The Hawai`ian Acacia Koa is a native species of acacia that is unique to Hawai`i. Fed by Hawai`i's rich volcanic soil, it's color and figure are noticeably different from other acacia and wood types that are available in other parts of the world. Once bountiful in all the islands except Kaho'olawe and Ni'ihau, over harvesting has decimated much of the koa that had been growing in the wild. In the wild, it was a dominant plant in Hawai`i'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 trees 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)
Undoubtedly, 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.
In the Hawai`ian language "koa" means "bold, brave, fearless, warrior-like". These were essential qualitities 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 be owned and enjoyed only by Hawaii's Royalty.
Today, this beautiful and termite resistant wood is still used for furniture, woodwork, ukuleles and of course, quality picture frames.
Chatoyancy, a property that is usually attributed to certain gems such as the cat's eye, opals, mother of pearl, and saphires. These jewels have a the appearance of near translucent depth. Thus "chatoyancy" might also be used to describe some of koa's more figured pieces such as curly koa, tiger-stripe and fiddle-back Koa. This figuring gives the wood a three-dimensional, holographic quality; and by changing the angle that one views the wood, it can reflect a completely different set of characteristics. Under a good light source, even a commonly figured, polished koa surface will display some of this chatoyancy. You will not see this, however, in koa veneer as the veneer is cut too thin to capture this chatoyancy.
Solid Koa frames, however, are becoming somewhat of a rare item. Suppiers tell us that the koa picture frame industry is moving towards the use of veneers. Less framers are willing to mill their own stock and depend entirely on what ] the larger manufacturers are producing to supply them. Not surprisingly, as demand for solid koa increases and the availability of solid koa moulding decreases, solid koa frames are becoming scarce. We think that the loss of solid koa frames at an affordable price would be a travesty to all and will continue to offer solid koa frames to those that appreciate their beauty and value for as long as we can. As a natural product of Hawaii with deep cultural roots, koa products are certain to grow in popularity in the years to come.