Jacque Du bois talks curly koa

  • Caleb Loehrer / The Garden Island

    Jacques Du Bois works on a slab of monkeypod at his workshop in an old cannery building on Koloa Road.

    Caleb Loehrer / The Garden Island

    Jacques Du Bois works on a slab of monkeypod at his workshop in an old cannery building on Koloa Road.

Jacques Du Bois owns Jacques’ Woodworks on Koloa Road. His last name is an old one that comes from a fusion of French and English and quite literally means “of the woods.”

Du Bois has been working with wood since age 4. On Wednesday, at age 73, he agreed to talk story with The Garden Island.

Woodworking has fashions and fads. You sorta gotta keep up with ‘em, you know?” He said.

“Like the height of the hem on a lady’s skirt, you know? They go up and down, and up and down. By the time they get so short they can’t get any shorter, then they’ll go all the way down. And then everybody’s gotta buy a new skirt,” he said.

“It’s like, the wild monkeypod’s in fashion, then the koa’s in fashion. There’s fashions and styles with wood. Right now, everybody wants this live edge.

“I started doing that when I was 23 years old. I lived in California, and I started building redwood burl tables with live edges all the way around. I had a furniture shop where I was making them, and that’s how I made the money to move here with my family in ‘72,” Du Bois said.

“I lived in the redwood mountains behind Palo Alto in the San Francisco Bay Area. There’s redwoods up behind there, and I lived in those redwoods up there. I had a shop called the Bird’s Eye Burl Shop, and I built redwood burl tables and shelves and hanging shelves, and all different kinds of stuff.

“Now it’s kinda become the in thing — this live edge — so we’re doing a lot of it. But like over here, where the live edge stops, but the cabinet doesn’t stop till here, I’ve gotta make a cut across here, come out, try and keep this same angle, and maybe do some curves, and into there.

“It’s sculptor work, is basically what it is.”

What’s your favorite kind of wood to work with?

Probably koa. Curly koa. It’s a beauty. It’s one of the things that drew me to the island. I came intentionally. And I wasn’t sure which island I was gonna be on. My sister owned land on the Big Island. I went and checked it out, and it was just lava rock and lava plants, and I was just going, “Oh my gosh, this would be a hard place to start.”

And then I talked to somebody about Kauai, and so I came over to Kauai with my wife and first child. I was about 26.

The curl. That curling is what really makes it valuable.

You can see on the outside of the tree if it’s curly. The curl is waves in the wood. You can see the waves on the outside of the wood. There’s different kind of curl. There’s a real fine curl, called pin curl, then there’s generic curl. That’s pin curl, OK?

He picked a narrow slat of wood out of a pile on a table.

See how close the lines are together. That’s pin curl. This here is compression curl, OK? You see the waves? See how big the waves are? That’s because the branch of the tree, as it pushed down, it made wrinkles below the branch. It compresses the wood until it makes waves, called compression curl.

Now, there’s a theory that all of this curl is actually compression curl from the wind going back and forth. You always find most of the curl under the bark where the tree has compressed — compressed on the outside, compressed on the other side, compressed on the other side. You understand? With the wind.

How come all trees don’t do like that?

Eh, I don’t know. But the koa does it. And maple does it. Oh, teak does it. Many, many woods do do it.

But koa’s the prettiest?

Yeah, yeah. It has just really nice color and everything. Even monkeypod curls.

That’s what this is here is monkeypod, yeah?

The reporter points to a three-foot wide, two-and-a-half-inch thick slab he was working on when the reporter arrived.

Yes. I don’t know if you can see the curl here. See, these lines are — you see, this is where the wave is just leveling off, and this is where the wave is coming up. When you try to plane this stuff, it rips here and then planes there, and then rips here, and then planes there. It’s really — it’s difficult to work. That’s why I have the wide belt sander over there. If you sand it, the planer doesn’t rip it. But, as you can see, this is like wave, wave, wave, wave. And you look at the other side, and you can see the stripes of the waves. That’s what makes the curl.

He said the last two words with a kind of quiet reverence, finishing the sentence almost in a whisper. He put the board back on the table the way you might set down a vase or an expensive plate — not gingerly, but respectfully.

This is gonna be a picture frame for my soon-to-be daughter-in-law. My oldest came with me to this island, lives now in L.A., and he’s getting married.

Why did you want to come to Hawaii?

The weather and the wood.

And I watched Harry Owens. It was a Hawaiian show that was on TV. It had, you know, Hilo Hattie used to get out and dance. And I thought, “Boy! When I grow up I’d like to move to Hawaii.” Between that, and the weather’s always nice here …

He paused, glanced at a gray sky, reached out a palm and caught a raindrop that fell from a tin roof.

… except today.

And I was already doing woodworking on the mainland. And when I heard about the Hawaiian hardwoods, I thought, “Wow! I can go and do the same thing in Hawaii.” So I did. I had a wife and one boy. He was 1 year old when we got here.

How many kids do you have?

I’ve had five, but four are living. One of them died — buried in Lihue. And, um, I got a little blood in the ground here.

And I’ve got six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. That means my son’s a grandpa.

That’s weird.

Hahaha! Yeah! That’s what I said. I was like, gimme a minute to get my head around that!

So you got to raise a family on this island. What a blessing that is, huh?

That’s what I call it. People call it luck, but I call it blessing. You know, if you accept luck as a reality, then you gotta accept bad luck.

Plenty enough to go around.

Hahaha. But I don’t believe Lady Luck exists, you know? So, I believe we get blessings or curses. It isn’t luck or bad luck.

How long you been in this spot here?

Oh, about 16 years. I been in the cannery here for about 30. This place was just full of people doing artwork and carpenters and a guy that was restoring antique cars and doing pottery and all that. And the place didn’t go up for sale, but somebody came — the ones who bought the warehouse right up here that has the shave ice — they bought that one, and they wanted to do the same thing here. So they went and talked to the owner and made him an offer he couldn’t resist, and they sold. And now everybody’s out except for me and one feral cat.

Back inside, he returned to the monkeypod tree he was slowly turning into a kitchen counter.

You know, they just barely want me to break this edge up. Sometimes I put a lot of round over on it. I prefer that. What I found was — in my youth, I had a little experience of going into a tree — and what I found was, there was no straight lines in an entire tree. And so, the more you can make your lines flow, like that rocking chair over there …

He pointed across the workshop to a beautiful old wooden rocking chair, polished and refinished to the point that it glowed even in the shadows. Every piece on it flowed into the next and fit so tight it that if it weren’t for the change in color and grain, a casual observer might believe it had been carved from a single block of koa.

… the more it blends in with the lines of the tree, because none of the lines in the tree are straight. Yet, for the sake of convenience, all our houses are built with straight lines. So you go from putting this, with all the straight lines, and then — the blend.

Did you make that big old workbench?

Oh yeah. Yeah. Yeah, I know how.

My dad — I think it was in his sophomore year — started working in a refinishing shop, and he taught me how to refinish antiques and how to upholster antique furniture.

He taught me woodwork by remodeling houses. And I thought it would be difficult to build, and I found out that remodeling a house was much more difficult than building a new house. But that’s what I learned on. And I learned from him how to refinish furniture and reupholster furniture, and now what I do is restore furniture, antiques, a lot of musical instruments — ukuleles and guitars, things like that.

How long you been doing it now?

Um, I was 26. Now I’m 73. What is that, 47 years? Well, since I went on my own, and had my own business.

My dad bought a boat when I was 5, and I started helping him remodel and rebuild a 40-foot boat when I was 5 years old. I just started, like, cleaning the bilges, and then I started by doing this, you know, the menial stuff. But I was always watching what my dad was doing.

My mother conceived me during the Second World War. I was born right at the end of the Second World War. When I was 4 years old, my dad bought an old landing craft they used at Normandy to run up on the beach and drop the gate. He bought it for $400, took off the gate, put a bow on it, put a cabin on it — built a cabin cruiser out of it. So, that’s basically what I learned on, was boat work.

Then he taught me refinishing. Then he taught me remodeling. Then he taught me how to fix a car. And how to do some plumbing, and electrical. He was kinda all-around, you know. He wasn’t afraid to try. He wasn’t afraid to try. He said, most people won’t cut or reupholster a chair cause their afraid if they open it up they won’t know what to do with it then.

But he was one of the most loving men I’ve ever known, and he was an orphan. Which is amazing, because most boys that are grown up without a father, nowadays, are in trouble. And our whole country needs to have the fathers come back to their sons and father them. At about 13, they need to have a father, like I did, to teach them and train them.

But I don’t tell my kids what to be when they grow up. They’re gonna be whatever they wanna be. They’ll be happiest if they do what they wanna do, like I am. And if I don’t have to do this to make money, I’ll still do it. I have my house totally paid for. I don’t have to make mortgage payments. But I’ll probably do this and die with my boots on.

Because I love doing it. I don’t need to do it for money. I do it because I love my woodwork.


Caleb Loehrer, staff writer, can be reached at 245-0441 or cloehrer@thegardenisland.com.

  1. LAurie makaneole September 30, 2019 6:53 pm Reply

    Thank you Jacques for sharing his beautiful article,

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