The Eternal Question

Should your wood pallets be made of hardwood or softwood?

waterSince the beginning of time, there have been a handful of primal questions that emerge from the core of our souls.  Questions that, if we could only positively answer them, would elevate our existence.  You probably thought about them the last time you shared a sunset, watched the waves roll in, or held a newborn:  is there a God watching over us, what is the meaning of life, and of course, should your pallet be made of hardwood or softwood?

Luckily, although past decisions on diet, anniversary gifts and fantasy football were ill-fated, when it comes to pallets, you have found the oracle.  Let me enlighten you.

If you palletize loads in South Florida or west of the Texas Panhandle (projected north), then this is a no-brainer…softwood.   This was easy. You don’t have hardwood in your region without bringing it in by rail from East Texas, Missouri, or Iowa, which is cost prohibitive.  You will learn to love SPF in only two cuts…this is the Legoland of pallets.  For pallet design geeks, this is purgatory – like limiting DaVinci to a red crayon, a blue pencil, and some play dough.

Otherwise, the choice is a bit more complicated, especially now that hardwood has increased in price by about 30 percent and stabilized at a new elevated normal.  It used to be that I could design a better pallet for less money using hardwood almost every time, but now there are some exceptions.

Green Pine (GP) is softwood that bypassed being kiln dried because it didn’t qualify for its intended grade or was cut on a scrag mill just for pallet production.  GP is weaker than hardwood, so you have to use more of it, but it is cheaper, so it may work out.  The real downside of green pine is that it is very ‘wet’ which makes it susceptible to mold and corrugated often wicks the moisture up into your packaging without the use of a barrier sheet.  The pallet can be dipped in mold inhibitor, but many companies don’t want that on their pallets.  I use some green pine for light industrial loads where I need surface area more than strength.

Kiln Dried Pine (KDP) is what most people are referring to when they say ‘softwood.’  This material is 2×4 and 2×6 that didn’t meet stud grade (like so many of us) and is sold off to industrial markets.  The upside is a dry product that looks good.  The overall KDP market is huge compared to pallet markets, so it is always obtainable.  The downside is that it still isn’t as strong as hardwood and generally, comes in two deck thicknesses…11/16 and occasionally 7/16.  While 11/16 is often overkill, 7/16 can be overly frail.  All the stringers are 1 ½” wide…just like a 2×4…which again is overkill in most situations.  In areas where hardwood is available, I’m only using KDP in a very limited number of applications.

Then there is hardwood, which usually provides the most bang for the buck with proper design.  Although more expensive per board foot, hardwood is stronger, so you use less.  It carries more moisture than KDP, but seldom causes trouble with mold or contact with corrugated.  The magic is that hardwood can be obtained in multiple cuts so you can dial in the exact pallet you need.  Decking is available in 7/16, ½, 9/16, 5/8, and ¾”.  Stringers come in thicknesses from 1” up to whatever you want in 1/16” increments.  The downside of hardwood is that supply gets tight from time to time, so you need to get a vendor with strong supply lines,  preferably with several long-term core suppliers.

In most cases, with good design and sourcing decisions, hardwood still rules.  There are exceptions, but they are just that, exceptions.  If you are in hardwood country, and you use softwood, you could probably do better!

The opinions stated above are those of the contributor and do not necessarily reflect the views of PackagingRevolution.net. To speak to Tyson and find out more about the  innovative wood pallet solutions offered by The Pallet Alliance, Inc., visit www.tpai.com.

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