Hawaiian Koa: Not Just For Ukuleles

Koa is one of the lesser known treasures of the Hawaiian Islands on the mainland, but it has a rich history and is very much appreciated by the inhabitants of the 50th state.

Koa is the Hawaiian word for “strength” or “warrior”, says Hawaiian artist and furniture maker Joed Miller. Miller harvests, cuts, mills and dries koa then uses it to make art and furniture, which he markets through his company, Akami Aloha Marketplace.

Miller was born in Hawaii and lives on the Big Island of Hawaii in a remote and heavily wooded area populated with other artists. He began his business making Hawaiian koa hair sticks, later adding other items. “Koa paddles and walking staffs and canes are popular,” says Miller. In addition, he uses koa in making all kinds of furniture, including desks, dressers, couches, tables, love seats and chairs. His home is filled with koa, from the staircase to the kitchen cabinetry and toilet seats to two support beams and window framing.

Koa Grows Only on Hawaiian Islands
Koa is in the Acacia family, but this particular species only grows in the Hawaiian Islands. Koa is the largest tree native to Hawaii and the second most common there.

Miller has amassed information about koa from his research and use of the tree. “Koa is widely distributed in both dry areas and wet rain forest,” he says. “It grows profusely in the 600- to 8,000-foot altitudes. Koa forests are an integral part of the native habitat of the world’s rarest birds. This species may be seen on all larger islands, near Kokee on Kauai, Nuuanu Pali on Oahu, Hana Road on Maui, and the Hawaii Volcano Park on the Big Island of Hawaii.”

Miller quotes figures published by the state of Hawaii indicating there are approximately 2.5 million cubic foot of koa saw timber in Hawaii. “Only Kauai and Hawaii have the tall, straight-stemmed koa suitable for lumber. The trees on most of the other islands have short, crooked stems. Trees on the big island of Hawaii are by far the largest and most desirable koa trees,” says Miller. “The tree considered to be one of the best specimens of the tree reached 140 feet with a spread of 148 feet and was located in the Kau district of Hawaii.”

Koa Used by Earliest Hawaiians
“Koa’s use is believed to date back to the earliest inhabitants of the Hawaiian Islands as a construction material and for canoes and paddles,” says Miller, who adds that its bark was also used for tanning. “The curly koa that is so valuable today was not used for the canoes,” explains Miller, “because figured koa is not as strong as the straight-grained material.

“It became a very popular wood for uses beyond housing and canoes because of its highly figured grain and its ability to take a high lustrous shine,” Miller says. “Koa was the wood of choice to make gifts and furniture for the royal family. The palace was filled with koa from the flooring to the ceilings, and most of the furnishings were made from koa as well.”

Miller says that today most of the state and court buildings are paneled in koa wood, and its use in churches and buildings on the islands is also widespread. Koa’s fiddleback figure makes is especially popular for making guitars and ukuleles. Other contemporary uses of the wood include fine furniture and cabinetry, gunstocks, interior joinery, bent work for boats, and decorative veneer for use in architectural paneling and face veneers.

Goddess Pale Shines Through Koa
Koa is a very attractive wood, with straight grain in some material. Koa’s grain is interlocked and sometimes wavy or curly. The heartwood is a deep red to dark brown and has dark brown markings. Koa has a medium and even texture and the wood has a natural luster.

“The fiery red glow of koa is reminiscent of the legend of Pele, our goddess of the islands,” says Miller in describing Hawaiians’ special kinship with Koa. “Some believe it is her image which shines through this wood, sharing with the world her rapture and pain and the glory of her creation.”

Koa’s Beauty Comes at a Price
Koa is also a very expensive wood, according to Miller. While the wood grows quickly and plentifully, the demand for koa has been high. “Today, the value of koa in commercial outlets runs between $32 and $50 a board foot, making it nearly impossible for a small craftsman to practice their arts. So most artists rely on family and friends to allow access to tress on private property. I get my lumber from Pahala on my uncle’s ranch,” says Miller.

FAMILY NAMES
Acacia koa of the Family Leguminosae

OTHER NAMES
None

HEIGHT/WEIGHT
Koa trees average 100 to 115 feet in height. Koa weights 41 pounds per cubic foot with a specific gravity of 0.67.

PROPERTIES
Wood dries fairly easily with little degrade. Final conditioning of the wood in the kiln can prevent the wood from cupping. The wood is durable and resistant to insects, fungal attack and especially preservative treatment.
Wood works easily with hand and machine tools but has a slight tendency to blunt cutting tools. A reduced cutting angle of 20 degrees is recommended for planing or molding curly grained material. Wood has medium bending strength and stiffness

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