A canjo, sometimes spelled can jo, is a simple musical instrument composed of a neck of some sort and an alluminum can, They have one to four strings (…that I have seen their could be some with more…) and can be fretted or unfretted.
I absolutely love these things. So far I have made 5 of them. The first was just a quick experiment to see if it could be done. The next two I decided I would make for my children as chirstmas gifts. I then made myself one…that did not work out like I had hoped. Then I made myself another one…
They have a delightfully rustic twangy sound much like a banjo which I believe is were they get their names. The version I now make involves a soup can, a piece of board, a length of 50lb. test fishing line, and a hand full of screws, nuts, and bolts. I make single string ones and use diatonic scale fretting. Many makers use chromatic scale like a guitar but I can’t play guitar. The diatonic, for me, is easy, the notes go straight down the neck. The length of the neck I use varies, my children’s canjos have a vibrational string length (VSL) of 16″ where as mine is 18″ Additional length is determined by the size of the can I am using and how much room I want to leave beyond the tuning peg(s). My current canjo is about 22″ long in total. I make the width about 1 1/2″ inches and the depth about 3/4″.
Right now I am using average sized soup cans, but I have used a longer spaghetti sauce can and family sized soup can. I attach the cans to the neck by drilling two holes in the neck where I want to postion the can. The can should line up on one end of the neck leaving an inch or two beneath it. I then line up the can with these holes and mark two points through them on the side of the can that I then punch out.
Now I punch a hole in the bottom of the can to act as a bridge. Originally I just attached the can onto the neck. On my newest canjo I have cut a section out of the neck to inset the can about 1/2″. It really helped me with the next step. This eventually brings the strings closer to the neck in front of the bridge, and keeps the string from getting to0 close to any protruding hardware inside the can.
You can attach the can in whatever direction you like, for me I prefer to attach it with the opening down. As I said I use the bottom of the can like a bridge. If you orient the can with the open end up this will increase your VSL by the length of the can, as well for the diatonic scale this actual puts the last couple of frets within the can…kinda hard to play then.
For the nut I simple use a small flathead screw. I center it in the neck and make sure that once it is I align the flathead groove parallel with the neck. The string rides nicely in it. One my first canjo for myself I had two strings and used two screws and it worked find, so if you are making a canjo with more than one string this method works or you can come up with a single piece nut.
Beneath the can center attach another screw, what type does not matter. Just leave it up about a 1/4″ this is where you will eventually anchor the string.
I have done three methods for the tuning peg, all work great and there are many more options as well. On my very first canjo I simple drilled a 1/4″ hole through the neck and then made a peg out of a small section of 1/4″ dowel. I ripped a slit in one end and glued in a penny. I sanded and tapered the other end slightly and drilled a very small hole in it to accept the string. The peg is inserted banjo style from the back.
The second method uses the same penny pegs. Here however I drilled a 1/4″ hole through the side of the neck and a large 1″ hole through the front and back of the neck intersecting the 1/4″ hole. The peg is placed through the 1/4″ and a hole for the string is drilled in the center of the peg. It looks more guitar like this way. I have some problems with the pegs not having enough friction and slipping with the method.
To address the slipping issue I came up with a third method. In this one I simply replaced the peg with an eyebolt and a wingnut. I attach the string to the eye and thread it through the 1/4″ hole. I then wrap it around the threads before placing it on the nut. To tighen or loosen the peg. I thread up the wingnut on the exposed end of the eyebolt. I turn the eyebolt to tighten or loosen the string, I then tighten the wingnut down against the neck.
For fretting I found and online mountain dulcimer fret calculator. I mark the postions for each fret with a pencil then I used a wood burner to make the frets.
As far as music goes I use mountain dulcimer tablature. Mountain dulcimers use the diatonic scale and the music is written out using numbers that equate to frets. Just use the numbers for the melody string and play the appropriate fret.
I can make canjos fairly quickly now. My latest one only took a couple of hours. I may make a few and sell at some craft fairs along with some of my other wooden projects. I am also thinking about making an electrified one.