DIY

Build Using Free Lumber From Pallets

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PHOTO: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
Make use of an all but untapped source of inexpensive boards: forklift skids, or pallets, the cratelike platforms that are used in the loading of heavy freight.

When building extra items around the homestead is needed, you can obtain free lumber from pallets discarded by local businesses. (See the pallet building diagrams in the image gallery.)

Build Using Free Lumber From Pallets

If your household budget has taken the kind of battering
that ours has over the past couple of years, you probably
aren’t often able to come up with any extra money to spend
on such “frivolous” projects as building a picnic table for
the back yard or a bookcase for the family room. After all,
what with the price of’ wood these days, it’s hard enough
to find the wherewithal to purchase lumber for the jobs
that are essential to running a home or farm.

So what options does a frugal family have? Well, you could
do as we did and make use of an all but untapped source of
inexpensive boards: forklift skids, or pallets, the
cratelike platforms that are used in the loading of heavy
freight.

A FORAGED FACTORY RESOURCE
Pallets can provide a fine source of low-cost lumber, and
they’re often found — sometimes even discarded and
free for the hauling — around rural dumps, factory or
warehouse loading docks, newspaper offices, or anyplace
where heavy loads are stored or moved. (Don’t forget,
though, to obtain permission before foraging your lumber.
There may be a charge . . . or that pile you’re looking at
might still be in use!)

If we had to guess why pallets are thrown away, we’d
venture to say it’s because they’re pretty darn hard to
take apart for recycling . . . but hard — as
all of you make-doers know — ain’t necessarily
impossible! And if you’re a budget-conscious individual who
wants to be able to add some extras around the house,
you’ll likely decide — as we did — that the
amount of muscle flexing and patience it takes to
deconstruct a skid is well worthwhile.

UNCONSTRUCTION
Although pallets are built in various sizes (to suit the
load they’re meant to carry), they all take basically the
same form. They start with thick (1-1/2 inch to 3-1/4 inch) planks,
4 feet or so in length, called stringers . . . above and
below which are nailed four or more boards (anywhere from
1/4 inch to 1-1/2 inch thick and, again, about 4 feet long) called
decking (see Figure 1). The single unusual construction
aspect of a typical skid — and the reason
most people don’t go to the trouble of taking the platforms
apart — is the fact that it’s fastened together with
machine-driven grooved nails . . . which are
designed to be pretty clanged difficult to pull out.

PLANS OF ATTACK
Upon discovering our first batch of pallets, we decided
that there was so much good lumber in the critters that we
had to at least try to pull them apart. And
— as we quickly learned — the best way to
approach the task is to have a few battle plans up your
sleeve . . . if one method doesn’t work, another might.

Plan 1: Try unscrewing those
grooved nails. Who knows . . . you might just get lucky.
However, chances are you’ll have to move on to
Plan 2: Take a hammer and try to knock
the decking boards off the stringers by whacking them from
underneath. (This will require some muscle power, and
you’ll have to be careful that you don’t split the boards
— rendering them useless as lumber — in the
process.)

If neither of those techniques will work, you’ll have to
proceed to the Plan of Last Resort . Get out your
power or chain saw and cut the decking just inside
the outer stringers . . . then — to remove the
shrunken planks from the middle support — seesaw them
back and forth (as shown in Figure 2) until they finally pull
loose. (You might have to employ a crowbar to help with
this step.)

Sure, the boards that result will be short, but you’ll
still have a fine reward for your efforts. The wood will be
usable as is for some purposes, or you can sand the rough
surfaces and patch the nail holes with wood filler for
finer work.

We’ve even found that the center stringers — when
stripped of nails — can be shaved down to produce
sturdy tool handles . . . and of course, all the
scraps can be stored for firewood.

As you can see, then — provided you find the idea of
a little labor “pallet-able” — it is
possible to acquire a supply of inexpensive lumber for
almost any project you might dream up!