Banjo Bridges - maintenance

 

Do bridges need maintenance?

Simple answer - usually not. Over the years they do tend to get grimed up and some of them look/feel pretty icky. The easiest way is to go at it with some fine sand paper, just lay down a sheet of 320 or 400 grit on a flat surface and lightly rub the bridge over it a few times. If there's a logo on it do that side by hand and sand around the logo as you don't want to take it off and spoil the value in case you want to sell it or brag about it. Fine steelwool, 0000 grade, also is a good way of cleaning up a grimy bridge. If you like the looks of it, any furniture or veggie oil will make the wood's grain show up real nice without affecting the tone or performance.

The string slots also get gunked up over time and might need cleaning. The easiest way to do this is by using a set of welding tip cleaners; they are available at tool stores that carry welding supplies. It's a clip/flip open type thingie with a bunch of "files" in various thicknesses and you pick the one that fits the string slot the snuggest. You can use the same tip cleaners to clean up nut & 5th string pip slots and come in handy for a lot of other things too: electronic contact extractor, tiny hole poker etc.

Bridge and nut slot cleaning files Here's what a welding tip cleaner set looks like, pretty much actual size at that. There's a bunch more tips inside the clip besides the 5 that are sticking out. They're pretty cheap, you should be able to get a set for about $4~5 in just about any hardware store. If you can find them, the Wypo brand ones really last.
banjo bridge with lugged out slots This bridge came off a Stelling and the string slots were gouged out way too deep. The picture doesn't show it too clearly but the 4th string slot was so deep it got right down to the bottom of the ebony top strip. As well, the 2nd string had developed a major case of nasty twang sound and was sagging pretty good. Yup, well beyond fixing and ready for the pile. On the other hand, it's a name brand bridge, one of the older ones before they went "fat" so maybe I should to recrown & reslot it one of these years. 
banjo bridge sanded too thin This one came off a Kasuga, somebody had gone gung ho with sanding paper and made it razor thin. The second bone insert from the left shows daylight between the insert and the neighbouring ebony, a common problem with insert bridges - no fix, yes replace and off to the pile. If you plan on reslotting insert like this be real careful - the inserts come flying out real easily and gluing them back in, well, good luck with that one eh...
saggy banjo bridge Yer typical came-with-the-banjo bridge - totally saggy baggy. I suppose you could sand the top flush and regroove the slots as you'd end up with a taller center leg that prevents further sagging. Of course, the sag was considerable and sanding it flush/level would mean loosing almost 1/16" in height making it too short for the banjo it came off. You guessed it, replace & pile
banjo bridge with chipped out slots An old 1/2" Grover with a chipped ebony top that the 5th string kept popping out of. Grooving it a bit deeper would fix that no problem, a few swipes with the right size reamer tip and you're done. This was not a high performance bridge and as a new one sounded a lot better this one ended up on the pile.
banjo bridge with worn out slots A really old 7/16" jobbie with lugged out slots that buzzed and twanged. Yup, replace & pile.
banjo bridge slots sliced up by the strings Another oldie only 3/8" tall, something you might find on an S. S. Stewart, else the action would be way too high. The strings had sliced themselves deep into the wood over the years making them twang pretty good. Definitely needed replacing & piling.
banjo bridges promoted to firewood The Pile: too junky to throw out, too ugly to show of but what the hay, so worth a pic. Most these bridges were played well beyond beyond their years or were otherwise abused. Some are proto types, work bench "oopses," rejects and a couple with heavy duty feline fang marks. Not enough for a camp fire but great for cluttering up my desk.

When you use welding tip cleaners to clean, dress, or deepen, slots, make sure you keep in mind you're not sawing logs - gentle swipes are all you need and will do the trick quite nicely. These things basically are scrapers, not files or saws so if you plan on doing a couple of hundred bridges you'd be better of buying a set of nut files.

I used the terms twang and buzz - twang: a metallic kind of string sound, buzz: the string hitting something kind of sound. Usually this happens on/in the bridge slots and also on/in the slot on the 5th string pip (the "golf tee," just behind the 5th fret that your 5th string sits on). Twang or buzz could also be cause by the nut, the 5th string pip or more often than not, the string itself so put on some new strings before considering any kind of surgery. Gently using the welding tip reamers here usually do the trick and remove burrs that cause the twang or buzz.

It's pretty common that bridges start sagging in the middle and some bridge makers, including myself, purposely make the center leg a little longer than the outside two to try and prevent sagging. Is it acceptable for bridges to sag? Hmmm, don't go calling it normal but as long as the strings, especially the third, don't buzz against the fretboard you'll be just fine. If it starts interfering with sound, tone, playability, intonation, or if the looks simply bother you then it's definitely time to replace it.

While changing strings, or swapping bridges, it happens sometimes that a piece of ebony (or whatever crowning) comes chipping off - as long as the strings don't end up sounding twangy and there's no buzzes there's no need to replace it.

If a bridge snaps, typically along a growth ring in the wood or something, then you don't have much choice but to replace it as you cannot glue it back together. Even if the glue holds, the cement will absorb sound and alter the tone. Will insects eat your bridge? Come on, they have exquisite appetites, they'd go for the banjo first...

There really isn't a whole lot that can go wrong with a bridge. Unlikely, but the [ebony] topping's, or the insert's, glue might let go; nothing much you can do about it other then tossing it on the pile and get a new one. I've never seen it, but I've heard sometimes a bridge warps itself into a crescent shape. Hmmm, if that happens and if by change your banjo needs compensation anyways you might just hit it lucky compensation wise... More likely though that replacement is the better way to go. Rough handling while moving or changing it could cause it to snap or chip. While moving it always make sure you grab the bridge with your thumb and index fingers - at both ends. Another way you might bust a bridge is when there's stuff on the bottom of your banjo's case, a pile of lyric sheets, a book, or whatever. When you forget that little detail and put your banjo in it without taking the junk out first, yeah, when you close the lid, there you go, one squished bridge.

For practical purposes you should consider a bridge a consumable item. Meaning, just like strings, you need to change them from time to time. Fortunately, they usually last a lot longer than strings but it never hurts to carry a spare.

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