A weathered wooden structure is nestled between the trees just past the old Kekaha Sugar Mill in a neighborhood of former plantation homes. It’s easy to miss the faded Westside Woodworks sign that points to premier craftsman Ray Nitta’s shop. The sweet scent of wood shavings fills the air and a radio tuned to a local station plays softly; geckos scurry across the open doorway. It is here that Ray pursues his craft, here that he feels most at home.
Born on O‘ahu, Ray sought higher education in Berkeley, California in the early 1980s before joining the Peace Corps and working in Brazil before returning to Hawai‘i in 1986. “After going to school, living on the Mainland, traveling abroad—Hawai‘i was always a pull for me,” he says. “I guess you could say, you can take the boy out of the
country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy.”
Ray has a special fondness for the west coast of Kaua‘i, where he lives amidst what he refers to as the “last stand of native Hawaiians” and frequently volunteers teaching woodworking to students who attend the nearby Ni‘ihau School. “I speak a little Hawaiian, so I can communicate with the kids,” he says, “and this is the last crop of native
speakers.” An avid surfer, fisherman, diver and paddler, what Ray creates is a product of his surroundings, of the rich culture enveloping him. He leans toward creating canoe paddles, sculptures and bowls, preferring to use woods native to the islands—milo, koa, kauila, uhi uhi, and kamani.
Creating furniture and wooden implements for more than 20 years, Ray utilizes Japanese, Swedish and Danish styles of woodworking because of their functionality, clean lines and subtle embellishments. Taught by a master Japanese craftsman back in Berkeley, Ray learned various methods of joinery and building techniques using mostly Japanese hand tools: chisels, planes and saws. The process taught him to work intuitively, rather than with cut and dry measurements.
Lately, Ray has turned to downed wood or reclaimed wood from cargo containers that often end up in the dump or get burned. Two years ago he created what he called a “palette piece,” transforming palettes into a table, lamp and chair. Now he searches for downed trees discarded at the dump or even washed up on the beach after a big rain. To identify his finds, Ray keeps a knife on him to scrape the surface of the dead wood and determine the type of tree to see if it is worth salvaging.
After hard rains this March, a tabebuia tree uprooted in front of the West Kaua‘i Visitor Center in Waimea. Serendipitously through the coconut wireless, he learned it would be discarded and asked if he could have the downed tree. Before long it was in the bed of his pickup and back in his yard. He plans to transform the tree into several exquisite turned bowls he’s fond of creating.
Because Ray believes people in today’s society are moving away from their inner creativity, he enjoys teaching woodworking to folks young and old. He knows from personal experience how therapeutic the craft is. “I think it’s an innate thing, like watching a campfire or looking at the ocean; it strikes a chord. And working with your hands, especially on wood—it’s primal.
“I’m kind of a madman,” Ray chuckles, in his relaxed manner. “I’m involved in so many things and so many things interest me. I get pulled in so many directions and woodworking centers me. It keeps me sane. It doesn’t matter if it’s making a box to put rubbish in or turning a bowl. It’s just so satisfying.” —Margaret A. Haapoja