Quality is Engineered In

Roughsawn koa is neither flat on either face or straight on either side.
Roughsawn koa is neither flat on either face or straight on either side.

Each of our koa frames are hand-crafted.  They are shaped, sanded, and hand polished to a very smooth surface before oiling, waxing or lacquering. We do NOT to stain our koa as stains severely inhibit the natural chatoyancy of your koa frame.

It all starts off with the hand-selection of Koa. We personally select each piece for it’s grain, figure, color, and density. A typical 1″ thick board of ‘select‘ solid koa can sell for anywhere from  $70-200 per square foot. Shorts, boards less than 4 feet in length, are priced a little lower, while curly koa is usually priced at the higher end. Most boards have neither a straight side or a flat bottom and/or top.  Most the boards we get are between 4-7 inches in width. Wider boards are  getting harder to get.  If a board has no straight top or bottom it needs to be planed smooth before it can be cut into strips for making picture frame moldings. A 1″ board could end up closer to 3/4″.  Once the board is flattened, the sides need to be planed to get a straight edge that is square to the flat surface. Next we cut the board into the desired widths.  With every cut made lengthwise on a board, 1/8th inch of lumber is loss due to the thickness of the saw blade. Once the sides are planed,  a 12″ wide board rarely yields more than 10   1-inch strips – a loss of 20% or more. 

Every cut takes away 1/8" of wood.

Once the boards are cut lengthwise (ripped) into the desired widths, the rabbet or pocket, the cut-out into which the edges of your artwork will sit, needs to be made. This requires several passes using a router, or two passes with a table saw followed by a pass with a router in order to smooth the rough edges left behind by the saw. I prefer to choose the side I want facing the top, make one cut with my table saw to make it easy for me to identify which side is up.  Shape the top the way I want it, then make the second cut to create the rabbet.  By the time I’m done shaping and cleaning it up, I will have cut away another 30% of the koa I started out with.  Once the lengths are cut and the trim disposed of, if they are too short for anything else, I will have lost over 50% of the wood I started off with.

Once you remove the rabbet,  what you have left is the raw form of a frame molding.

The rabbet needs to be cut out to form the pocket for your artwork.
Fancier molding styles require several passes with a router to shape.
I shape one side then the other rather than try to do both sides at once.
I shape one side then the other rather than try to do both sides at once.

The top of the frame, which will be the most visible part of the finished artwork, still needs to be shaped. Shaping takes several passes with the router. Koa’s grain runs in many directions so, even with the sharpest of blades, cutting away too much at a time could leave the finished moulding with deep tearouts that could result in considerable waste of this valuable resource from Hawai`i. Just remember this old woodworker’s proverb, “slowly… slowly… catchee monkey.” Generally speaking, with koa, it is advisable to work off no more than 1/16 of an inch with each pass — even less with curly koa. The more figure on the koa, the shallower the cut. Remember, a sizeable tearout in the middle of a longer length of koa could leave you with a moulding that is only suitable for making smaller than desired frames, or worse, business card holders.

After the wood has been routed to the desired shape, it needs to be sanded. This is an especially important step to address areas that would be hard to sand and polish once the frame has been assembled. Unsuitable areas of each strip of molding need to be marked and avoided when making frames. (A 4-foot length of koa molding may not be suitable for a 40″ side of a frame due to inherent flaws, splits and tear-outs and, therefore, may only be able to yield two or more shorter lengths — more loss of precious koa.) Each piece also has to be graded and matched in terms of color and grain. The wide spectrum of color, grain, figure in koa makes matching more difficult than one would think. Even when cut from the same piece of wood, koa can vary so much from one side of a 6″ board to the next as to make the strips that are cut from opposing sides unsuitable as a pair. Even a frame made from a single length of molding may not match properly from one end to the other! Working with koa can be tricky and time consuming and the koa framer has to exercise patience. Lengths may have to be stored for weeks, months, maybe years before a suitable match can be found to complete a well-matched, good-sized frame. All of this can add to the cost of producing koa frames. (The average wholesale cost of raw 1″ molding is $5.00+ per linear foot when bought in bulk.)

The next step is to cut the molding to size. Miter saws need to be calibrated regularly to ensure true 45% cuts when it comes to picture frames. A difference of 1-degree on each cut would result in a difference 8 degrees at the last corner. This would leave an unacceptable gap in the last corner of the frame and not allow for a tight fitting corner — rendering the frame unusable or, rather, unsellable. Ideally, the molding is cut just slightly longer than needed then sanded with a a true 45-degree sanding wheel. If a sanding wheel is not available or not practical for the weekend framer(even the smallest manual hand-crank models cost $170 or more), attaching a sanding disk to your miter saw and carefully reshaping the ends will do the trick.

mitered cuts of a 5x7, 8x10, and 11x14 thumbnail type molding
v nails are inserted to the glued corners for added strength
Biscuits inserted in wider bodied frames ensure strong corners.

Smaller frames are usually glued, clamped, then v-nailed or underpinned at the back of the frame to keep the corners from coming apart when bumped or dropped. Lower priced frames in the marketplace often forego the gluing and are only v-nailed, stained and varnished. Few, if any, of the low-end frames are sanded after assembly. Here at Ho`ohie Hawai`i, we take pride in every frame that we make. So, regardless of size, each piece is sanded with our handheld orbital sanders, then hand polished with both 400-grit and 600-grit sandpaper, prior to finishing. Smaller frames, 5″ x 7″, 8″ x 10″, and 11″ x 14,” are truly a labor of love. When you add the cost of the materials and hours involved in making each frame, it’s easy to see how the framer makes less than a minimum hourly wage on these.

We have found that larger frames require stronger methods of joining the corners. Along with glue and underpinning with v-nails or wedges, inserting a biscuit between the joints helps to keep them from ever coming apart. 

Koa can be finished several ways. The most common method these days is to simply coat it with varnish, polyurethane, or lacquer. The more traditional way would be to oil it several times over the course of days, even weeks, following each oil treatment with steel wool then completing the finish with a special blend of wax made from carnauba and bee’s wax.  If you have a preference, simply let us know.

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