Balsa and basswood can be quite confusing. First, the names nearly resemble. Secondly, the two wood types have overlapping applications. Above all, they share many physical and aesthetic properties.
So, what’s the difference between balsa vs basswood, and which one should you choose for your next woodworking project? We will find out shortly.
Balsa vs Basswood: What are their Differences?
The main difference between basswood and balsa is that basswood offers a little more durability and is less prone to warping. Basswood also has tinier wood pores. Therefore, it doesn’t absorb moisture as readily as balsa. This property allows basswood to retain its shape and density better than balsa.
Balsa and basswood are two demanding wood species. Though hardwoods, they are soft and highly porous wood varieties that require significant prep work. Here’s what you need to know about each;
What is Balsa Wood?
Balsawood, Ochroma pyramidale, is a relatively fast-growing plant predominantly found in Central and South America. It’s especially common in Ecuador, where it grows in rainforests, in mountainous regions between rivers.
Balsa is one of the lightest hardwoods. However, it’s remarkably strong for its density. As a result, its wood was initially a common substitute for cork during World War One.
However, it later proved a shrewd material in lightweight construction material for shipping containers and gliders.
Balsa trees are ready for harvesting between six and ten years after germination. Trees older than ten years often experience rotting in the heartwood, and the outer layers become useless.
Balsa Wood Properties
Balsa is a deciduous hardwood, albeit softer than typical hardwoods. It has a pale reddish-brown heartwood, though few commercial balsa trees live long enough to develop much heartwood.
Meanwhile, the sapwood is white to off-white or tan, often with a hint of pink or yellow. It’s s straight-grained wood with a medium to coarse texture and low natural luster.
Balsa wood is also characterized by large pores in no specific arrangement and indistinct growth rings. Unfortunately, balsa is perishable (poor rot resistance) and susceptible to insect attack. However, it’s highly workable.
Balsa Wood Pros and Cons
Balsa Wood Pros
- High tensile strength
- High workability
- Great for model making
Balsa Wood Cons
- Low water resistance
- Highly perishable
- Highly flammable
Balsa Wood Uses
Common applications of balsa include skateboards, model airplanes, musical instruments, fishing lures, transport cases, and core stock in sandwich laminations.
What is Basswood?
Basswood, Trilla, is a genus of more than 3o species of trees native to temperate parts of the western and northern hemispheres. So, it’s very common in North America and Europe, though a few plantations are found in Asia.
It’s a highly dominating tree that quickly takes over territories where it grows. This is thanks to the tree’s effortless ability to hybridize. Basswood trees typically grow 20 to 40 meters tall.
Basswood is a light brown to pale white wood with a uniform fine grain pattern. It has an even texture and natural luster. It’s a moderately hard wood 410 lbf on the Janka scale.
Unfortunately, the rating makes it one of the softest hardwoods. In addition, it’s a low-density wood rated at 415 kg per cubic meter, again putting it at the lower end of the scale among hardwoods.
However, the low density, soft wood is highly workable. It takes screws and nails excellently and glues exceptionally. Basswood also sands, stains, and paints more easily than many hardwoods.
Basswood Pros and Cons
- It’s easy to work with
- It has high dimensional stability
- No characteristic odor
- Smooth surfaces
- It’s highly available and affordable
- Poor strength
- Prone to insect attacks
- Poor durability
- It’s not water or rot-resistant
Common applications of basswood include wood carving objects, musical instruments, boxes, wood pulp, veneers, plywood, fiber products, molding, crates, and small woodworking projects.
Balsa Vs Basswood: What’s the Difference?
Now, we know a little about each wood type. So, how do they compare? The following are a few similarities and differences.
Balsa and basswood trees share geographies, though each tree has a different origin. The balsa tree is native to South and Central America. It’s especially common in Ecuador, where it grows between mountain ranges, close to rivers.
On the other hand, basswood is native to North America and Europe. Indeed, one of the most popular basswoods is the American basswood, predominantly founding eastern North America.
However, both trees are found in many other locations globally, especially in Asia and Central America, where they grow naturally.
Basswood and balsa are almost similar in appearance. Balsa lumber is predominantly the sapwood which is a white to an off-white color, though some varieties appear tan in color, depending on the origin.
However, the heartwood, where available, is pale reddish-brown. Unfortunately, the balsa wood tree rarely lives long enough to develop enough heartwood.
Similarly, basswood lumber is mainly the sapwood, which is light brown to pale white. Meanwhile, the rare heartwood is reddish-brown. Both have straight grain patterns. However, basswood has a tighter grain pattern with fewer pores.
Though hardwoods, neither balsa nor basswood is hard enough to be considered among hardwoods. In fact, many people often think they are softwoods.
However, balsa is way worse and is considered the softest hardwood on earth at just 70 lbf on the Janka scale. A few years ago, one balsa wood recorded a 22 lbf rating on the Janka scale, the lowest ever recorded Janka rating.
Meanwhile, basswood is rated 410 lbf on the Janka scale and almost comparable to alder wood. The low hardness makes balsa and basswood prone to scratching, denting, and general damage.
Strength and Density
Balsa and basswood are very low-density woods. Why? Because of their cell structures. Balsa and basswood have large cells with thin walls.
As a result, the trunks have less solid matter than other woods. The two wood species also have a very small amount of lignin, the material that holds tree cells together, resulting in big pores.
A low density is often a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, lightweight wood is easier to handle and makes better small wooden items.
However, on the other hand, extremely low-density wood is often weak and absorbs moisture in large quantities.
Insect and rot resistance properties
Neither basswood nor balsa is resistant to insects and pests. For instance, one Canadian study recently found that basswood is susceptible to more than 200 insect attacks. Unfortunately, balsa isn’t any better.
Similarly, neither balsawood nor basswood is resistant to rot, decay, or moisture. They both require significant treatment to keep out moisture and prevent early rotting.
However, basswood is slightly better than wood in all three respects. It’s slightly more resistant to water, rot, and decay.
Fortunately, the softness and low densities of basswood and balsa wood make them very easy to work with. For instance, balsa has virtually no dulling effect on hand and power tools.
It’s also easy to nail and glue takes stains well, and finishes exceptionally. The only downsides are that it doesn’t hold nails strongly and tends to soak up plenty of stain/paint.
Basswood is almost as easy to work and boasts better nail-holding capacity while absorbing less stain. Due to these qualities, many people consider it the best wood species for hand carving.
Both basswood and balsa are highly sustainable wood types. First, they grow and propagate naturally. Very few people plant either tree type for wood.
Secondly, both trees grow pretty fast. For instance, as we’ve seen, balsa trees are ready for harvesting within as little as six years.
Basswood is just as fast-growing, with a growth rate of 1-3 feet per year. As a result, basswood trees are often ready for harvesting within 8-10 years.
Above all, there are thousands of forest cover under balsa and basswood, thus putting the two wood species under no threat of extinction.
Balsa and basswood have many applications within and outside the woodworking industry. For instance, balsa, being extremely lightweight, makes excellent buoys, rafts, and surfboards.
Many manufacturers also use it in musical instruments, packing/transport cases, and model aircraft. Meanwhile, basswood is considered one of the best wood carving wood and other small woodworking projects.
However, it also has applications in musical instruments, crates, plywood, veneer, molding, and boxes.
Strangely, balsa wood can be very expensive, especially at the hobby shop, where a 3/16 inch sheet of balsa may cost you as much as $10 per square foot.
By comparison, you can get about six feet of 10inch wide pine wood for the same amount. Basla plywood is just as expensive at up to $60 per square foot of 1/20-inch thick plywood.
Basswood is slightly more affordable, still more expensive than you’d imagine. It costs roughly $6.99 per board foot. By comparison, pinewood costs about $2 per board foot.
Here are some of the places you can buy wood for woodworking.
Which is easier to cut, basswood or balsa wood?
Generally, balsa is easier to cut than basswood. It’s an extremely lightweight wood that slices like cheese. However, beware that cutting air-filled wood isn’t as straightforward as many imagine. There’s a high risk of awkward cutting whenever you encounter fuzzy areas. Therefore, you should be extremely careful and use sharp tools.
Is basswood as soft as balsa wood?
No, basswood isn’t as soft as balsa wood. The average balsa wood is rated 70 lbf on the Janka scale, with some balsa species rated as low as 22 lbf on the same scale. No other wood is rated in that range. On the other hand, basswood is rated 410 lbf on the Janka scale, thus comparable to white pine (450 lbf) and cypress (510 lbf).
Which is thicker? Balsawood or basswood?
Basswood is heavier, denser, and thicker than balsa wood. Balsa is extremely lightweight, weighing an average of 9.0 lbs/cubic foot, making it one of the most lightweight wood species. Basswood is lightweight too. However, it’s more than twice as dense as balsa at 20 lbs/cubic foot.
How hard is basswood?
Basswood has a hardness of 410 lbf on the Janka scale. This puts it at the lower end of the Janka hardness scale and in the same hardness ranges as popular softwoods such as white pine and the eastern white pine. By comparison, the Brazilian ebony is rated 3692 lbf.
Basswood Vs Balsa Wood Verdict
Balsa and basswood can be confusing because of their names and similar colors. However, they are not the same. Basswood is much harder, stronger, less porous, and more durable.
- When to Use Balsa Wood: Balsa is best for rafts, buoys, and surfboards. It’s also exceptional for model items. Do not use it for furniture, cabinetry, or other heavy-duty woodworking applications.
- When to Use Basswood: Basswood is ideal for DIY wood carving projects, especially carving and small woodworking items. Unfortunately, it’s not ideal for furniture, except as secondary wood in furniture components.