Forklifts are one of the most versatile vehicles for builders. Whether you need to move heavy loads in a warehouse or construction site, forklifts can safely lift objects that humans cannot, making them indispensable on any job site.
Since there is a wide selection of styles and models available, it can be difficult to select the best forklift. Whether you’re looking to rent a forklift or purchase one for your next project, our guide covers the different forklift types, their benefits, and popular forklift models to help you choose the right forklift for your needs.
What is Forklift?
A forklift (also called lift truck, jitney, fork truck, fork hoist, and forklift truck) is a powered industrial truck used to lift and move materials over short distances. The forklift was developed in the early 20th century by various companies, including Clark, which made transmissions, and Yale & Towne Manufacturing, which made hoists.
Since World War II, the use and development of forklift trucks have greatly expanded worldwide. Forklifts have become an indispensable piece of equipment in manufacturing and warehousing. In 2013, the top 20 manufacturers worldwide posted sales of $30.4 billion, with 944,405 machines sold.
7 Different Types of Forklifts
There are 7 different forklift types, each carefully designed for specific applications and each offering its own unique set of benefits and features. Below is a list of the seven most common types of forklifts:
- Electric Forklifts
- IC Forklifts
- Order Pickers
- Reach Trucks
- High-Capacity Forklifts
- Pallet Jacks
- Pallet Stackers
Selecting the right forklift for your needs is essential to efficiency and productivity, which is why it is so important to understand the key differences in each class of forklifts. With seven varying forklift “classes” with subtle differences, it can be difficult to even know where to begin your forklift search.
Types of Forklifts
The most popular forklift types on the market today are:
We’ll cover below what each forklift is, what it’s best used for, and popular manufacturers and models.
1. Warehouse Forklift
The warehouse forklift is the most recognizable type of lift truck. It resembles a yellow golf cart with twin forks extending from the front. You’ll most often use this forklift in a facility with a large number of items in inventory. These trucks are great for loading and unloading pallets and balanced materials, well as removing and transporting items from delivery vehicles.
Some of the most popular warehouse forklift models include the Hyster 36-38T, Komatsu 20 BX50 Hyster, and the Toyota 3-Wheel Electric Forklift. Most industrial forklifts can lift 5,000 lbs of weight, but some heavy-duty models are capable of elevating up to 25,000 lbs.
There are a few subtypes of the warehouse forklift, including the side loader and counterbalance forklift.
2. Side Loader
A subtype of the warehouse forklift, side loaders are usually found in steel service centers and manufacturing facilities with heavy and bulky items. The operator stands in a sideways compartment and the side loader unloads objects on its side.
Due to its sideways operation, side load forklifts can easily drive up alongside racks and load and unload without having to turn. This makes them suitable for navigating narrow aisles and handling long loads like timber and pipes.
3. Counterbalance Forklift
The counterbalance forklift is a popular lift that features forks in the front and a weight in the back of the vehicle to counterbalance the weight of the load. Counterbalance forklifts have no extending arms, giving them the ability to move directly to the load.
There are a few different types of counterbalance forklifts. The 3-wheel variant is ideal for situations requiring the operator to turn and maneuver in circles. The stand-up counterbalance forklift allows operators to easily hop on and off between loads.
4. Stand-Up Rider
Stand-up riders have the same maneuverability as a 3-wheel truck, but with a smaller footprint. This allows operators to squeeze into tighter spaces while still being able to turn. Common industries of use include light manufacturing and storage facilities.
5. Outdoor Electric Pneumatics
For applications that need or prefer to run electric trucks, but also need to work outside, the electric pneumatic is a solid choice. Foam or air-filled tires allow this type of forklift to handle rougher terrains, like blacktop and gravel. Many models are equipped with a cab, so the operator can be comfortable even in rain and snow. Capacities range from 4,000 to 11,000 lb.
6. High-Capacity Forklifts
What if you need to lift a massive amount of weight but don’t want to deal with the fumes of an internal combustion engine? Your solution: a high-capacity electric forklift. Lifting capacities range from 15,000 to 40,000 lb. And some manufacturers even go as high as 80,000 lb.! Common industries of use include rigging and metal forging.
Also known as a telescopic forklift or a reach forklift, the telehandler has a boom and extendable arm, making a combination of a crane and forklift. The twin forks attached to this arm are used to move pallets off the ground. A standard telehandler is capable of lifting 5,500 lbs of materials from up to 19 ft in the air. These material handling trucks are great for reaching into tight spaces and odd angles.
Because of their growing popularity, manufacturers like JCB, Genie, Bobcat, Haulotte, and Caterpillar produce a variety of high-quality telehandlers. Models like the JLG 1644 are adept at larger capacity jobs, while other models can lift loads up to 55 ft high.
8. Industrial Forklift
The industrial forklift also called a large capacity forklift, combines the functionalities of a warehouse forklift with that of a telehandler. While it can’t reach difficult angles the way that a telehandler can, it is capable of lifting payloads much higher off the ground than a warehouse forklift and heavier loads.
The industrial forklift starts with a 30,000 lbs maximum lift. However, you only need such power in specialized jobs. The industrial forklift’s utility is narrow in scope compared to the telehandler and warehouse forklift.
There are 20 popular forklift manufacturers on the market. Big names include NACCO Industries and Mitsubishi, and some of the popular models boast an impressive capacity of 36,000 lbs.
9. Rough Terrain Forklift
Also known as a straight mast forklift, the rough terrain forklift is designed specifically for outdoor job sites, especially on uneven surfaces. These trucks have sturdy pneumatic tires that help them navigate rocky ground.
The special tires are oversized and threaded, giving them better balance and stability to safely transport materials. If you do most of your work indoors it is unlikely that you’ll ever need one, but rough terrain forklifts are a must for outdoor applications and construction sites.
Popular models include the JCB 950 and CASE 588H with four-wheel drive options. Another big perk of rough terrain forklifts is that they can lift big models — most models have a capacity of 6,000 lbs and 8,000 lbs.
10. Pallet Jack
Pallet jacks are specialized in nature. Also known as pump trucks, these forklifts aren’t capable of lifting large loads due to their small size. In exchange for power, pallet jacks have a small footprint, allowing them to fit into the tightest spaces and lift small loads in tight quarters. While you sacrifice power and maneuverability, the acquisition and renting costs of a pallet jack are much lower.
Popular pallet jack models include the Mighty Lift 20 x 36-inch Pallet Truck and Vestil Electric Pallet Truck. Buyers or renters can choose a manual pallet jack or electric pallet jack.
11. Walkie Stacker
Walkie stackers are strange in appearance and specific in utility. Unlike other forklifts, these material handling vehicles don’t have cabs. Instead, the worker walks behind the stacker and steers it by using an attached handle.
Like a pallet jack, these units lack power, maneuverability, or speed. However, they are ideal for situations where you need a taller pallet jack. The walkie stacker reaches much higher off the ground than its counterpart.
12. Order Picker
An order picker is a subtype of the walkie stacker, used to pick and deliver materials from storage. Reaching heights of up to 32 ft, these machines are designed to lift operators up to warehouse racks and carry individual units.
They are for customer order warehouses and storage facilities since they can pick one or two units rather than bringing down full pallets and loads. Their versatile design means they can handle items of various sizes, from auto parts to furniture.
13. Reach Fork Truck
The reach forklift is a warehouse truck used mainly for indoor work. Its key ability is that it can extend its forks beyond the compartment and reach into warehouse racks in a way that standard forklifts cannot. It also features an open compartment that allows the operator to have greater visibility.
While excellent for indoor use, reach trucks for not suitable for outdoor work due to their under-carriage clearance.
14. Articulated Forklifts
Some operations have narrow aisles that can’t accommodate a standard-sized forklift. One solution to this problem is an articulated forklift. What’s unique about this type of forklift is that the mast can turn left or right independent of the body of the truck. So, the operator can drive straight in the aisle and turn the mast at a 90-degree angle to access the material.
15. Pivoting-Mast Forklifts
Like an articulated forklift, a pivoting-mast forklift can rotate its mast at a 90-degree angle to its body. The difference is that only the mast moves and not the front tires like an articulated forklift.
16. Marina Forklifts
Built to lift boats in and out of tall storage racks while coping with the corrosive nature of seawater, marina forklifts are oversized lifts with long, rubber-coated forks. They come in a variety of configurations, including diesel and electric.
How to Choose Between IC (gas-powered) or Electric Forklifts:
Deciding whether an internal combustion forklift or electric forklift is appropriate for your application can seem like a daunting task. Here are some high-level considerations that you might take into account when choosing between a gas-powered and electric powered forklift:
Electric Forklift Benefits
- Typically, less maintenance than I/C forklifts
- Quieter with little emission sounds
- No fuel-storage requirements
- Requires a charging station
- No tailpipe emissions
- Lifespan depends on the application, use, and maintenance
- A better option for smaller, confined areas
Internal Combustion Forklift Benefits
- Operate on gasoline, diesel, compressed natural gas, or liquid propane gas
- Primarily used outdoors, but can be used in moderation in some indoor applications
- Can operate in various conditions
- No batteries to recharge
- IC Forklift line can lift over 51,000 lbs.
- Lifespan depends on the application, use, and maintenance
- Noise emissions meet or exceed ANSI B56.1 standards
Must-Know Forklift Sizes
Forklifts range in size depending on their function. Although they are versatile machines, you’ll need the right size for the job.
Standard forklifts generally measure between 4 to 7 ft wide and 8 to 10 ft long. Outdoor or rough terrain forklifts can be greater than 10 ft in length. Narrow aisle forklifts like walkie stackers and side loaders can measure less than 5 ft.
However, if you are using a forklift in a warehouse setting, it is important to consider the aisle width. Standard counterbalance forklifts require aisles of approximately 13 ft wide to effectively turn, navigate, and move pallets.
Another measurement to consider is height. Most standard forklifts can reach heights between 10 and 15 ft, but special forklifts like the telehandler can lift as high as 55 ft depending on the telehandler size you select.
Elements of a Forklift
While size plays an important role, forklifts carry an impressive amount of weight due to their special design. The key elements of a forklift are its lift capacity, load center, and stability. Forklifts have varying abilities in each category, which must be taken into account when choosing one.
- Lift Capacity. The lift capacity is the amount of weight that a forklift can carry safely. This amount also plays a key factor in the vehicle’s stability a forklift that carries too much weight isn’t stable.
- Load Center. The load center is the distance from the forks to the center of gravity of the load. The amount varies depending on the weight of the load, the lift angle, and the tilt angle. As a forklift operator, you don’t have to worry about the load center as long as you respect the listed weight capacity and keep the load balanced.
- Stability. The stability triangle is an area under the forklift. It maintains the center of gravity needed to prevent the vehicle from tipping over. This triangle explains why you don’t worry about the load center. The truck’s design does that for you.
How to Choose a Forklift
To choose a forklift from all the different types, you’ll need to think about how the machinery will be used. Here are general criteria to reference when choosing a forklift to make sure your selected equipment performs efficiently and safely:
- Determine the capacity. How much weight do you need to lift?
- Calculate the weight of your job site. Can the ground sustain the forklift?
- Measure the height of the space. Can your forklift pass through openings?
- Select the correct fuel type. Do you need battery power or gas?
- Analyze the terrain. Is the surface smooth or uneven?
Forklift types vary in several aspects, from their fuel type and tire composition to their lift capacity and height. It’s important to consider these different factors when selecting a forklift. With their ability to lift and transport things of various sizes, forklifts are valuable players on any job site.