Dear Straight Dope:
Where does balsa wood come from? Are there bchemically treat pine or something?
SDStaff Lynn replies:
Hey, aemerson, try an encyclopedia or dictionary. Don’t they teach kids how to look stuff up on their own any more?
The short answer is that balsa wood comes from (surprise!) balsa trees.
I don’t know what “bchemically treat” pine is. However, I bestirred myself to look this up in a dictionary and a few encyclopedias. I was able to find several articles online:
From AOL’s online Merriam-Webster dictionary:
First appeared circa 1600
1 : a small raft or boat; specifically : one made of tightly bundled reeds and used on Lake Titicaca
2 : a tropical American tree (Ochroma pyramidale syn. O. lagopus) of the silk-cotton family with extremely light strong wood used esp. for floats; also : its wood
More on balsa, this time from an encyclopedia:
BALSA. Native to the tropical regions of South America, the balsa, or corkwood, tree is noted for its extremely lightweight wood. The word balsa is Spanish for float or raft. Spanish explorers found the natives of the New World using the wood for rafts.
Balsa trees have large, ivory-colored flowers and large, heart-shaped leaves that fall off every year. Balsa seeds sprout quickly, and young trees may grow 12 feet (4 meters) in their first six months. In ten years they may be as tall as 90 feet (27 meters) and as much as 3 feet (1 meter) in diameter. Well-seasoned balsa is the lightest wood known, only half as heavy as cork. A cubic foot of balsa wood weighs only 6 to 8 pounds (3 to 4 kilograms). There are many air spaces within it, helping to make the wood good insulation against heat, cold, vibration, and electricity.
Balsa wood has many commercial uses. Because of its insulating properties, it is used for lining incubators, refrigerators, and cold-storage rooms as well as for soundproofing airplanes. It has long been used in making model airplanes and other toys.
The balsa tree is in the Bombacaceae family. Its scientific name is Ochroma pyramidale.
Compton’s Encyclopedia Online v3.0 1998 The Learning Company, Inc.
I went to the nearest branch of my public library, and checked three more encyclopedias. Do you know, EVERY SINGLE encyclopedia had an entry on balsa? They all said basically the same thing, and some of the encyclopedias also had illustrations of the tree. I thought of checking the lumberyard, to see what sort of answer I’d get there. But I’m too lazy.
SDStaff Lynn Bodoni, Straight Dope Science Advisory Board
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