Freelance Writing.

Wills Custom Shop. Guitars. Palm Trees. Art Show. Art Show2. Blog. Writing. Links. Contact. Contact What's New Clave.


Searching for the Koa.
Lost sounds of the Hawaiian monarch.
By Will Hancock.

The Tonewood from the native Hawaiian Koa tree (Acacia koa) is highly prized for its use in creating acoustic guitars. The sound generated by the wood of this majestic tree is warm, rich and remarkably bright especially in the treble ranges of the spectrum with the bass tones keeping a strong, clear background. The colour ranges widely “ from an orange-blonde to deep reddish-purple and [the wood] has a tendency to have a pronounced ‘flash’ or ‘luster’“ states Mr. Bart Potter, miller of Hawaiian grown tonewoods and long time koa regeneration advocate. It is this striking luminosity of the koa that is one of the main reasons the tonewood is so highly sought after in lutherie circles. “ Standard descriptions like ‘fiddle-backed curl’ and ‘birds-eye’ give way to adjectives that strongly reflect the local obsession with the material: ‘mother-of-curl, compression headache, burls-on-curls, crushed broken velvet and spalted blond micro-washboard are but a few.’”  It is the acoustic properties of the wood and this visually strong personality that create a big demand for the timber with luthiers world wide. Bart tells us that “ only about 20% of these few logs have curl or figure that would qualify as being remarkable, and the wildest, densest, quatersawn, free-from-runout, knock your socks off Koa probably totals only 1% of the merchantable resources recovered.”  The oldest trees can live to around “ 300 years old with a more average lifespan thought to range from 75-100 years,”  growing to a respectable 30 metres or 100 feet in height.
Koa has been used for centuries by the islands natives, “ early Polynesian settlers who gave Hawaii its name around 750 A.D,”  who would take trees to carve canoes and paddles that can seat several dozen people at one time. The natives would whittle away branches to form solid wooden surfboards complete with fins that were used to carve swathes of foam in the waves of the famous North Shore, back when surfing as we know it was first being discovered. These solid wood boards today can fetch up to $10, 000 in the U.S. marketplace. Masks were fashioned for ceremonial use and warfare and when Captain Cook dropped by during his travels in the 1700’s, westerners were introduced to the attractive tonewood that was almost instantly championed amongst woodworkers and luthiers alike. “Records documenting trade in koa lumber in the 1830’s indicate that even then it was apparent that koa was too valuable to use as a building material and it enjoyed a reputation as a fine wood for craft and cabinetry.”
The monumental sonic discovery was first made about the time when that native living a life of luxury in paradise on the beach found such contentment they seeked to express it in the form of one of the worlds smallest chordophones, the ukele. Pronounced “oo-ka-la-lee” the good old uke or ‘flea’ as it is literally translated has been touched by the koa since it was first made. Between the uke and the koa one might say that these two created the sound of Hawaii, the sound that the big man Brother Iz [Israel Ka’ano’i Kamakawiwo’ole] captured so remarkably in his famous rendition of ‘Somewhere of the Rainbow’, may he rest in peace. Stable, solid and  remarkably attractive both in colour and texture, the resonance and sustain of the timbers’ microstructure gives life to a sound that is both deep and piercingly bright while maintaining a rich warmth highlighted by the syrupy chocolate colours and textures of light sound. Five stars.

The trees were once naturally found on five of the biggest islands in the Hawaiian chain but sadly, due to a massive swelling of the population, a sharp increase in the demand for this valuable tonewood and major landclearing for livestock and pineapples the trees have retreated almost completely to the Big Island, known by its formal name; Hawaii. Here they remain in their uninterrupted habitat nurtured by the National Parks and native rangers that maintain a constant vigil over the trees, protecting them from poachers and ensuring the naturally fallen trees are cleared to make way for the growth and maturing of new seedlings.
At one time it was deemed inappropriate for the fallen logs to be removed. It was thought that disturbing the fallen trees and  dragging them from the forest to be recycled would disturb the natural ecosystem of the forest as described by our xylophile mate Bart, who fills contracts for several leading guitar manufacturers including Taylor guitars.
The pockets of trees were monitored carefully before the scientists and researchers decided that the regeneration rate of the natural forest was too slow. This point and the fact that the forests were probably becoming more damaged by the teams of poachers that traipsed through the undergrowth to nab logs that can allegedly fetch tens of thousands of dollars on the black market, led the forest industries to begin selectively clearing the fallen trees with a two fold benefit. First, the trees were recycled, helping to ease the pressure on the forests and second the seeds in the topsoil laying dormant were allowed to germinate, sometimes bringing several to stand where one king had fallen. “ Koa seed can lie dormant yet remain viable in the ground for more than 50 years and depending on the elevation and rainfall can produce trees that grow up to an inch in diameter per year.”
The search for the tonewood of this particular tree is such that “its harder to get than drugs these days.” states John Bonk, owner/operator of ‘Ko’olau’ Oahu’s  largest guitar and ukele manufacturing company. The business has taken its name from the Ko’olau mountain range, one of the regions where the koa were originally found and can still be seen thriving majestically in their native habitat. Together with his sons including head luthier Noa they produce a range of chordophones with the native koa wood that are both beautiful to see and amazing to hear. With most types of models catered for and a custom shop for those that aren’t a visit to Ko’olau will set you back a pretty penny, all well worth it. The Bonks craftsmanship is highly sought after both on the islands and overseas. The guitars and ukes have become a favourite amongst some of Hawaii’s top international performers. Noa states “They (the artists) prefer the koa guitars to record with.” Apparently the koa guitar is sought after for use in the studio giving life to the sound on tape that other tonewoods may not. Of course this is a subjective opinion yet one that is obviously apparent to these artists I can only guess on the identity of. The ‘birds’ tell us that Oahu native resident Jack Johnson may have at least one Koa guitar in the collection being used to record in his famous Mango Tree studio based somewhere on the island. But at this stage all is rumour and the truth is carefully guarded by those who know.
Chatting with one of the lads at the Hawaii Music Supply shop we touch upon the roots of this ancient Hawaiian sound. “ The Koa lap-steels tend to be tuned down to an open or drop D.”  Hawaiian  lap-steel virtuoso Joseph Kekuku is widely accredited with the introduction of the modern lap-steel guitar. Fittingly many of his guitars were made with Koa. Not only does the wood have its own signature sound but its use has given rise to a movement of music based upon the tonal qualities of this particular wood. Hawaiian lap-steel.
Our search for this elusive Koa tree begins on one of the larger islands of the Hawaiian group; Oahu. Flying into Honolulu and scouring the phone book lead to the discovery of one music shop on the other side of town. Hmm, our search for the koa may prove a little trickier than first expected. Grab the car and head out of town bowing our heads past Pearl Harbour in loving memory as we swing through Kalihi and up the Pali Highway to the north-east corner of the island, aiming for a township called Laie (pronounced ‘lie-ee-ay’). This town holds its legend in the dawning of the modern lap-steel guitar. Perhaps we’ll find some koa there? A quick stop at the local nursery Waiahole Botanicals yields thousands of brightly coloured Ti-trees but sadly no koa. Winding around the coast we find a small community market day and a luau from the local musicians and dancers. Chatting with the guitarist about his Epiphone leads no answers and after the native farewell and good blessing ‘Aloha’ we continue on our way. Arriving in Laie we immediately hook-up the road to local ’Hukilau’ surfshop for board hire and koa questions. Surfboards? Guitars? But still yet to see a glimmer of Koa. Back in the car and across the deserted peninsula spotted with famous Kahuku shrimp vans, fish farms and the crazy bric-a-brac shop to the legendary North shore surfcoast. Sunset, Pipeline and Waiamea breaks by before coasting through the Haliewa snow cone blitz and finally pulling into the Waialua Sugar Mill. We are getting close. The birds told us of a surfboardmaker here who was using koa to make hollow wooden boards. Perhaps he would know where the koa ukele sound could be found? Lon Klein of Haliewa Surfboards is gentle old soul weathered by the endless summers of Hawaii. A retired architectural fittings designer he moved here from California with the dream of making boards and surfing them. Wether a blessing or a curse good doors proved hard to find in Hawaii and before long his time was taken up in the thriving business metropolis that Oahu is fast becoming. Thankfully Lon was more than happy to chat about these self-styled creations made with koa, merbou and other exotic lightwoods similar to balsa. The boards retail for around $16,000 U.S. and have graduated from being merely a surfboard into full blown art with incredible patterning complementing the contrast in different wood colours. Great design. Still searching for that sound. So to visit Derek in the coffee and chocolate mill. Green bean, roasting, bagging and enjoying a fresh cacao bean from the pod. After chatting amicably and turning to leave he mentions casually “ Oh if your looking for koa guitars there’s a place up in Wahiawa on the right after the bridge. They’ll know where they make the Koa guitars.”  Bingo. Thanks Derek. Straight up the highway. And that’s where we find the Ko’olau boys. Noa kindly hooks up a meeting with Bart and we were getting close. “ If anyone could tell us I reckon its this bloke.”  I spin to no one in particular as we head back before setting off again.
And sure enough growing behind one of the sheds are two strong Koa saplings. The grail. Standing roughly 2-3 metres high (8 feet) these white smooth barked trees have leaf patterns astoundingly similar to the Australian Blackwood (Acacia melanoxylon). This increasingly popular Aussie tonewood is even actually “ sometimes sold under the misnomer ‘Australian Koa.’”  Bart kindly shows us around the mill park packing the massive “Polvsen bandsaw mill which has 5 foot wide… kerf blade powered by an Isuzu diesel engine.”  This bandsaw is capable of cutting the trunks into smaller slabs that are then milled on a different saw  and stacked to dry under shelter in the average 29 degrees that each day in paradise brings. It was a field of guitars growing steadily in their well-tithed earth.
Finding the saplings out the back of the wood shed was the end of one journey and the beginning of another. Where to find the old kings and queens in their element, shacked up in the hills remote on the rainforest crag gazing steadfastly out to sea and relishing the slowly dissolving natural environment? Humming the tune, oblivious to the rampant demand for the tonewood. And may they continue to gaze until our children and our childrens children see the rightful restoration of this great Hawaiian monarch.

2,007 words.


“Long Live King Koa!” by Bart Potter.
American Lutherie #38, 1994.

Growing Koa.
A Hawaiian Legacy Tree.
Kim M. Wilkinson and Craig R. Elevitch.
Permanent Agriculture Resources. (PAR)
P.O. Box 428 Holualoha.
Hawaii 96725

Guitar: An American Life.



Sounds of Australia.

The story of Australian Guitar Tonewoods.

The quest for new native tonewoods takes on a scientific course.

By Will Hancock.

What makes a great acoustic guitar? Strong craftsmanship and superior Tonewood. The craft of lutherie, or the making of stringed instruments dates back to pre-biblical times in its more primitive form, with the last couple of centuries seeing modern guitar design and construction evolving at an amazing rate due to evolution, technological advances and the discovery of different timbers. In Australia, a young country by international standards, luthiers have been experimenting with all the indigenous timbers that our sunburnt country has to offer. Recently Ensis, an industry partnership between Australia’s C.S.I.R.O and the New Zealand equivalent SCION that deal with forestry and forest products, has undertaken a project to research the different types of native timbers that could potentially exceed those currently favoured in traditional acoustic guitar manufacturing. Aussie timbers such as the Bunya pine (Araucaria bidwillii) and the Kauri pine from Queensland (Agathis robusta) are literally being put under the microscope to check out the potential tonal qualities for large scale soundboard production.

The ‘soundboard’ is the flat piece of wood directly under the strings of an acoustic guitar with a large round ‘soundhole’ cut through it and usually reinforced around the perimeter with a ‘rosette’. The back and sides of the guitar are traditionally made of a denser, harder material and tend to reflect the sound somewhat whereas the sound board, being made of a softer and lighter timber gives the sound its life, character and volume through a phenomenon known in scientific circles as ‘Helmholz Resonance’. This is basically the same process by which the air in a bottle makes a sound when we blow quickly across the neck at a precise angle. The strings of a guitar move the air over the soundhole as a humans mouth and lungs would over the mouthpiece of the bottle.

Ensis have teamed up with Maton, one of the countries leading acoustic and electric guitar manufacturers and exporters, to research exactly what native trees give a superior tonewood and why. Andrew Morrow of Ensis, who plays a self-constructed classical guitar with a King William Pine Soundboard, Blackwood back and sides and a Queensland Maple neck explains. “I am hoping to put Australian timbers on the radar by finding out how (the timbers are being used), where (that use is most prominent within the industry), how extensively they are being used and how they are performing in stringed instruments. There is little doubt the resource has been under-utilised in the past but there is a dramatic shift towards their use, driven by the recognition that the resource is unique, functions superbly from an acoustic point of view and offers a more sustainable alternative to many poorly managed, dwindling equatorial rainforest hardwoods and long rotation softwood species.” The research and testing phases of the project are funded by a “Gottstein fellowship” granted to Mr. Morrow and named after a researcher who perished tragically in New Guinea whilst collecting tree seed. The tests are designed to deliver the weight of knowledge to an area of the guitar making industry already explored by pioneering luthiers on the quest to create sonic superiority.

Jack Spira of Jack Spira Guitars in Emerald, Victoria is one such luthier. Crafting steel-stringed and classical guitars, Irish bouzoukis and mandolins for over 20 years, Jack has used a variety of Australian Tonewoods within his guitar creations. From the figured Tassie Blackwood to the Bunya. She Oak, Victorian ash and different types of Silky Oak have all been included in the guitars produced in the workshop dug into the hills east of Melbourne. Having obtained a Higher National Diploma in Musical Instrument Technology at the London Collage of Furniture in the late 1980’s and worked with (and heard) a great variety of Australian Tonewoods, his experiences are highly relevant to our story. Jack states. “I often resort to saying things like the Sheoak sounds like Mahogany and the Blackwood sounds like the Koa in an attempt to put them into context for someone who has never heard them. Its not really true though, and one has to hear a few instruments made from any single species in order to get a feel for how it sounds.” The Blackwoods, Oaks, Gidgee and Mulga are all used by Jack alongside the Rosewoods and Mahoganies that have been traditionally included in guitar making throughout the last couple of centuries. All timbers that share their quality tones in the different applications of acoustic guitar construction.

Timbers that Patrick Evans, Manager of Production and Projects at Maton is quite familiar with. He delivers us Matons take on the project. “For us this project is about adding scientific credibility to something we already know; which is that Australia has a wealth of magnificent tonewoods, many of which are still to be discovered. When I started in this business in the early 1980’s conventional wisdom had it that Australian timbers were inadequate for instrument making and that serious instruments were made from European or American timbers. Since then a healthy interest in our tonewoods has developed in the lutherie community and some fantastic instruments are being built. Maton has been a trailblazer in this area as Bill May was using Australian timbers (particularly Queensland Maple) in the 1940’s and we have learnt a lot since then.”

The collaboration between Ensis and Maton aims to show us several different key points about Australian Tonewoods. Firstly, how the timbers are presently being used in string instrument construction. Then the tonewoods will be tested before assembly using speed of sound measuring equipment and a special type of x-ray microscope. They will be analaysed chemically to give us a profile of the differences between the wood types. There will also be a series of subjective tests in which luthiers appraisals will be investigated before the construction phase is complete. The project aims to eventually identify other species of native trees that could possibly be used. Finally details of the laboratory tests on the timbers will be made available to anyone interested through publication. The lab tests of the tonewoods are done using a system invented over 20 years ago in Melbourne and now installed in laboratories in Vancouver and Stockholm. SilviScan, staffed by Dr Simon Potter and Dr. Robert Evans (who plays electric guitars with Mahogany (a dark sound) and Alder (a much brighter or live sound) bodies), allows us to see the wood microfibres and measure their stiffness using a high powered combination x-ray scanning and microscopy system. Such detailed viewing allows the scientists to map out wood profiles and get a better understanding of exactly what timbers sound great and why. An understanding that until now was primitively researched by luthiers using what they call a tap-tone. Simply hold the piece of wood loosely between two fingers at arms length and give it a flick with the finger. A resonant tone will be heard and the longer the sustain (or decay) of the tone, the more suitable the wood is for stringed instrument construction. This, hand bending (or the feeling of resistance from the timber when placed under stress) and a visual grading using assessments in growth ring measurements, colour, grain etc. constituted the primary ways for a luthier to establish a nice piece of tonewood. These primitive yet accurate tests will be incorporated into todays Ensis-Maton Tonewood research project…and what a day it is.

The twelve steel string, cutaway guitars will be constructed using Queensland Maple for the back, sides and neck. The soundboards will be drawn from a wide selection of Bunya and Kauri. The bridges and fretboards will be made from Rosewood. They will be finished in a satin pre-catalysed nitro cellulose and strung with Elixir Nanoweb 12-53 steel strings. To help control the experiment Computer Numerically Controlled (CNC) machining will be employed to help reduce extraneous variables. The timbers chosen will undergo a stabilisation treatment in which they are gently dried out in massive room-sized kilns running 24 hours a day at the Maton factory in Box Hill, and then allowed to rehydrate to a balanced moisture content at an average humidity level. Once the guitars are complete, the instruments sound radiation levels will be measured in an anechoic chamber, along with the instruments vibration sensitivity. There will also be a series of subjective appraisals where players and listeners will give a personal opinion of the sound and tone of the Aussie woods contained within each guitar.

We can see that the technology being drawn into the search for sonic superiority is both highly advanced and very detailed. Yet with all this available to us, the question still remains as to exactly what makes a great guitar. And the answer eludes us as it did the many great luthiers of yesteryear who turned out instruments that are not only in circulation today, but used as benchmarks in production standards of the modern era. The answer is that we still don’t really know. But when the results of this project are published, we may find a few key truths that Mr. Antonio de Torres could only have intuitively felt when he ushered the design of the guitar into the modern age centuries ago. But that’s another story.