Cookie Tin Banjo Part 3: Make Tuning Pegs From Scrap Wood




About: Tim Anderson is the author of the "Heirloom Technology" column in Make Magazine. He is co-founder of, manufacturers of "3D Printer" output devices. His detailed drawings of traditional Pacific...

Continues the adventure begun at Cookie Tin Banjo Part 1.

Here's how to make the tuning pegs for your Banjo.
You can skip this by buying commercial violin pegs or by getting machine tuners from junk or new sources. Some people use eyebolts or other hardware store items, but I prefer wooden pegs.

Commercial violin pegs cost from $0.80 on up.
They can be obtained from:


Step 1: Banjo Kit, Version One

Here's the stuff I used to make the banjo with the octagonal body.
Those pegs are roughed out blanks. You can see the fractal pattern cut by the very abused bandsaw blade.
I sawed and whittled the pegs from a scavenged coffeetable leg. I shoved them into the holes in the drill guage to make them them round and get the taper right. The three circled holes are about right for base, tip, and middle of the peg.

That peghole reamer tapers too much and isn't straight. After tuning a string you have to shove the peg back into the hole.

For the next banjo I started over and was a lot more careful making the reamer, shaver, etc. The extra care saved me time and the result was better too. But by all means make your first banjo in a hurry,
you'll learn a lot by finishing it. So get it over with and start playing that one while you start your next one.

That's a chunk of fret wire around the rest of the stuff. It cost $5 for 2 feet at a music store.
I ended up liking the fretless sound and haven't fretted the neck yet.
The virtue of laziness must be overcome. I'll fret a neck in Part 5.

Enough background, back to my current best method for making pegs!

Step 2: Rip It Up!

Get the hardest wood you can find.
Tool handles, furniture, and old pianos are good sources.
This is some very heavy hard tropical wood scavenged from a cabinet shop.

Saw it into strips that are the right thickness and width.
These are an inch wide and .36" thick.
I use the imperial units for the convenience of our loyal allies in Liberia and Myanmar.
Everyone else uses the metric system.

Use a handsaw if you don't have a power saw.
Use an axe or machete to split it if you don't have a saw.
Don't get hurt. All these tools cut people meat a lot easier than they cut wood.

Step 3: Draw the Peg Pattern on the Wood

Draw the side view of the pegs on the sticks.
I used a round washer and a ruler with a fine-tip sharpie marker.

Step 4: Bandsaw Around the Lines

It's dangerous to bandsaw small objects. Don't get cut.
If you don't have a bandsaw use your jackknife, pullsaw, waterjet, lasercutter, etc etc.

Basically the rest of the process is the same as how my Granddad would carve a wooden bear:
"Cut off everything that doesn't look like part of a bear."

And here's how he'd do that safely: "Don't cut toward yourself and you'll never get cut."

Step 5: Concave the Knob Faces and Taper the Pins.

Grind the faces of the knobs concave.
They'll feel a lot better that way.
Your fingers are convex.

While you're at it grind the pin to a 25:1 taper to match your reamer.
Keep it square.

Sawdust from tropical wood tends to be bad for your lungs.

Step 6: Octagon the Pins

It's impossible to taper a round rod by hand and keep it at all round.
The only way is to taper it square first like you did in the previous step.
Then it's easy to whittle the corners off so it's an octagon.
After that it's even easier to whittle the corners off the octagon so it's a sixteen-ogon.
Then you would sand it, but we've got our magic peg shaver that we'll use instead.

Step 7: Clean Up the Knobs

I made my knobs in Siamese twin pairs up to this point so they'd be easier to hang on to.
Now you can cut them apart and beltsand the corners off.
Slightly irregular knobs are fine, that will add character to your fine handmade instrument.

Step 8: Peg Shaver to the Rescue!

Big emotional payoff here - use the peg shaver you made in Part 2 to smooth and taper your pegs to perfection.

It can take 2 hours to make a single peg without one of these.
Of course, that might be a good way to spend a couple of hours, maybe while sitting on a riverbank waiting for the fish to bite.

At first the blade on my shaver was too low and dug in. So I stroked the edge with a drill shank to make a burr and turned the peg the wrong way. The burr scraped fine powder off the peg like a furniture scraper.

For the next batch of pegs I put a metal shim under the blade, so it's just tangent to the edge of the peg. I resharpened the blade, and it was a lot faster than using it in scraper mode.



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    16 Discussions


    5 years ago on Introduction

    I was about ready to buy machine pegs for these gourd instruments I have been restoring, but your tutorial gave me the courage to try it myself. This works perfectly. The only thing I did differently was to buy a $3.00 Harbor Freight reamer instead of make my own out of half a scissors, and used a paint scraper blade instead of sharpening my own piece of steel since apparently I am terrible at that. Anyway, after carving the handle parts of the pegs the way the originals were, the instruments look WAY more charming and authentic than they would have with machine tuners. Plus they hold their tune. Thanks for holding my hand through what I thought was going to be the hardest part. I encourage everybody to give this a try.  Your instrument will automatically receive a bonus of 100 extra Awesome Points for having hand-made pegs.


    11 years ago on Introduction

    I've built one banjo, the neck is from an old door frame, the frets are bicycle spokes, bridge and nut and carved from thin pieces of bamboo. I wander about playing it troubadour style, it's a great conversation piece. I stand on the side of the road and people come talk to me and invite me to parties. The wooden tuning pegs are great because they are always slipping out and I'm getting quite good at tuning. i think they aren't quite made accurately enough. I'm working on making higher quality pegs for future banjos, so it's good enough to give away cheers good Instructable. photos forthcoming. cheers.

    3 replies

    Reply 11 years ago on Introduction

    On my cigar box guitars I use either bamboo or ivory colored plastic chopsticks. They're only about 99 cents at the dollar store and you can make a few out of 1 pair


    Reply 7 years ago on Introduction

    You make the tuning pegs out of chopsticks? How exactly do you do that?


    8 years ago on Introduction

    I love this whole set of inst'ibles! I make instruments myself, and i enjoy your approach. I've been either scavenging or making pegs, and then truing them the hard-and-slow way. your homemade peg shaver concept will save me hours, as i already have a peg hole reamer.
    Would i be being a kill-joy if i were to point out my suspicion that 'concave' and 'octagon' aren't verbs? I would be? Oh, then i shall remain silent and sulk.
    Thank you for all your work on Instructables!

    1 reply

    11 years ago on Introduction

    Will you be doing a "how-to" on Fret calculation and fret placement? I've had an electric ukelele project on hold for over a year because I didn't want to screw up the frets.

    2 replies

    Reply 11 years ago on Introduction

    Here's a good fret position calculator:
    Each fret is 1/17.817 of the distance between the previous fret and the bridge.
    For a banjo, they used to do 1/18 the distance, and just move the bridge closer til the high frets sounded right.
    Lutes used to have frets made of gut string tied around the neck.
    You could slide temporary frets around til you like how they sound, and mark their positions. The 12th fret is 1/2 the distance between nut and bridge.


    also I've heard that "old timers" , as well as concert bass players, and others who are used to playing without frets prefer fretless instruments. What I've heard of other do-it-yourselfers doing is completeing the project, without frets, playing it as is then adding frets later. If you screw up the frets I have heard of amatuer luthiers actually pulling the frets out and playing the instrument without them.

    This is really cool I have to make a violin for school (have to make any musical instrument I just chose violin) and this will help me a lot since I'm not allowed to buy them!


    10 years ago on Introduction

    Thanks for the info. I can use this to make my own custom powder horn plugs.


    11 years ago on Introduction

    With the powder instead of shavings coming out, is the shaver blade set to high, not sharp enough or is the wood just that hard?

    3 replies

    Reply 11 years ago on Introduction

    Here's are the details from part 2: The shaver blade is too low and digs in too much, so I rubbed the edge of the blade with a drill shank to turn the edge over, making a burr. Then I turned the peg the other way, away from the blade, and the burr scrapes powder off it. That works fine because the pegs are already tapered octagons as seen in the first photo, and there's not much wood to be removed. I'll shim the blade later and bolt it down in the right position. It needs to be just tangent to the circle.


    Reply 11 years ago on Introduction

    The cutter I used a year or so ago was to thin (razer blade rather than plane blade), and didn't cut well. I was just wondering if it was suposed to make shavings like a pencil sharpener or dust.


    Reply 11 years ago on Introduction

    I had to raise (shim) my blade and move it forward a bunch til it worked right. The shavings are thin and fibery, since the taper is pretty flat and you're basically peeling wood fibers from around the peg.