Is it possible to identify koa visually?


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Feb 20, 2024
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Many brands still market woods with ambiguous names such as koa, taiwan koa, indonesia koa, acacia, blackwood, etc. There is such a huge variation in Koa appearance, is it possible to identify it from looks alone? For people who have seen countless examples of koa and acacia, what would be the tell between the different species?

There are ukes with lower quality hawaiian koa, pale color, uneven darker spots, no curl - something like the Martin Mexico series (you could also say, Martin has made guitars from different species mahoganies depending on the model, and called it all "mahogany" on the spec sheet). There's the standard straight grained koa, which spans the spectrum of koa colors, with or without dark/light stripes. Then premium koas, where I'm seeing more medium to dark colors and of course the curly pattern. Acacia is usually more brown and tan, but I've also seen very red/orange examples. Looking at the grain pattern, Koa seems to have larger and sparse pores, Acacia has more smaller and shorter pores. Of course, the pre difference could also be due to how the wood piece was sawn. It's a similar situation with Rosewood, where the tell between Indian and Brazilian is in pore size, color and oilness. Once you throw in the other rosewoods like cocobolo, then it becomes more complicated but for an experienced person, it is still possible to tell the difference.

Sure, there are photos where you just KNOW it's koa or acacia. But from browsing ukulele websites, there are many instruments could be labelled as either wood and fool me. Manufacturer specs are sometimes unlisted or unreliable/deceptive when it's more convenient to market as Koa. In the guitar world, a lot of import instruments will use whatever wood is available, and the website specs could be wrong. On the used market, there are lots of "bought on Hawaii vacation" ukuleles that aren't actually hawaiian koa. Sound-wise, it would be hard to determine from a single instrument without a side by side comparison. What else can you do, smell it?
That’s a question I’d like to know the answer to.
There seems to be such a variety of wood patterns and colors that it seems impossible.
Here are a few examples:


This is the Koa on a Kamaka. It’s beautiful but relatively simple compared to the Acacia on this Kala.


And what is this!! This is a Koa Kalane that was supposedly marketed in K-Mart in Hawaii and purportedly made of Hawaiian Koa, yet it sold for around $125! It looks pretty nice, but is it Koa or Acacia or something else entirely?

I was curious if my acacia oli looks like koa. The stripes are darker brown and it’s missing the red hue vs my koaloha, but the grain is similar. Maybe the feathery texture in the lighter areas is different.
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Koa is one of almost 1000 acacia species. Acacia for ukes is a marketing term that means that it kinda looks like Hawaiian koa. If it's not made in Hawaii then hopefully it's some other kind of acacia that didn't have to be shipped around the world many times, and it would be interesting to know how much koa gets exported from Hawaii. As for visual identification there is probably a lot of variation even within koa. Though I think that the commonly used acacia confusa looks distinctly different.
From Wood Database:
Lookalikes/Substitutes: Hawaiian koa (Acacia koa) is anatomically indistinguishable from Australian blackwood, at least on a macroscopic level. (When viewed under microscope, about 50% of the rays in koa are uniseriate, while Australian blackwood’s rays are only about 20% uniseriate.)

From the Ukulele Site:

Watch the first bit where he talks about an Eyna acacia uke, seems to suggest he can tell between the two.

You're right, if it's not made in Hawaii (and under a reputable brand too) then the customer would never really know. With Kanilea's new Oha line, they say the Hawaiian koa is shipped to their Chinese partner factory. There are many brands that don't deal with their own lumber or crafting. So they order from overseas factories, which could use any acacia that looked close enough to koa, and it would have to be based on trust alone.
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