The Process

A fully equipped shop is like a dream factory, and just stepping inside gives one the feeling of great potential. It is a generous space and visiting artists will take a bench from time to time, inspiring some great collaborative adventures. What goes on in the shop, however, comes at the end of a whole process that begins in the forest.

The koa wood that I use comes from a forestry project that I manage here in Kona. Most of the koa forest land in Kona has been used for cattle grazing for over 100 years. Because cattle devour the young seedlings, these forests are in their last stages of decline: tragic because these are cloud forests, and without a healthy canopy of leaves, the trees lose the ability to collect the moisture they need to grow and regenerate. Even without the cattle, invasive vines are choking out new growth, making the future of unmanaged lands quite bleak. Our project reviewed the options left to us and came up with a plan that uses the profits from lumber salvaged from dying and downed trees to fence the land and allow the re-growth of the forest. Cattle are allowed in the area on a periodic basis, when the new trees are tall enough to be unaffected, in order to control the choking undergrowth. By keeping the lumber profits with the land instead of just wholesaling the raw wood away, we have established a viable demonstration project that both replenishes the forest and keeps our cattle industry intact, while generating enough profit to keep ranches safe from development pressures.

The best way to maximize the value of the wood is to treat each salvaged log very carefully and to cut it to its best advantage. This requires close cooperation between the logger, sawyer, and the end user, the craftsman. As a designer and furniture maker, I can often visualize a piece while it is still in the log. This is important because, for instance, there may be only one perfect table top in an entire tree. Unaware handling can reduce that tree to very average stock or worse, or, an heirloom could be born with the right handling. There is no substitute for being there when that tree is on the mill. The production of the final masterpiece really begins long before the wood ever sees a shop.

It is our hope that this management model becomes the norm for wood harvesting here in Hawaii. We are at a point where continued conflicting human interests will mean the death of a great ecosystem, but a much brighter future is still within our grasp. My involvement with the koa forest has led to involvement with urban forestry, as well.

Trees are always coming down and I've always felt it was a crime not to make use of the lumber. One of my greatest pleasures is to find material in trees slated for removal. I am always in the process of drying wood for clients who want something special, made from their own trees. We have huge mango trees here, and they are most often simply dozed out of the way. Mango wood is truly gorgeous, and appreciation is gaining for it, but woods are like fashion, and a large part of my challenge is to get people to see what they've been throwing away. We have an unbelievable variety of trees here in Hawaii, and real showpieces are being made from wood you've probably never heard of. The Hawaii Forestry Association sponsors an annual show to highlight some of these lesser-known woods in an effort to get people to plant more.

The process I've described here is very important to me. It has resulted in being able to work with an awesome supply of wood, while staying connected to the source and providing for the future of this wonderful resource.


The Wood

My preference is to work with wood that I have harvested myself. A wide variety of the more familiar hardwoods of the world are locally available however, so virtually any species would be available on request.

Koa wood varies dramatically in color and variation of grain. The principal advantage to running a sawmill is the availability of sequence matched lumber, which is used to produce the finest furniture available. Mango also is wildly divergent in its grain and figure. The following samples are intended to show the range of possibilities in employing these woods.

When working with species like oak or mahogany, it is easy to superimpose a concept over the material, as the results will be quite uniform. But when working with the dramatic grain found in our koa and mango, it is best to let the wood contribute to the overall design of the piece. For instance, it would be a shame to cut up matched wood suitable for a table top to make a set of chairs. Whenever we plane a new load of wood and see its grain revealed, it is then that I make the decision as to what will be built next. Being able to match appropriate wood to the project at hand makes all the effort expended in logging worthwhile.

Construction Techniques

Wood is a material that is always alive. Woodworking techniques have evolved over the centuries to ensure that wood creations will endure. The art of woodworking is, ultimately, to match technique with purpose, to create pieces that will last for many generations. In my shop, we use every trick in the books and keep learning and inventing more while keeping in mind the physical laws that govern wood movement. The result is that we are able to produce pieces that we can ship worldwide with the full confidence that they will perform satisfactorally.

Pieces are finished, inside and out, top and bottom, both as a point of pride, and also to ensure wood stability. I normally use a low sheen catalyzed lacquer which is carefully rubbed out with steel wool and burnished with a high quality furniture wax. This produces an extremely durable finish that allows the beauty of the wood to shine through, and is a delight to touch.