The most favored wood for constructing the hull of the canoe was the Koa. The Koa, prior to the 1800’s, grew in vast forests on the Island of Hawaii and Maui. Less quantities of Koa did grow on the Islands of Oahu and Kauai but never to the extent or reaching the size of the Koa trees growing on Hawaii Island and Maui..
In 1792, Archibald Menizies, botanist on Captain Vancouver’s ship describes a trip into the Koa forests in the ahupua’a of Kealakekua in South Kona, Hawaii Island:
“The largest trees which compose the vast forest I have found a new species of mimosa (KOA). I measured two of them near our path one of which was seventeen feet and the other about eighteen feet in circumference, with straight trunks forty or fifty feet high. As we advanced, the wood was more crowded with these trees than lower down where both sides of the path had been thinned of them by the inhabitants”.(The Hawaiian canoe by Tommy Holmes)
Early Hawaiian canoe builders possessed detail knowledge of the differing physical characteristics of woods and in particular Koa. The trained canoe builder recognized three different types of Koa. They were distinguished by the shape of the tree trunk, color of bark, type of grain and branching pattern.
Laumai’a: Tended to have a yellow hue to the wood, was somewhat softer than the other two classification of grain. It dried lighter than the other two and was considered feminine by some canoe builders. This wood tended to make a lighter canoe with the wood being somewhat less durable. The bark of this tree was whitish in color and called Kaekae.
Laukani: Tended to have a reddish-brown hue to the wood and was much preferred for making canoe hulls. It was more durable than the Lau Mai’a and considered masculine.
‘I’o ‘Ohi’a: This grain was “hard like ‘Ohi’a”. It tended to be very dark in color. The grain was twisty and the wood heavy. It was avoided by canoe builders. The bark of this kind of tree tends to be red and is called Maua. (James Kaholo’ilihala and The Hawaiian Canoe by Tommy Holmes).
While Koa is found from near sea level to about 7,000 feet, Koa really flourishes between 3,000 and 6,000 feet elevation. It grows best in areas that have between 75 to 200 inches of rain per year. For a Koa tree to grow into a canoe quality log of at least 4 feet in diameter and 40 to 60 feet long it takes between 150 and 200 years.