In This Post
- What Is Balsa Wood?
- What Is Basswood?
- Balsa Wood vs. Basswood
- Balsa Wood vs. Basswood Infographic
As I continue working on the wood floors for the Keeper’s House, I am beginning to understand why people use hardwood floor sheets in their dollhouse. Sheesh! Cutting all of these balsa wood strips is hard. Not hard is in “hardwood” but hard as in “I regret my decision.”
I picked balsa wood because it’s a softwood, and I figured softwood would be easy to cut. I was right. It is easy to cut. But it’s that “ease” that’s creating a new set of problems I hadn’t anticipated — namely the splintering and cracking on the ends.
I posted pictures on Instagram, and a few helpful people (thanks again!) mentioned basswood as an alternative. I had heard about basswood at some point, or maybe I ran across it at the store. In any case, the whole reason I picked balsa wood is that it comes precut in convenient strips that are perfect for wood floor planks (in a dollhouse, anyway). I knew I’d be cutting the balsa wood to size and figured it would be easier than dealing with basswood.
See, the problem with basswood was I could only find it in large sheets or wide strips (like real-life floor plank size). The balsa wood is a smaller size and, I figured, would take less work to get in shape.
The basswood, well, it was going to take some work with a bunch of tools and set-ups that I don’t have. I did end up buying a miter box in the end to cut the balsa wood strips. And, once I got said miter box, I realized I could use it on the larger basswood.
But, after all of the splintering and cracking, I’m wondering if basswood is a better choice than balsa wood.
Balsa is a type of tree. I honestly didn’t realize that until I started researching this. Don’t ask me what I thought it was, though! The balsa tree is a fast grower and ready for harvest in about five to six years. It’s also the lightest weight wood at six to nine pounds per cubic foot — whatever that means.
In case you’re wondering, the reason balsa wood is so light is because of its cell structure. They are big but have thin walls. This means that, compared to other trees, balsa has a small solid matter to open space ratio. It also has a relatively small amount of lignin. Lignin is the stuff that holds the cells together.
The wood is light in color and has open pores. Interestingly, the open pores mean that balsa wood sucks up whatever dye or stain is applied and, therefore, most people don’t dye it. I am not one of those people.
And, apparently, balsa is very strong relative to its weight. Balsa wood is, according to the experts, easy to work with and sand but should be cut with sharp edges. It also is better to glue it than use nails or screws.
Other cool things about balsa wood include the fact that it’s buoyant and a good insulator against temperature fluctuations and vibrations. So, I guess my dollhouse will be warm in the winter and cool in the summer. And, it’s used in flotation devices, as insulation, and in artificial limbs.
I had no idea balsa wood was so versatile.
Basswood, on the other hand, isn’t just known as “basswood.” It’s also called linden and American lime (even though it doesn’t produce limes), but it’s mostly called basswood. And it’s tall. They can grow to 124 feet tall but are usually around 50 to 80 feet tall.
Like balsa wood, basswood is soft and lightweight. However, basswood is considered a hardwood. You’ll see why below, but it has nothing to do with the density of the wood. That said, basswoods, supposedly, never splinter or crack. And, like balsa wood, it’s best to glue it together.
Unlike balsa wood, basswood doesn’t grow quickly. It only grows between 13 and 24 inches per year. That means, on average, it takes a basswood tree about 20 years to reach 20 to 30 feet in height.
Other fun facts about basswood include that it has no odor, even when you work with it. And, basswood also has a lighter texture (but not as light as balsa) and is fine-grained. Even though it’s a hardwood, basswood is soft enough to make it the wood of choice for carving, instrument making, and in furniture.
This Tells Me Nothing
Oddly, hardwood and softwood trees are defined by, get this, how they reproduce. It’s got nothing to do with how “hard” or “soft” the wood is.
Deciduous trees produce hardwood. And, for those of us that can’t remember a thing from biology (pretty sure it’s biology, right?), a deciduous tree loses its leaves annually.
Here’s where it gets interesting. Hardwood trees are angiosperms (no giggling!). This means the plant (or, in this case, tree) produces seeds that are covered (think: fruits, for example). Angiosperms usually grow flowers to reproduce, and, well, you know the rest.
Softwood comes from conifers. Conifers are evergreen trees. Those are the ones with the spiky green things instead of leaves, and they generally don’t fall off the tree in winter.
Conifer trees are gymnosperms, and they reproduce by, you guessed it, forming cones, like, say, a pine cone, which help spread the pollen to other trees via the wind. And so on, and so on.
That’s how you classify hard and softwoods. It’s got nothing to do with the actual wood. It’s confusing, but I guess if you’ve got to go with something, why not this?
OK. You’re going to hate me, but it really is a personal choice.
Having worked with both now, it depends on what project you’re doing, what your budget is, and how skilled you are at sawing wood. Seriously. As I’m working on the floor (and other projects), I’m learning that makes a huge difference.
The biggest problem with the balsa wood strips is the splintering on the ends after I cut them. That’s due, in part, to the fact that I don’t always cut all the way through the wood. A total newbie mistake.
But, instead of putting the wood back in the miter box and sawing some more, I end up bending the wood at the weak point I’ve created and snapping it apart.
When it works, I get a nice clean break and need to do a minimal amount of sanding. When it doesn’t work, well…
Again, I get it that this is partly due to the balsa wood. It’s got a reputation, you know. But, let’s be real here. It’s also partly due to my learning as I go.
Basswood, on the other hand, does not splinter like balsa wood does. That’s not to say it doesn’t splinter when I choose the “don’t cut it all the way through then snap it at the weak spot” method. It does, just not nearly as much.
However, basswood earns its reputation (OK, classification) as a hardwood. While I may not love cutting balsa wood, I’ll take that over basswood any day! At least when it’s in the miter box. I suppose if I had a power saw, I might feel differently.
That said, there are still some reasons to choose balsa wood over basswood. And reasons to choose basswood over balsa wood.
Let’s start with balsa wood pros:
- Balsa is cheap, always a good thing when you’re on a budget.
- Because it only takes a few years to grow and harvest a balsa wood tree, it’s widely available.
- Balsa comes in a wide range of densities (this is an advanced pro, but if you have a specific density in mind, you’re more likely to find it).
- Balsa is easy to sand — truth!
And, of course, there are balsa wood cons:
- I don’t think of wood as “bendy,” but balsa wood is considered stiff (the strips I’m working with snap easily and don’t seem to have any give).
- Balsa can rip, split, and splinter — again, truth!
- While balsa wood has a wide range of densities, it tends to be inconsistent. It can be one strength at one end of a strip and a different strength at the other.
- While it’s easy to sand balsa wood, one stroke too many, and you’re stuck recutting your balsa wood.
- The open pores in balsa wood can be a downer, sucking up humidity and drying out in heat, changing the weight of the balsa wood even after you’ve completed your project.
And here are the pros and cons for basswood.
- Basswood bends, which, if I’m trying to get something to fit into a tight spot, is an advantage (though I don’t find it particularly bendy).
- While you still have to sand the cut edge of basswood, it doesn’t splinter like balsa wood.
- Basswood has fewer densities which means basswood strips tend to be more consistent in terms of strength and density across the piece.
- While it’s not impossible to crush basswood, it’s not as easy to mess up a sanding job compared to balsa wood.
- Basswood tends to stay consistent no matter the weather conditions.
And basswood cons:
- Basswood isn’t cheap.
- Because it takes longer for basswood to grow, it’s not as widely available as balsa wood.
- Based on personal experience, it’s a lot harder to manually saw basswood and not for the faint of heart.
- And, that’s all I’ve got!
Not me, that’s for sure.
While I’m still fiddling with the staircase, I’ll say this on the balsa vs. basswood debate: I’m team balsa wood. Why? It’s cheap (a total pro in my book) and a lot easier to work with when you don’t have power tools.
And though getting the balsa wood strips to “stick” inside the miter box is a pain, I’ll take that over sawing basswood any day!
Also, as we’ve established, I have no idea what I’m doing, so cheaper and easier to work with kind of outweighs the basswood pros.
For the next project, I’m considering wood floor sheets. Off the top of my head, the con is that you can’t create your own pattern. The pro is that it’s one big sheet, so there’s a lot less cutting to do.
But I should probably finish the Keeper’s House first.
Below, you’ll find an infographic that outlines the key differences between balsa wood and basswood, as well as a list of pros and cons.
Thoughts? Have you used wood floor sheets? Had an awesome experience with balsa wood? Let me know!
This post was first published on September 16, 2019 and was updated on January 8, 2022 to reflect the fact that I’ve actually worked with basswood now! (Also to fix some typos!)