Turning pallets into stuff overview
Perhaps nothing is as satisfying as using your own hands and creativity to make something useful from worthless junk. In many professions the results of our efforts are often longitudinal or indistinct. I love turning pallets into stuff because the gratification is immediate and concrete.
In turning pallets into stuff, you save money on materials, reduce society’s waste, and create something that can serve for a lifetime. Some pallet projects could intimidate even an accomplished woodworker, but don’t let that stop you. You can build something useful with minimal tools and minimal skills. If it doesn’t work out, the pallet was garbage to begin with.
SAFETY NOTICE: Working with any tools, even hand tools, can be dangerous. If you are uncomfortable with a task or it feels awkward or unsafe, stop what you are doing, and find a better way. There is a smart and safe way to accomplish every task. Always protect your hearing, lungs, and body.
Turning pallets into stuff: basics
Finding pallets to turn into stuff
Pallets are easy to find, just look behind the businesses in your area. If a business has a big pile of pallets next to their dumpster, ask an employee if they are trash. Stealing pallets that are part of a pallet return program is dishonest and unnecessary; there are plenty of discarded pallets to go around.
Most pallets are made of hardwood; this is what you usually want. The most common woods used are oak and maple, which are expensive to buy at a lumber yard. Softwoods are less desirable for most projects and are more likely to fall apart during pallet disassembly. If you are unsure about wood species, press your thumbnail into the wood and see if it dents easily.
SAFETY NOTICE: Many pallets are treated with chemicals. Make sure that your application will not expose anyone (including yourself) to toxins. For example, do not use treated lumber to build an herb garden.
Cut, smash, and grab
Basic tools for pallet disassembly:
- Hammers (claw hammer and perhaps an engineer’s hammer)
- Pry bars
- Saws (handsaw and circular saw)
- Vise grips
- Nail set
There are as many ways to disassemble pallets as their are DIYers. There are even special tools that you can buy, like the Pallet Pal. For most of us, some basic tools will suffice.
Using a reciprocating saw to cut through all of the fasteners is a mistake. You will leave nail remnants in the stringers, the beefiest and most useful part of the pallet. I prefer to cut the ends of the slats with a circular saw and leave a bit of the waste protruding from the stringer. The ends of the slats are often split or riddled with nails anyway.
When I disassembling pallets and turning pallets into stuff, the following method works best for me.
1) Cut the slats on both ends leaving the waste a bit proud of the stringers.
2) Wiggle the slats hither and thither to loosen the center fasteners.
3) Pry the slat free of the center rail.
4) Repeat this step for the slats on the opposite side.
5) Now that the stringers are free, smash the overhang connected to the stringers to leave the protruding nail heads. This will enable you to easily remove the nails completely.
6) Remove the nails from the slats with a vise-grips, nail set, hammer, etc. Strike the nails on the pointy side so that they will be easy to pull out on the other side using the vise-grips. If you are using the nail set, they might just shoot out without any prying.
7) Pry the nails from the stringers. As you can see, the nails left in the stringer will be easy to pull once the ends of the slates have been smashed. You have saved the most useful part of the part of the pallet and (hopefully) removed all the metal from your stock.
Turning pallets into stuff: rough projects
If you only need some rough material, you are ready to build. There are a lot of projects that don’t require your stock to be well-surfaced on all sides. If you are just getting started turning pallets into stuff, make some basic, rough projects before thinking about jointing or planing your stock.
Be advised that your stock may still have some metal inside. This metal (even a tiny piece) can damage your tools or blades. To learn about removing all metal from your stock, read the intermediate section.
I needed to build a tool wall to organize my yard stuff. The pallet slats are good enough as they are for this application.
Turning pallets into stuff: intermediate
If you will be using your pallet wood for some finer or more complicated projects, You will have to do some additional work to prepare your stock. For these types of projects, it is essential that your wood be surfaced on four sides so that your joints will be strong and align properly.
WARNING: Machinery is dangerous! Protect your hearing, lungs, and body. Never where loose clothing or jewelry when operating machinery. Never use machinery in ways that contradict the operating instructions.
Removing all of the metal
When you will be machining your stock in turning pallets into stuff, it must be completely free of metal. Any metal at all will damage cutting knives and blades and could pose a danger. Luckily, a cheap metal detector is the solution. The metal detector shown works beautifully and cost about $20.
Quickly run the metal detector on all four sides of the stock. If you find metal, pry out the offending object or cut out the section. This should go pretty fast.
Planing one side
You need to start by getting one side of the stock perfectly flat. You don’t need to have a big, expensive jointer to accomplish this. All you need is a sharp plane and some effort. Sight down the work-piece to decide which side you want to make perfectly flat. The hardest part of this process is learning how to properly sharpen the plane iron.
Sometimes a piece is so warped that is pointless to try to flatten it into a perfect plane. You can either discard the piece or cut it into smaller pieces that can be flattened.
I am using this old-timey jointer plane, but a shorter plane will do. The work-piece is held in place by a nail-head sticking out of the workbench. Once you are getting a nice, full shaving all the way down and removed any twist, the surface is flat. Mark the side that has been planed with pencil, so there will be no mistake.
Plane the opposite side.
If you simply flip the piece over and use the hand plane on the opposite side, it may look nice, but it will not be co-planer. It may be a wedge shape with two flat sides. You can make it co-planer by using hand planes, but it is much easier to use a thickness planer. Thickness planers are powerful tools, and they are fairly small, easy to use, and relatively affordable. The one shown cost less than $300.
I marked the flat side that I planed by hand with pencil squiggles because the flat side needs to go face down in the planer. The uneven top side will be shaved down until it is uniform and co-planer to the bottom. Once this is accomplished and all of my boards are close to the thickness I want, I will flip the pieces over for a final pass to remove the pencil marks and ensure that my hand-worked side is perfect.
TIP: Start running the thickest boards through first and add the thinner boards to the process as you go. Once the thinnest boards are getting shaved, all of you boards are the same thickness.
Why not skip the the hand tools and start with the thickness planer? You can do this if your project allows for some irregularities, but the planer will follow the shape of the bottom side of the board to a certain extent. If you don’t start with one flat registration face, the sides of the board could follow the same wavy profile.
Joint the edges of your boards
Now you have boards that are surfaced on the top and bottom but not on the edges. Jointing the edges is easily done with a table saw (or even a circular saw).
There are many methods and jigs for edge jointing, but I like to joint one edge with a hand plane and then put this edge against the table saw fence. This edge will be straight, and it is OK if it is not at a perfect right angle to the other sides. After cutting off the un-jointed edge on the table saw, flip the board to cut off the edge that you planed by hand; it will now be perfectly perpendicular.
To sum up, I planed one side by hand, ran the the other side through the surface planer, and jointed the boards’ edges. My boards are now S4F, or surfaced on four sides. They are ready to use in turning pallets into stuff projects where tolerances are unforgiving.
Turning pallets into stuff: making a custom dog cart
There are approximately six bagillion ideas to try, but I am making a custom dog cart. My in-laws have a young Bernese Mountain Dog, and they want to train it for one of the breed’s traditional occupations: pulling stuff.
I decided that pallet wood would be perfect for this custom dog cart application. It is the right size, durable, and free. If the project is a complete fail, I have only spent my time.
I will use a sled on my table saw to make sure that my crosscuts are precise. This is important when doing any type of joinery.
I used some purchased hardware and some old bicycle tires, but all of the wood for this custom dog cart came from the pallets. That’s what I call turning pallets into stuff. I like this pipe and flanges solution because you can just twist the pipes out to remove them for transport. A few minor details (sanding, stain, etc.) and this custom dog cart is ready for action.
Conclusions on turning pallets into stuff
I love the fact that so many people are excited about salvaging pallets. The projects can be as simple as using whole pallets to make a compost bin or as complicated as fine woodworking. Using free materials gives you the freedom to experiment, learn, and make mistakes.