For woodworkers and wood dealers, koa is often considered second to none because of its spectacular appearance. Curly koa is also unmatched in price, with highly figured material for guitar sets priced as high as $150/bf. Koa lumber with a premium curl can strain your wallet for $60 to $120/bf depending on the intensity of the figure and the reputation of the exotic wood dealer who is selling it.
Koa’s high price results from several factors. First, it is endemic to Hawaii; it doesn’t grow anywhere else in the world. Secondly, the only koa that can be harvested are the dead or decaying trees on public lands. Plantation koa is in its early stages of development and isn’t much of a factor at this time. And cutting live koa trees on private lands is looked upon as a sin. Illegal cutting occurs sporadically, but anyone found buying or dealing with the “koa black market” faces serious legal issues if they are caught.
But make no mistake about it: koa is magnificent.
“Koa is definitely one of the most splendid woods in the world,” says Rick Hearne, owner of Hearne Hardwoods in Oxford, Pa., who also happens to have the largest koa inventory on the mainland. “It can go from a light gold color to a rich purple color and pass through orange and scarlet along the way, even chocolate. It gets a chatoyancy to it that no other wood approaches. When you put an oil finish on koa, it fires up; it is just outrageously beautiful and it’s like a hologram when you walk by it. The picture changes. It looks like it has halogen light bulbs blazing out of it.”
Koa (Acacia koa) grows on the larger islands of Hawaii. Trees can reach heights up to 100' with diameters of 3' to 4'. Trees at higher elevations contain the most figure, while trees at lower elevations are more straight-grained. The prime growing area is between 3,000 and 6,000 ft. Koa is generally reddish to dark brown, often with a golden luster and darker streaks, and is void of sapwood. The grain is interlocked, which often causes the curly figure.
“Out of all of the Hawaiian Islands, koa grows predominantly on the Big Island,” says Chris Allen of Koa Wood Hawaii in Kurtistown, Hawaii. “By state law, you can not cut down live koa trees and there are just not enough of them on Oahu for harvest. At the low elevation, the koa tends to be real blond and not have a lot of color or character to it. That’s why the Big Island has the best koa. And Maui has nice koa, too, but again, not as much.”
“We sell a lot to instrument makers,” says George Smith of Winkler Woods in Honolulu. “That’s our main deal, plus some furniture stuff, both solids and veneers. We’re also doing our own ukuleles. We sell to [guitar makers] Taylor, Martin and Ernie Ball. We also sell a lot to box makers. They want the figured wood, but the curly is maybe 10 percent of the tree. It comes from the Big Island, around Hilo.”
Besides fine furniture and musical instruments, koa is used for small crafts, turnings, carvings and decorative veneer. Koa lumber is available in 4/4 and 8/4 thicknesses, but rarely in slab form. There is also a market for the wood in Japan.
“The koa has minerals in it that make it abrasive when you try to work with it,” Hearne notes. “It will dull tools, not as bad as teak, but it does. That comes from the volcanic soil. The most beautiful koa I have ever found is on the Big Island. It generally has much more red and gold in it than the stuff on Maui and Kauai, which tends to be pink. We had one [piece] that was 5' wide and 9' long; we still have one that is 39" wide and 18' long. We’re in no real hurry to sell some of this. We probably have about 10,000 bf in stock.”
The price of koa varies as much as any species in the world. Plain koa, without a variance in color or figure can be bought for as little as $15 to $20/bf and, if quartersawn, $20 to $50/bf. Lumber with the premium full curl usually ranges between $80 and $120/bf. Musical-grade koa runs up to $150/bf. Hearne sells highly figured guitar sets from $150 to $400, which includes a pair of 1/8" bookmatched 8" x 22" backs and 4" x 36" sides.
“There is no comparison to koa,” says Hearne, who has harvested trees using a helicopter in Hawaii. “The closest thing you may find is Tasmanian blackwood (Acacia melanoxylon), which is the same family.”
This article originally appeared in the March 2009 issue.