Story by Roland Gilmore
Photos by Jack Wolford
“How’s that koa, brah?” says Stanford “Puggy” Hulama, grinning as his rubber slippers crunch along a gravel-floored Quonset hut on the outskirts of Hilo. Outside there’s only pasture and then rainforest; no signage, no name, nothing but the fenced off, unpaved road that begins out back of the Hulama family compound. Puggy’s place has no regular hours, and you’d never find it without calling for directions … and if it’s raining, you might want to ask Puggy to let you ride shotgun in his four-wheeler over the last quarter mile.
Stan Hulama Jr.
Its location might be rustic, but the Big Island Koa Company is (so to speak) no backwoods enterprise. They operate largely by word of mouth (their website, bigislandkoacompany.com, is a recent addition), but the Hulama family—the business also employs wife Linda and son Stan, Jr.—has an international clientele of luthiers and craftsmen, carpenters and furniture makers, bowl turners and sculptors and pretty much everyone in between. Recently they shipped an order to the East Coast for a traditionalist bent on making a wooden surfboard.
Surrounding Puggy and Linda is a portion of their inventory: somewhere in the range of 20,000 board feet of milled, kiln-dried wood—all of it koa—stacked three rows deep, floor to ceiling on both sides of the hut. There are boards of all lengths, from one to twelve feet; large chunks for bowl turners; four-by-four inch posts. Several thousand feet more sit outside, air-drying in uniform, head-high stacks arranged throughout the pasture. While there are other native wood wholesalers and retailers in the Islands, the Hulamas sell only koa, and this is one of world’s largest single collections of it. A good portion of the stock falls into what the national hardwood industry defines as top-of-the-line “grade A,” though the Hulamas market it using categories better known to Hawai‘i wood enthusiasts: select, select curl, full curl, premium curl, stress curl, velvet, fiddleback … each describing a variant pattern of koa’s distinctive, much-prized grain. “Stress curl,” says Linda, pointing to a board with a yellow “SC” chalked across the wavy, vertical grain. “That’s what the ‘ukulele guys like.”