Balsa wood is most commonly used for model airplanes. However, it is also used to make doll house furniture and other small wooden hobby items. Balsa wood is also a popular wood for carving, as it is lightweight and easy to cut. Central and South America are the main suppliers of balsa wood.
Ecuador, South America, supplies the majority of the balsa wood used in constructing model airplanes. Balsa trees grow predominantly in humid rain forests. For many years, balsa trees were considered weeds. The seeds of the balsa tree are spread by the wind and pop up wherever there is a clearing where the seeds can get lots of sunlight. A farmer must be ever vigilant to keep balsa trees from growing in his garden and overtaking the crops that are growing there.
Balsa trees grow rapidly. They can grow up to 60 feet tall in as few as 10 years. Leaves on balsa wood plants are often up to four feet wide. The extra large leaves of the balsa wood tree help to protect other, more tender young plants from the scorching heat and heavy rains. As the tree ages, the leaves grow smaller.
Balsa wood rafts were built by the Incas and used to transport their armies across rivers. The conquistadors are the ones who actually gave the wood the name balsa, which means raft in Spanish. Hawaiian royalty actually had surfboards built out of balsa wood for their personal use. In World War II, the military planned on using balsa wood for building lightweight airplane frames, life vests, and other floatation devices. Although balsa plantations were built, the plan to use balsa wood for military items during the war never took place
Balsa wood is 60 percent water and must be kiln dried before using. Although balsa wood is not the lightest wood in the world, it is the lightest wood with any practical usefulness and is considered the strongest lightweight wood in the world. A-grain balsa wood is the most flexible of the balsa wood grains. It can be soaked in water and then bent into the shape needed. However, A-grain balsa wood warps easily. B-grain balsa wood is the most common and readily available type of balsa wood. It is a general-use wood that has many uses. C-grain balsa wood has grain lines that provide a mottled appearance in the cut wood. It is very stiff and splits easily. However, C-grain balsa wood is the most warp-resistant type of balsa wood.
Balsa wood is well known for its excellent floatation ability and is popular for use in surfboards. It is also used for building model airplanes. It is one of the most popular woods for carving because it is soft enough to carve with a knife. Another common use for balsa wood is in building miniature furniture for doll houses, and sometimes for building the doll houses themselves. The fruit of the balsa tree is used for insulation and also as a stuffing for pillows.