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Vol. 14, no. 5
October/November 2011


Tickling the Koa 

Story by Cynthia Sweeney

Photo by Elyse Butler


When Jack and Debbie Tiner
moved from Honolulu to the Big Island, the Sanders Piano and Organ Company provided an escort—for their $75,000 piano. “We treated the move as a very white-glove operation,” says Michael Rosen, director of acquisitions for Sanders.


  That’s because the Tiner’s baby grand is one of only a handful of koa pianos ever made. Sanders, a Honolulu-based company, commissioned eight koa pianos from Steinway & Sons, two in 2000 and six more in 2005. The wood for the pianos was cut from a single koa tree on the Big Island and shipped to Steinway’s New York factory, where it was perfectly matched grain for grain and applied as veneer. Koa, a rare hardwood endemic to Hawai‘i, is treasured for its rich, amber-to-red tones and dramatically layered grain; it has a deeply reflective glow and an almost three-dimensional quality. The veneer does not affect the sound of the piano; unlike the body of a guitar or ‘ukulele, which works like a resonator, a piano’s sound comes entirely from its inner workings, which are classic Steinway.


 Koa pianos have a long history in Hawai‘i. In the mid-1800s the Ascherberg Company of Dresden fashioned a koa piano for Queen Lili‘uokalani, Hawai‘i’s last monarch, who was also a composer and musician. Her piano is now on display at Washington Place in Honolulu. The Sanders pianos also remain in the Islands: four fivefoot grands are on O‘ahu, and four more are on the Big Island—two seven-foot grands, one upright and, of course, the Tiner’s baby grand.


 While they don’t play, Jack and Debbie take meticulous care of their baby, which is still in mint condition. That is, except for a dent in the lid, a reminder of the 2006 earthquake, when a large oriental vase fell on it. A different owner might have had it fixed, but Jack likes a good story. “The more I looked at it, the more I liked it. It adds character and something to talk about.”