Woodworking in paradise - Koa

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“The reality is that most wealthy people that move over here — they either remodel or they build a house — is that they already have a designer, a contractor, a crew, everybody that they’re used to working with,” Calhoun explains. “Most of these people have three or four houses, and the tendency is to bring the whole crew over because they can afford to. So for most of the local woodworkers, we won’t generally see them until they’ve been here a few years, not until they’re a little bit tired of their place, and they want to remodel it. By then, they have found out who is here, what can be done here, and then they’ll hire the local people.”

Since that is the way things work on Maui, Calhoun has working relationships with designers, interior decorators and contractors. The majority of his work is through word of mouth, but he has had varying success with galleries. Some years, his gallery work has accounted for 20 percent of his sales, other years it has been as high as 90 percent. That unpredictability makes it tough for Calhoun, because gallery pieces are all built on spec.

“That is the rough part,” he says. “If the galleries are doing a great job and the economy is really booming and people are buying, then it’s wonderful because I get to go in my shop and make whatever I want. Well, not fully, but to some degree, make my designs and my execution and put it in the galleries, and two months later I have, a nice big check. To live on Maui and be able to do that, life doesn’t get much better.”

It’s impossible to write a profile of a Hawaiian woodworker without mentioning koa. Although there are other endemic species, koa is the most recognized on the mainland. Contrary to common perception, koa is plentiful on some of the Hawaiian Islands, and the best koa grows on the Big Island between 2,000 and 4,000 feet of elevation. It is the second-most common forest tree in Hawaii and is in no danger of extinction, according to Calhoun. But at the same time, Hawaii only has 10 percent of its original forests left.

“If the trees are on public, state or federal lands, there is no live cutting of koa,” Calhoun says. “On private lands, you still have to get permission. Because the price of koa keeps going up, koa thieves have been on the rise, too. We have a pretty bad [drug] epidemic, so people will steal anything, including koa. But they recently passed some laws that if you buy some koa from somebody, make sure you get a bill of sale. Because if you don’t have it, and you have a load of koa, you can be arrested.”

Calhoun travels to the Big Island to buy his koa from one of the sawyers who usually sets aside nice curly lumber for the small group of furniture makers who live in the islands.

“It has the full range of colors and figures, and everybody talks about curly koa, but I actually prefer the big plain-sawn mottled stuff a lot better. It’s more beautiful.”

Inlay and carving
Through the years, mostly by trial and error, Calhoun has become an inlay specialist. He often uses the technique to create the appearance of movement within his furniture.

“It’s like all of woodworking. If you are going to do it on a highly artistic level, it is very tedious. There’s no getting around it; it just does not happen fast. But it is kind of a Zen meditation thing. It’s not that hard to get into that zone and spend eight hours just doing it. Even then, you don’t really get to enjoy it until you are finally done with it, sanding everything clean and getting that first coat of finish on. That’s when the magic happens.”

Most of Calhoun’s pieces are made with solid wood, and he believes most people still have the perception that veneer is cheap. They don’t understand the history of marquetry and bookmatching, and fail to see what is involved with making a complicated veneer piece such as a piecrust table.

Along with his talent for inlay, the Maui furniture maker has become a talented carver.

“I love carving,” he states. “It all becomes fluid, but it sure didn’t start immediately. I didn’t get a good carving set until I was working for myself for five or six years. I have mixed tools, but most of the time I use a set of Pfeil Swiss-made palm-handle carving tools. I love the feel.”