Koa trees are prized for their wood. This precious hardwood is perfect for carving everything from ukuleles and electric guitars to canoes and panel doors. The Hawaiian hardwood is highly sought after by craftsmen for its beautiful color and grain pattern and is, “practically worth its weight in gold,” according to Andrea Gill, executive director of the Hawaii Forest Industry Association.
How much is a koa tree really worth? Well, at the time of this writing, the cost of koa can be as high as $150+ per board foot.
An entire Koa tree that is two-feet wide and 10-feet tall can produce a little under 400 board feet – or nearly $60,000 in lumber at premium rates, for full-curl Koa. The lowest-grade Koa can sell for as little as $20 per board foot or $8,000 per tree.
Potted Koa trees can be purchased at garden centers and hardware stores for less than $5. They are fast growers and don’t require much fussing, but they’re at their best at home, rooted in volcanic soil.
Why Is Koa So Expensive? Our 6 Reasons Why
When compared to other prized hardwoods, Koa is exponentially more expensive. For instance, walnut averages upwards of $2,000 per 1,000 board feet and cherry tops out at about $1,000 per 1,000 board feet (Ohio State University).
Here are some reasons why:
- Koa only grows in the Hawaiian Islands.
- Koa’s natural range diminishes year after year due to ungulates like cattle and deer, along with non-native grasses and shrubs, which prevent Koa regeneration.
- Only trees above an elevation of thousands of feet produce sufficiently workable wood. Premium Koa is typically milled from trees grown between 2,000 and 4,000 feet.
- Only the largest Koa trees are suitable for milling.
- The center of the tree houses the highest quality wood.
- The more material around the center, the better.
- Koa is predominantly sourced from dead or dying trees.
- Very few public areas are available for Koa collection and only a small group of permit-holders are allowed to harvest.
- The vast majority of Koa comes from privately owned pastures.
- The lifespan of koa is 50-80 years.
- Koa looks absolutely stunning and has unparalleled color and patterns.
- Exotic wood dealers realize this and capitalize on its rarity and beauty.
This isn’t to say that there is some kind of conspiracy to overprice the wood, but everything is going against the price for the consumer. What’s the biggest reason that Koa wood is so expensive? Because of its rare beauty.
Is Koa Worth It?
Anyone who has looked into Koa for their next project knows that it’s everything but reasonably priced. There is always some kind of cheaper alternative to be found, such as black walnut, and quite possibly even mahogany.
There are cheaper tone woods around (woods that are suitable for guitars and ukuleles), and there are certainly cheaper woods with the same density and workability, but there is no substitute for the real thing. This harkens back to the inspiration behind every custom woodworking project. You want the object to be made out of what inspires you.
“A mature tree can turn out tens of thousands of dollars worth of finished Koa products,” according to an article in the LA Times. These products include the ultra-refined lumber for instruments, and the plainer sections of lighter colored wood — worth about a tenth of what the premium cuts go for.
It obviously depends on how you measure it and what you want it for, but Koa is clearly worth a lot in terms of money and culture. Steps to the palaces of Hawaiian royalty were carved from Koa, as were the mighty outrigger canoes that carried entire villages across the open ocean.
Where Does Koa Come From?
Koa trees are beautiful wherever they are, but they only grow into giants under the right conditions. Koa trees grow in a natural range, usually at altitudes between 300 and 7,000 feet above sea level and are sourced mostly from the Big Island, Maui, and Oahu.
Koa is important in the Hawaiian culture. In fact, the word Koa means bold, brave, or warrior in the Hawaiian language. Much like a lei made from beautiful tropical flowers, Koa is also a symbol of Hawaii. Koa is a genuine piece of Hawaii, a little slice of Aloha.
What To Look For In Koa Wood
Curly-Grained Koa: The grains are beautiful and an additional source of strength.
Dark Red, Curly Grained Koa: This is the most identifiable – and priciest – variation of the wood Many varieties of Koa exist, including lighter, plainer, and lower grade varieties.
Cut from the center or heartwood of the tree, typically superior workability: The “heartwood” of a tree is denser, drier and stronger than the sapwood. It is the most sought after and also where you’ll find the darkest color.
Is Koa Too Pricey?
Koa is regarded as one of the finest woods on the planet. The Koa tree is not endangered, but its diminishing range has caused the demand to skyrocket above the supply.
Curly Koa, with its dark streaks and brown-red complexion, might be the most expensive wood on the market. The other varieties of Koa are still sought-after, but medium-dark curly tends to be what people associate when they think of Koa. The curly wood is also the strongest.
While Peruvian mahogany might go for more than most cuts of Koa, the fact remains: premium Koa wood is among lumber royalty. The most expensive Koa is usually earmarked for luthiers (makers of instruments like guitars or ukuleles). And only the best of the best luthiers require the Koa that really tips the scales. So whether made into a guitar, chair, table or bookmark, premium Koa is now worth more than ever before, and it will probably be this way well into the foreseeable future. But as previously mentioned, not every grade of Koa goes for those astronomical prices.
Popular Applications of Koa Wood
Instruments are built of the highest quality grades of Koa. This is probably the most valuable use of the wood pound for pound. Instruments rely on the superior tonal quality and strength of Koa and there is almost no substitute.
Furniture that is made from Koa tends to appreciate over time, especially when well cared for.
Home surfaces like countertops, cabinet doors, accent panels, and floors are common places to find Koa wood.
How Does Koa Compare With Other Woods?
Koa is most often compared to black walnut for its strength characteristics. Koa, walnut, and mahogany have very comparable densities and rigidities and are usually suitable for the same applications.
These woods are also used to make instruments, fine furniture, and are sometimes seen in combination with one another in either category. But of the three, Koa is both the rarest and the most valuable of the three.
Koa is structurally sound. Koa is renowned for the interlocking grains that create the beautiful cross-section in the wood. Those interlocking grains also give Koa its ability to take the tension of tightened guitar strings, the waves of an open ocean, and just about anything you can put on a table.
While very similar to walnut, Koa is much heavier. A board foot of Koa is typically 25% heavier than a board foot of walnut. Furniture made entirely of Koa tend to be quite heavy.
Koa’s weight and strength are supplemented by its high crush resistance and excellent shock absorption. The interlocking grains again contribute to Koa’s superior strength and stiffness. This is yet another benefit for rugged, outdoor-oriented applications like canoes.
Koa is said to have the highest level of chatoyancy of any wood on this planet. Chatoyancy is an optical phenomenon that describes the luster of a pearl or a diamond. As you move around a polished piece of Koa, you might see sparkling reflections coming off of the polished wood, almost like you’re looking into a gem or a prism. This is why a polished slab of Koa can be hung on the wall as an art piece.
How Long Does It Take For Koa to Mature?
According to a study by the Hawaii Agriculture Research Center, the heartwood found at the center of the Koa tree, begins to form around ten to fifteen years in its life cycle. And it is the heartwood that most woodworkers are after. Unfortunately, it’s still a long way until harvest.
- In their first five years of life, Koa trees can grow about five feet a year.
- Koa trees will grow even faster when planted in their comfort zone, which is at elevations between 2,000 and 4,000 feet above sea level.
- Most Koa wood is harvested from trees that have matured for decades and died, so it’s still decades before a tree reaches the mill.
Will The Price of Koa Ever Go Down?
Thirty years ago, Koa was comparable in price to other quality hardwoods, such as black walnut. But with prices constantly rising, it’s easy to imagine a future where Koa is out of reach for the majority of people.
The range is diminishing, trees essentially have to die before being harvested, and the demand for Koa has never been higher. Unless something changes with the laws for harvesting or exportation, the high pricing of Koa isn’t likely to change.
The supply for Koa is not likely to increase any time soon. Barring a sudden loss of interest in the wood, the price of Koa will not go down. On the bright side, the supply is limited, but not endangered. So Koa will still be around for years to come.
Caring For Koa
Caring for your Koa furniture is important to maintain its value. Without proper care, Koa can become ruined by a myriad of causes.
It is essential that the wood is properly protected. Periodic and proper application of furniture oil will dramatically increase the longevity of the wood. That being said, it is easier to ruin a piece of Koa by placing it in an area exposed to direct sunlight.
Koa is meant for the shade. It’s kind of temperamental and almost fragile, despite its weight and strength.
Interested in Learning More About Koa?
We hope this article helped grow your appreciation of Koa here in Hawaii. And if you are interested in learning more about this incredible tree and its wood, the following resources may be helpful.
The University of Hawaii provides an excellent resource on the growth and lifecycle of the Koa tree. There is great information on their website.
The US Department of Agriculture also provides a publication about the big picture of the growth and cultivation of koa. This report answers a lot of the FAQs about Koa and its sustainability that may interest you.
The University of Hawaii also has information about the production and demand of handmade items produced from Koa. The university put out a survey to determine how consumers value the properties and appearance of Koa wood. The goal was to “help foresters design sustainable forestry practices to ensure koa is available for future generations – both in the forests and in their homes.” Check out the results of their survey here.
Finally, if you would to see our one of kind Koa furniture collection, please visit us in Hilo or take a look at our website, www.rkwoodshawaii.com.