How Much Is A Koa Tree Worth?
Koa trees are prized for their dark redwood that is perfect for carving into anything from ukuleles to furniture. This 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? 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 these Koa saplings grow best, rooted in volcanic soil. There’s a reason why Koa is called, ‘Hawaiian mahogany.’
Why Is Koa So Expensive? 7 Reasons Why
When compared against other prized woods, 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 is so expensive:
- Koa only grown in the Hawaiian islands.
- The natural range diminishes year after year.
- Ungulates like cattle and deer, along with non-native or invasive grasses and shrubs, 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 trees are suitable for milling.
- The core of the tree produces the highest quality wood.
- The more wood material around the core, the better.
- Only trees grown on private land or fallen trees grown on public land are legal to mill.
- Very few public areas are open for Koa harvesting and to only a small group of permit-holders.
- The vast majority of Koa comes from privately owned pastures.
- Koa is predominantly sourced from dead or dying trees.
- The typical lifespan of a Koa tree is 50-80 years.
- Koa is absolutely stunning and has unparalleled color and patterns.
- Exotic wood dealers realize these things and capitalize on its rarity and beauty.
This isn’t to say that there is some kind of conspiracy to overprice the limited Koa supply and merchandise, but the supply and demand dynamic does increase prices for the consumer. What’s the biggest reason that Koa wood is so expensive? Everything is in play to sustain high prices in the foreseeable future.
Is Koa Worth The Price?
Anyone who has looked into purchasing Koa for their next project knows that the wood is anything but cheap. With careful planning, many thousands of dollars of finished Koa products can be produced from one tree. These wood products include the ultra-refined lumber for instruments, large cross sections for dining tables and furniture making, and even small seemingly unusable pieces for Koa bookmarks and jewelry.
For luthiers, there are cheaper alternatives for tonewoods (woods that are suitable for guitars and ukuleles), and there are certainly cheaper materials with the same density and workability, but there is no substitute for the real Koa.
It obviously depends on how you measure it and what you want it for, but Koa is clearly worth a lot in terms of monetary and cultural value. From the steps of Hawaiian palaces to Taylor Swift’s guitar, Koa is special.
The long tradition of Koa’s use in Hawaiian culture only adds to the value of Koa wood. The wood comes from the islands, much like the beautiful tropical flowers found in a Hawaiian lei, Koa trees and Koa wood are symbols of Hawaii. But unlike some of the tropical flowers, Koa cannot be imitated or grown anywhere else.
Koa is a genuine piece of Hawaii. Koa trees are beautiful wherever they are, but mature trees grow only under the right conditions. Koa trees grow on the islands of Hawaii, usually at altitudes between 300 and 7,000 feet above sea level. The majority of the Koa trees are found on the Big Island, Maui, and Oahu.
Mahogany has its place in the mind of woodworkers as an exotic looking and renowned wood. But these days, the finest mahogany might instead be known as ‘Peruvian Koa’ due to Koa’s popularity.
And as far as rarity is concerned, Koa would have to take the crown again. What you consider exotic is obviously a matter of point of reference, but Koa is pretty hard to find due to its limited growing conditions and laws for harvesting.
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 the most expensive variation of Koa. Many varieties of Koa exist, including the lighter colored and lower cost variety.
Well grained and not excessively grained
The wood grain is important, but overly curled and grained material may be more difficult to work with
Cut from the center of the tree, ensuring superior workability
The “heartwood” of the tree is denser, drier and stronger than the sapwood. This may be the most sought after part of the timber– and also where you’ll find the darkest color.
Sourced through the proper channels, ensuring Koa for the future
Black market for Koa has steadily risen along with increased demand
Is Koa The Most Expensive Lumber?
Koa is regarded as one of the finest hardwoods on the planet. The Koa tree is not endangered, but the diminishing supply has caused the price to skyrocket.
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 the medium-dark curly variety tends to be what people associate when they think of Koa. The curly wood is also the strongest.
Popular Applications of Koa Wood
Instruments are crafted from the highest quality wood. Arguably, Koa is the most valuable wood pound for pound. Instruments rely on superior tonal quality and there is no substitute for Koa.
Furniture Handmade Koa furniture can appreciate in value every year, just like the wood itself.
Gun stocks are made from high quality Koa. Stocks made from Curly Koa are the strongest and most beautiful.
Large surfaces like countertops and floors are grand showcases for Koa wood (in a beautiful home or Hawaiian palace).
The Hawaii Agriculture Research Center provides an excellent resource for Koa wood to help your next woodworking project.
How Does Koa Compare To 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. They are all used to make instruments and fine furniture. Koa is both the rarest and the most valuable of the three woods.
- Koa is very functional, in addition to its status as a rarity. The hardwood is renowned for its interlocking grains that cause the beautiful cross-section in the wood. The interlocking grains are also behind its ability to take the tension of tightened guitar strings. When crafted into an outrigger canoe, Koa can ride the waves of an open ocean. And when hand crafted into furniture, Koa adds something special to anything you can put on a table.
- While very similar to walnut, Koa is much heavier. It is expensive by any measure, but a board foot of Koa is 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 also contribute to superior bending strength and stiffness. This is yet another benefit for firearms and more rugged, outdoor-oriented applications.
- Koa is said to have the highest level of chatoyancy of any wood on the planet. Chatoyancy is an optical phenomenon that describes the luster of a pearl or a diamond.
As you look at a polished piece of Koa from different angles, you may see variations of sparkling reflection from the wood, similar to looking into a gem or a prism. This is why a polished slab of Koa can also be prized as a work of art.
Is Koa Susceptible to Any Pests?
Unlike mahogany, Koa wood is susceptible to an array of pests like termites.
Special care must be taken to ensure that the wood is properly finished. There is nothing worse than spending months on a project, only to find that the wood is literally being eaten from the inside out.
The University of Hawaii at Manoa has a very informative website on the pests and diseases that affect Koa.
How Long Does Koa Take to Grow?
Although it can take decades to mature, it can actually take far less time for most trees to mature to a wood-bearing age.
Heartwood, found at the center of the tree, begins to form ten to fifteen years in the life cycle of a Koa, according to a study by the Hawaii Agriculture Research Center. The heartwood is prized by woodworkers, and may actually take less time to develop than believed. Unfortunately, it’s still a long road to the mill.
- In their first five years of life, Koa trees can grow about five feet a year.
- Koa can grow even faster 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 then died.
Will The Price of Koa Ever Go Down?
In the 1980’s and 1990’s, Koa was comparable in price to other quality hardwoods, such as black walnut. But with supply dwindling, it’s easy to envision a future of higher Koa prices.
Mature Koa trees essentially have to die before being legally harvested and the demand has never been greater. Unless something changes with the laws for harvesting and exporting Koa, the rising cost of Koa doesn’t seem likely to change.
The Koa supply is also not likely to increase any time soon. Thus, barring a sudden loss of desire for the wood, the price of Koa will not decrease. On the bright side, Koa trees are not an endangered species, so it is just the harvestable supply that is limited. Koa forests and the precious wood will still be around for years to come.
Caring For Your Koa
Maintaining your Koa wood may seem daunting at first. Because without proper care, your Koa can become ruined by a myriad of causes.
It is essential that the wood be properly protected. Periodic application of a wood oil will dramatically extend the life of your wood. So finding the right furniture oil is key for longevity as well.
It is easy to ruin Koa wood by keeping it in an area exposed to direct sunlight. Koa can be susceptible to heat, so it is best to keep the wood in the shade.
Interested in Learning More About Koa?
If you are interested in learning more about this fantastic tree, The University of Hawaii provides an excellent resource on the growth and life cycle of the Koa tree. There is invaluable 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 sustainability that may interest you.
The University of Hawaii also has information about the production and demand of handmade items produced from Koa. They put out a survey to determine how consumers value the properties and appearance of Koa wood and how that figures into purchasing behavior. 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.