Selecting Koa Trees for Canoes by the Builder

By David K. Kahookele, circa 1958

From the Archives of the Maui Historical Society. . . 

David K. Kahookele was chaplain, vice-president, and on the Music Committee during the founding years of the Maui Historical Society and Hale Hoikeike. In those early years members wrote papers on Hawaiian history and presented reports at the meetings. The Kahookele family was from Nahiku. David's father built the model canoe on display in the canoe house for Dr. Jim Fleming. We have a piece of olona fiber, for which Nahiku was famous, from David Kahookele. All terminology is from the original text.

The koa canoe was very important to the early Hawaiian people.  The canoe builders were highly honored for their ability and held in high esteem.  The trees for the canoes were carefully selected from the koa trees in the forests.  The tree had to be straight and tall with a trunk that was round from the bottom to a point where the necessary length could be cut.  The trees varied from twelve to sixty feet in length and were found growing at their best in the lowlands and along the slopes of the mountains.  A naturally curved tree could easily be made into a canoe. . .

A large canoe was made from a log of ten or twelve feet in circumference.  This was done by taking the measurement about six or eight feet from the ground.  After the hull of a canoe was finished there were six parts with pieces to be put on.   These pieces were placed on the hull and tied with Olona fibers and coconut sennit (ropelike).  They were as follows.

1) The Wae were two pieces of wood three by four inches in width and thickness and used as braces.

2) The Manu was the carved bird placed on the front and back of the canoe.

3) The Kuapoi or waterguard was two flat pieces joined together and used on the front Manu.

4) The Moo was two pieces of rims of one inch thick, four or six inches wide and length as needed were tied on each rim of the hull.

5) The Iako was two curved sticks four inches in diameter, each tied on a Wae on the hull were called Iako or outriggers. These pieces were selected from the hau tree.

6) The Ama was a piece of log six to ten inches in diameter and length as needed was tied to the two Iakos and was called Ama or floater.  It resembled a small canoe and was used for balance. Ama were made from light wood, Wiliwili-Pua-Hau, Hau-o-Hala, Hau-ku, aha-kea, and Koa-lena. . .

Ama and Iako were tied with Olona fibers and sometimes with Hau fibers.  Holes were made in the sides of the hull and Moo and Manu were tied on.  The process was used many years ago because of the lack of strong nails.  The wooden nails of that day were not strong so Olona and other fibers were used instead.  After nails were imported the fibers were no longer used.

Certain tools and weapons were kept in the canoes in readiness for a voyage.   Canoe paddles, knives, spears, hard lava rock and water bailers were tied in the canoe within reach of the man. . .

Adzes (carving tools), axes, and knives were highly important to our people in those days.  Special hard rocks were carefully selected and shaped in many ways according to their use.  To smooth (polish) the hull of a canoe, coarse lava rocks were used.   Oahi, one of the coral rocks was used for smoothing the surface.  Oahi was also used to shave the fur off the animal or hair. It was found in several places in the islands.  Hard lava rock blades were thinned down for cutting and scraping.

Paint for the canoes was collected from the pieces of barks of Koa, Kukui, and banana trees.  Olena juice was mixed with these juices to bring out the colors desired.

Sails for the canoes were made from Lau-ha-la leaves, woven into mats.  The dry and green bleached leaves were picked from the Puhala trees.  The Puhala trees were very useful in early times, not only as sails, but for baskets, bags, and water guards.   Dry nuts were burned for charcoal.
Maui Island Guide

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