The Lumber Labyrinth

Deciding what pallets are best for your company can be an overwhelming endeavor. Most companies are not large enough to staff a full-time pallet purchasing agent. The result is that many buyers are delegated the responsibility without much understanding of the pallet world. One of the decisions that each buyer will have to make is what type of lumber they want their pallets built from.

The available lumber options for pallets can be confusing but this article exists to help you be better equipped to take on the challenge and have success!

What are my lumber options for pallets?

There are many different types of lumber used for building pallets. Most pallets are built from one of the following buckets:

  •  High-density Hardwood (Birch, Cherry, Oak, Maple, Ash, Beech, Yellow Birch, Walnut, Elm, and Red Maple)
  • Low-density Hardwood (Poplar, Willow, Linden and Aspen)
  • Softwood (Cedar, Cypress, Spruce, Pine, Hemlock, Spruce, and Fir)
  • Reclaimed/Recycled (Mix)

Both the region and supply dictate what specific species in these buckets are available to you. You may not have the choice between species, but you should always have the choice between these types. Of the three types, Low-density Hardwood is the least popular for pallets.

So, what are the distinctions between lumber types?

The main differences between lumber types are the weight and weight capacity of the material.

High-density hardwood is the strongest lumber type for pallets. Because of the incredible weight capacity, much of the pallet market is filled with high-density hardwood lumber. The downside to high-density hardwood is the fact that the lumber weighs a significant number of pounds. So, if your pallet application utilizes manual labor to lift, shift, and move pallets then a high-density hardwood pallet may not be your best decision. However, if you utilize automation and put an exorbitant amount of weight on your pallets, high-density hardwood would fit the job beautifully.

Softwood lumber, on the other hand, is the weakest lumber type for pallets. Most of the time when softwood is used on pallets, the lumber needs to be slightly thicker than a similar high-density hardwood board – to hold the weight without breaking. However, the limited weight capacity for softwood does not mean that it is always a worse option. Softwood constructed pallets are very lightweight. Many companies who utilize manual labor for moving pallets value the fact that softwood pallets are much easier to maneuver manually. So, although softwood pallets have a limited weight capacity, their cumulative lightweight for operations is a valuable trait for some companies.

Low-density hardwood is the tweener between softwood and high-density hardwood. It is stronger than softwood but weaker than high-density. Alternatively, low-density hardwood is lighter than high-density but heavier than softwood. So sometimes the jump between softwood and high-density hardwood is too significant of a tradeoff between features. In these cases, low-density hardwood offers a wonderful compromise that accomplishes strong weight capacity with less weight to handle the pallets.

Reclaimed lumber is a unique category. It actually can contain all three of the previous options. Although reclaimed is not a distinct set of wood species, it deserves discussion as its own specific category. Reclaimed lumber is the used lumber harvested from recycled pallets. It is not new and clean as compared to the previous types. However, it dominates a massive amount of the pallet market. The main reason for this is the affordable price point of reclaimed lumber. Usually, reclaimed is the cheapest price point for pallets. You are not guaranteed cleanliness, specific lumber types, or uniformity. However, if you are flexible on what you are seeking, reclaimed is a great affordable option.

Other factors to consider:

Mold Potential is an extremely important factor for certain industries. The medical and food industries are examples of industries where the presence of mold is not tolerated in even the slightest degree. However, there are some industries like building materials that are much less concerned about the presence of mold. Obviously, no company wants moldy pallets. However, your ability to tolerate the potential of mold or not will affect your lumber decisions.

The most common way to ensure the lack of mold growth in your pallets is to buy pallets built with Kiln-Dried (KD) lumber. KD lumber is the process of using heat to cook the moisture out of the fresh-cut green lumber. Mold growth thrives when the following components are sufficiently present: moisture, oxygen, food source, and the correct temperature range. KD lumber is treated to not have sufficient moisture and therefore not allow mold growth.

The other alternative is to buy pallets built of reclaimed lumber. Due to the duration recycled pallets have been on the market, most of the lumber has naturally air-dried and is no long susceptible to mold. However, because reclaimed pallets could have been exposed to endless possibilities of chemicals and compounds, mold could grow from other causes.

Cleanliness is another significant factor for many industries. Reclaimed lumber is not guaranteed to be clean. In contrast, new lumber will always be clean. The only time new lumber would be considered “unclean” is when it contains a significant amount of bark. The presence of large pieces of bark on your pallets usually means that your pallet provider is using a lower grade (usually referred to as #2) lumber. Despite the fact that the lumber has minimal markings, dirt, or residue of any kind, the presence of bark can cause issues when trying to ship into some large corporations.

So, which lumber should I choose?

Lumber decisions are not always simple and obvious. Like buying a car, every upgraded feature brings about a heftier price tag. You need to identify which factors are most important to your application before you are able to decide on the best lumber for your pallets. Consider your requirements for weight capacity, cleanliness, mold-tolerance, pallet weight, and price. If you must have clean pallets, then you will most likely need to exclude reclaimed. If you must have dry pallets, then reclaimed or Kiln-Dried lumber will be your best solutions.

I’ll end with some good news: Purchasing pallets can be very simple. Don’t be discouraged.

Talk to pallet companies in your area. Explain your needs and ask them what lumber options they offer to solve your needs. If the price is too high, consider asking what changing the lumber type would do to affect the price. If you have issues with cleanliness, mold, or weight requirements, offer a different lumber option for them to quote.

Knowledge is power. The more aware you are of the options available to pallet companies, the higher the likelihood you will arrive at a happy solution for you and your company. Be brave. Enjoy the people and the process.