If you are on this page, is certainly because you have found some wooden pallets and you have checked that they are safe to use for your project. But maybe, you are asking yourself what type of wood is it? I bet you’ve asked yourself that a few times too. Pallet woodworking is a sensory experience. To that end, I’m going to share my “What the heck is the wood of this pallet?” learning curve with you. I’ve been working with pallets for a little over two years now, and I know my limits. I’m a hobbyist, but I’m a HAPPY hobbyist. I’m a nurse by trade and got into working with pallets because I was too cheap (er…frugal…) to buy an overpriced, poor-quality wood chaise lounge. I apologize in advance to the true professionals that’ll read this and shake their heads. But hey, none of us started out as experts. That’s where my journey begins…
Hardwood and Softwood: “As a general rule, hardwood originates from deciduous trees, those who lose their leaves annually, and softwood originates from resinous trees, those who remain evergreen year long.“
OK. **Yawn** That’s the definition I found out on the net. Thank you to LCN Pallets & Crates for their definition! But where’s a particular wood name to these deciduous trees vs. resinous trees so I can look up pictures? There’s no nursing guide for that, haha! I first learned that the wood used to make wooden pallets and crates can typically be divided into three categories:
- High-density hardwood: Birch, Cherry, Oak, Maple, Ash, Beech, Yellow Birch, Elm, and Red Maple
- Low-density hardwood: Walnut, Poplar, Willow, Linden and Aspen
- Softwood: Cedar, Cypress, Spruce, Pine, Hemlock, Spruce and Fir
This can vary based on the country of origin, so that’s another topic altogether that would be great for someone with a higher skill level than me to address. For my hobbyist-level skill, I only care about what kind of wood is in front of me and is it soft and easy to sand, or is it hard and more appropriate for structural applications. And do I have enough sanding discs! :)
Pallet Wood Types:
I just assumed that all pallets were made of the same wood. HA! I was totally wrong. Just in the process of dismantling them with a Sawzall, I discovered some were easy, and others, if the blade went crooked, FOUGHT! Then I noticed that two pallets, roughly the same size could have drastic weight differences, despite looking the same. Why? My husband knew all of this already; he just never thought to tell me… or maybe he wanted a good laugh (either may be correct, dear readers). I didn’t think that mixing a couple of different “colors” of wood would make a difference in the build, but WOW was I wrong.
I started noticing that the wood had several differences: weight, grain pattern, rough texture (when oak pallets age, they can almost get “fuzzy” with the way the grain starts to separate and stick up), more or fewer knots or defects, how they warp, etc. I saw that the end-grain on the edges of the boards looked different too. I identified more, and here’s my list:
I identified more, and here’s my list:
Pine pallets are a lot lighter than Oak pallets. My back appreciates loading Pine pallets into our vehicle and tells me I’m evil when we find Oak pallets. I kind of lump Pine in with Ash & Fir – they all feel about the same weight to me. Usually, we get a lot of Southern Yellow Pine in my area of the world.
The biggest difference that got me sorting my pallet wood was when I started SANDING. I could sand (using a random-orbit sander) three or four boards, both sides until very smooth with one hook-and-loop sanding disc, while other boards needed a disc each. Yeah, probably a slight exaggeration, but you get the point. Why were some boards almost invincible, while others seemed to melt like butter if you over-sanded? Hmmm. Interesting question… By the way, sometimes sanding can help you identify wood by accident. I found out I’m allergic to Redwood after sanding it and breaking out in hives. I only work with Redwood on long-sleeve days now!
Cut a Pine board on a table saw or using a chop saw, and the only real resistance is a knot hole. Cut an Oak board and the whole thing is a challenge, and you get burn marks at the knot holes from the blade slowing and slightly binding. Poplar is challenging to cut, too. Just how the boards run across the saw can give you some clues. Redwood chips quickly and gets those little pokey bits when using a chop saw; Red Maple doesn't (at least in my limited experience).
The other thing I started to notice is the smell of the wood. This is usually when I’m sanding them, but sometimes with cutting too. You’ll DEFINITELY know when you get a Pine pallet – you sand over a knothole, and you get that amazing Pine-sap smell! Sanding or cutting Oak boards makes me think of barbecue since we use Oak for cooking. Have an Oak pallet board get stuck on a band saw, or when the circular or table saw struggles with a knot, and I’m hoping it’s dinner time! PS - Avoid Oak sanding if you’re on a diet, haha! Redwood smells a tiny bit like cedar TO ME – but don’t be upset if you don’t agree – it’s OK!
PLANING (with a hand planer):
When you try to level out a piece that you’ve mixed different wood media, you find out real quick about end-grain, with-the-grain, and against-the-grain. The other problem is that some woods plane easily – no surprise – the softwoods, while the hardwoods resist my feminine wiles! I’ll slide the plane along a piece of Pine and stutter to a stop on an adjoining hardwood. Many a blister has been formed, no thanks to the mighty Oak.
I learned a while ago that when two pieces have me guessing, I just put a few drops of water on them – particularly near/on a defect, knot, or a grain swirl. Gross-factoid: I discovered this on a hot summer day. I know – ew – women “glisten,” right? Anyways, dry Pine looks like Pine. Dry Pine also looks somewhat similar to Ash, Poplar, Fir, Birch, Beech, Maple and even Pecan (sorry –I know Pecan isn’t common, but I have some Pecan logs I’ve been working with). They’re all pale. They’re all pretty. Wet Pine does NOT look like Wet Poplar. Poplar almost goes a little silvery to me, where the Pine stays that pretty pale gold. Sometimes you’ll see the heavy graining that you didn’t notice before, or see different styles/patterns of grain that don’t match all the other Pine boards you’ve touched.
I’ve sometimes had to resort to cutting off a very thin slice from one end of both boards. Then I’ll touch, smell them, and even take regular sandpaper to them and see if I think they’re the same (or similar enough to work for my project). I’m still not 100% able to identify everything, but my “mad skills” are improving.
The other reason I cared about hardwood vs. softwood is that sometimes, rare or exotic woods are used – as a native tree always seems to have less importance to the locals, but foreigners are EXCITED to get those pallets! Supposedly there’s a kind of black-market for exotic pallets. All I have to do is to look around my 1920’s California Bungalow, LOADED with 1920’s California Redwood as SECONDARY wood (including building a tool shed and carriage house out of two layers of tongue-and-groove Redwood siding!!!) and I can see an example of not valuing local timber. There used to be Redwoods in Southern California mountains in the 1920’s… until they were all cut down. I suppose native trees may be considered a “junk wood”, but if I get my hot little hands on some Curly Maple or Purple Heartwood, I will squeal with delight! Finding an exotic-wood pallet would be this California gal’s modern-day gold rush!
My recent experience with this is that I’m pretty sure that I got a couple of pallets made from RED MAPLE. However, at first I thought it was just a different type of Oak, but it didn’t quite sand the same. It didn’t make my mouth water for barbecue either. Then I looked at images of wood types and guessed that it was maybe a variety of the red-tinged Mahogany family. Now, I’m about 90% sure that I lucked out with Red Maple – I got to feel and SMELL some recently. Ha! My sensory detective work put to the test! I’ve read that sometimes there are pallets with Mahogany, Teak, Ebony, Purple Heartwood, and even Ebony out there. Alas, not for me ... yet.
So, dear readers, if you’ve stayed with me so far, perhaps you can follow me through one more paragraph? As you learn to enjoy woodworking with pallets, you’ll become a detective of sorts. You’ll learn to use all your senses (sometimes even suffering a rash from it if you’re like me). You’ll feel that rough/fuzzy texture of an old Oak pallet in a shadowy wood pile and won't even have to see it. You’ll learn to spot and sort your stacks of broken-down pallets by their end grain. Sweat can finally be your friend – flying it around! You’ll challenge any Bloodhound to his sniffing skills. No website will be able to fully teach you to identify wood. You'll have to get out there and EXPERIENCE it to really get it. You’ll probably have a lot of fun doing it, too.
Good to know: The two most common wood types used for making shipping pallets are southern yellow pine and oak. In the United States of America, a former study done by the USDA and Virginia Tech determined that southern yellow pine wood was used in 18.9% of all the produced pallets while oak was use in 17.1% (by volume) of the produced pallets. Both oak and SYP actually contain several species that make up the woods classification which is based on the density of the wood.
Southern yellow pine wood: available in quantity and at very low cost. Can be kiln dried (KD stamp, see our safety page) and provides a clean product.
Oakwood: used for its strength and also availability. The pallets are made from leftover oak lumber that was not used for making furniture. Oak is also one of the stronger hardwood species.
The current trend by many pallet producers is not to separate out pallet material by species, but rather by hardwood vs. softwood.
Below is an interesting infographic by Furniture.co.uk that will show you a brief overview of the different types of wood and, if you are interested in learning more about all woods that exists, you should visit The Wood Database website.