Wood density plays a central role in the life-history variation of trees, and has important consequences for mechanical properties of wood, stem and branches, and tree architecture. Wood density, modulus of rupture, modulus of elasticity, and safety factors for buckling and bending were determined for saplings of 30 Bolivian rain forest tree species, and related to two important life-history axes: juvenile light demand and maximum adult stature. Wood density was strongly positively related to wood strength and stiffness. Species safety factor for buckling was positively related to wood density and stiffness, but tree architecture (height : diameter ratio) was the strongest determinant of mechanical safety. Shade-tolerant species had dense and tough wood to enhance survival in the understorey, whereas pioneer species had low-density wood and low safety margins to enhance growth in gaps. Pioneer and shade-tolerant species showed opposite relationships between species traits and adult stature. Light demand and adult stature affect wood properties, tree architecture and plant performance in different ways, contributing to the coexistence of rain forest species.