What is Koa?

Koa by any other name would be just as beautiful…

Acacia hawaiiensis           Acacia kauaiensis             Acacia koaia          Racosperma kauaiense          Racosperma koa

Figure of a dancing hula maiden found naturally embedded in a slice of Koa..
Figure of a dancing hula maiden found naturally embedded in a slice of Koa..

The Hawaiian Acacia Koa is a native species of acacia that is unique to Hawaii. Feeding off of Hawaii’s rich volcanic soil, its color and figure are noticeably different from other varieties of acacia and wood types that are available in other parts of the world. Once bountiful in all the islands except Kahoolawe and Niihau, over-harvesting has decimated much of the koa that had been growing in the wild. In the wild, it was a dominant plant in Hawaii’s dry to wet forests at elevations between 2000 to 6,500 feet. Today, most of Hawai`i’s koa used commercially come from tree farms on the Big Island of Hawaii and the slopes of Maui’s Haleakala mountain at elevations of 4,000 feet and higher. Although it is the second most prevalent native tree in Hawaii, and the moratorium for cutting these trees down has been lifted, harvesting is still restricted largely to pruned branches or naturally fallen trees.

The Hawaiian species of koa exists naturally nowhere else in the world. Fortunately, it is the fastest growing of Hawaii’s native hardwoods. Koa (Acacia Koa) has long since been sought after for its historic and cultural significance. It was once used for just about all building and manufacturing applications. Equally important, native koa forests provide unique wildlife habitat, critical watershed recharging areas, natural hillside erosion control, as well as recreational shade and play.

It is a large tree which grows to a height of 50 feet when cultivated, much much older trees, however, can grow much taller. At full maturity, theses tree= s are 10 to 25 feet in diameter. A Koa tree can grow as much as an inch in diameter per year. The leaves of Hawaii’s Acacia Koa are not true leaves; they are modified leaf stems, or phyllodes, which function as leaves. These crescent-shaped phyllodes are gray-green and range from 3 to 9 1/2 inches in length. Small, yellow, powder-puff shaped flowers occur in clusters either at the ends of its branches or at the bases of the phyllodes. There are three forms of Acacia koa which are sometimes considered subspecies. One of these, subspecies koaia, is shorter with a more gnarled appearance and is commonly considered horticulturally distinct. (Bornhorst 1996; Wagner 1990)

Hawaii’s koa is one of the world’s premier furniture and crafting woods because of its rarity and depth of figure (grain, color and patterns). It is a medium density hardwood similar to walnut but its color can vary from a pale blond to a deep chocolate brown-black. The grain in the wood can change directions from one layer to the next so that solid koa often takes on a three-dimensional quality when rubbed with oil. Koa can be a difficult wood to work with as it burns easily and has a tendency to tear-out even with the best of carbide blades. This adds to the expense of items made from koa as more wood has to be sanded away to achieve certain shapes. Larger pieces of furniture may require long preparation times as raw timber must be carefully selected from whatever stock becomes available so that all the necessary pieces are similar in grain, color and figure. All of this makes koa a very labor intensive medium.

Image of an old warrior is forever embedded naturally in this slice of Koa.
Image of an old warrior is forever embedded naturally in this slice of Koa.

Today, this beautiful and termite resistant wood is still used for furniture, woodwork, ukuleles and of course, quality picture frames.

In the Hawaiian language  koa means “bold, brave, fearless, warrior-like”. These were essential qualities of the ocean-going vessels that Hawaiians of old fashioned out of solid koa logs. Early Hawaiians also made surfboards, calabashes and posts for grass houses from these magnificent trees. At one time Hawaiian koa was held in such reverence that it could only be owned and enjoyed by Hawaii’s Royalty.


Thank you for reading!
Malama Pono!

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