Pallet wood can be useful and cheap, but it comes with different challenges than working with off-the-shelf lumber — in addition to the fact that it’s usually pre-weathered (bonus for rustic projects!), pallet slats will come in a variety of sizes, both length and thickness, and the edges and ends generally won’t be perfectly square — again, this is a bonus for rustic projects, but if you’re looking to make your pallet look a little more refined, be prepared to put in some time sanding!
Even with the extra work, considering that pallet wood is available for free or a minimal cost — it can be worth the work! So this post is all our tips about finding, choosing, dismantling, cleaning, and working with pallet wood, so you can build amazing things for virtually free.
Now, there is some debate about using pallet wood in projects, whether they should only be used in outdoor projects vs indoors, and so on and so forth — we’re not here today to run the debate. Do your research, and if you choose not use pallet wood, great; if you decide to go ahead with your pallet projects, also great. It’s a personal decision, just like what kind of flooring or tile or curtains you put in your home, and we’re just here today to enable those who have chosen to use pallet wood but want some more info about taking them apart while keeping their sanity intact. All of our other #PlentyOPallets projects can also be made using alternative reclaimed wood or even new lumber, so whether you choose to use pallets or not, be sure to subscribe by email or RSS and follow along over on Facebook and Instagram with #palletsaplenty so you won’t miss a single one of the amazing posts we have coming up!
Pallets 101: Finding, Choosing, Dismantling, and Prepping Pallets for Projects
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Where to find a pallet? Just look around! Most businesses receive deliveries on pallets, so ask around at a local grocery store, garden center or nursery, hardware or specialty store, or home decor or design store (such as a tile supplier). But remember — always ask before you presume that stack of pallets is fair game, as some companies reuse and/or return their pallets. Many smaller stores or home deliveries (such a large appliances or tools) will also have pallets to spare, so keep an eye on your local Craiglist or other online classified ads (or even Facebook yard sale groups).
If you’re just looking for rustic reclaimed wood and not specifically for pallet wood — watch for old fences! Old fence wood makes for great project wood, and it’s the easiest way to get a “barn wood” look without having to actually find wood from a barn! When we lived in Texas, after every big windstorm, we could scope out and (with permission) bring home tons of project wood from the fence panels that had blown down. Watch in your neighborhood and on your local classifieds, and you’ll be ready to build something like a rustic TV frame or a beautiful curvy headboard, or add some character to a peninsula or island like this.
Choosing a good pallet
Pallet wood will never be high-end maple — but it’s CHEAP and that’s why there are so many projects out there using pallets and pallet wood! Some pallets are treated with chemicals, so watch for obvious stains or signs of mold and mildew, and watch for the HT symbol on the pallet — that means the pallet was heat-treated rather than chemically treated. You’ll also want to look for pallets with straight, intact boards and nails that aren’t bent or twisted.
How to take apart a pallet
There are basically two methods of dismantling a pallet: manual labor (bring on the muscles!) or power tools. However you decide to take the pallet apart — be sure to wear proper protection! You’ll want eye protection such as safety glasses or goggles, and durable work gloves to avoid splinters. If you go the power tool route, you’ll also want to take all safety precautions (read the manual!) and add hearing protection like earplugs and earmuffs to your safety repertoire.
If you don’t have access to power tools, or want to burn some calories dismantling a pallet, you have a few options for tools:
Pry Bar(s) and Hammer
A pry bar and a hammer will get the job done — just use the hammer to tap the pry bar in between the slats and then pry each slat off. If you’re going this route, you’ll want to be EXTRA sure that all the nails in your pallet are straight to make the job easier! It’s also a good idea to have several different sizes of pry bars (and a nail puller) at your disposal so you can use the best tool for the job, since some boards will be easier than others to remove. Once the board is removed from the main body of the pallet, just tap the nails out to remove them (and dispose of them properly, so no one in the neighborhood picks up a flat tire!). Colleen from Lemon Thistle has a video showing how this method works for her.
If you’ve got some power tools at your disposal — that’s a much faster way to take apart a pallet! You can use a circular saw to cut each board to the side of each nail point on the pallet boards — this will give you shorter lengths of rustic pallet wood, without the nails and holes. To reclaim longer boards from a pallet, you can use the pry bar method above, or use a different power tool to cut right through the nails: an oscillating multitool such as a Dremel MultiMax with a wood/metal blade or a reciprocating saw such as a Sawzall, paired with a proper remodel or metal blade, will cut right through nails, giving you a nice pile of ready-to-use pallet wood in just a few minutes!
Justin demonstrated in this video (be sure to give it a thumbs up!) how we use a reciprocating saw — dismantle a pallet easily in about 5 minutes! This is especially nice when you need more than just a board or two, like if you’re building a piece of furniture such as our pallet wood coffee table with drink bins that we shared earlier as part of the Pallet Challenge to kick off our Pallets Aplenty week of projects.
(If you’d like to see more pictures of taking apart a pallet with a circular saw or an oscillating multi-tool, check out Brittany’s tips over at Pretty Handy Girl.)
Prepping pallet wood
Pallet wood, like reclaimed wood, can need some extra love and attention before it’s ready for your latest masterpiece of a project. You can do this prep work before you dismantle it or after, depending on what project you’ll be using the wood for. First things first: cleaning!
Cleaning Up Pallet Wood
You want to clean up your pallet wood without losing all the character of its imperfections, so it’s a good idea to start with a good scrub-down. You can spray it and scrub it with a dilution of bleach OR vinegar (but do NOT mix them! just one or the other!). When I use a vinegar spray for disinfecting around the house, I also like to add a couple drops of essential oil, like tea tree oil, for a nice scent and the added disinfectant properties. (I haven’t tested this on wood, though I imagine it would be just fine!). You can also pull out the big guns and use a pressure washer! Check out some more great pressure washer options here. And if you’re wanting to sanitize the wood even further, my friend Stacy Risenmay shared how she uses a steam cleaning machine when she uses reclaimed wood, too.
Using Pallet Wood in a Project
As we mentioned, pallet wood can be very rough and will nearly always need some quality time with a sander. Depending on your project, you may want to sand it before you build or after, but don’t skip the sanding! You can start with a higher grit sandpaper for the roughest spots and work your way to a finer grit for a really smooth finish. The extra sanding is worth the time to ensure a great finished product — and worth investing in a power sander for sure!
And if you’re looking for more info about pallets, the wonderful Ananda at A Piece of Rainbow had a fabulous post with tons of extra tips for working with pallets, plus some AMAZING pallet projects she’s completed!
To get you started on your pallet journey, try these easy pallet wood projects