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Martin & MacArthur: A 60 Year Legacy of Fine Koa Furniture

Martin & MacArthur: A 60-Year Legacy of Fine Koa Furniture

CEO says no live trees are cut – only trees that are fallen, dead or dying

In the cavernous 35,000-square-foot Martin & MacArthur workshop in Kalihi, Bach Nguyen leans over a 2-by-4-foot piece of Acacia koa – its proper name – moving a small hand-sander back and forth, back and forth, smoothing the board that will become the top of a dresser.

His right hand works the sander, his left leans on the board, feeling for texture, measuring the smoothness with the practiced touch of a master craftsman.

For 25 years Nguyen has worked here as one of the company’s 30 craftsmen – each with their own “bench” space in the warehouse workshop that produces handmade koa furniture.

             

The same craftsman chooses the wood, cuts it, sands each piece and assembles the finished product, sometimes taking over a week for a single piece of furniture. Each piece gets three final sandings and two coats of clear lacquer before the finished product is minutely inspected by finisher Fernando Serrao.

“We’ve been doing this longer than any furniture maker in the state, even before Hawai‘i was a state,” says CEO Michael Tam, who took the helm at Martin & MacArthur 11 years ago and dramatically expanded its offerings from only furniture. Today, Martin & MacArthur produces about 250 koa products, including around 100 furniture designs, produced by their craftsmen, and another 200 products purchased from other Hawai‘i artisans. Their products include pens, watchbands, Christmas ornaments, clocks, bookmarks and serving boards, as well as their iconic rocking chairs, dining tables, dressers and beds.

“We are the No. 1 koa user in the world,” says Tam.

He says Martin & MacArthur refurbished classic koa features at ‘Iolani Palace back in the 1970s, including the staircase and replicas of some of the fine palace furniture. Today, Martin & MacArthur ships its creations around the world.

“The vast majority of what we do is koa because that’s what Hawai‘i prizes, and that’s what we’re known for,” says Tam.

He says the company has always sourced its koa from a private unnamed landowner on Hawai‘i Island, using the equivalent of about 11 trees a year, all fall- en, dead or dying. No live trees are cut, says Tam. While koa is not endangered, private landowners are less willing than they were 10 or 20 years ago to sell from their forests, unless the koa forests need thinning, or the trees need pruning or have toppled, says Tam.

“We don’t want to be responsible for any live koa trees being cut. After 80 years or so, a lot end up dying or toppling over. …There are more trees dying in a month than what we go through in a year,” he says.

Across the way from Nguyen in the Martin & MacArthur workshop, master craftsman Chuck Dominguez is carefully stacking measured and cut sides of koa boxes. “The grains match up so they wrap around a corner,” says Dominguez, the specialist making the 1,000 to 1,200 boxes that the company sells every year.

Past Dominguez, Don Heim is fashioning the backs of its “Moana” dining chairs. As the company’s chair specialist, Heim produces about 50 dining chairs a year and about 50 rockers, with each tak- ing about a week of work and selling for about $4,700 apiece.

Nearby, Sau Hy handles tables, desks, beds and display cases. He has worked with wood for 40 years, 20 of them with Martin & MacArthur. Today, he is finishing a headboard for a king-size bed frame that will be shipped to the Mainland.

                                         

In this tour of the workshop, Tam stops at a long row of koa boards, each at least 10 feet long, leaning against a wall, waiting to be chosen by one of the craftsmen for their next project. He takes a rag and dips it into a bucket of water and rubs it over a section of one of the boards, turning it from a pale dull gray to a rich red brown with a distinctive grain.

“We want wood that looks so gorgeous, like that,” says Tam. Only “curly koa” – dark red koa with a rippling wavy effect in the grain – is used for its products. Approximately 10 percent of koa has that wavy curl, says Tam, while the rest doesn’t have that rippling effect. As well, the color of the wood is different depending in which island it’s from. If grown on O‘ahu, for instance, the wood is greyish, says Tam; if grown on Kaua‘i it’s a lighter color.

Large pieces of the prized curly koa will become tables or dressers; the leftovers go into small items, down to thin bookmarks. “All the leftovers are used,” says Tam. “They used to throw that stuff away. The whole idea (now) is to use everything.”

At the workshop’s far end, two giant kilns dry the latest load of Big Island logs. Set at 110 degrees, the kiln will take 30 to 60 days to bring down the moisture in the wood to 8%, from 50% or 60%. A probe monitors the moisture level and giant fans keep air flowing inside the kilns.

The company has six master craftsmen with over 25 years of experience each; a dozen journeymen with 10 to 20 years of experience; and 10-12 apprentices with fewer than 10 years. Tam says Martin & MacArthur is the only company in Hawai‘i with an apprenticeship program for furniture makers and has trained craftsmen “for 20 years on how to make furniture to our specs.”

For instance, workshop foreman Guy Leslie joined the company 31 years ago as a 17-year-old high school graduate. “We’re looking for young men and women who are good with their hands and have a passion for furniture,” says Tam. “They don’t have to have any background. We are going to put them through a program and they will learn to do everything.”

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