Koa Wood, the Holy Grail
Updated: May 7, 2021
“You guys get koa?”
That is probably the number one questioned I get asked when selling ukulele directly to customers. If I say no, they usually follow up with...
“I get one Koa ukulele at home you know!”
And with a smirk, and the crossing of the arms, they would continue on walking. I would politely smile, nod... and laugh in my head!
It always cracks me up since they are flexing. In reality, Hawaiian Koa was pretty much the only option available to early local builders. Rosewood, ebony, and walnut were hard to get in those days with shipping taking months. The truth is tone-wood choice is subjective. It depends on the type of sound the player prefers. Let me tell you a little secret... koa is sonically not the best sounding tone-wood in the market for ukulele. Don’t get me wrong, koa is amazing! But it ain’t the best. So this is why I chuckle inside when locals flaunt koa all the time.
But maybe there is more to the story. A deeper reason why koa is so prized and sought after. Why all the locals go crazy for it and swear that a true ukulele is one made of koa. Are you curious yet?
Good! Now let’s dig in!
Hawaiian Koa wood, or Acacia Koa, is the Holy Grail of ukulele wood. This endemic Hawaiian species of acacia is prized for it’s stunning beauty and it’s limited supply. Owning a koa ukulele is a badge of honor here in Hawaii. Locals have a hard time accepting that ukulele are now being made with many different species of wood such as mango, spruce, mahogany, and rosewood. Where did this pride over koa wood come from? To truly understand why this wood is special you have to go way back. Back before the ukulele came to our shores from Portugal. Back to ancient Hawaii.
History Of Koa Wood
In ancient times koa was highly revered and sacred. The wood could only be used by the ‘ali’i’ (kings), ruling chiefs, and for their purposes alone. It was considered ‘Kapu’, or forbidden to be used by normal people. The hawaiian people believed that the kings and chiefs were summoned by the gods and were given special powers to rule. The kings and chiefs created the Kapu system and forbade the use of koa. The divine punishment for breaking the Kapu was death!
Now since the ruling class of Hawaii had full control of the koa supply, what were they using it for? When you see world leaders today they all have one thing in common. They need protection. And if you were a hawaiian monarch you needed warriors! So it may surprise you but the word koa means warrior.
This is important because it was the primary material used in making weapons and canoes. These weapons were made with shark’s teeth, marlin bills, and even human teeth and hair! These sharp materials were embedded and tied onto koa spears and war clubs. This is why koa became synonymous with the warriors themselves, and that’s why the wood became known as koa. These warrior were conscripted to make these weapons by the kings and chiefs keeping them safe from breaking the Kapu.
In the late 1700’s, King Kamehameha the Great used koa to aid him in conquering the Hawaiian islands. They were used in building his armada and for arming his warriors. It’s been said that if Kamehameha didn’t posses a large quantity of koa wood, he wouldn’t have been able to conquer and unite all the islands! After his passing, Queen Kaahumanu and son Liholiho abolished the Kapu system allowing all Hawaiians access to this prized wood.
So all that to say... yeah, koa is valuable, and you can see why it’s the Holy Grail for ukulele.
Today, koa continues to grow on all the Hawaiian islands. Though the bulk of the wood harvested comes from the Big Island. The rich volcanic soil of the Big Island yields koa that is dark and red. This color-way is the most prized among builders. Koa is strange in that it can be found in many colors. It can be brown, red, orange, white, green, and even purple! Though the most beautiful koa wood has a wavy, ripple-like grain pattern known as “curly”. In the mainland this type of grain pattern is better known as ‘fiddle back’. Only 10% of koa harvested is curly, making the stuff up to 1000% more expensive!
Big Island landowners today can’t cut down living koa trees. They have to be dying or dead! These old growth trees are hard to find since many have already been harvested. Some are even half rotten! The yield of usable wood in these trees is only around 20-30%. This also adds value since a whole tree can yield so little usable wood. This is also why Agar wood is so expensive. In the case of Agar wood, only the diseased areas produce the intoxicating Oud oil. Like koa, it is in high demand!
As a tone-wood, koa has a similar sound profile to mahogany. This is because they both share similar densities when dried, as well as board stiffness. This puts koa smack in the in middle on the sound spectrum of tone-woods. Heavy and dense woods such as rosewood and ebony don’t vibrate enough, making them better used for constructing the back and sides of the ukulele. At the other end we have softer woods such as spruce and cedar. These tone-woods are light and flexible, giving them a bright and responsive sound. But due to their fragility are used only as the soundboard of the ukulele.
Koa’s density makes this tone-wood the best of both worlds. It is strong enough to be used as a sound board, but soft enough to vibrate and produce a rich, warm tone.
With a wide color spectrum and kaleidoscopic grain patterns, koa is breathtakingly beautiful. It’s a joy for luthiers to work with, and in the right hands, it’s pure tonal bliss (looking at you Eric Devine, Alvin Okami, and Chuck Moore)! So this begs the question:
“Why aren’t there more ukulele made of koa on the market?”
It all comes down to availability. Remember reading during the history lesson above. After the Kapu was dissolved, the people started building everything with koa. When the merchants arrived in the islands, they saw koa as a prized export to the world. Soon, everything from bowls to furniture were being constructed with koa. Unfortunately this quickly depleted the koa forests.
For luthiers, they need specific sizes and cuts of wood to build ukulele. This makes usable quarter sawn pieces limited, forcing brands to hoard supplies. Due to this lack of resources, many luthiers aren’t able to build meaningful quantities.
Hawaiian Koa vs Formosa Koa?
Due to koa’s growing worldwide demand, many companies have resorted to shady sell’s tactics. They started calling their acacia ukulele, koa wood ukulele! Their reasoning was that since koa is a type of acacia, then acacia is koa. All acacia. So acacia farmed in Taiwan, aka Formosa, were being labeled as Formosa Koa. This name change would confuse customers since it carried the koa designation. You can find Indian Koa, Philippines Koa, and even African Koa. But they are not true koa. For koa to be koa it MUST be grown in Hawaii. When searching for a koa wood ukulele, be sure the manufacturer uses koa grown in Hawaii! Once again, koa can only be koa in it’s grown in Hawaii.
Whew, congratulations! You made it through that long winded explanation of what makes koa wood the Holy Grail for ukulele. If you have a chance, and can afford it, get one for your collection. At Leolani, all of our KUMU ukulele are made with Hawaiian grown koa wood! Rest assure that we aren’t using Formosa Koa...haha!
And yes Rock, we get koa ukulele!
Keep jamming and aloha!