Woodworking with Pallets: A Guide to Finding, Breaking Down and Building with Pallets

To the uninitiated pallet wood can seem like a treasure trove of free wood. There are stories of oak, ash, maple and all manner of exotic hardwoods used in storage pallets. After all, according to one of WoodWeb’s technical advisors, “4 to 5 Billion board feet of lumber is used annually in the US to produce pallets and related timber packaging/shipping products.”

To some however, pallets are an enormous waste of time. Here’s a nice sarcastic quote from Rob Will to illustrate that point: “I would “season” those pallets outside until they become compost. Then, plant a nice walnut or cherry on that spot. In about 50 years, you can make something really nice.”

This article will first help you to identify if you have the pallet personality. Then it provides some tips on finding and then dismantling pallets. Finally it offers links, links and more links to pallet projects from around the web.

Here goes!

Do You Have the Pallet Personality?
Working with pallet wood requires patience, perseverance and pry bars. I found that Tim Thomas had a great way of putting it. If you’re the type who would rather dive for oysters to find pearls rather than just go to the jewelry store then pallets could be right for you.

“Lets say that you wanted a pearl necklace. To satisfy that desire you have several basic options: (1) Go to a jewelry store and buy the pearls, (2) Search through estate sales, garage sales, pawn shops, etc. to find a good deal, (3) Get some diving gear, travel to a place that has a lot of oysters and dive for hundreds of them in the hopes that you find enough pearls to make the necklace.

If option number 3 sounds like it would be the most fun to you (and it does to me) then you will probably enjoy the hunt for usable wood in pallets, and the subsequent work that is required to clean up that wood.”

So there you have it – you have to be a committed scrounge hound determined to get the value out of pallets. Further you have to learn how to work pallets, which will take time too.

Some of the Best Places to Find Pallets
Many stores leave pallets lying around back beside the dumpsters. However, if you just start off cruising your local dumpsters you’re going to take a lot longer to find the gems. You have to think… which local stores are getting huge shipments of foreign imports? It’s these foreign pallets that will have the sweetest lumber.

Here’s a list to get your mind turning (I got most of this list from Rick Brentlinger’s Pallet Wood Birdhouses):

1) tile stores
2) heavy equipment repair depots
3) machinery dealers
4) Motorcycle dealers
5) Snowmobile dealers
6) Major appliance dealers
7) Tool & die shops
8) Machine shops
9) Paint stores
10) Brickyards
11) Custom window & door builders
12) Electrical supply houses

Stores like Walmart use a pallet service – in other words, they want their pallets back. It’s likely too that they’re building pallets out of very very very cheap pine. You don’t want those.

As a general rule, ask before you take pallets that aren’t leaning up against a dumpster. If they’re piled by the side of a building and you’re pawing through them you’re probably stealing. Just make sure you ask before you take anything.

Some Tips on Breaking Pallets Down for Wood
First off you have to understand the nails commonly used in pallet building. They are doozies. Pallet nails, or annular ring nails, are typically ridged and unthreaded. Engineers designed these nails to STAY PUT.

Secondly, there are many chances in working with ANY reclaimed wood to seriously damage your tools… and therefore yourself. Be warned, be wary and be careful. Some folks advise using a metal detector to find nails, while almost everyone says to watch out for grit and pebbles ground into the wood. In short, you should consider working with your cheap blades while working reclaimed wood…

Here’s what Lumber Jock Teri found worked on those nails:
“In my search I came across all kinds of advice from drilling with a hole saw to cutting through the nails. But, the one I saw that made the most sense to me, drill through the head of the nail, looked like the way to go. So, with drill in hand and a few sheetmetal drill bits, away I went. It worked perfectly!”

Richard and Tracy, in their work with pallets, said:
“You will find that each good quality pallet takes about half an hour to dismantle. Also, while you theoretically have about 40ft of board available in each pallet, don’t expect to average more than 30ft of usable timber – you will inevitably break a few planks or need to trim off ragged ends.”

In a wonderful plan for a work desk built from pallets I found some great advice on breaking down pallets:
“Cut a good supply of scrap wood blocks. Two by Four stock about ten inches long works well.

Do not beat directly on the pallet wood with a hammer. Always place a short block of wood across the grain and beat on you scrap block.

Also use the blocks to hold the pallet up off the floor, so that you can drive the pallet pieces down. This is less likely to split the pieces than prying the up.

Any time a nail head comes up high enough to get the hammer claw on it, stop beating and pull out the nail. Again use scrap to protect the good wood. You will have to turn the pallet over many times.”

If you have projects that only require small pieces of wood you can follow this advice: “lately, since I have gotten lazy, I just cut the boards right at the stringers to separate them. This gives me small but usable hardwood boards.”

Pallet Building Inspiration
Many folks have documented their pallet building creations. I broke these up into woodworking with pallets and building structures with pallets.

Wood Working with Pallets:
projects with pallets (from boot racks to book cases)
Pallet Computer Desk
Crib Built from Pallets
Rustic Bird House Made of Pallets
Norm Abram’s Pallet Coffee Table
guitar made of pallet wood
Artistic Pallet Sculpture
Recycle a Pallet

Pallet Structure Inspiration:
12 Creative Ways to Recycle Wooden Pallets (mostly structures)
The Pallet Root Cellar
The Pallet Shed
The Pallet Fence
Pallet-House System – Triangular and Cubic Dwelllings
Pallet-House: Modular Refugee Housing

Woodworking Forum Q/A on Working with Pallet Wood:
Ever used the wood from a concrete pallet?
What to build with wooden pallets?

This entry was posted in Q/A, Tool Resources. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Woodworking with Pallets: A Guide to Finding, Breaking Down and Building with Pallets

  1. Bruce says:

    I was offered pallets last year. I disassembled them, then stacked them for several weeks to restore a dry state as they were stored outside. I bought a metal detector for wood to scan the pieces and ended up cutting off several inches at each end to avoid the residual nail metal.

    Then I used my jointer and planer, with an old set of blades, to achieve a good surface. After stacking over winter in my garage, I started using the pieces this Spring. Although most is oak, it is amazing how little is suitable for furniture-like pieces to be stained. It splits easily, has significant defects and now most is two to three feet long. Not good for much beside jewelry boxes, small frames, and the like.

    Would I do it again? No. I had to buy a new set of blades to replace the pallet-worn-out blades, which wasn’t cheap. I had to buy the metal detector, for which I have no other use. I now have to down scale my project list to those smaller items I usally don’t make.

    No such thing as a free lunch.

  2. toolcrib says:

    Thanks for your thoughts Bruce – sounds like pallet wood didn’t serve your needs. I’ll add your warning to the next issue of the ToolCrib.com newsletter.


  3. Joe says:

    WARNING!!! I haven’t read the articles in their entirety however in case no one touched on the topic here goes:

    Know the history of the particular pallet you are inviting into youe home/shop. Aside from all the normal woodworking issues you will be dealing with consider the toxicity of the wood you may be presented with.

    Ask yourself just what the heck was stored on that pallet and did it SPILL? Petrolium product, fertilizer, insecticides, etc. etc. Why do you think so many are so eager to give them away, they are a liability. I won’t bring any pallet into my shop for this reason.

    As a retired Career Battalion Chief for a middle sized eastern city I urge all my brother and sister woodworkers to be careful! We wern’t even allowed to burn them in training excersizes and we are talking full turnout protection.

    Be smart and safe, Joe

  4. toolcrib says:

    You know what Joe… I never thought about the possible toxicity of pallets due to chemical spills! Your warning is definitely going in the next newsletter – thanks for bringing this up!


  5. Marcus says:

    what is the cost to produce 1 standard 48×48 pallet….

  6. Lucie says:

    2 questions Has anyone used pallets to create a walkway. Does anyone have pictures they’d be willing to share?

  7. Herb Snowman says:

    Not a reply, just my short story of how I’ve used pallets. For 12 Years I burned pallets to heat my home in Bucksport, Maine. Windy and 20 degrees below zero were common conditions all winter long. I heated the house for FREE! Well, if you don’t count the countless hours I spent cutting them. I estimate I’ve handled 3,000 pallets. Joe, July 24, 2008, comments about the plausible toxicity of these pallets sent a cold chill up my spine. The chances of poison fumes in my house are about 100% I figure. Its a good thing we had an air-tight stove…
    Herb (Now living in Warm Tennessee)

  8. Mary Anne says:

    To answer the question concerning the cost of building a 48×48 pallet. The cost would be approximately $13 depending upon how much wood makes up the pallet.

  9. bisuteria says:

    I was suggested this blog via my cousin. I’m not certain whether this put up is written through him as nobody else realize such designated approximately my problem. You’re wonderful! Thanks!

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