Can building pallets and crates out of softwood ever compare to the strength you’ll get with a hardwood?

We all know that there’s a difference between hardwood and softwood, but we’ve discovered that a lot of people don’t really understand the difference between the two.  While hardwood is often touted as being the stronger, more superior wood, that doesn’t always mean it’s the right choice for your particular application.

Depending on the specifications of what you want to put on a pallet or crate, where it’s going, and how it will be stored, hardwood may be a poor or unnecessarily expensive choice.

It may also surprise you to find out that softwood really isn’t all that soft, and all hardwoods aren’t hard.

For example, I’m sure you’ve heard of balsa wood – it’s the same wood that those little glider airplanes are made out of that we all played with as kids.  It’s one of the lightest woods in the world, you can score it with a fingernail, and you can easily break it with your own hands (or a bad throw of your glider).

Would it surprise you to know that balsa wood is actually a hardwood?

What is Hardwood?

So, let’s talk about hardwood first.  All hardwood comes from deciduous trees.  Generally, these are the ones with leaves instead of needles, but that isn’t always the case.  The distinguishing traits of hardwoods is that the trees shed their leaves in the winter, flower, and they produce seeds with some form of covering, like a walnut or an acorn (oak).

In the United States, hardwoods have traditionally dominated the wood packaging industry for a number of reasons.

hardwood trees

For a start, a lot of hardwoods are harvested in the US for use in furniture, cabinetry, and flooring. Only the best cuts of lumber can be used for these purposes, so that used to leave a lot of lower grade lumber that could be sold to the wood packaging industry to make pallets and crates.  This served to lower mill expenses and minimize wood waste, plus it made hardwoods abundant.

Today, however, many hardwood mills use new technologies to get as much high grade lumber out of each log as possible.  In the modern sawmill, geometric scanners determine the best way to cut logs with the least waste, and even grade the lumber.  The rise of technology in sawmills has significantly lowered the amount of lower grade lumber available to the wood packaging industry.  Additionally, increased exports of hardwoods have helped to diminish the supply.

Secondly, hardwood prices have remained fairly consistent until recently. Sure, hardwoods have always been a more costly option than softwoods, but prices didn’t fluctuate all that much.  In the last few years however, prices have been consistently pushed higher – about a 30% increase overall.  When the trade war with China began in 2018, that also impacted the market for hardwood.  As of the writing of this article, China imposes a 10% tariff on U.S. hardwoods and hardwood exports have dropped 45% in volume, according to Timber Processing.  The jury is still out on how this will affect the hardwood market long-term .

Lastly, the strength and durability that hardwoods provide for pallets and crates has always been a big enticement to use it, even when it may be unnecessary. While there are always times when hardwood is the right wood packaging choice, the need for the added strength and durability found in hardwood can often be offset with better package design using softwood or SYP.

custom crate heavy industrial

There are times when something as simple as changing up the fasteners or adding an extra deckboard can make a softwood pallet or crate as strong as one made from hardwood – and at a much lower price.  The crate at the right is a good example of this.  It’s 42 feet long and designed to house industrial sized roll up doors.  It’s large, it’s heavy, and it’s made entirely out of softwood.

Today, hardwoods only occupy about 20% of the wood packaging market, due to their price and availability.  Red oak is the most popular hardwood used in wood packaging, but other options include birch, cherry, maple, ask beach, yellow birch, and elm.  All of these are considered high-density hardwood, making them much heavier than their softwood counterparts.  Other low-density hardwoods, such as walnut, poplar, willow, linden, and aspen, can also be used in hardwood pallet and crate applications requiring extra strength and durability.

What is Softwood?

All softwoods are evergreen trees.  Generally, these are the ones with needles instead of leaves, but there are exceptions like live oak and southern magnolia.  They also keep their needles (or leaves) throughout the year and don’t shed them in the fall, as hardwoods do.

Softwood trees are gymnosperms, which means that they drop their seeds on the ground with no covering.  You might be thinking that pinecones serve as a covering for the seeds, but that’s not actually the case.  Pinecones are loaded with seeds, kind of like a fruit, and when the pinecone is “ripe” or mature, the seeds are released on the ground.

The most common softwood used in wood packaging is southern yellow pine (SYP), which is mostly grown south of the Mason-Dixon line and east of the Great Plains.  SYP is considered a “hard” pine, making it ideal for pallets and crates, and consists of four major species (longleaf pine, slash pine, loblolly pine, and shortleaf pine) that compose 90% of SYP inventory.  The other 10% of SYP consists of 6 minor species.

softwood strong as hardwood

SYP has become the wood of choice for most pallet and crate applications, occupying about 80% of the timber market, because it’s less expensive, fairly abundant, weighs less, and does a good job protecting most loads.  Southern yellow pine is used in many more applications than hardwoods outside of the wood packaging industry, such