David G. Hyatt
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How to Install a Skin Head

David Hyatt - 9/18/02

Here is a simple outline of how I attach the skin to the gourd. This is not meant to be the definitive method - just one of many...

1. The glue surface of the gourd must be sanded flat. I do this by laying fine sandpaper with an adhesive backing on a flat work surface and sliding the gourd back and forth over the sandpaper. I wear thin latex gloves while handling the gourd - that makes it a little easier to hold on to. Next you need to ease (lightly sand) the outside edge a little so that it is not sharp, and then do the same with the inside edge. (I do this to make sure I don't have any loose gourd material there to vibrate against the skin - I don't know if that could happen but was being precautious) At this point you might squeeze that gourd a little bit to determine once more that you have a gourd worthy of making into a banjo - it should not be too flexible.

2. Assemble the materials that you will need:

  1. A skin at least 3 inches larger than the hole you are covering.
  2. Upholstery tacks of your choosing
  3. Elmer's (or other) hide glue
  4. A sharp awl or sharp pointed round object
  5. A pan of cool-lukewarm water
  6. Rags
  7. A razor knife

3. Soak the skin until it is pliable (10-15 minutes).

4. Pat the skin dry.

5. Apply a layer of glue on top of the flat surface of the gourd and down the side as far as you intend to fasten it.

6. Lay the skin on top of the gourd where you want it. Bend the skin down over the edge. Determine where you want the row of tacks, and using the awl, push gently to break through the hard outer surface of the gourd. Then push the tack in. Turn the gourd around, and with your fingers pull the skin taut (you can pull pretty hard here - if you tear the skin, you pulled too hard!). Pulling and then holding the skin over the edge, push a hole with the awl at about the same distance from the top as the first, and install another tack. Do the same procedure till there are tacks at 3, 6, 9, and 12 o'clock. All but the first are temporary.

7. Then starting from the first tack, start moving around the gourd, pulling the skin as hard as you can, and installing the tacks. As you get close to the temporary tacks, you can go ahead and pull them out, since the skin may be starting to bunch toward them and/or they will not be aligned with your spacing. As you get towards the end, you may need to adjust your spacing to make the tacks work out. You might start the tacks behind the tailpiece, since that is area where you can conceal some "slop".

8. As you are working along, you will want to be cleaning up behind yourself with the damp rag, wiping the glue off the gourd before it sets in the pores.

9. Once all the tacks are installed, then go around the edge of the skin below the tacks with the razor knife - which must be sharp because the skin is wet and tough. Try to make a smooth straight cut. Wash and dry the cutoff and give it to your dog to chew on! (Clarke Buehling I know waits until the skin is dry to make this cut; that might allow you to make a cleaner cut, but I wonder about the glue residue.)

10. Set the finished product aside to dry for as long as necessary (8-24 hours). Don't thump the top until it is dry, no matter how tempting! You don't want to stretch it.

11. Other things to consider:

  1. How are you attaching the neck? Does the placement of the neck affect or interfere with the tack placement? How about the dowel stick where it exits the gourd. And what kind of a tailpiece are you using?

  2. The tacks can always be removed afterwards. I pull them out and butt the neck snug against the gourd. I'm planning to make one with a ribbon glued on the hide edge.

  3. Try to avoid pushing on the skin (over the hole) as you install it - you don't want to stretch it unevenly.

  4. Your thumb will be sore from pushing the tacks - because the hole you punch should only be a starter and not deep or wide.

  5. Your fingers will be sore from the hard pulling you will do on the skin. Remember - this is your only chance for a tight head.

  6. You will have to work fast. It's nice to have two people.

  7. I do this on the bed, using a throw rug to protect the linens - that way I don't have to worry about dropping the gourd.

  8. If I wanted to be real precise, I would make a jig for punching the holes so that the tacks were perfectly aligned. I'm not sure I want to be that precise, but I'll probably try it someday.

  9. Related issue, decide in advance if you are cutting sound holes in the gourd - if so, you may want to dye the inside of the gourd, which is easier to do before attaching the head.

  10. Also, you have to decide whether to fit the neck before or after the head installation. I've done it both ways, and not sure if I have a preference.

  11. It you have a really big gourd, exercise some caution about how tight the skin is. I suppose if it got really dry (like you set it out in the sun) it could pull the tacks out.

  12. If you blow it, don't worry about it. Just pull the tacks out, put the head in a pan of lukewarm water, clean all the glue off the gourd, then clean all the glue from the skin, and fill the tack holes with some type of wood filler. Then go have a beer.