Making Balsa Crankbaits And Other Balsa Lures: A Complete Guide.

Balsa Lure Making Options

It’s official. I’m hooked on making balsa crankbaits, especially flat sided balsa crankbaits. I recently started using balsa again after having used other timbers for a few years. I’d forgotten how much I enjoy using the stuff for lure making!

I know, balsa wood has it’s share of downsides and there are plenty of critics. And I’ll admit that it’s not the perfect lure making wood for every situation. But used in the right way, for the right lures balsa is very hard to beat.

The biggest criticism is usually about the softness of balsa – but that’s a double edged sword. Hard and durable timber is always heavy. Balsa may be soft, but it’s also super light – making it perfect for certain types of fishing lures. I guess you have to work with the downsides to take advantage of the upsides!

I talk more about this in my article on the best wood for making fishing lures. But balsa wood was one one of the original lure making timbers and it will probably always have an important role in wooden lure making.

What Do You Want To Know About Making Balsa Fishing Lures?


Balsa As Lure Making Wood: Use The Strengths, Overcome The Weaknesses

Balsa Lures Craw Pre-Shaped BodyAs a raw material, balsa wood really is quite remarkable – and quite unlike any other timber. So let’s have a look at the benefits of first, then we’ll touch on the challenges of making balsa lures.

The first (and most obvious) thing you’ll notice when you pick up a piece of this timber is how light it is. That’s what gives balsa lures the crisp, strong action that they’re famous for.

Like most timbers, balsa does vary a little in weight – so balsa lures can be quite variable in action. As you’d expect, the very light grades give a more buoyant lure with a crisp action – but they’re quite soft and prone to denting. Heavier grades have a slower action, but are more resistant to the rigors of fishing.

If you can get it, C-grain (quartersawn) timber makes the best custom balsa crankbaits. C-grain has a mottled appearance and has the best stability of the different cuts.

Other Advantages Of Making Balsa Lure Bodies

In my view, one of the most powerful advantages of balsa wood is the flexibility you have when weighting it. Balsa crankbait bodies are so light, so you can add quite a bit of weight in the belly – without sinking your lure. This creates an internal keel that keeps the lure right way up during fishing. The result is an exceptionally stable action. The best balsa crankbaits can usually be fished across a wide range of speeds.

The same applies to hand carved balsa poppers and stickbaits. These are usually tail or belly weighted, which not only gives exceptional action, but improves castability too.

Is Balsa The Perfect Wood For Beginner Lure Makers?

Yep, I reckon it takes some beating. For starters, balsa crankbait bodies can easily be shaped with the simplest of hand tools. Heck, you can even shape it quickly with nothing more than a piece of sandpaper. That puts balsa lure making within reach of just about anyone.

That weighting benefit we talked about earlier makes it pretty forgiving as a lure making wood. So newbies to the art can easily churn out some very serviceable lures.

Plus, balsa wood dust is fairly low irritant. Let’s face it, no wood dust is good, but balsa is relatively safe compared to just about any other timber. The low tannin content means you won’t get ugly brown splotches in your airbrush paint like you can with some other timbers.

Ok, What Are The Negatives Of Balsa Lure Bodies?

Nothing is ever perfect, especially in lure making. The biggest complaint about balsa lures is that they are prone to denting and teeth punctures. That’s due to the thin cell walls and large volumes of air in the wood…..

Now, if you’ve followed my antics for a while, you’ll know that I’m a great advocate of hardening and sealing my wooden raw wood before painting it. This definitely helps to make balsa crankbait bodies a little more resilient, but still don’t expect them to stand up to the kind of punishment that some other timbers can.

I still tend to use other timbers for lures that will get serious punishment. Throwing balsa lures at GT’s, mackerel, wahoo and the like is asking for destruction!

The other disadvantage of balsa lures is their casting qualities, particularly deep diving and flat sided balsa crankbaits. Weighting the lures forward is necessary for action, but causes them to flutter and “helicopter” in flight. Flat sides or oversized diving lips only exacerbate this problem. The result is less casting distance, less accuracy and more frequent snagging of the leader on the hooks. Especially when using spinning gear.

Tips For Making Balsa Lures

Ok, let’s get into the important stuff – making balsa lures! I’ll talk generally about how to work with balsa in this section, then I’ll cover a few specifics for making balsa crankbait and poppers in later sections.

Buying Balsa For Lure Making

I’ve already mentioned that you should buy c-grain (quartersawn) balsa wood whenever possible. That said, you might need to source your balsa from a model aircraft shop to get this cut – and be prepared to pay for it. B-grain is more common in craft and hardware stores. It’s considered a general purpose product and is fine for lure making.

Balsa is usually available in a wide range of sizes, so you can often buy planks or blocks close to the finished width and thickness of your lures.

Try and make sure the timber you buy is perfectly square in cross section. This makes it much easier to get all the lure parts

Do Balsa Baits Need To Be Through Wired? Or Are Screw Eyes OK?

A lot depends on personal preference and the style of lures you are making. I’ve strength-tested lightweight, brass screw eyes of 1″ long, screwed into the end grain of balsa with a little epoxy on the threads. I expected the screw eyes to pull out….. they didn’t.

Instead, the screw eyes opened up under 44lb (20kg) of weight, leaving the threads embedded in the balsa wood. These small, light duty screw eyes held far more weight than the lines class they would normally be fished with. So you’d have to assume they’d be fine in a balsa lure.

Naturally, if you’re likely to encounter toothy critters then your handmade balsa crankbaits might have more to worry about than screw eyes coming adrift! That’s when a through wire gives you that extra bit of insurance. That said, I’d probably recommend a tougher timber for those conditions anyway!

For me personally, a through wire is normally the way I’d go with a balsa lure.

Working With And Shaping Balsa

One of the great things about balsa is how easy it is to shape. Personally, I find it therapeutic to whittle away at some balsa lure bodies with a craft knife. Of course a Dremel tool, sanding disc or belt makes it much faster to churn out some balsa lures. Small lures can even be shaped using sandpaper alone.

The key when using any kind of blade or power tool for carving balsa baits is to have a very sharp blade. Power tools should be operating at high speed. Otherwise the balsa tends to tear, rather than cut cleanly.

I prefer brad point drill bits for drilling weight holes, eye sockets and so on. Once again, use a high speed setting for a clean cut.

Don’t Skip The Hardening Step

I’ve already pointed you at my article on how to seal and harden balsa wood fishing lure bodies. Sometimes with handmade balsa wood crankbaits I’ll do this in several stages.

For example, I like to harden the inside of diving lip slots, weight holes and other cavities before I glue hardware into my lures. This makes the wood waterproof, less porous and gives better adhesion of the epoxy.

Choose Another Timber For Lathe-Turned Lures

I’m not a great fan of making balsa lures on the lathe. It can be done, sure. But being so soft, balsa tends to get torn by drive dogs and not cut cleanly with lathe tools. I’ve generally found it bast to do my shaping using sandpaper only, and not putting a lot of pressure on the spinning blank.

Personally, I’d rather use cedar or basswood for turned lure varieties. Maybe that’s a personal preference, I don’t know. But I do believe that the great advantage of making lures from balsa is that it’s easily hand carved. And besides, you can make more interesting shapes if you step away from the lathe!

If you do decide to give lathe turned balsa lures a go, I’d suggest trying to get a plank or two of the heavier, denser grades of balsa. This will still be lighter than just about any other timber, but it’s a bit easier to work with on the lathe.

Handmade Balsa Crankbaits Vs Shop Bought Balsa Crankbait Blanks

This article is mostly concerned with handmade balsa lures, starting from a block of wood and finishing with a lure. But there are plenty of “pre-made” balsa crankbait bodies available online, too.

If you want to save a little time, there’s nothing wrong with using the pre made lure bodies. Here are a few things to be aware of if you head down that path:

  • Mass produced balsa wood fishing lure bodies are often lathe turned, and sometimes the surface is a little rough. Sanding them smooth can mean changing the body shape too much, so I just sand them lightly, then seal with epoxy. This hardens the wood and fills the imperfections in a single step.
  • The main challenge of pre-shaped balsa lure bodies is getting everything aligned properly, especially diving lips. If you’re only doing one or two, then I find the best way is to lay everything out using tape. Once everything is laid out, trace along the edge of the tape with a pencil to mark  locations for each component.
  • If you’re planning on doing a lot of these lures it’s worth creating jigs to hold them while you cut slots, drill eye sockets and so on. This can make things much faster and more accurate in the long run
  • I like a through wire in a balsa lure, but for accuracy I normally cut a slot in the balsa blank before the shaping starts. This is obviously not possible if you’ve bough balsa wood lure bodies pre shaped. Once again, you’ll need to jig it up, or resort to screw eyes. Actually, most bought blanks are made from the higher density balsa, so properly installed screw eyes are usually fine.

Drilling Clean Eye Sockets In Balsa Lure Blanks

Because balsa is so prone to tearing during drilling, there’s a little trick I use for getting clean eye sockets to install my 3D eyes in. Here it is: <drum roll> Drill eye sockets in your balsa crankbait bodies after sealing and hardening the wood with epoxy. If you use a sharp brad point bit and a high drill speed you’ll find thee holes will be flat bottomed and the edges clean and crisp.

Secrets To Making Deadly Balsa Crankbaits And Jerkbaits

Here are a couple of extra considerations when you’re making balsa crankbaits and jerkbaits…..

 Be Careful Of Thin, Weak Areas In Your Design

For me, balsa crankbait design is slightly different than designs in other timbers. Around the head of the lure is an area that needs a little extra thought when you’re working with this wood.

Most crankbaits and jerkbaits have a lot going on in that area. Tow points, weight holes, eye sockets, diving lips, maybe even rattles. At times there is more air than wood!

I try to design my lures so there is enough meat in the balsa that the head of the lure doesn’t become an area of weakness. Oh, and use a good quality, slow setting epoxy for extra strength on your balsa lures.

Weight Forward For Balance And Stability

Handmade Balsa Lure: A Batch Of Lipless Wooden Baits In AssemblyMost balsa crankbait and jerkbait designs work best if they have at least a little weight embedded in the belly of the lure. The trick is to position the weight according to the lure design and the closer it is to the wood surface, the better.

Deep divers generally do better if the weight is forward, as it helps counteract the tendency of the line to pull the head of the lure upwards. It also stabilizes the lure and lets the diving lip create maximum downwards force. You can get more info on this from my article on weighting hard baits.

For suspending jerkbaits it’s best to distribute the weight more evenly along the underside of the lure. The idea here is to make the lure suspend horizontally, rather than “head down” when the retrieve is paused. Avoid getting too much weight towards the tail, that’s a sure-fire action killer.

Some Thoughts On Balsa Crankbait Body Shape

Because of it’s extreme buoyancy, balsa can take a fair bit of weight. This can be a good thing, but at times it can be a real challenge.

Slender minnow styles that are usually used for deep divers and jerkbaits are not too bad. They don’t have so much buoyancy and the weight of hooks, rings and hardware has more effect.

Likewise, wider minnow styles (such as the classic Nilsmaster Invincible) tend to have a stable action. In fact, some of these can work even without weighting them.

Chunky, wide body plugs and flat sided balsa crankbaits are fine for shallow runners and wakebaits. But they’re a
little more challenging if you want to fish them down deeper. They require a relatively wide lip to get a good action, and a relatively long lip to get them down to depth. That can mean trying to get quite a bit of lead into the lure body….

On the other hand, wide bodies balsa crankbaits are gold in among the fallen timber…. which is what they’re generally used for.

Making Killer Topwater Lures Using Balsa Wood

Don’t limit yourself to making just balsa crankbaits! You’re gonna need some surface lures too, and balsa wood poppers are the perfect place to start!

Hand carving balsa poppers is pretty straight forward, and in many ways they’re more forgiving and easier to make than many other balsa lure styles. But if you prefer to do your work on a lathe, please go back and read my comments on turning balsa above.

Tips For Making Chugger/Blooper Style Balsa Wood Poppers

The main challenge when you’re making chugger style balsa poppers getting the “mouth” right. I’m referring to the concave area at the front of the lure. You’ll be shaping end-grain at this point and it can tear easily.

I chuck a double cut bull nose carbide burr into my drill or lathe chuck for this operation. The double cut variety cut much cleaner than other styles of burrs.

Sometimes I’ll remove part of the waste first by drilling the balsa with a spade bit or large countersink. Then I set the drill/lathe on high speed and go to work with the carbide burr. Don’t force the wood into the burr, just touch it lightly and the cut is usually fast and clean, with no sanding required.

If the interior surface of your balsa wood popper is less than perfect, go ahead and harden the balsa with epoxy. Give it a few days to fully cure, then come back to the bull nose burr and clean up the popper mouth. The hardened wood will cut more cleanly and the epoxy will have filled any voids. Perfect!

Making Balsa Stickbaits

Fishing the surface with stickbaits is among my favorite pastimes. And handmade balsa lures come into their own in this arena.

I’ve put together a mini course on making balsa stickbaits, if it’s something you’re interested in learning.

The main thing to understand is that making stickbaits is all about weighting. They need to be weighted near the tail in order to get that enticing zig zag action. Lures that are extremely tail heavy tend to work best at higher speeds. Those that sit flatter on the water tend to be better for slow speed use and have a wider action.

Fishing With Handmade Balsa Lures: Get Blown Away!

Having read this far, hopefully you’re now well across the finer points of making balsa lures. But it’s one thing to be able to turn out an awesome balsa crankbait or popper. It’s another thing completely to know how to use it to full benefit!

So let’s finish this article with a few balsa lure fishing tips, hey?

When To Tie A Balsa Lure On Your Line – And When Not To.

I know that a lot of the bass pro’s turn to balsa lures for fishing submerged timber. Super buoyant lures have the edge because of their tendency to float quickly upwards when the retrieve is paused.

So when you strike timber, drop the rod tip and stop reeling momentarily and your lure floats up. When you start to retrieve again the lure swims safely over the snag. By doing this you can keep the lure in close contact with snags – and deflecting off in all directions. That’s a pretty deadly technique.

Of course, this is a strategy for lightly weighted, wider bodied balsa lures. Lures that are configured for deep diving or weighted to suspend don’t have the qualities you need for fishing fallen timber.

Balsa Crankbaits Are Perfect When The Fish Are Shy

When the sun is high, balsa lures come into their own. They’re also great when there are lots of boats on the water or the fish have seen a lot of lures lately. Balsa has natural sound insulating properties, so a balsa lure is very quiet by comparison to lures made from other materials.

I’ve found this particularly advantageous on suspending fish. Neutrally buoyant suspending jerkbaits can “sneak up” on fish, surprising them into striking. Flat sided balsa crankbaits are also great for this, though they tend to be fished a little faster than the jerkbait styles.

Balsa lures that are fitted with rattles also have an important role. The noise insulating qualities of the wood tends to give these lures a lower pitched sound. Low frequency sounds are more readily heard underwater, are more natural and are different to the run of the mill lure rattles. That adds up to fish not being educated to avoid balsa lures.

I explain a lot more about fish hearing in my article on how fish find your lures.

Getting The Deflection….

Bouncing a balsa crankbait (or any lure) off structure is a sure way to get strikes. Usually with balsa baits the deflection is upwards, giving the lure an erratic up-down motion. If the diving lip is wide and square shaped then your lure can get a particularly erratic action.

Once again, balsa baits give a more realistic and audible (to the fish) sound when they strike structure. That’s what attracts a fish in the first place, while the upward motion of the lure imitates prey escaping the scene of the crime.

Don’t Treat ‘Em Mean…..

No matter how well made your balsa lures are, they’ll never be as tough as a plastic lure, that’s a fact. My hardening process and super tough clear coats help make your balsa lures durable.

All that means is you need to take a little more care of your balsa than you would imported injection molded lures. That’s not so hard, right?

I still toss my balsa baits up against structure, and they do get the odd dent. But I’m willing to sacrifice the odd lure if it means I will catch more fish. Besides, when one lure gets too dented and battered I just make another one! But I avoid slapping lures on the water to remove gunk from the hooks, instead swinging them across and removing the debris by hand.

Avoid packing your balsa lures tightly into the tackle box or leaving them where they might get crushed. They’re dent resistant, not dent proof!

If you treat your balsa crankbaits well you should get years of service from them.

Conclusions: Why Balsa Lures Will Always Fill An Important Niche

Hopefully this article has gone some way towards explaining why one of the oldest, original materials for making crankbaits remains a great option even in this technological age. There are just some things that technology can’t improve!

The best way to keep your tackle box stocked up with balsa lures is (of course) to make them yourself. There is a fair bit of labor involved in hand crafting a balsa crankbait or popper, so few companies make them commercially. And those that do make them tend to price them appropriately – it’s just that most anglers can justify the expense against a plastic lure at a fifth of the price.

But as a custom lure maker, you don’t have that problem! Making balsa lures is easy once you know the ropes, so you should never find yourself short of quality baits.

I hope that this article has inspired you to pick up a block of balsa and turn it into an awesome custom lure! If you have questions or comments, be sure to leave them in the comments box below!

May all of your (balsa) lures get teeth marks!


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Making Balsa Crankbaits And Other Balsa Lures: A Complete Guide. was last modified: April 17th, 2017 by Greg Vinall

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