The number of J. French banjos which are extant today is fairly high, considering his lack of advertising and his apparently small manufacturing operation.  Ten instruments were surveyed for this presentation, and the author knows of several more in existence.  In conversations with vintage banjo enthusiasts, it was found that most knew of French’s instruments, but did not attach enough importance to them to document examples they had seen.  This is not surprising, as French did not mark his banjos with any numbering system and does not seem to have had any set models or styles- every instrument appears to have been custom or one-off.  Only one instrument has turned up so far with a date of any kind, a presentation fretless instrument with a date of August 28, 1880.  All other instruments surveyed are undated, but in viewing them side by side an evolution of construction techniques is apparent and they can be arranged in rough chronological order.  This evolution may have been abrupt or may have happened gradually- the small sampling of instruments and the lack of a serial numbering system makes it impossible to tell as of yet.  Overall, the banjos seem to be influenced by the older styles of banjo construction and decoration.

French’s trade mark on many of his instruments (particularly earlier examples) is a six-pointed star inlayed in the peghead.  Early instruments also usually carry an inlay at the base of the fingerboard which mimics the shape of the decorative endbolt.  Inlays on early instruments are simple and appear to be hand cut, and are often metal, while later instruments use what appear to be trade-purchased shell inlay shapes.  Early instruments also have an odd bulge in the neck at the 5th peg, which encloses the peg almost entirely.  This feature seems to have been all but eliminated on later instruments.  Every banjo examined has the same peghead shape, which is similar to that of the E. J. Cubley banjos of Chicago.  Early necks are an extremely hard v-shape, while later instruments necks’ profiles are much more rounded.  Early necks attachment to the rim consists of a mortise through the dowel, with a single wooden wedge, while later necks are held on with a more elegant Stewart-style double wedge bracket.  All instruments carry a metal heel cap which hangs over edge of the rim, and has a decorative edge cut on it’s lower side- there are two distinct variations of decoration, one on earlier instruments and one on the later.  All instruments examined have a spun-over rim, and it is not known if the rims were purchased from the trade or made in house.  Tension hoops are made in an odd manner, by which a steel ring is bent and then has German silver spun over it.  The author has seen this style of construction on other instruments (including Cubley banjos) but has never been able to come up with a logical reason for the technique.

Hook and nut hardware on the early instruments is fairly crude, utilizing square nuts on the hooks and shoe bolts, and it is very possible that it could have been sourced from trade merchants.  The later hardware is fancy, finely made and elegantly designed.  The author has not encountered the later hardware on any other instruments, and it is his opinion that it was either produced in-house or commissioned by French for his instruments specifically.  This also applies to the endbolts, the two-wedge neck attachment brackets of the later instruments, the metal heel caps, and neck adjustment devices.  An interesting note is that the pitch of the hook threads is 8-30 TPI, which is not a standard size.

Two of the later instruments in the survey carry a cast brass mechanical neck adjustment device.  The mechanism attaches to the end of the dowel stick near the tailpiece and allows for changing the angle of the neck to adjust the string action.  The device is similar in concept to the neck adjuster used on Cole’s Eclipse banjos, but is more massive than the Cole unit and works in a slightly different manner.  These adjusters may also have been produced in house, as it is noted on the Sanborn maps that part of the banjo factory housed a foundry.

Extant tailpieces are of wood and mimic the shape of the decorative endbolt.  It is presumed that violin type friction pegs of wood or bone were originally used.  One instrument examined came with two somewhat crudely carved bone pegs, but it is not known if they are original to the instrument.

Two instruments of the later construction era bear what are presumed to be resellers’ markings.  One large fretless banjo has it’s dowel stamped “R. G. Allen, Standard     J. L. French Maker Clev’d, O.”.  Another does not have any stamps on it’s dowel, and the metal heel cap is engraved “Edwin H. Pendleton”.  This banjo was found in Virginia, and Mike Holmes’ American Fretted Instrument Makers list has an entry for an Edwin H. Pendleton in Culpeper, VA.  Research into these individuals has turned up nothing definite so far.

Only one instrument surveyed so far has a date connected with it.  A fretless banjo of the earlier construction era bears engraved metal presentation plates that read “Mrs. A. A. to J. McG”, and “J. L. French Maker Cleveland, O. / J. McGwine  August 28 1880”.  As of yet no information on J. McGwine has been turned up.

Only one instrument surveyed bears no marking.  This is a very crude instrument, but the peghead shape, bump at 5th peg, and metal heel cap indicate that it was most likely made by J. French.  The rim of the instrument is a cheap factory-made rim, and it appears that the neck was originally fitted to it (ie. the neck was not added to the rim at a later date).  It is postulated that French made this instrument later in his life, after he had retired from the manufacturing business and no longer had tooling with which to make rims or hardware.  This theory may change if and when new and better information comes to light.