It’s official. I’m hooked on making balsa lures, 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.
Index To Balsa Lure Making And Fishing
Working With Balsa: Pro’s & Con’s Of Balsa As A Raw Material
As a raw lure making material, balsa is quite unlike any other timber you’ll use.
It’s super easy to work with, which is why I often recommend it to lure making noobs. Balsa crankbait bodies can easily be hand shaped without many tools , which makes wooden lure making accessible to just about anyone.
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.
Balsa Lure Strengths
The first (and most obvious) thing you’ll notice about balsa wood is that it’s incredibly light. That’s what gives balsa lures such a crisp, strong action.
Of course, balsa wood is a natural material, so you can expect some variability in density. Some pieces are light and easy to shape while others are a little more dense and take a bit more work. But even the denser balsa is very light compared to most other timbers…….
C-grain (quartersawn) balsa wood makes the best custom balsa crankbaits and poppers, if you can get your hands on it. C-grain is recognized by it’s mottled appearance and has awesome stability, durability and weight. You might need to go to a specialist shop to get it, but it’s worth the effort.
The second great strength of balsa is the way it can be weighted, making balsa lures stable across a range of cranking speeds. Balsa crankbait bodies are so light, so you can add quite a bit of weight without sinking them. Done well, this creates an internal keel that keeps the lure right way up during fishing. The result is an exceptionally stable action and a very versatile lure.
Other timbers are more dense, so the weighting is less effective.
Finally, balsa wood dust is relatively low irritant. No wood dust is good for our lungs, but balsa dust is a lot less toxic than some other options. As a bonus, low tannin content means you won’t get ugly brown splotches in your airbrush paint.
The Challenges Of Balsa Lure Making
Everything in lure making is a compromise, so while the low density and easy workability of balsa are a real plus, they come at a cost. Balsa lures are prone to denting and teeth punctures. The thin cell walls and large volumes of air in the wood make it light but also make it easy to crush…..
But if you’ve followed my antics for a while, you’ll know that I’m a great advocate of hardening and sealing balsa wood before painting. It’s not perfect, but it does make my balsa crankbait bodies more resilient. For tough fishing though, I turn to tougher timbers. Throwing balsa lures at GT’s, mackerel, wahoo and the like is just asking for destruction!
Balsa lures also tend to cast quite poorly, particularly the deep diving and flat sided balsa crankbait styles. Weighting forward is necessary for a good action, but it causes lures to flutter and “helicopter” in flight. And flat sides or oversized diving lips only exacerbate this problem.
Ok, let’s get into the important stuff – making balsa lures! In this section I’ll talk generally about how to work with balsa. In the next couple of sections I’ll give some tips specifically for making balsa crankbaits and balsa poppers.
Buying And Storing Lure Making Balsa
I’ve already mentioned that you should buy c-grain (quartersawn) balsa wood whenever possible. You might need to source this from a model aircraft shop – 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 but a little softer and lighter than c-grain.
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 your balsa is perfectly square in cross section – this aids in getting all of your lure parts properly aligned. It’s pretty stable so you’ll usually find that it’s square in the shop.
Do Balsa Baits Need To Be Through Wired? Or Are Screw Eyes OK?
I’ll preface this discussion by stating that I’ve always been a through-wire kind of a guy – especially when it comes to balsa lures.
But I’ve recently strength-tested lightweight, 1″ long brass screw eyes in 3″ balsa lure bodies. I installed them using the technique I show in my screw eye installation tutorial. I expected that due to the softness of the wood, even properly installed screw eyes would tear out…. but they didn’t.
Instead, they opened up under 44lb (20kg) of weight, leaving the threads still firmly embedded in the balsa lure bodies. They’d have been even stronger if I’d used stainless steel screw eyes! But at the end of the day, you’re never likely to apply 40 pounds of pressure under normal fishing conditions. Most reels used for tossing 3″ lures can’t manage more that 10lb of drag!
I came to the conclusion that screw eyes and twist eyelets are fine in balsa provided:
- They’re properly installed,
- You use the longest thread length you can fit in the lure, and
- You’re not throwing them at toothy critters or real tough customers like GT’s
For me personally, a through wire is still my preference in a balsa lure.
Working With And Shaping Balsa
One of the great things about balsa is how easy it is to shape. I love to hand carve balsa lure bodies with a sharp knife, it’s very therapeutic! Small lures can even be shaped using sandpaper alone. But if you’re in a hurry, a Dremel tool, sanding disc or sanding belt makes churning out some balsa lures much faster.
Whether you’re using hand tools or power tools the key is to have a very sharp blade. Even if you’re shaping balsa baits with sandpaper you’ll find a fresh piece of paper does a much better job than an old, worn piece. For clean cutting, power tools such as drills should be operated at the highest speed settings. Otherwise the balsa has a tendency to tear, rather than cut cleanly.
I often drill weight holes or eye sockets into my balsa lure bodies and I prefer brad point drill bits for this. Once again, I use a high speed setting for a clean cut and I advance the tool into the wood quite slowly. Brad point bits make a nice, square bottomed hole, which is great for eye sockets etc.
Hardening Your Balsa Lures Makes Them Longer Lasting
If you haven’t already done so, please check out my article on how to seal and harden balsa wood fishing lure bodies.
To take this to another level, I’ll sometimes add a few extra steps – especially when I’m making balsa crankbaits. 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. Then I’ll harden the entire lure body a second time before painting.
Choose A Better Option For Lathe-Turned Lures
I’m not a great fan of making balsa lures on a lathe. Sure, it can be done, sure. But being so soft, balsa lure bodies tend to get torn up by the drive dogs. And they don’t cut cleanly with lathe tools, even if the tools are really sharp. If you really must turn a balsa lure, I’ve found it’s best to do the shaping with a piece of sandpaper and not too much pressure.
I’d rather use cedar or basswood for turned lure varieties. Maybe that’s a personal preference, but I firmly believe there are better timbers for turned lures. And a great advantage of making lures from balsa is that it’s easily hand carved – so why would I want to be limited to the shapes that are possible on a lathe?
If you do decide to give lathe turned balsa lures a go, try 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 Lure Bodies 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 custom lure. But there are plenty of “pre-made” balsa crankbait bodies available, too.
And if you want to save a little time, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with going for 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 obviously turned or machined, 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. Then sand smooth and you’re ready to paint.
- 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 lures, then the best way is to lay everything out using tape. The tape can be removed and re-positioned until you’re happy with the layout. Then trace along the edge with a pencil to mark locations for each component.
- If you’re planning on doing a lot of pre-made balsa lure bodies 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 bought 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 there’s a little trick I use for drilling clean eye sockets for 3D eyes in balsa fishing lures. 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 the holes will be flat bottomed and the edges clean and crisp.
Here are a couple of extra considerations when you’re making balsa crankbaits and jerkbaits…..
Beware Of Thin, Weak Designs
For me, designing balsa crankbaits is subtly different than designs in other timbers. For example, the area around the head of the lure is prone to being weak and needs a little extra thought.
Most crankbaits and jerkbaits have a lot going on in that area. Tow points, weight holes, eye sockets, diving lips, maybe even rattles. There’s quite often a lot of components to squeeze into a small space -and at times there is more air than wood!
I try to design my balsa fishing lures so there is enough “meat” that head of the lure doesn’t become weak point. I harden it well and try to make sure there is plenty of epoxy in that part of the lure. Oh, and balsa lures should always be assembled with a good quality, slow curing epoxy for extra strength.
Weight Forward For Balance And Stability
Most 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 preferably just slightly beneath the wood surface.
Deep divers are generally better if the weight is forward to 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 deep diving 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. But avoid weighting too close to the tail, that’s a sure-fire action killer.
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.
Shallow running, chunky, wide body plugs and wakebaits also work pretty well without too much weight being inserted in them. But things get a little more challenging if you want to get your balsa fishing lures 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….
Don’t limit yourself to making just balsa crankbaits! You’re gonna need some surface lures too, and balsa wood poppers and stickbaoits 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 above on turning balsa lures.
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. Run the tool at the highest speed setting it has, and make light cuts for best results. Sometimes I’ll remove part of the waste first by drilling the balsa with a spade bit or large countersink. Then I just clean it up with the carbide burr.
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 fills any voids. Perfect!
Making Balsa Stickbaits
Surface fishing with balsa stickbaits is among my favorite pastimes. In fact, 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.
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?
Balsa Fishing Lures In Submerged Timber
A great strength of balsa lures is buoyancy, which is why lots of the bass pro’s turn to these lures for fishing submerged timber. Super buoyant lures float quickly upwards when the retrieve is paused. So when you strike timber, just 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 your balsa lures in close contact with timber – and deflect them off in all directions. That’s a pretty deadly technique.
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 faster than the jerkbait styles.
Balsa lures that are fitted with rattles also have an important role. The noise insulating qualities of balsa wood gives these lures a dull, low pitched sound. Low frequency sounds are more readily heard underwater, are more natural and are different to the lures that fish have become used to. That all adds up to fish being more likely to nail a balsa lure.
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 action can become even more erratic.
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 Too Mean…..
No matter how well made your balsa lures are, they’ll never be as tough as a plastic lure, or even a lure made from harder timber. My hardening process and super tough clear coats make balsa lures pretty durable, but not completely bulletproof.
It just means that you need to take a little more care of your balsa than you would imported injection molded lures. That’s not so hard, right? 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!
I happily toss balsa baits hard up against timber and pylons, and they get the odd dent. But I’m willing to sacrifice the a few lures if it means I catch more fish. Besides, when one lure gets too dented and battered I just make another one!
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 some things that technology just can’t improve on!
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’t 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!