Bryson City ’s Robinson is world-class banjo maker
When Dean Robinson built his first instrument, a lap dulcimer, his wife Judy, who plays piano, thought, “I can’t believe he built this in the garage, and I can play music on it.”
“And I was amazed that she could play music on something I made in the garage, so, I was pretty much hooked,” Dean said.
He caught the woodworking bug at a young age, helping in his uncle’s carpentry shop. A combined interest in woodworking and music eventually led to creating custom-made banjos right here in Bryson City. He’s been making and selling banjos full-time since 2011, following an accounting career.
“I can put my woodworking skills to work and produce something that someone can sound great on,” Dean said. “It just makes me proud; it’s really nice to do that.”
The couple moved to Swain County full-time from Atlanta last year following years of visiting. Judy used to camp on Lake Santeetlah in Robbinsville growing up.
One day while staying at their Robbinsville home, Dean and Judy visited Grandpa’s Music in Bryson City. Dean said he found himself “drooling over the beauty” of the instruments made by local luthier Bob Gernandt, when Gernandt came in for a jam session.
Gernandt pulled out some kind of curvy instrument to play, and though Dean wasn’t sure what kind of instrument it was, he was inspired to go home and make the lap dulcimer.
In those days, the Robinsons also liked to spend time at Tooties Café in Stecoah (where Stecoah Diner is now located), which featured music on Friday nights. At age 42, he learned to play the claw hammer banjo and Judy bought her first fiddle.
They joined an old-time music jam in Atlanta. Dean said the group was welcoming.
Dean built his first banjo in 2003, and said playing the banjo and making banjos fueled each other. It started as a hobby. In addition to the dulcimer, he dabbled in building other instruments as well, including the ukulele, guitar and bass but eventually settled on banjos.
“I can play the banjo, so it’s easier for me to sell banjos,” Dean said. “I originally thought I was going to start building guitars. When you look at it as a business, a custom-made guitar sells for more money. I was looking at it from a business-perspective, thinking, ‘Maybe that’s a better line of work.’
“But I don’t really play guitar,” he continued, “so I would have had to learn that skill as well, and plus, I already kind of had experience building banjos. I’d built a lot more banjos than I had guitars.”
Being able to play the banjo helps Dean create what customers are looking for in one, he said, whether it’s a particular sound or style of tone ring. Additionally, because of the different tools and processes involved in building them, it can be hard to switch back and forth.
Dean said he usually builds banjos in batches of five. He begins by cutting his wood down and creating 8-sided shapes that he then sands flat and stacks. The layers may consist of a combination of wood. For example one walnut banjo-in-progress also features maple and rosewood.
Once the layers are glued together to create the “pot,” the piece is mounted on a lathe and turned round. The neck starts out in three pieces that Dean bolts up and glues then clamps down while it dries. After the truss rod is installed, the fingerboard goes on top. After that, he cuts a round heel on the neck so that it fits against the round pot. He cuts the profile of the neck and shapes it round on the back. If he is doing any inlay work, he does that prior to gluing on the fingerboard.
Next, the neck and pot are ready for a finish, which Dean said takes a “good amount of time.” He puts on at least 20 coats of a hand-rubbed shellac finish, like what one would find on a guitar.
“It’s a really nice hard, beautiful finish,” Dean said. “It lasts a long time; it feels good. It’s a little higher-end than a sprayed finish, but I like it better.”
Dean creates a lot of custom work. One customer from Georgia sent him heart pine from his farm for a banjo. Some customers request special inlays, which Dean often crafts from different types of shell. For example, one of his banjos features a hummingbird inlay made up of white pearl, green sea snail, abalone and black pearl.
In addition to the inlay and woodwork, Dean does some of the metal work, too, such as the L-shoes he designed and creates using a sand casting process.
Dean also came up with the idea to use an electric guitar truss rod in a banjo, something he hasn’t seen anyone else doing. The two-way truss rod can be adjusted through the neck without having to take the banjo apart.
Dean noted that a lot of his banjos have a hunting or nature theme and he finds inspiration in the natural beauty found in Bryson City.
Moving here from Atlanta has also afforded the Robinsons more opportunities to play music with others.
“It seems like everybody you talk to in this area plays some kind of music,” Judy said.
Dean said there were a lot of old-time music players in Atlanta, but because of the city’s size and the amount of traffic there, the Robinsons didn’t get together with them.
“Nobody wanted to go out of their house once they got home from work,” said Dean.
Now, the Robinsons go to a jam every Thursday in Sylva. They frequent music festivals throughout the year as well.
Dean makes 15-20 banjos a year. He has garnered customers via word-of-mouth and selling at festivals and online at www.deanocraft.com.
“Believe it or not, making banjos is competitive,” said Dean. “There are a lot of good banjo players and makers. So you have to kind of get known, and you know, it takes a long time.”
Dean’s customers have been as far away as Europe and Australia.
He was also featured in Garden & Gun magazine in 2017 as an honorable mention in the magazine’s annual Made in the South contest. Within about a week of publication, Dean had sold every banjo he had.
Dean has now made about 100 instruments total, 70 of them banjos.
“I just enjoy what I do, so I’m going to do it as long as I can do it,” Dean said. “It keeps me busy, and I get to create beautiful things, and I like it.”