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Published January 04 2013

West Fargo man in tune with banjos

WEST FARGO – Dave Holzer learned everything from his father, a onetime farmhand and longtime telephone company worker whose smarts far exceeded his eighth-grade education.

“He did everything,” Holzer said of his dad, Benedict, who died last March. “I mean, that’s the old way. If you wanted something, you made it.”

Holzer realized what he wanted in 1966, when as a teenager he walked into Marguerite’s Music in Jamestown and a banjo caught his eye.

“I ran my finger over it just like this,” he said, dragging a single digit across the strings on one of his homemade banjos, “and I could tune it. Never had one in my hands before that.”

Holzer was hooked.

Nearly a half-century later, the West Fargo man’s passion for the banjo still burns. He played the instrument in the Ogg Creek Stringband for several years before the group disbanded in July, and his wood shop is set up like an assembly line for building banjos from scratch.

In his homespun style, Holzer beams that, unlike a lot of banjo makers, he doesn’t use kits.

“I’m a banjo maker, not a banjo put-er together-er,” he said.

His output so far is between 10 and 15 banjos. While he enjoys building, “I’m more interested in teaching how to make these things,” he said.

It’s a complex process, and Holzer has developed a number of jigs, templates and tools – including a homemade boring machine that’s “worth its weight in gold” – for his craft.

“This is my system. It’s taken awhile to set up,” he said.

The process starts with maple, birch, walnut or cherry wood pieces that Holzer glues into an octagon shape, and then lathes into a smooth circular “rim” that acts as the resonating chamber.

Using stainless steel, he machines his own brackets and the hooks that thread into them, which when tightened create tension on the rim head, the banjo’s vibrating surface.

Holzer fashions the fingerboard from rosewood or ebony and uses a knife or Dremel tool to cut pockets for the inlays. His earlier banjos sported inlays made from clam shells collected from the nearby Sheyenne River, but that’s no longer legal, so he orders abalone or pearl from Vietnam.

Some banjo makers use a metal tone ring that sits between the wood rim and the head, but not Holzer.

“Why do I need ’em?” he said, strumming the strings and letting the warm tones ring.

Holzer keeps some of the banjos for himself, gives some to family and friends and sells a few. The materials are expensive, so he said he has to sell them for a minimum of $1,000, “and then you’re not making any money on your labor.”

The local market is thin for high-quality, homemade banjos, he said.

So why make them?

“I love it,” he said.

The 59-year-old recently branched out to the shorter mandolin banjo, making two prototypes modeled after one he was asked to fix.

He also has taken a greater interest in woodcarving and recently received a grant to study under local master woodcarver Izo Becic.

Holzer said he’s dyslexic and can’t read music, so he plays everything by ear with his clawhammer-style picking.

And his hobby ensures he’ll always have a self-made instrument to pick.

“I’ll never be without a banjo,” he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528