The beauty of handmade koa wood furniture is undeniable. But students at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa are making more than just art.
They participated in a project that is an important collaboration between the university’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources (CTAHR) and the Department of Art.
Their work is some of the first to test the market for young koa; 25-year-old koa versus koa that’s matured for 75 to 100 years.
Young koa is not as deeply colored and figured as mature koa but has a similar beauty.
“To see such beauty in the grain structure, I think that’s what mesmerized me the most, and led the direction of my piece,” says art major Jordan Harrison.
Mature koa can cost up to $100 per board foot so the students gladly accepted the donation of young koa wood from local landowners Parker Ranch and the Department of Hawaiian Homelands. Costs associated with harvesting, milling and transporting the wood were covered by another project sponsor, the USDA Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station.
J.B. Friday, extension forester in CTAHR’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Management explains, “No one is harvesting young plantations of koa and making something out of it so this is the first time that has been done.”
For David Landry, the art department woodshop technician teaching the woodworking class, the young koa created an interesting challenge for his students.
“They’d never worked in koa before, so it was a good laboratory for this experiment, because they put things together in ways that other woodworkers don’t.”
The wood shipped to Oʻahu from the Big Island included lighter-colored, immature parts that would typically be discarded.
“It required using a lot of sapwood–which is the white part of koa which most people don’t even know about, that it exists,” said Landry. “At the sawmill it’s cut off and thrown away.”
His students were quick to appreciate the merits of the wood.
“Working with the koa, it was very different, I would say, in comparison to the other hardwood, ash, that I worked with. The sapling koa was actually, had a nice smell to it when we were finishing it and polishing it off,” said undergraduate Courtney Miyamoto.
Their assignment had been to produce something commonly found in Japan; wooden furniture which holds shoes and acts as a seat. The work was featured at a local furniture and art gallery called Fishcake.
The exhibit at Fishcake was a real world test of the market for young koa.
Several of the pieces sold and attracted attention from buyers who appreciate the unique look and affordable price.
Once threatened with an uncertain future, most koa trees still currently grow on conservation land, but more and more private landowners are planting koa, or allowing it to grow, with an eye on a valuable future timber harvest.
“On ranches, on farms, on the various private lands, we’re seeing a lot more of it,” explained Friday. ”I think we’ve turned a corner.”
Landry was upbeat about the project.
“The response to it has been pretty good. People like the look of it, they like the fact that it’s koa, and they like the white mixed in with the dark. It’s just a unique opportunity for people to have koa furniture at a reasonable price.”
Interested in growing koa?
Planting koa has positive cultural, environmental and economic impacts. It is invaluable in Native Hawaiian culture; improves the watershed and the soil while creating bird habitats; and is a potential economic investment due to the high price commanded by this beautiful native wood.
Landowners interesting in planting koa on their properties are welcome to contact Extension Forester J. B. Friday at the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources for assistance. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Special thanks to J.B. Friday for use of his photographs of acacia koa lumber and trees. For more of his work, visit his Flickr page.