Bart Potter examines a sheet of veneer at his warehouse, just south of Mililani in central O‘ahu. Potter operates a single-saw mill and sells value-added wood to makers across the island. | Will Caron

The giving trees

Text Kelsey Amos
Art Will Caron

For folks working in Hawai‘i’s forestry and wood craft industry, money does in fact grow on trees. But unlike the average person, industry folks—millers, makers and foresters—know that growing your income tree-style does not make everything magically easier.

First, the industry depends on processes that take a long time: trees growing, milled wood drying, people mastering the skills to make quality artisan products, and actually making them. Second, wood is bulky and large, which complicates transportation and, with high real estate prices in Hawai‘i, the cost of work and storage space becomes a burden.

There are more challenges: bugs might eat your product. The mills in Hawai‘i are small and have limited capabilities. And to make it all work, artists and retailers must depend on a small pool of consumers that are willing to pay for these value-added, artisan products, shelling out on the low end $50 for a gift picture frame or small ‘umeke, and on the higher end $5,000+ for a handcrafted koa rocking chair or a tansu-inspired shoe cabinet.

“Look at that; so beautiful!” says Susan Salm, an employee at Nohea Gallery in Ward Center and a long time supporter of the arts in Hawai‘i, pointing to a small wooden box made by artisan Doug Gordon. “A lot of local people buy local wood crafts because of the meaning that it has here in Hawai‘i,” says Salm.

If you arrive at Nohea while Salm is around, she’ll take you on a whirlwind tour of the gallery’s wood craft pieces, made almost exclusively by local artists. She’ll tell you about turned bowls—the popular sellers that skilled turners can carve down to a delicate, even translucent thinness—as well as pewa, the decorative Hawaiian patching technique that looks like a kite string or a line of butterflies. She’ll give you the histories of individual bowls, boxes, miniature outrigger canoes, flower vases and rocking chairs, and tell you about the artists, some who live off their craft and others who hold jobs in surprising fields like dentistry.

The sheer recall of details about artists, pieces and types of wood (koa, curly koa, milo, kou, monkeypod, mango, mahogany—the list goes on) was something that would occur again and again talking with individuals along the pathway from forest to table.

This is a small-scale, passion industry with many gnarls and intricacies. It feels, at times, out of step with our contemporary, electronic rush, moving instead at the patient pace of trees. But if certain pieces can fit into place in the long-term, this industry, tied as it is to environmental concerns as well as Hawaiian culture, might be an important part of Hawai‘i’s future.

A large slab of wood sits idle on the conveyor belt of Potter’s mill saw. | Will Caron

The Miller

“I wound up getting a couple logs and there was only one guy on the island who could still handle them—this was in 1974,” says Bart Potter, telling how his guitar and ‘ukulele-making led him to become a miller. “I realized that, if I was going to keep making guitars, I should have a mill. And then I had all these visions of getting a mill and being able to mill my own wood and make a house and all this kind of stuff.”

Potter runs a small, single-saw mill that is just one of a handful of milling operations dispersed around O‘ahu. Like Potter, many millers are also woodworkers or woodcraft hobbyists. They may mill on the side, or they may have transitioned into making a living off of their milling work.

Most of the wood being milled and used for wood crafts on O‘ahu is from “distressed” trees—trees from the side of the road that fell over or trees that have to be removed when someone is building a house or changing up their property.

Potter has a story for each stack of milled lumber drying in his storage space. There’s the stack of Cuban mahogany, “extinct in its home range” says Potter, but planted on O‘ahu as street trees. There’s the kou from Kapolei that was cut down after 20 years when its roots were starting to lift up the sidewalk. There’s the already curly and beautiful 15-year-old koa from the property of the Judd family on Tantalus; Charles S. Judd was a territorial forester whose name is now memorialized at Judd Trail. And then there’s the stack of milo wood that came from a tree that you can see in the scene in The Descendants where George Clooney’s character decides not to sell the family land.

Inside Potter’s extensive warehouse are stacks of different varieties of wood, cut and ready for use. | Will Caron

Potter’s interest is in using the wood he mills to make guitars and ‘ukuleles himself, but he also sells value-added milled woods, including veneers. As a one man operation, however, he has difficulty doing everything, and the wood stacks up. “The situation I’m in is it seems like the wood kind of keeps coming,” he says. Without a storefront, selling his inventory can be a challenge.

With all this wood around, why aren’t we seeing more architectural uses of local wood, such as for building homes? The quick answer is the lack of capability at local mills, and the small scale of the industry. Potter had to travel with a shipment of koa wood to a mill in Indiana to get it cut into veneer, an important part of doors, cabinets, floors, plywood and furniture. No mills in Hawai‘i cut veneer and, compared to the acres-large mills on the U.S. continent that mill trainloads of lumber per day, Hawai‘i’s mills are small and informal. Potter says, for example, that he might get one cedar tree in five years, so there is never really enough to sell to someone who wants to use it to build a whole house.

“The reality is that it’s a really expensive process and it’s difficult to compete with woods that are imported and produced on a commodity level,” says Potter.

“I think in this time of plastic, wood has its allure and it’s nice to hold and own and feel and smell, but we’re also getting away from wanting this heirloom type stuff anymore,” says Potter. But he is not overly worried. “At some point down the line the thousands of acres that are being dedicated to koa production will be providing a greater abundance of resource.”

Doug Gordon’s Waimānalo workshop turns out high-quality, artisan woodwork for discerning patrons. | Will Caron

The Maker

Doug Gordon, of Hawaiian Fine Furniture, is all about design. There are moments, he says, in building a hand-crafted piece of furniture, where you can make mistakes that you can’t go back to correct. It helps, he says, to be able to think a process through, backwards and forwards; this is something that many would-be wood artisans struggle with.

With a background in architecture, Gordon has been designing and building wood furniture for 20 years. In 2013, he started Hawaiian Fine Furniture in order to pursue his interest in building furniture that reflects Hawai‘i’s confluence of cultures from East and West.

“This is kind of like the big meeting spot, and it’s a meeting spot for furniture,” he says.

Hand-crafted, miniature surfboards stand in a row outside Gordon’s office. | Will Caron

Gordon points out a wedding tansu that likely came to Hawai‘i with a picture bride in the early 20th century. He pulls on a random drawer, and a single harmonica note sounds, somewhat whimsically, as the drawer slides open and closed.

“I’ve talked to a lot of Japanese people about it, and they’ve never seen it in Japan, so I think it was retrofitted here; it’s a very common thing in Hawai‘i in the old Japanese tansus,” says Gordon.

The trick works because of the tansu’s piston drawers, which suck air in and out as they move, causing a reed to vibrate with the passing air.

Gordon explains that besides these Asian influences on furniture in Hawai‘i, there are also Western influences, especially the Hawaiian mission style developed by German, American, and other European furniture makers in the early 1800s. These furniture makers were brought to Hawai‘i by missionaries or by Hawaiian royalty, and they developed a unique style.

“All that kind of came together out here,” says Gordon.

Doug Gordon talks with Summit inside his office. | Will Caron

Gordon’s shop is in a light industrial area of Waimānalo that seems to be a hotspot for wood crafts on O‘ahu; there’s a wood paddle carver and other wood shops nearby. Gordon makes all his pieces one at a time, by hand, and does custom pieces for clients.

Gordon works often with koa, which is particularly prized, and monkey pod which is widely available. But besides these, he explains, “We have a cache of tropical woods; a variety that consumers might take more interest in. We see stuff that you just don’t see anywhere else in the world,” he says.

The challenge however, is the high cost of rent for his shop and the small pool of clients for his products. In Hawai‘i, even the rich might have less space in their homes for striking artisan furniture, like large slab tables. Gordon adapts by building smaller pieces, like a Japanese-style mirror stretched to full length. “I make a lot of lamps, very low footprint; I make a shoe tansu, very small,” he says.

There’s also concern about the next generation of wood craftspeople. Making artisan furniture requires a huge and varied skill set. “I think one of the biggest problems is everybody thinks they’re going to learn this stuff overnight,” says Gordon.

In 1980, Roger Skolmen of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service Institute of Pacific Islands Forestry collected seedlings beneath large, healthy koa in the forests of the Big Island and planted these in a trail. While all were attacked by the acacia psyllid early on, some have grown well since and developed superior form. These trees are a resource that foresters are using today to develop superior koa families in Hāmākua, Hawai‘i Island, Hawai‘i. | Courtesy J.B. Friday

The Forested Acres

But perhaps a next generation of wood craft artists will become necessary, as more and more koa and other woods are being planted in Hawai‘i, both for reforestation and commercial purposes, creating a future supply that will have to be dealt with.

“There’s a lot of interest in forestry as a land use for a variety of reasons,” especially on the Big Island, says Nick Koch, president of the Hawaii Forest Industry Association.

First, there is consensus concern about conserving natural spaces that provide habitat for endangered species, protect the soil from erosion and maintain watersheds.

“Protecting the watershed so that you don’t get the cycles of flood and drought” is an invaluable ecological service provided by reforested land, according to J.B. Friday, University of Hawai‘i Extension Forester.

“Everybody’s a conservationist, but people have different priorities,” says Friday of the foresters he works with. Forestry operations range from intense interest in reforesting native and endemic species to, on the other end, operations that are run more like farms.

“The other reason for growing interest in forestry,” says Koch, “is the continental U.S. model of growing the wood lot for eventual harvest and financial benefits.” A third reason Koch mentions is that trees for lumber count as an agricultural crop, so growing trees can be a way for landowners in Hawai‘i to pay lower land taxes. In addition, money earned from harvesting and selling trees counts as capital gains that are taxed at a lower rate than income. “Not only do the trees grow, but they’re tax-advantage growth. It’s kind of like stocks,” says Koch.

Indeed, one organization, Hawaiian Legacy Hardwoods (HLH), offers ways for individuals or organizations to invest in a managed koa tree farm, according to their website, which also offers estimated projections for sustainable koa hardwood investment up to 25 years out. In 2014 HLH launched a nonprofit called Hawaiian Legacy Reforestation Initiative (HLRI) that focuses on doing permanent reforestation by soliciting tree sponsors that might be charities or individuals who want to memorialize a loved one, or simply want to plant a tree.

“The idea is to plant some for sustainable harvest but the majority will stay put,” says Jeffrey Dunster, who is both CEO of HLH and director of HLRI.

HLRI uses a proprietary software system to track their trees; a chip in every tree records all data on the tree such as dates of fertilization and even the weather. Tree sponsors can check on this data online to see how their trees are doing.

Dunster reports that his organizations have reforested nearly 1,000 acres on the Big Island that were previously deforested by use as pasture land.

“The first trees that we put in the ground are not yet 6 years old and some are already reaching 50, 60 feet tall and a foot in diameter,” says Dunster.

Yet another corollary business, Hawaiian Legacy Tours, offers eco-tours of the reforested area that include planting a koa tree.

Dunster is open about the business model his organizations are pioneering. “It’s a model that’s never been tried before,” he says. “Our objective was to try to design a model that was not only environmentally sound and culturally sensitive but economically viable.”

This means that the forest needs income streams. Hence the three components above—sustainable harvest, charitable fundraising, ecotourism—and a fourth component, carbon credits. HLH now has a Gold Standard Certified carbon credit program.

“The carbon piece was a key component because that generates income for the landowner for 50 years,” says Dunster.

Friday cautions that not enough is known about the growth and yields of koa for investing in it to be considered a certainty. His own research at the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources focuses on learning more about koa in order to eliminate that uncertainty.

Dunster admits that his model is totally new, but he says his organization’s projections are sound, and says that in some cases the forest is surpassing projections. He’s excited about starting a reforestation project on O‘ahu in 2016; he wouldn’t yet say where the project would be.

Koa seedlings are labeled with the location of the parent trees. It is good practice to select seedlings from parent trees that are growing under the same ecological conditions as the planting site (for example, similar elevation, rainfall, and soil). Courtesy J.B. Friday

Tree Together

Amazingly, there hasn’t been a survey done of the forestry industry in Hawai‘i since 2001. At that time the worth of the industry was $30.7 million, but Friday cautions that this was before a recent growth in eucalyptus on the Big Island, which might have generated millions of dollars.

“We are growing logs and selling them, but they’re all going to China,” says Friday about the big eucalyptus farms. “Economies of scale of the forest industry are so big that I can’t see us making two-by-fours here,” he explains.

But Friday does see a possible synergy between conservation-minded foresters and Hawai‘i’s wood craft artisans.

“What I’d like to see is more people reforesting private lands, managing forests and, if they can harvest something out of it and it becomes an economic use, then they have an incentive to use the forest rather than turning it into cow pastures; rather than letting it degrade,” says Friday. In other words, he too sees a need for an income stream of some kind to help landowners who choose to reforest cover their costs or even make a profit. He sees potential for local millers and artisans to fill that void, creating value-added products that support reforestation.

On this point, Friday and Dunster agree. Dunster explains, “Yes, the 25 percent sustainable harvest model—that’s where that comes in. It would provide a much needed source of tropical hardwoods for Hawai‘i’s woodworkers, and it could—if done correctly—create a huge industry in the state of Hawai‘i.”

Friday and Koch both make the comparison to Kona or Kā‘ū coffee, products that aren’t competing with say, Folgers, but are successful at a higher price because they’re known Hawai‘i brands with an artisanal allure. To achieve this kind of coordination might require changes in the industry however, which Friday describes as fragmented, and based around word-of-mouth.

In addition to the possible environmental and economic value of this industry, Friday points out that forestry has cultural value because native forests provide habitat for species of plants and animals that are in turn important to Native Hawaiian culture. He states that he is not Hawaiian but asks, “Where is Hawaiian culture without native forests?”

It’s a striking question that underscores the importance of the land to a land-based indigenous culture, but it can also be turned around. Where is the forest without Hawaiian culture?

“Of course the ancient Hawaiians did not have sawmills, so the idea of growing acres of trees for timber is purely western,” explains Friday. “The big industrial plantations on the Hāmākua coast and the small-scale tree farms producing cabinet woods are both in the western model,” he notes.

According to Friday, Hawaiian agriculture was built around field crops, but elsewhere in the Pacific agroforestry models were used extensively to generate food and other resources from the forest. “Today, some people I work with are developing agroforestry systems in the Pacific Island model,” he says, but the systems people have built here are not as complex as in places like Pohnpei or Samoa.

Looking for Hawaiian forestry knowledge, Friday turns to language, examining phrases like “wao kānaka” and “wao akua” to understand Hawaiian ecological thinking about forests. “Everyone managing land in Hawai‘i, whether you’re from here or not, can stand to learn something about the Hawaiian worldview,” he says.

Whether such knowledge will come to guide the local forestry industry, and whether Hawaiian forests can be cared for in the long term via emerging business models, is yet to be seen. Meanwhile, it does seem like supporting local woodworkers that use local wood is a good idea.

“Do we produce local things here that mean something because they’re from Hawai‘i? It’s the same as the local foods movement,” Friday continues, “Things that tie you to the land—I think that that’s important.”


Summit is Hawaii's magazine of ideas and style for the global citizen. We're named for Queen Kapiolani's motto, "kulia i ka nuu," strive for the summit. Summit is available on fine newsstands throughout North America and the Asia-Pacific region.

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