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Build it and they will strum

Banjo maker's creations appear in the movies

Banjo maker's creations appear in the movies

October 05, 2007|By DAN DEARTH

HAGERSTOWN - Hagerstown resident George C. Wunderlich said he was low on money when, from out of the blue, he received a telephone call from Hollywood.

A representative from the 2000 film "Songcatcher" was on the other end of the line, he said. She needed three of his custom-made banjos within 1 1/2 weeks to use as props in the film.

Wunderlich, who builds working replicas of 19th-century banjos as a hobby, said he spent quite a few sleepless nights to meet the order.

Since then, he said he has made banjos that have been used in several movies, including "Cold Mountain," "Gods and Generals," "Ride with the Devil" and "Gangs of New York."

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Some of his banjos that didn't appear in the films were played by musicians on the movie soundtracks, he said.

"(Hollywood) calls me late," Wunderlich said. "They don't care what it costs, and they want it three days ago."

He makes the banjos in the basement of his house off Md. 65.

The floor is covered with wood shavings, and compact discs filled with period banjo licks lie mixed among his tools.

Wunderlich said he prefers to use 19th-century tools to keep things as authentic as possible.

He uses a plane to shape the neck and then files it down to get the final contour. To form the body, Wunderlich steams a flat piece of wood so he can bend it into a circle.

Wunderlich said the heads of his banjos are made of animal skins from the Middle East.

"It's a pretty low-tech operation," he said.

Wunderlich started making the instruments in 1992 after he heard a tape of musicians playing 19th-century banjo music, he said.

"I thought right then I had to learn how to do it," he said.

Wunderlich contacted the Smithsonian Institution, which obliged his request to view its collection of 19th-century banjos, he said.

Shortly thereafter, he began experimenting, doing some things wrong and some things right, until he went to the University of Virginia to study with design engineer Ed Britt.

Wunderlich said Britt made a blueprint of a 19th-century banjo that started things rolling in the right direction.

On average, it takes him about 40 hours to make a banjo, he said. Depending on the design, the banjos sell from $950 to $1,200.

Wunderlich said he believes he is one of six people in the world who share the hobby.

When he isn't making banjos, Wunderlich serves as the executive director of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, Md.

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