Kauai, HI – The search for Koa begins!

After years, of playing, listening to, and appreciating the ukulele, I recently took my first trip to Hawaii.  We stayed on the charming Island of Kauai, where we had plenty of surf, snorkeling and sunshine, but unlike most visitors to the island, I was on a mission.  Ever since my in-laws invited us on the trip, I had been dreaming about, researching, and making phone calls to find a source for one of the most exclusive woods for instrument building, Hawaiian Koa.  Koa is a tree in the Acacia family, that grows exclusively in Hawaii and only in altitudes between 3,000-6,000 feet.  Although it is not endangered, it is rare.  Koa logging is typically a salvage operation, with the harvest being primarily of downed or dying trees on private land.

Hawaiian Koa is one of the most exclusive woods for instrument building


Before making the trip off of the mainland, I contacted Specialty Lumber in Kapaa.  They happily answered all of my silly questions (Will you guys even sell koa to a someone from the mainland?) and when I convinced my wife to make the 45 minute trip first thing on our first day of the trip they were incredibly accommodating, letting me dig through a rack of 15 year old koa that they had recently acquired.  Before leaving us Paul, the owner, mentioned that their Koa was “$40 a board foot, no negotiating.”  I had never spent that much on wood, but I had read when you find good Koa you pay their price and say thank you, so that was my plan.

After a while one of their employees asked if we had “seen the stuff upstairs?”  He led us through a second warehouse and up into a loft, where we found stacks of Big Island Koa billets.  He left us up there to dig, saying to bring whatever we found downstairs and he would get us a price.  After searching through the stacks, wiping the dust off of wood with the sweat off my brow to see if I was looking at curl or just milling marks, I found two boards that I hoped were in my price range.   My wife helped me haul the billets downstairs where I nervously waited for the owner to finish up some phone calls before giving me a price on the boards that I was already attached to.

He picked up the boards, took a quick look at each side, and did a few calculations before giving me a final price.  The koa was within my budget!  I would be able to bring some of the prized wood home to Bend to build with!  I kept to my plan, happily saying “Thank you” and handing over my credit card.  Now off to a victory lunch at the Mermaid cafe, with my ever patient wife!  My wood buying mission was a success, or so I thought.  Turns out, the island would connect me with more Koa and new friends before our trip was done.  Check back for more in the next post!

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