Updated: Nov 30, 2019
Is one small town big enough for two banjo builders?
In a town of 2,000, you sure wouldn’t expect to find two custom banjo builders shipping high-quality instruments to customers across the country and beyond.
Yet Jeff Delfield and Dean Robinson, two friends with separate businesses, are holding down the custom banjo industry in Bryson City, North Carolina.
The Two Builders
Bryson City is home to banjo builders Jeff Delfield and Dean Robinson. Both fellows have been building custom banjos for 10+ years. They both have shops at their homes where they make their banjo-building magic happen. But it's not magic to them. To them, it's craft.
Dean Robinson (left) and Jeff Delfield (right, with wife Elise Delfield) are two custom banjo builders in Bryson City, North Carolina.
where they create
Piles of wood, dust collection systems, lathes, hand tools sorted into drawers, special top-secret bottles of finish. Dean and Jeff have spent countless hours setting up their home shops. They have collected the perfect tools and learned how to organize them for maximum functionality.
It’s amazing to see their workspaces! Here's a view of Jeff's shop:
Jeff's shop is in the basement of his home. I don't know what most of this stuff is for, but if it makes banjos, it must be important!
Dean's shop is in his garage. He has been making a lot of improvements to it since moving in, including cutting in these windows and adding lots of electrical drops.
Dean says, "It's usually a little dirtier!"
Dean and Jeff are creative master craftsmen with a gift of organizing their spaces to be functional for their processes.
And the beautiful banjos are proof of the intentional environments where they're made.
It would be so tempting for Jeff and Dean to keep all their beautiful banjos to themselves!
Luckily, both Jeff and Dean like to share their creations. Not only with the customers who commissioned the banjos, but also local friends. They are happy to let other players in Bryson City (and beyond!) bum-ditty or backwards roll on their banjos before shipping them to the rightful owners.
Dean brought a brand new build over for Frank to test drive the other day. This maple resonator bluegrass banjo now lives in Montana.
Helen Holloway writes on Facebook, "A big thank you to Deanocraft Custom Banjos for letting William take over your booth! :) Your instruments are so beautiful."
Erin Worley, fiddler and banjo player in Bryson City, sharing a tune on one of Jeff's new builds.
Just who are these guys?
Dean Robinson - Deanocraft Custom Banjos
Dean is a Louisiana native and lived in Georgia for a good long while. Bryson City is where he and Judy bought a second home a few years back. They made their mountain cabin their full-time home in 2018!
You might run into Dean at Clifftop in West Virginia, Bear On the Square in Georgia, the Banjo-Fiddle Frolic in North Carolina (he and his wife Judy are the self-described "jam slaves" for that fun retreat!) and other regional old time music gatherings.
Dean, Judy, and friends at a recent old time music festival. Video by Joe Choo.
Dean is an outdoorsman with a passion for hunting and wildlife. So it's no surprise that many of his banjo inlays feature critters. But I thought this one was pretty unique:
Yep, it's a custom "sasquatch themed" banjo! The inlay is super rad.
He doesn't let you know right away, but Dean is a former CPA. From number crunching to banjo building seems like big leap. How did he make the transition? His discovery of and journey into old time music is the connecting factor. Skill with numbers is surely helpful when calculating neck angles and headstock proportions!
Dean says, "I am passionate about banjo building because I love building something that is beautiful and functional. I love putting a banjo together and seeing my hard work come together into something that looks beautiful. And then when I play it and I get to hear it, it’s awesome."
I love putting a banjo together and seeing my hard work come together into something that looks beautiful. - Dean Robinson
Judy and Dean test out a new build by playing the John Salyer tune
"Trouble on my Mind".
Dean (far right) playing one of his banjo in his and Judy's guided jam at the Banjo-Fiddle Frolic, an old time music retreat in Bryson City.
Dean keeps a few banjos in inventory in addition to creating custom builds.
Jeff Delfield - Deep Creek Strings
Jeff is originally from Wisconsin. A librarian by day, he can be found working in his shop by night. From his beginnings tinkering with cigar boxes, salad bowls, and other found objects to make instruments, he has studied and honed his craft to become a careful and conscientious luthier.
Jeff Delfield in his shop.
As a musician, jam leader, and student of old time music, Jeff's passion for his craft comes not just from the building process, but from the music the banjo will make. "I get the most joy knowing that it is making music. That is magical to me," Jeff says. "This quote from banjo builder Bob Thornburg has always resonated with me: 'As builders, the stuff we’re putting out there in the world is not the end product. If you could call music magic, you might say that we make magic wands. But, they’re not magic until they get into the hands of some musician, who is a magician who can really make things happen.'"
I get the most joy knowing that it is making music. That is magical to me. - Jeff Delfield
A 2017 build by Jeff that now lives happily in Athens, GA. The peghead inlay has a sand shaded fan, and the head is goat skin from Jeff Menzies in Jamaica. The neck and pot are made of walnut.
You banjo geeks out there might notice that Frank's nylon string banjo (the one we call the "Polo banjo" because friend Polo Burguière in France made the neck) and Jeff's banjos resemble each other. Jeff says that Frank's taste in banjos has strongly influenced his style.
He says, "Frank Lee the musician, Frank Lee the friend, and Frank Lee's collection of banjos have had a huge influence on my banjo making. Especially in the early years, Frank played every single one of my banjos. Many of those videos are still on YouTube."
Playing the custom ordered banjos isn't all, though; Frank owns and plays one of Jeff's banjos too. He uses it when we play with The Freight Hoppers.
The Freight Hoppers - David Bass (fiddle), Amanda Kowalski (bass), Frank Lee (banjo/vocals), and I (guitar/vocals) - at Spice on Snow Festival, sponsored by the Summit School, in January 2019.
It's fun to hear the banjos in the builders' own hands. Jeff documents every build's sonic personality through videos.
Jeff playing a newly built curly maple banjo in his shop.
Jeff's banjos are artistic as well as functional. How did he learn the artistic side of banjo building? Jeff is quick to shine the spotlight on his wife Elise, who is a potter. "I also credit Elise's artistic eye. She gave me lots of input and inspired me to be more aesthetically adventurous."
Jeff is strictly a custom builder at this time and does not maintain an inventory. Get on his wait list before it gets even longer!
Explore some more
So is the small town of Bryson City, North Carolina big enough for two banjo builders?
Get to know Dean and Jeff. They're good banjo players. They're nice. They're funny. They will even be nice and funny toward you if you don't get one of their banjos.
Music gathering at our house a few months back. From top: Scott Barnum, Pam Riggs, Erin Worley, Jeff Delfield, Judy Robinson, Jenny Monfore, (bit out of the frame) Dean Robinson.
If you're the movie-watching type, you can get to know Jeff, Dean, and a lot more great builders and players through the Conversations with Old Time Performers and Banjo Builders series. This collection of DVDs was produced by our friend Craig Evans. Get your copies from Craig directly if you like!
Next time you need a beautiful banjo don't think twice. Get in touch with a Bryson City banjo builder. Get your name on their waiting list!
@jeffdelfield on Instagram
Allie Lee is 1/2 of Frank & Allie Lee and 1/4 of The Freight Hoppers. She teaches Wernick Method Bluegrass Jam classes and camps and manages social media for those three businesses. She's a former 7th grade Language Arts teacher who always had a love/hate relationship with writing but a great love of grammar. She lives with husband Frank Lee in Bryson City, NC with their step-daughter and herd of rescued (indoor/outdoor) cats. www.frankandallie.com
Do you have a banjo built by Dean or Jeff? Tell us about it in the comments!