Why is Koa Wood so Rare, and is it Worth the Price?

Jan 24, 2024 | General Information

Koa wood products swim in every Hawaiian jewelry store, art gallery, souvenir shop, and farmers market. Their colors range from yellow to gold to auburn to dark chocolate – depending on the age of the wood. Their patterns jump from “straight” – which is the most affordable, to “figured” to “curly” – which ripples like holographic tiger stripes.

Comparing two koa bowls can be confusing, as they appear so very opposite. But one thing is consistent about Hawaiian koa – the price. It’s lofty for wood. Is it worth it? In a nutshell, yes. Why? Mostly because it is so rare. While koa is part of the Acacia family, these trees only grow in Hawaii, and best on the Main Island.

History of Koa Wood

Koa Wood
Ancient Hawaiians used the Koa tree trunks to carve their dug-out canoes and paddles, as well as surfboards. These were vital for fishing and traversing the islands. The upper branches were used for weapons, calabash bowls, and ukeleles.

During the reign of King Kamehameha the Great, he and his fierce 18th-century warriors – called “koa” paddled and fought from island to island relying on their strongly built canoes and weapons to eventually unite the islands. The wood itself became synonymous with Kamehameha’s fighters and came to be called “koa”, meaning “warrior.”

Later, the king prohibited anyone but the Hawaiian monarchy and members of the royal class from possessing what was considered elite wood (even though it was plentiful during the 1700s). It wasn’t until his death that Kamehameha’s wife nullified his ruling making Koa wood available to all Hawaiians.

Koa Wood Guitar
While Koa is considered a hardwood, it is also a Tonewood, making it a perfect material for guitars and ukuleles. King David Kalakaua, the last Hawaiian king was such a fan of the ukelele (which was not originally native to Hawaii), that he insisted on marrying its sound into traditional songs and celebrations. Today, Koa guitars and ukuleles are a staple in hulas and luaus.

Why Koa Wood Is So Rare

Koa Trees
Hawaii is the only place in the world where Koa trees grow. They thrive in volcanic ash mixed with the perfect amount of rainfall and at higher elevations of 2,000 to 6,000 feet above sea level. They’re also intolerant of shade, meaning that they need lots of clear space to grow. While Hawaii does offer a perfect climate, it is a small zone. Within that small zone, forest space is becoming difficult to protect and maintain.

While King Kamehameha was vital to the story of Koa Wood, he was also the antithesis of its future. In 1793, Captain George Vancouver presented the king with six cows and one bull. Kamehameha immediately cleared 400 acres for pasture and prohibited anyone from interfering with or killing the cattle. By the mid-1800s, upwards of 25,000 wild grazing cattle roamed the Koa forests.

Today, those offspring continue to graze on newly formed koa shoots. Other foragers, such as wild pigs especially love the young saplings and have been known to raze entire acres in one night. Impressive, stately Koa trees can take 50 years to grow. Smaller stickly growths take 15-25 years. Unfortunately, the rate of natural regeneration cannot keep up with the rate of grazing and clearing for more cattle.

Koa Tree
Logging is also a problem for the Koa tree. While timber companies do not necessarily aim to cut down the acacias, Koa thrives best in the same wet forest areas where logging for other wood is common.

Harvesting Koa wood on public lands is illegal – which is a good thing. However, private conservation areas and private stock are few. Most Hawaiian wood makers resource Koa wood responsibly which requires using only naturally fallen or dying trees. These are becoming harder and harder to find.

Sustainable Koa Wood Products

While Koa wood is rare, it is not endangered. Conscientious craftsmen and state government are working to keep supplies healthy. As mentioned above, most artists and woodworkers use only trees that have fallen naturally. In doing so, they are assisting with wildfire management and forest maintenance. Using what’s already on the ground for products also prolongs the life of the rare wood.

Koa wood jewelry makes a perfect souvenir to commemorate that once-in-a-lifetime snorkel trip or whale watch, but more than that, Koa wood makes perfect jewelry in itself because of its chatoyance – a characteristic usually reserved to describe gemstones. It’s the way light reflects off of a luster surface. The word “chatoyance” is a French derivative meaning, “to shine like a cat’s eye.” Appropriate for curly-grained “tiger” Koa wood.

A simple bar pendant, like Pono Woodwork’s aptly named piece called, “strength” reflects not only the luster of the wood but the luster of the wearer as well. Hawaiian Koa rings make resounding statements of might and rarity. Cuff bracelets range from dainty to masculine and can be worn alone or layered with other metals. Any piece of Koa jewelry shines unlike most woods and offers a deeper holographic layer, much more like a precious gem.

Koa Wood Jewelry
Photo courtesy of  Ponowoodworks.com
Koa wood phone cases are a fun and unique way to take the warrior spirit of Hawaii home with you. They are slim and durable, easy to slide in and out of a back pocket. Etchings and carvings on cases represent a variety of Hawaiian staples – i.e. whales, dolphins, turtles, tribal language, etc. Wherever you and your phone go, the strength and resiliency of the islands will go with you.
koa ukulele
Koa is known for its beautiful rich tones that sweeten the more a Koa guitar or ukelele is played. The demand for such instruments spans worldwide – far beyond tourists and locals. Taylor Guitars appreciates the wood’s vibrant midrange and adaptability to different playing styles, so much so, that the company has created their own Koa Series Guitars.

Koa Wood Ranch harvests only Big Island trees that have toppled in storms to create their handcrafted koa ukeleles that come in either a Concert series or a Tenor series. Custom inlays and soundhole shapes such as an island turtle (Hono), give each instrument a more Hawaiian aesthetic and connection.

Where To Buy Sustainable Koa Wood Products

Koa wood products are easy to find in any farmers market or art gallery throughout the Islands. Most souvenir shops stock Koa finds, and many artists sell both locally and online.

On the Big Island, check out KoaWood Ranch’s retail store in Kailua-Kona.

For a unique experience in Oahu, call ahead of time to Happy Laulea at Phone: 808-800-3533. While they are located in the Waikiki Business Plaza, they are not a storefront, but rather a factory/studio where they can help you choose and/or customize a one-of-a-kind piece.

In Kauai, stop along the east side at the Koa Store in Lihue where you can peruse their showroom and watch their woodworkers in action.

Pono Woodworks and Martin & MacArthur can both be found in several locations on the Big Island, Maui, Oahu, and Kauai. See their websites for store addresses.

Koa Trees
We at TomBarefoot are excited for you to discover the Spirit of Koa for yourself. Feel free to drop us a comment about your finds and connection with Hawaii’s warrior wood!