By Jan TenBruggencate

The Princess displayed at the Kaua‘i Marriott Resort in Kalapaki belonged to Prince Jonah Kuhio Kalaniana‘ole, born in 1871 in Po‘ipu. An avid supporter of canoe racing, his 750-pound koa Princess canoe was built sometime between 1860 and 1890. After Prince Kuhio’s death in 1922, the Princess became part of the Glover Family estate in Honolulu. In 1956, she was brought to Kaua‘i, restored and used for training by the Kaua‘i Canoe and Racing Association. She now rests at the Marriott’s lobby. Photo by Léo Azambuja

Early Hawaiian woodworkers built amazing things using an array of tools that included no metals.

Western voyagers commented on the quality of workmanship in the canoes and other artifacts they saw, comparing them favorably to the best woodworking of European craftsmen.

Of course, European craftsmen had tools of iron, brass and bronze, fashioned into hammers, chisels, saws, clamps, planes and boring drills.

Hawaiians made comparable products with tools that were far less effective. Stone age tools.

I was working on the construction recently of a four-seat koa surfing and sailing canoe, but we are building it with all the benefits of modern woodworking: have fine chisels, power planers, drills, fine measuring devices, power grinders, electric sanders and a remarkable supply of diverse sandpapers.

We have epoxy adhesives, while Hawaiian kalai wa‘a, or canoe builders, had breadfruit sap and intricate lashing techniques using an array of kinds of natural fiber cordage. We know about the kinds of cordage they used because archaeological work at ancient canoe building areas turned up the cut off ends of multiple designs of twisted and braided coconut sennit and olona.

Imagine trying to cut the inside of a dense koa log canoe with an adze made of stone. There was one report that stone adzes dulled so quickly that a single workman could require six sharpeners to keep up.

As they cut, and as the sides of the log thinned, the hull would have sounded like a drum. I’ve heard that sound pealing through the palm trees in the South Pacific as canoes were built, albeit today with iron tools.

Some canoes had planks attached at their upper edges to deepen the hull. The planks were carefully fitted and then lashed into place using holes drilled, we believe, with coral files. Sometimes thin strips of wood, were carefully shaped to fit into the spaces between the planks, to prevent leaking.

The planks would be held in proper alignment with clamps made of shaped wooden pieces bound together with sennit. Just as effective as a wood and metal screw clamp that a Western boatbuilder might employ.

The inner and outer surfaces of the canoe would be smoothed with basalt and coral sanders, which would have been rubbed along the surfaces. They must have needed regular cleaning and regrinding, while in western woodworking we simply change the sandpaper.

Jan TenBruggencate

Perhaps certain kinds of grit were used to improve the performance of the finishing. I have heard it argued that final sanding might have been done with the hairy leaves of the ulu or breadfruit tree.

And ultimately, the functions of our epoxies and polyurethane finishes were accomplished with kukui nut oil, other plant saps and natural fluids and charcoal dust.

And with all those limitations, when compared to modern tools and woodworking products, they were able to produce museum-quality pieces.

On reflection, it seems a vast understatement to suggest that their work merely “compares favorably” with the work produced in a Western woodworking shop.

  • Jan TenBruggencate is a Kaua‘i based writer and communications consultant.

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