What is Balsa Wood?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

The balsa wood tree, scientifically named Ochroma lagopus, is a relatively fast growing plant found primarily in Central and South America. These trees grow best under the conditions found in rainforests, ideally in mountainous terrain between rivers. The country of Ecuador is perhaps the largest exporter of the wood, although many local farmers consider the plant to be little more than a weed.

An eagle carved into balsa wood.
An eagle carved into balsa wood.

Balsa is one of the lightest varieties of wood available, but not the absolute lightest. It is remarkably strong for its weight, however. Originally, the US military sought out balsa wood as a substitute for cork during World War I, but it soon proved more useful as a lightweight construction material for gliders and shipping containers. Hobbyists also began to work with it because it could be carved easily with standard woodworking tools and bent into a number of shapes without sacrificing strength.

Balsa wood is often used for building models.
Balsa wood is often used for building models.

Unlike some "crop woods" such as pine, balsa traditionally has not been grown in large groves or stands. The trees propagate much like dandelions — seeds are attached to soft tufts and carried off by the wind. If the seed lands in an area without direct sunlight, such as the dark canopy of the deep forest, it simply won't grow. A few lucky seeds may land in a sunlit patch or field and germinate, often to the chagrin of the farmer who owns the property. Balsa trees grow rapidly during their first five years, providing some shade to other plants with their oversized leaves.

The ideal balsa wood tree for harvesting is between six and ten years old. After ten years, the inner core of the tree begins to rot and the outer layers become useless. The tree is naturally fortified by water stored in large cells.

There may only be one or two balsa trees in an entire acre (0.4 hectares) of land, so harvesting is usually performed by one or two native workers with axes and carving knives for bark removal. The hewn trees are carried to the river and bundled for easier water transport to the processing plant. Barges carry the trees all the way to ports in the United States.

Raw balsa wood has a high moisture content, so it must be dried in a kiln for at least two weeks before it can be used commercially. The drying process creates an ultralight wood that is usually cut into sheets or round dowels. It does have a grain, so consumers should be aware of what type of cut they need for a specific project. Some is cut across the grain, which makes it suitable for carving but not for weight-bearing struts. Many people may remember the toy balsa airplanes sold in stores, so it is easy to imagine how fragile this wood can be.

The balsa wood tree is found primarily in Central and South America.
The balsa wood tree is found primarily in Central and South America.
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular wiseGEEK contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

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Discussion Comments


Balsa wood is, in fact, a hardwood. Just because it is light and flexible doesn't mean it is a soft wood; the grain is of a hardwood. --Ethan (Arboroculturist/horticulturist)


What impacts does balsa wood have on the environment?


we are looking for a relay able dealer for Balsa wood sections to buy from for our production unit in the Kingdom of Bahrain. Please advise? --Saharajan, General Manager


is balsa wood the best wood which is suitable for aeromodelling?


is balsa wood the strongest wood in the world?


which countries can you find balsa wood in?


is it suitable for use in musical instruments' sound boards? --ahmed, saudi arabia. vocals teacher.


Balsa wood is sold in thin sheets or sticks and are the commonly known balsa product used mainly by hobbyists to make mock ups, school projects or model radio controlled aircraft. But the main use of balsa wood is industrial applications like the fabrication of sailing or power boats or its main use today, as a structural element to make the huge windmill blades.

The balsa wood used in industrial applications has an average density of 150 kgs/m3. It comes in panels of standard surface size of 2' x 4' and of different thicknesses, from 1/4th" to 2" or more.


Balsa wood has two varieties: ochroma pyramidale and ochroma lagopus; ecuador a south american country supplies 95 percent or more of the world balsa demand and the variety grown in ecuador is the ochroma pyramidale.

Nowadays, over 60 percent of the balsa wood processed comes from man made plantations and the density of the naturally grown balsa trees is not two or three per hectare, but in densely packed patches of 50 to 100 trees.

Trees are classified as soft or hardwoods because of the shape of their leaves, broad leaved trees are hardwoods, this is the balsa three case, its broad and big leaves act as solar panels that power its fast growing characteristic.

Because of soil, weather and genetics, some trees give when dried a very light and clear balsa wood, as light as four lbs/three feet. Some other trees give balsa wood as heavy as 24 lbs/three feet. in the distribution curve both light and heavy are the tails of the normal distribution curve, the big c hunk of the balsa wood produced particularly in ecuador has a density between 8 to 14 lbs/three feet.


what does balsa wood make?


I am a karate master and I use balsa wood to teach my students how strong I am at breaking!


what are the three types of balsa wood? and what are their characteristics?


Thanks for making this description it should help me great for my project.


this helped so much for my project.


balsa wood is actually a hardwood, it is the softest of all the hardwood, and super lightweight, around a 1/3 weight to strength of other hardwoods.


is balsa wood waterproof?


i use balsa wood all the time for school projects. this article was good help.


it's a soft wood... but very flexible and strong. as i said below, helpful for my topic.


Is Balsa wood a hard or soft wood?


the article is interesting, and helpful for my research on my project...:D

I wonder if the tree for the balsa wood is light weight too... but maybe not cause of the water and moisture... but what if you chop off a big big part of the tree, dry it in a kiln. will it be very light weight for its size like a ginormous piece of pumice?


What do balsa wood trees look like?


I remember the balsa wood airplanes - I guess I never really thought about them being made of actual wood because they seemed so light, almost like styrofoam. I would love to see the trees that make this amazing lightweight wood!

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