Taking Balsa Lightly
By John Yaralian
Edited by Mike Miller
Webster’s dictionary describes balsa as any of several South American trees of the bombax family, yielding extremely light and buoyant wood used for rafts, boats, etc. Balsa was available in the U.S. prior to WWII, but it became readily accessible after WWII in the form of surplus U.S. Navy life rafts.
When I first began collecting decoys, collectors mentioned to me that decoys made from balsa were less desirable than those made from cedar, pine, redwood, etc. I asked why, and was told that “That’s just the way it is.” At the time it didn’t make much sense to me, but I accepted it. Later, however, I began to question it. I kept asking, “Why is balsa frowned upon?” No one gave me an answer that seemed reasonable to me. I was told that “It doesn’t feel right in the hand” or that “It dents easily. Some simply said, “Collectors just don’t like balsa.” I finally concluded that there is no logical answer. “Balsa Bias” is just a mindset adopted through years of conformity.
Early on, many decoy makers generally scavenged their wood, not being able to afford prime lumber. Commercial carvers who sold their creations, sought to maximize profits by eliminating the need to purchase their materials. Telephone poles, railroad ties, masts off sailing ships, and yes, balsa life rafts, provided low to no cost materials. The Cobbs (Virginia) utilized masts from recovered ships on a regular basis. Carvers from coast to coast used telephone poles and railroad ties. Joe Lincoln (Massachusetts) harvested lumber from trees on his family owned property. Richard Janson (California) used railroad ties, telephone poles, or whatever pieces of redwood his clients brought him. Hi Crandall (California) used mill ends and other scrap lumber. Aside from decoy factories, I doubt that many carvers ordered prime lumber from lumber companies.
WWII put a strain on raw materials in the United States. Factories needed lead, brass, and copper for munitions, and steel and aluminum for aircraft and vehicles. Manufacture of shipping crates, stretchers, ship decking, life rafts, gun stocks, and building material required lumber. The government rationed these materials during the war years.
With the end of the war, the government sold off surplus materials to the public for pennies on the dollar. That was when balsa came into the picture. After years of shortages of wood, there was a sudden windfall of readily available balsa. Balsa was easy to carve, which probably meant a higher rate of production. It was light in weight, so a hunter could haul more decoys to the shooting grounds; and once painted, it looked no different from other woods.
From a usage standpoint, I can understand the argument that it dented or broke easily. But from a collector’s standpoint, fragility is irrelevant. We display our decoys on shelves, and rarely move them. One reason why vintage balsa decoys should be held in high esteem is simply because of the low odds for their survival over time.
Some of our most gifted carvers used balsa, not the least of whom were the Ward Brothers (Maryland). If one examines together a 1936 model green-wing teal made from cedar, and one made from balsa, there’s no way a person who isn’t familiar with the specific bird would be able to point out the balsa bird from the cedar bird without hefting it. Keeping that in mind, how is it justifiable to consider one to be more valuable than the other?
What about John Luedtke’s spectacular rig of California pintails? Are we to look down on his skilled carving and painting because the bodies of these birds are made of balsa? Just the opposite, Leudtke’s decoys are highly sought after and seldom available for sale. When was the last time you saw an early Ed Snyder (California) decoy go up for auction? He used balsa for bodies on a regular basis and made some of the best decoys on the West Coast. Ira Hudson (Virginia) and Chauncey Wheeler (New York) also made balsa decoys. Al Reis (Illinois) used balsa to make his Tru-Dux decoys.
Cedar, pine, redwood, cottonwood, cypress, myrtle, and tupelo seem to be acceptable for collectible old decoys, but not balsa. Again I ask why? I feel the time has come to re-visit the balsa bias. Perhaps we could open our minds to the reality that balsa was just another material that was used in making exceptional pieces of folk art. When evaluating a decoy, we use our visual and tactile senses. Form, paint, maker, rarity and condition are all determined by the use of our eyes and hands. The use of balsa is established through touch, which is the secondary tool in our evaluation of a decoy. To dismiss a decoy solely due to the presence of balsa, in my opinion is an outdated ideology.
I’ve become so passionate about this issue because nobody can explain why balsa decoys are maligned. If anyone out there has that elusive answer, please send a note to Stan at HF&C. I’m all ears. I believe we need to reexamine the balsa bias and perhaps start giving proper respect to well made balsa decoys. What have we got to lose?
(Editor’s note: The author of this article, John Yaralian, can be contacted by email at: email@example.com or by phone at: 916-303-6319.)
1 - Near mint, 1936 Ward Brothers, balsa body, green-winged teal drake. (Photo Courtesy of Guyette & Deeter, Inc.)
2 – Rare, Ward Brothers, resting canvasback hen with balsa body. (Photo courtesy of Guyette & Deeter, Inc.)
3 - John Luedtke, Stockton, CA. Classic pintail pair, balsa bodies. (Photo by Ed Potter)
4 -Green-wing teal group. Drake in rear with balsa body, by Richard “Fresh Air Dick” Janson, Sonoma Creek, CA. Front two decoys are redwood by Chauncey Wheeler. (Photo by Ed Potter)
5 - Ira Hudson, Chincoteague, VA. Brant with balsa body. (Photo courtesy of Guyette & Deeter, Inc.)
6 - Early pair of balsa body mallards by the West Coast’s most versatile decoy maker, Ed Snyder of Rio Vista, CA. (Photo courtesy of Wildfowl Decoys of California)
7 - Chauncey Wheeler, Alexandria Bay, NY. Canvasback drake, balsa body. (Photo courtesy of Guyette & Deeter, Inc.)