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Balsa

Balsa is a wood that is famous worldwide. And while its density and mechanical values can vary significantly depending on the growing conditions of any particular tree, it is generally  the lightest and softest of all commercial woods, ranging from 8 to 14 pounds per cubic foot. Yet despite its softness, Balsa is technically classified as a hardwood, rather than a softwood, since it has broad leaves and is not a conifer.


Balsa has excellent sound, heat, and vibration insulating properties, and is also incredibly buoyant: in fact, “Balsa” is the Spanish word for “raft.”

Thicknesses

Tree Size: 60-90 ft (18-28 m) tall, 3-4 ft (1-1.2 m) trunk diameter

Distribution

Tropical regions of the Americas; also grown on plantations

Scientific Name

Ochroma pyramidale

Specific Gravity: Basic 

0.12

Specific Gravity: 12% MC

0.15

Janka Hardness

67 lbf (300 N)

Colour/Appearance

Heartwood tends to be a pale reddish brown colour, though it is not commonly seen in commercial lumber. Most boards/blocks of Balsa are from the sapwood, which is a white to off-white or tan colour, sometimes with a pink or yellow hue.

Grain/Texture

Balsa has a straight grain with a medium to coarse texture and low natural luster.

Endgrain

Diffuse-porous; large pores in no specific arrangement; solitary and radial multiples of 2-3; growth rings indistinct; rays visible without lens; parenchyma typically not visible with lens.

Rot Resistance

Sapwood is rated as perishable, and is also susceptible to insect attack.

Workability

Generally very easy to work with virtually no dulling effect on cutters; yet because of its extremely low density, fuzzy surfaces can be a problem when using dull cutters. Balsa generally should not be used to hold nails, with glue being the preferred method of joining. Balsa stains and finishes well, though it has a tendency to soak up large quantities of material on the initial coats.

Odor

No characteristic odor.

Allergies/Toxicity

Although severe reactions are quite uncommon, Balsa has been reported to cause skin irritation. See the articles Wood Allergies and Toxicityand Wood Dust Safety for more information.

Pricing/Availability

High quality Balsa (that is, Balsa with a very low density) can be rather expensive when purchased at hobby stores or other specialty outlets. Larger boards and lumber sold through typical hardwood dealers is hard to find, but generally has a better cost per board-foot than other sources.

Sustainability

This wood species is not listed in the CITES Appendices or on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
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