Wood Pallet Project Ideas

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Use upcycled free materials to create the one-of-a-kind projects in Wood Pallet Projects (Fox Chapel Publishing, 2013). Author and craftsmen Chris Gleason uses sound woodworking techniques and trendy designs in his crafts. In this excerpt, learn how to scavenge for wood pallets and find wood pallet project ideas that you can incorporate inside and outside your home.

How to be an Effective Scavenger

Pallets offer a great opportunity to obtain free materials for little or (usually) no money, and this fact alone makes them worth considering as a resource. However, not all pallets are created equal or are suitable for your project. Here are my tricks of the pallet-scavenging trade.

Permission: Always Get It

It’s the golden rule of scavenging pallets: Always ask permission first.

Many businesses that use pallets actually recycle them. They may use the pallets repeatedly, or the supplier might pick up the pallets and reimburse them for returning them. So before you help yourself to what you think may be free, remember that if you don’t have permission it could also be viewed as theft. Just ask. Some businesses will be delighted to have you take extra pallets off their hands.

Safety: Know Which Pallets to Use and Which to Avoid

Most pallets are perfectly fine to work with, but some aren’t. Chances are that the pallet you’re working with is safe, but what if it was treated with some kind of chemical earlier in its life? I’ve also been emailed with a story in which someone got a nasty sliver from a pallet that introduced infection, requiring hospitalization.

So, just be picky. Always wear gloves and choose wisely. When in doubt, leave it out. But how can you tell?

Fortunately, it is straightforward. My goal is to provide facts, not cause unnecessary concern. Common sense is your best starting point. Skip any that:

• Are unusually heavy
• Are wet
• Appear greasy
• Have stains
• Smell
• Display too many twisted nails
• Otherwise look unsavory

Beyond that, what else can you look for? Many pallets are stamped “HT” for heat-treated, which is a good sign that the pallet is newer and was kiln-dried to remove moisture, which could otherwise turn into a problem. Remember, if a pallet isn’t dry, it’ll be a pain to work with, and it could harbor bacteria, so give it a pass.

Some pallets are even stamped with a 1-800 phone number or website that lets you know about the pallet’s origins. You probably don’t need to get on the phone or fire up a web browser: the mere presence of an indicator like this is a very good sign that the pallet was produced as carefully as possible. These pallets are probably good candidates for your projects, provided they meet your other basic criteria (i.e., clean, dry, good condition, etc.).

 Label  Meaning
 HT  Heat-treated
 KD  Kiln Dried
 MB  Methyl bromide treated
 DB  Debarked
 S-P-F  Contains spruce, pine, or fir components

Beware bacteria

Even if a pallet was clean and dry and safe on the day it was manufactured, it could have been exposed to undesirable bacteria sometime during its lifetime. To play it safe, scrub the wood with bleach and soapy water. Rinse well, and allow to completely dry. Remember, wood is porous, so there’s a chance the bacteria is embedded. Don’t use pallet wood for food-related items, children’s toys, or children’s play furniture. It just isn’t worth the risk.

Suitability: Is It A Good Match For Your Project?

The key to working with pallets is strategy. Having wood pallet project ideas will guide your assessment. The first question is, does this pallet merit a second glance or should I move on? If it looks promising, you’ll want to ascertain the following.

• Is it safe?
• Are there any especially appealing boards (due to species, interesting character, or useful dimensions)?
• How much usable material does it contain?
• How easy will it be to disassemble? For example, softwood runners are easier to get nails out of than hardwood ones. With a little practice, you’ll be able to see the difference at a glance.

The answers to these questions, in aggregate, will determine which pallets are worth your time and effort. Sometimes I will only take one board from a pallet, as I don’t have infinite time and energy to spend on tasks that only offer a marginal yield. Is this the optimal level of upcycling? Maybe not, but I don’t try to take on the responsibility of reusing every piece of material in all of the world’s pallets; once you view the situation through this lens, it is easy to see that even partial reuse is certainly better than none at all. In other cases, I can use the whole thing.

When it comes to pallet disassembly, a methodical approach pays off. Take a minute to decide which parts of the pallet are the most important to you. You may not have a premium use for all of the wood, due to damaged pieces, odd sizes, or the presence of way too many nails in a given spot.

Pallet sizing

Wood pallets come in all shapes and sizes, and depending on where you live, you will encounter pallets of many different dimensions. In North America, for example, some common pallet sizes include 48″ x 48″ (about 1200 x 1200mm), 48″ x 20″ (about 1200 x 500mm), and 36″ x 36″ (about 900 x 900mm). In Europe, common sizes include 1200 x 1000mm (about 48″ x 40″), 800 x 1200mm (about 30″ x 48″), and 600 x 400mm (about 20″ x 15″). The great thing about pallets, however, is it doesn’t matter what shape or size they come in, as long as you can harvest wood of the dimensions you need from them. All the others can be made from wood harvested from pallets and cut to size.

Dealing with nails

Pallets are usually built with nails, because it is a low-tech but strong approach. If you take a close look, you’ll see that many of the nails are spiral-shaped; this is because their unique shape helps them resist backing out and allowing the boards to loosen over time. Spiral nails are good for constructing pallets, but can create a challenge for someone who is actually trying to remove the nails to get at usable lumber. My standard approach is to pull the nails using a crowbar or similar tool if it isn’t too time-consuming, and to leave them in when removal isn’t feasible. This latter approach usually means cutting around the nail-infested areas and harvesting shorter, but still useful, lengths.

Occasionally, I’ll have nails that refuse to budge from a piece of wood that I still really want to use: in cases like this, I cut the nails back as far as possible using a hand-held rotary grinder, angle grinder, or pliers. I then use a belt sander to ensure the nail heads are flush to the surface. This approach is neat because the polished nail heads gleam nicely and recall the wood’s origins as a humble pallet.

Learn to recognize the inherent limits of some pallets. Occasionally, I’ll come across a pallet that features really pretty wood, but the nails are just torture to remove. In this case, cutting out the largest nail-free sections of wood possible is the best decision. It may mean settling for shorter lengths of wood than you’d ideally like, but it will allow you to work safely with the material. If you need larger pieces, find a pallet that will allow you to harvest them more easily, and save the short pieces for another day. You’ll eventually find a project that they’re better suited for. It is also worth noting that changing your design and/or construction techniques might allow you to use the shorter pieces right away, too.

Sometimes the nails themselves aren’t the only problem: boards are sometimes prone to splitting in the areas where nails have been inserted, especially if the nails are close to the end of the board. In this case, I usually just cut off the cracked portion so I have a clean end to start with. If cutting off the end isn’t an option — i.e., you really need the extra length for a given project — you might be able to force glue into the crack and clamp it shut. While this method isn’t guaranteed to work, it can be worth a try, and it doesn’t take very long, so you’re not out a lot of time and energy if the crack reopens.

The good thing about nails in pallets is that they are placed fairly predictably: you won’t generally find random nails occurring in random places. Manufacturers have no incentive to place nails at irregular intervals. So, if you got all of the nails out of the obvious places, you can generally feel fine about sending a board through a planer, jointer, or table saw.

Don’t be afraid to move things around when you’re working with pallets: use the floor, a workbench, or whatever else works. Finer tasks like pulling nails are often most easily accomplished on a bench, whereas larger-scale tasks like tearing apart pallets will probably occur with the pallet on the ground. Jump right in, and you’ll get a feel for it in about five minutes.

Wood Pallet Project Ideas

Easily Movable Table

wooden pallet converted in to a table on wheels with a book and a mug sitting on it

It doesn’t get much simpler than this, but the result is still utterly charming. Bolt a set of large casters (they look to be about 4″ [102mm] in diameter to me) to the bottom of a pallet, and you’ve got an instant, low-to-the ground, easily movable table. The rough, weathered quality of the wood on this pallet makes it ideally suited for outdoor use. It could be a perfect way to transport garden or yard tools around the backyard as you do some mulching or pruning.

Wood Pallet Wall

a room with a wall made from wood pallet boards with two chairs and a tv stand sitting in the room and a tv mounted on the wall

An enterprising Mom took some pallets home from work and used them to create an accent wall in her living room. It took about twenty-five pallets to cover the wall. She used construction adhesive and a nail gun to attach the pallets, and then anchored the TV to a stud. The wood pallet wall is completely unfinished, without stain or polyurethane.

Outdoor Loveseat

wooden pallet boards forming a loveseat with gray cushions and green pillows

This outdoor loveseat is the perfect mix of fun and fashionable, with a funky back pattern and cushions and pillows in refined colors.

Pallet Porch Swing

porch swing made from wooden pallets with a white pillow on it

A simple pallet design adds charm to this porch. You could also suspend the pallet porch swing from a tree, or even an indoor ceiling.

Wood Pallet Coffee Table

wooden pallets making up a coffee table with a basket on top and books and magazines on shelves on the side

Paint and stack a few pallets and you have a new wood pallet coffee table for your family room. Use a paint or finish that will match the décor and style of your home. If you redecorate, simply sand the pallet down and start again. For every ton of wood in a forest of young, growing trees, a ton of oxygen is produced and just as much carbon dioxide is absorbed.

Pallet Project Photos By: (in order) Eren {sea+prairie}, Mom and Her Drill, Laura Distin, Sheryl Salisbury Photogaphy, and Joanna Billigmeier.

book cover with a chair, table, and chest made of wood pallets

Reprinted with permission fromWood Pallet Projects by Chris Gleason and published by Fox Chapel Publishing, 2013.