I don’t want people to spend a lot of money on these, but I want to give them something that’s still a high-quality instrument.”
Source: Kokomo Tribune, https://bit.ly/1MLARlK
Information from: Kokomo Tribune, https://www.ktonline.com
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