September 21, 2012
Saving a Piece of Hawaii’s Past
By: Michele Gamble
Last weekend John and I happened to stop at a local garage sale and while rummaging through their “Trash” pile I noticed a large hunk of wood sticking out towards the back. Thinking I was looking at a large piece of mid-century monkey pod wood I freed the piece of wood from the pile. As soon as I grab a hold of it I knew I was about to reveal something special because my fingers were not feeling the smooth underside of a monkey pod wood item, but the ‘chip carving’ texture synonymous with the Kulani Prison Farm wood shop.
Sure enough when I turned the piece over the distinctive back of the item gave away it’s origin. Sadly, the item itself was in really bad condition. The top surface of the shell shaped platter had been painted a brick red and then covered in a thick varnish.
On top of that some tar like substance had spilled on the piece and pooled in it’s bottom.
There edges were chipped and broken. The back of the platter was in much the same condition. So when I asked about purchasing the platter it was no wonder I got an odd response. The piece was in such bad shape that the kind folks let me have it for $7.00. Happily I handed them some money and took my damaged treasure home.
I carefully examined the platter to determine as many of it’s issues as possible before mapping out my place to salvage it. Nicks, chips, a large break on one end and the goo that was pooled in the center of the piece would be a challenge to overcome.
Undaunted I began stripping away the goo and various layers of paint and varnish. One day and a full can of stripper later I had revealed the natural beauty of the Koa wood that the Kulani Prison Farm was famous for using.
I then decided to hand sand out the chips and nicks so as not to remove too much wood and interfere with the back’s ‘chip carving.’ The large break was a bit more difficult to tackle, but luckily the wood was thick in that area and I was able to re-shape the bowl to remove the broken area, again, without interfering with the ‘chip carving’ on the back side.
I put a sparing amount of oil onto the piece over the next few days and watched in amazement as the oil was soaked up as if on a dry sponge. After several days of oiling though, the shell platter looks spectacular. I am really happy with how the restoration turned out and really proud that I was able to save a piece of Hawaii’s past for my guests to enjoy.
Kūlani Prison Farm was opened in 1946 near Kūlani Hill above Hilo. Inmates at the Prison Farm participated in logging, ranching, woodworking, and other activities. The Farm was constructed among “beautiful stands of Koa trees.” Today, the area surrounding the former prison farm contains dense populations of native birds and plants and is part of a protected conservation area. An important part of the program at the Kūlani facility was its’ wood workshop and sales venture. For years, inmates collected native hardwoods from lands around the facility, and turned it into art and utilitarian items for sale. A part of the income went to the benefit of the inmates themselves, and provides them with a trade skill. This Shell shaped platter exhibits the distinctive ‘Kūlani Prison Farm’ style of texturing the underside (Chip Carving) of the platter making it as beautiful as the top of the platter. ‘Kūlani Prison Farm’ items are difficult to find today, so bringing this platter back to life was well worth the effort.