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Harvesting koa wood and its uses in the 1800’s


The koa is a valuable wood should a person desire to seek riches by producing firewood, and this is the way to do it; hew down plenty of wood; cut it in short pieces, each one a fathom in length, and put them in a pile, one fathom high and one fathom wide; pile up a full measure. When there are one hundred piles made, sell them to those who desire firewood, at [the rate of’ eight dollars ($8.00) per pile. That is one value. Here are some of its uses; yoke for oxen, poi boards, boards for houses, posts for houses, shingles, coffins, trunks , and doors. Out of koa lumber good trunks and coffins and doors are made. Out of koa lumber also are made excellent bedsteads called koa bedsteads. These bedsteads cost a great deal of money. 


During the period when Hawaii was unenlightened, the people had already acid the are of constructing canoes. They were able to construct canoes which reached ten fathom, more or less, in length, and smaller canoes which reached from four to six fathoms in length In depth, some of these cones reached ethe armpit of a person when he stood inside of one of them. However, a common man was seldom seen in one of these large canoes, they were mostly used by the chiefs in the den times. the depth of the smaller canoes is like that we see nowadays. 

Concerning the adze; The adzes used for hewing canoes those days were of hard stone; seldom seen nowadays. These stones are different [from common stones] ; they were hard stones. Those were the adzes used fronting down the trees and hewing the inside; there were no regular axes those days. 


When the canoe-building priest goes up and comes to the tree desired for a cone, he looks first at the main branch, and where the main branch extends, towards that side is the tree to be felled. If the tree, in falling, lands on a mother tree, the omen is bad (it is not right); if it falls clear, this good. 

After the tree is felled, the elepaio bird, the god of the canoe builders, flies and alights on the tree. If the bird runs back and forth, without pecking here and there of the tree, and then flies away, it is a good canoe. If it peck along one side from the front to the back, then hew that side for the mouth of the canoe. If it peck on that side and this side [on both sides]  it indicates a rotten canoe; better leave it alone. In cutting off the top there is a prayer for it, bit I haven’t obtained it. 


In hewing a canoe the outside is hewn first, and when the outside is finished, then work on the inside. At this time, however, no particular way of hewing is observed; anyway of digging out is allowed, so that the canoe may be lightened for dragging dow to the beach. the canoe is nicely tapered in the front, and is large and full in the rear. Some projections are left in the canoe; as many as four, five or perhaps six, according to the wishes of the priest and the size of the canoe. these projections are used for parts to which are fasted the outrigger, and mast, and on which are placed the seats. When this hewing is done, then the canoe building priest reports to the owner that the work is completed. If the owner wishes to go up and view the canoe, then he accompanies the priest; if he does not so wish, the canoe is left alone until it is seasoned, when it is haul down to the shore. 


Dragging the canoe is another important work. It can not be done if men are few; there must be many, perhaps forty, sit or eighty. According to the size of the canoe so will be the number of men required; a small canoe requires fewer men. The day set apart for dragging the canoe is a day of much pomp; like the day of the funeral of a famous man, so is the day for dragging the canoe, for there will go up men, women, children, and sometimes chiefs. Food, pigs, chickens, turkeys, and fish enough to feed at the multitude are taken up. 

When people arrive at the place where th canoe was left, preparations are made for dragging it. A rope is tied to the crease prepared for it, and when that is ready then the procession is set from where the rope is ties to the canoe crease to the end of the far ahead. Strong men are placed at the ned of the rope, sot that the top would be kept taut when being pulled, and would not slacken, tangle, and hurt the men when the canoe slides down the precipice. 

When the canoe is dragged until it is brought to a moderately steep hill where it is impossible for many to pull together on taccount of the steepness of the hall, re arrangement of the people is made, and fewer men are required to pull it down the hill; it is then that we really the skill of the man who guides the passage of the canoe, and its then also that hew shows hi great ability to the people. When the preparations are complete, the man who will steer the canoe down the hill rides it; those who were selected commence pulling and the canoe moves along until the canoe at-tains a good speed, when the men who are pulling desist and the canoe director takes charge from then on. A canoe coasting down a hill is faster that a galloping horse. 

If the road be rough, the canoe can be shifted to a smooth place; if a large tree or a stone stand in the way, or the road be crooked, we think the canoe would be broken, yet when it is coasting it is like sliding down a smooth-surfaced hill; because it is the man guiding who wrecks or saves the canoe. Arriving on the flat the multitude drags again, and thus they go until the house is reached. But if it is a half witted ma who directs the canoe, or a man with little ability, this will surely occur; trouble will follow from the outset. I saw this happen continually at my birthplace. 

The man who guides the canoe rides in front by the crease; he hold on to a short rope and a small stick made fast to the crease. As the rudder of a ship is used so is this used. If the canoe swerves from the path selected, this would be used as a lever to head the canoe properly. if it is desired to land the canoe at any choses place, it can be done. If [the director] wishes to step back into the canoe while it is coasting, it can be done. If he wishes to restrain the canoe so that those who are dragging it are unable to do so, it can be done. 


If the priest is hewing a canoe in a house, then the rule is that an aha cord be stretched across the door of the house from side to side, so that some men would not enter to talk, thereby diverting the attention of the cano-bulding priest, and the canoe be broken by careless hewing, thus causing trouble. Hence that aha cord is placed across the door, so that a person would come and talk from the outside, and be unable to enter the house. If that person has an important idea the work is stopped and the conversation then held. This is a rule strictly adhered to b some canoe-builders. 

There are two methods of hewing the canoe for its finishing; from the from and from the rear. If the commencemebt of the hewing of a side be from the left, do not change and work from the right, for it would be defective. If the commencement of the work be from the fore part, continue in that direction until the stern is reached, then quit; do not change the direction of the hewing from the stern. It is the same with the other side, commence hewing from the stern and when the bow is reached, then quit. Do not hew from the bow and the stern of the same side; else there would be ahold in the middle. 

There are two kinds of adze used for building canoe: koi kupa, an adze for diving out the inside, and any other rough work; and koi wili, a reversible adze, and adze used for finishing off. The koi pupa is used for digging out the inside and hewing the rough of the outside [of the canoe] when it is thick; and when it is thinned then the koi will would be used to finish off. The koi wili could be sued in hewing at wide and narrow places. 

When the canoe is finished, the wae are placed in position; these are the parts on top of the niao worked in with carved pieces [manu]. This is made of another wood, the aiea; this is the proper wood from which to make the wae. In fastening, the sennit is used to tie these on to the canoe. When that is finished, the oak and the ama [ the outrigger] are placed in position; these are for the purpose of steadying the canoe. The proper woods out of which to make theses parts are the he and the wiliwili. 

Three other kinds of wood are used in the olden time for building canoes, the wiliwili, kukui [candle-nut tree], and the ulu [breadfruit tree]. The wiliwili is yet being used. The kook is not much seen at this time. The ulu is used for repairing broken canoe; great skill required to do the patching well so as to make it blend together. 

The paint used to daub the canoe back is the amaumau, the cane leaves, the nuance (rush) from the stream; burn these in the fire; collect the ashes and place container; mix together with the hili kukui. That will be the mixture to form the black paint to adhere to the canoe.


SubjectKoa Trees
appears in the legend: “About the Koa Tree” in the book: Fornander, Abraham, Fornander Collection of Hawaiian Antiquities and Folk-Lore, Volume 5 on pages: 630-637

      HSL Call Number: H 398.2 Fo v.5
      UHM Call Number: AM101 .B4473 v.5 1985

Photos courtesy of:

Hawaiian Fish Hook Necklace