Keep It Koa


Masterful Woodworkers of Hawai’i

IN SPEAKING WITH A HANDFUL of the most highly skilled woodworkers in Hawai’i, there was one common thread that bound all: None of these custom creators would even consider taking on a job that didn’t inspire them, one way or another. On a fairly regular basis, each of these “masters” turns down requests that number in the tens of thousands of dollars-per piece.

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“I’ve built everything I’ve wanted to build,” says James Ferla, from his sizeable Honolulu workshop. “People don’t come to me for a piece of furniture until someone else has told them ‘It can’t be done.’ I’ve become the totally custom guy.”

Ferla, who attained official “master woodworker” status in 1990, comes from a long line of craftsmen who originate from Connecticut, and Italy before that. After stints crafting new-build furniture and some refurbishing for Yale University, Ferla came to Hawai’i and fell in love with the culture.

Surrounded by pieces-bed frames, formal dining chairs, blanket chests and so on-that once belonged to Hawai’i’s reigning kings and queens, Ferla speaks about each piece with astonishing clarity.

“When I was proposed with the opportunity to work on this stuff, I realized all the pain and suffering and training I’d done my whole life was getting me ready for the culturally significant and importance of this work,” he says, adding that taking 100-plus-year-old works of art and breathing “another few hundred years of life into them” was akin to something of a spiritual awakening.

Among his top pieces is a set of office furniture constructed entirely by his hands for Outrigger Hotels’ corporate offices.

“I didn’t really consider myself a ‘master’ until the completion of that project,” Ferla admits, pointing to the ten, 18-hour days in which he drafted and completed every piece, including the turning of every knob (on a lathe) and Roman column, carved every relief and mixed every stain from scratch.

A conversation about detail work revealed just how exacting some of Ferla’s work can be: He recently had to make a model of the elevator at Yacht Harbor Tower to ensure a custom piece he was hired to build would fit into the building. The client, an electrical engineer, has spent nearly $100,000 on pieces from Ferla.

Blending both his custom design work with conservation pieces is what seems to keep him sharp. That, and sharing his skills with the future master carvers of the world. Ferla has taken on 37 apprentices to date; lately, it’s been mostly women who come to him wanting to immerse themselves in the craft.

When asked if there’s anything that distinguishes his pieces from others in Hawai’i, he points to a technique called “book matching,” which involves wood veneers or surfaces perfectly mirroring each other at corners or in parallel sections.

“I can get so mind-numbingly myopic about it, but it makes the piece so much more pleasing to the eye in the end. It’s incredibly gratifying, and it’s what I’m known for,” he concludes.


Pearl City-based Alan Wilkinson calls himself a “journeyman furniture maker,” and his unique, original designs certainly reflect that of someone that has been around the wood block. His koa furniture has been revered in Hawai’i for decades, always with a lean toward contemporary style.

“I consider my pieces modern,” Wilkinson says. “But the past has a lot to do with where today’s styles came from. From what we found in Egyptian tombs, to Asian artifacts-I’ll forever be a student of design.”

Wilkinson came to Hawai’i in the early 1960s as a surfer, and wound up studying sculpture and Asian art history at UH under Moe Sato, a legendary woodworker.

A trip through a catalog of Wilkinson’s work reveals astonishing bed frames, dressers and end tables, most of which feature gorgeous veneers of koa and curly ‘ohi’a. A rather unique aspect to these works are the finishings; custom stars and turned posts, all of which he crafts from scratch.

A recent “distraction” has been utilizing scrap wood (from bigger bedroom sets) to make luxurious jewelry boxes-his nod to the “green” movement of utilizing as much material as he can (these begin at $1,400 and head north of $4,000).


Robb Young has been crafting koa in Hawai’i for more than 31 years, from custom rocking chairs to conference tables, kitchens and doors. His entire client base has come from word-of-mouth recommendations-a testament to his substantial quality of work.

Young’s forte is the cutting and applying of razor-thin veneers. That, and some pretty special clientele.

“We were commissioned to do all 11 pieces of furniture for the new Father Damien Saint Damien Church on Moloka’i. All from koa, we built an altar, pulpit, six chairs, credence table, Bible stand and holy oils cabinet,” he shares.

Yet it isn’t all the “Lord’s work” for this craftsman; Young is famous for making Tom Selleck’s office desk and chair during the actor’s stint on O’ahu while he filmed Magnum, P.I.

“It was such a thrill for me, both to do the piece for Tom, and the fact that he took the same office that was formerly Jack Lord’s, when Five-O wrapped,” Young says, adding he constructed more than a dozen props for both shows, in addition to a custom bed for basketball star Kareem Abdul Jabar.

Young recently came into some contracts for the military, where he constructed a custom 21-foot table that had to have 15 computer stations and a monitor that popped out of the center, for a command room at Camp Smith. This led to some naval work, including onboard officer’s quarters, which then leads to work on the officer’s homes.

Yet ask Young about one of the projects that he is most proud of, and you’ll hear about a rather astonishing feat. Young made 108 doors for a single home in Diamond Head, each of which features black walnut.

Camaraderie among all three of these wood workers is surprisingly harmonious. Each might recommend one another-or various other specialists-for jobs such as picture framing and the like.

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