A new coffee table design Joe Sullivan calls his Rollerglide Revolver. It is stable because of the weight of a recycled truck disk brake drum. Its wood base spins in a lathe-turned groove filled with glass marbles.

By Jan TenBruggencate

In a dusty Lihu‘e warehouse, Joe Sullivan works with treasures — the hardwoods of Hawai‘i.

Dozens, perhaps hundreds of slabs — rough sawn, preliminarily sanded or brightly polished — in various stages of becoming fine furniture, sit amid saws, lathe, planer, sanders and a huge collection of hand tools.

“With this island’s arboreal variety, Kaua‘i is a wood rat’s paradise,” he said. “I’ve got this weakness for good materials, I can’t throw them away.”

He remembers each tree, and each is a story.

There were tall, old lemon gum eucalyptus growing along Kaua‘i Museum.

“I happened to be there on the day they were bringing them down. I got some of the logs and cut them up,” he said. Another time, he got access to the wood from a yellow poinciana at the Aloha Church property in Lihu‘e.

Both of them are in a new coffee table design Sullivan calls his Rollerglide Revolver. It is stable because of the weight of a recycled truck disk brake drum. Its Poinciana wood base spins in a lathe-turned groove filled with glass marbles. And the museum’s lemongum forms the beautifully figured top.

He has a rocking chair that combines recycled cast iron English park bench parts with curly Kaua‘i koa.

And a delicate table entirely made of kauila, the hard, heavy native wood that often has black streaks across an orange-red background.

He has favorites, but he hates to admit to having favorites. There’s glossy dark pheasantwood. Heavy tamarind. Hard kiawe. And tropical almond, inia, koa, dragon’s eye and so many more.

“Lychee is unknown by most people, but burl lychee is astounding,” he said. “Formosan koa, Acacia confusa, is hard, dark and beautiful.”

Sullivan operates his Kauai Rare Wood Company down a narrow lane just mauka of Kaua‘i High School. If you want to make contact, you’ll need to search it out — he’s not on the Internet and doesn’t have a phone.

A former marketing director for a computer company, he moved to Kaua‘i 30 years ago with his two sons. He had worked as a tree trimmer and had a woodworking hobby while on the Mainland, and once on the island, got a sawmill.

Some of the wood went into houses, but as he learned the local timber, saw the potential for furniture.

An early commitment was not to go into active logging, but to save wood from trees that were being taken down for other purposes, whether land clearing, thinning, pruning or other activities.

When he found that land-clearing crews regularly buried logs or took them to the landfill, he began stepping in to save the best of them.
“The wood we’ve accumulated would have been bug food had we not taken it first,” he said.

Sullivan’s furniture favors natural edges and beefy bases. His flat surfaces are unerringly gorgeous — a testament to his slab selection. The grain sweeps and swirls. Sometimes it is curly and reflects light in tight wavelets. Often it is finely figured.

The treasure inside trees.

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