Story by Ed Takayesu
In my thirty or so years of building cabinetry on Maui, concerns about sourcing material have focused most on our local native tree, the koa. Sought after for its rich saturation, golden tones and rhythmic grain, koa is the iconic Hawaiian hardwood used by generations of canoe builders, craftspeople and fine woodworkers. When I started Maui Custom Woodworks in the early 1980s, the koa forest that once blanketed the upper slopes of Haleakala had already seen a century’s worth of conversion to pasture; statewide, a mere 10 percent of koa forests remained. No one helped me understand this more than Art Medeiros, who said that in times of old, you could walk from Makawao to Kaupo in the shade of the koa forest.
Many organizations across the Islands are doing the imperative and tireless work of restoring the once-grand koa forest. There is widespread recognition that watersheds must be replanted with the water-calling trees that belong to the slopes and, importantly, that reforestation can be supported by an ecologically sound and economically viable forest products industry.
No such sustainably managed koa plantation is yet commercially mature. However, as a local wood shop, we look forward with great anticipation to the day we can visit the forest from which our materials are sourced. For now, we work to source koa from suppliers who operate with the wisdom and foresight to harvest only dead standing and wind-felled trees.
Veneer: Achieving the Look with a Fraction of the Wood
Because sources are limited and, by extension, steep in price, cabinetry shops in Hawaii have largely turned to koa veneers to decrease pressure on the resource without fully abandoning what is arguably one of the world’s most beautiful woods. To build with koa is a pinnacle experience for any woodcrafter. Fortunately, through huge advances in veneering methods, cabinet shops can now produce top-quality koa kitchens with just a fraction of the material used in a traditional solid-stock kitchen. Good veneers on a quality substrate won’t swell or peel and can even be made of entirely formaldehyde-free adhesives and bases. This lessens pressure on the forest, makes a kitchen’s worth of koa affordable, and enables woodworkers to create striking koa cabinetry and millwork.
Imported Hardwoods and Sustainability
Many clients choose to build with imported tropical hardwoods that are suited to island design. While sourcing wood from outside Hawaii might increase your carbon footprint and see your dollar leave the local economy, it does not mean you cannot be assured that the product originates from a sustainably managed forest that supports fair livelihoods. In 2008 we became one of the first cabinetry shops in the State of Hawaii to be certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).
FSC-certified wood provides the assurance — from forest to cabinet — that materials are supplied through both ecologically and socially conscious principles. It’s no secret that the international trade in forest products has contributed to widespread deforestation and the devastation of communities dependent on the forest for their livelihoods. When we realized a relatively miniscule shop like ours could become FSC certified, we jumped at the opportunity to join the imperfect but committed effort to protect what little remains of the world’s forests. Though it’s a strange compromise to depend on an international auditor to guarantee sustainability, we are encouraged by the fact that FSC is the only credible wood certification now recognized by the US Green Building Council’s well-known Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards.
Reuse, Reclaim, Repurpose
In the last few months we have been working on a dream project, restoring a heritage koa kitchen that was built more than twenty years ago. There is nothing better than the ability to reuse, reclaim and repurpose. Though a project of this kind is rare, it has been a good reminder of the enduring value and timelessness of koa cabinetry. We want to protect the hand that feeds us, in this case our very own watershed. Doing so continues to be a huge learning experience, but one that is without a doubt worthwhile.