Load-carrying capacities of flying animals have important effects on their reproductive success, because it is expected that better performing individuals will benefit during activities such as foraging and nest building. Individually marking Sceliphron mud dauber wasp females and collecting their mud balls at three field sites, we investigated whether wasps maximize mud ball lifting and we evaluated whether the characteristics of soil affect wasp–mud ball size relationships. Sceliphron destillatorium, larger than Sceliphron spirifex, collected on average heavier and larger mud balls, and individual female body mass was positively correlated with the mass and volume of carried mud balls. Rarely mud balls reached a weight close to the theoretical maximum. On the other hand, the volume of mud balls roughly coincided on average with the theoretical maximum. A simple theoretical model showed that loss of balance during loaded flights is in part responsible for the failure to maximize the mass lifted, reducing the load-carrying capacity with a per cent value that is independent of the wasp's size. Soil characteristics also seem to affect the lifting dynamics of wasps: similar-size females carried significantly lighter mud balls in denser-soil sites. Our results showed that the volume is the strongest factor limiting mud ball carrying. The effect of such limitations, moreover, may change depending on the physical properties of the material used for nest construction.