During my years as a wee little architecture student, I became very familiar with this type of wood. It’s very lightweight, almost foamy, and much easier to manipulate, bend, and even twist. It can be very useful in model building for those reasons, but it also is easily damaged. Oftentimes despite your best intentions it can end up looking less than crisp.
Sometimes, however, crisp edges don’t matter as much. Say, for example, when you’re constructing a giant raft to be used on the ocean. Sure, we’re all excited about Kon-Tiki, but I’m not sure how accurate that particular journey was as an experiment. I prefer the idea of exploring ancient skills to that of proving they could be used to accomplish a particular historically significant task. If we know there were ancient balsa wood rafts, let’s see what their properties are – stability in high water, maneuverability, resistance to swamping. Hopefully that’s what this group is going to be doing over the summer – after all, the use of technology, whether old or new, is what MIT is all about. What really has most validity to us now is learning about how balsa was used in the past and manipulating that use for the future. Whether or not the Polynesians really were Peruvians first is interesting, but to my mind, secondary.