Woodworking with pallets is a lot of fun, and you can make some very unique and creative projects. Pallets are different than traditional wood in a lot of ways, and here are 15 important tips on woodworking with pallets that you can start using right away.
15 Important Tips on Woodworking With Pallets
Woodworking with pallets is a lot of fun, and you can end up with some really amazing looking projects. Part of the attraction to pallets is they are free. The other is that they wood has already been used once before, so it can be reclaimed and used again.
Of all the reasons that pallet construction is so popular, those two are the biggest reasons. A woodworker with a little drive can pick up a lot of free wood, and they can turn it into unique furniture and crafts. The wood doesn’t harm the environment as much as fresh wood, because it has already been used.
When you use wood that you salvage from a different project or wooden item, you are essentially recycling the material. The wood is used a second time, and it doesn’t require cutting another tree.
As a pallet woodworker, here are some important tips on woodworking with pallets that will help you get the most from the experience.
Use Only Clean Pallets Without Chemical Treatments
Some pallets are sprayed with UV, mold, and insect inhibitors that make the pallets better suited for a life outdoors. While this is great for the pallets, it’s not great for you. When you look for pallets, make it a point to look for the untreated kind.
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Some of the tell tale signs of a treated pallet are signs of spraying. The people that apply these coatings just spray it without much care, and many times you can see over-spray and residue.
Another way to tell if the pallet has been treated is to look at the coloring. Anything dark with a tint of green/yellow, or any other unnatural color can be an indication. You might also be able to smell a little of the chemical. If you run into any signs like this on your pallets, skip those and look for a cleaner bunch.
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Carefully Take Apart Pallets to Avoid Injury
Pallets are rough. They are not made from the best wood in many cases, and they are not finished to be handled like most project wood. A pallet is designed to be moved by a forklift, and to hold freight. Anything else is just details.
When you are taking apart your pallets, make sure that you are being careful. It is not uncommon to find very long sharp splinters, random nails in places that they should not be, and other debris like glass or metal.
Again, pallets are not normally meant for woodworking, so they are not treated very well by the people that use them. Handle your pallets carefully, and don’t expect anything to be normal, because you can find just about anything when you are working on a pallet.
Completely Take Apart Your Pallets Before Beginning a Project
This should go without saying, but you would be amazed at how many people skip this essential preparation step. Before you begin any project with your pallets, completely take them apart first.
Once the pieces are apart, organize them. Now, everything you have is easy to see, and you will not have to struggle. This is very different than when you are trying to remove boards from a pallet at the same time you need them. This can be very frustrating.
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Pallets do not come apart very easily. When you need to harvest ten boards for your project, you might have to go through fifteen before you get the ten you need. If you are also trying to use the boards at the same time, it can be a lot of effort and a slow project.
Related: Save Your Scraps
Remove all Nails From Your Pallet Pieces
After you get you pallets broken down, inspect the pieces. Look at each piece one at a time and try finding nails. There are many times that some smaller nails will still be in the boards even though you think you took them all out.
Go over each board carefully, and by itself. When you are satisfied that you have all of the nails and sharp items removed, you can store the pieces. Pallets are not cared for very well, so the last thing you want to get an injury while you are woodworking.
An injury from a pallet can cause an infection. The more you spend making sure that your pieces are clean the better. Check for all the nails, and make a pile with the pieces that still need work. Doing this carefully, you should have a lower risk of an injury.
Don’t Steal Pallets for Woodworking
Don’t steal pallets. There are so many free sources that it is not worth getting in trouble for stealing from a business. There are even places that are so excited to give away pallets that they might even help you load them up.
Even when a business throws pallets out behind their shop in a pile, they are not considered trash in the eyes of the law. If you are caught and convicted of stealing pallets, you can face fines or even jail time depending on how many times they had to tell you already.
There are even some places that have laws about branded pallets, and will actively contact the original owners when they find their property. These pallets cause problems for the pallet sellers, because it’s essentially selling stolen goods.
Make Friends With a Shop Owner for Free Pallets
This can take a little time, but the reward is great. Making friends with a shop owner or store manager can be the gateway to free pallets. Some of these managers actively search for places to get rid of their pallets, so you might even be doing them a favor.
Identify a few places in your area that have pallets, and pop into the stores. If you have an introduction that you can get from a friend or family member that works in a store like this, that’s even better. Anything you can do to get yourself in front of that manager is helpful.
Over time, keep working on the relationship, and you will eventually be able to get a bunch of pallets with a phone call. You will still have to go get them, but it’s much better than stealing, and far more reliable.
Sand the Surfaces to Smooth Them
Pallets are not the best looking pieces of wood. However, that is a certain look, and that look is very popular. In order to make the wood look more like normal woodworking wood, you need to sand the surfaces really well.
Depending on the roughness of the wood, either use a belt sander or an orbital sander. If the surfaces are really bad, use the belt sander. If not, then the orbital is fine. Start with an aggressive enough grit that you get through the roughness quickly. This is step one.
After step one, switch to finer grits to smooth out the surface. It might take a few different grits, but you can get a surface that is very smooth. Once you have the surface you are looking for you are done, and you can sand other pieces if you want.
For the best way to sand, my Woodworking Tips Card about sanding is a good read.
Search for Higher End Wood Species on Pallets
Lots of times, pallets are made from whatever is in the area. It does not matter the species, the age, or the type, anything that is available tends to go on a pallet. For the pallet woodworker, this is a great opportunity to find rarer types of wood.
I have personally found Spalted Maple, Maple Burl, Mahogany, and Spanish Cedar on pallets before. It was always a fun surprise, and I always made sure to harvest those boards separately from the others. It’s not super common, but when you work with pallets long enough you tend to see a lot.
I remember hearing a story of someone getting a pallet from across the world and it was actually made in part from East Indian Rosewood. That wood is very expensive in America, but apparently it’s just another tree if you live in India.
Cleaning Up Woodworking Pallets
Most of the time, the pallets that you get are going to be pretty rough. This is normal, and expected on pallet woodworking projects. However, you can clean up the boards a little and get a more refined look. It’s easy too.
Pallets tend to have dirt and grime on them. This is from being slid around the floor, liquids being spilled on them, and scuffs from boots and shoes. Getting these things off the surface makes the wood look better.
One of the easiest ways to get rid of the grime is with a scrub brush and water. A rag works too, just be careful of splinters. If you can’t get them off by cleaning, sanding will work. Just sand off the bad looking areas, and you will be left with cleaner looking wood.
Use Pallets That Match the Look You Want
When you are building with pallets, use the material that matches your project.
For example, if you are making a very weathered looking sign, start out with very weathered looking pallet staves. The natural way that weather and time makes a board look is not difficult to re-create, but why spend the time if nature has done it for you already? Nature is also much better at it than we are.
There are a lot of pallets that have a grey, driftwood look to them. These make excellent looking signs, wall decor, and rustic fencing. The work is already done pretty much, because all you need to do is place them. There might not be any coloring needed at all.
Invest in a Pallet Stripping Tool
There are a number of ways to take apart pallets for woodworking wood. If you are going to be taking apart a lot of them, you should consider investing in a purpose made tool. In the beginning, a hammer and a pry bar will work. Over time though, it will not be as easy.
At first, until you know that you are going to be a pallet wrecking machine, start out with a hammer and a pry bar to take apart your pallets. These tools will work for now. Once you know you are going to be working with a lot of pallets, invest in a pallet breaker.
Search online for a pallet tool, or a tool for taking apart pallets. These look like a long metal bar with a fork at the end. These are used to pry up the staves from the base of the pallet, and work by using leverage. They do cause more damage than taking the pallets apart by hand, but they are far faster.
Find a Place For Wood Storage
Once you take apart all of those pallets, you are going to need a place to store the wood. If you are good at separating the pieces, you can make you storage area even better. Store your pieces by size and color, and you will always know what you have.
Most pallets are about the same size. There are odd sizes, but the most common shipping pallet is the 40″ x 48″ pallet. Due to this size similarity, the pieces that you harvest will be about the same size too.
Store your wood on shelves, off the ground, and separated by look. When you have to dig through your wood pile for project wood, it will be very easy to see what you have. This is much better than having a pile to dig through, and safer too. It’s a good tip for working in a small space, and it will save you room.
Always Be Looking For More Woodworking Pallets
As you drive to work, to school, or when you are out running errands, keep and eye out for free wood opportunities. It’s a background activity, but make sure that when you see wood that you can use, you make an effort to grab it.
Opportunities don’t come around all the time. If you skip too many, you will not have as much wood as you could possibly have in the shop. In contrast, if you pounce on every opportunity you see, you will have a ton of wood to choose from.
Again, do not take anything without asking, but it is worth a question when you find something worth stopping for. When you get back to the shop, make sure to fully take apart the pallet, and place it in your storage area.
Other Types of Free and Reclaimed Wood
Pallets are the main source for pallet woodworking wood, but they are not the only source you can use. There are times when other types of wood are available, and they tend to come from shipping companies as well.
Any time something large or odd sized needs to be shipped, the sender or the shipper will use wood to create a shipping form. These are typically made from plywood and construction grade lumber, and are often discarded after the shipment is received.
When these are thrown away, they are a great opportunity for you. If you can get one of these, or several depending on what you find, they are a nice source of free wood. Take them apart, and use the materials as needed.
Wear Your Safety Gear
Pallets are rough to handle, and can cause injuries. Make sure that you are being cautious and using your safety gear when woodworking with pallets. The equipment will be up to you as the user, but I recommend a couple things to start.
Safety glasses are the number one item that you should always wear. You can’t work without your eyes, which makes it a great place to start. After that, think about gloves to protect from splinters, ear protection, and a good dust mask.
I’m deaf in my left ear, which is why I wear safety glasses. It seems weird, but if you read the post it will make sense.
Safety gear is a personal choice. Use what you need, and be careful when you are working with pallets. This is a great free resource, but not if you get hurt in the process. A little caution and some prevention can make a big difference.
15 Important Tips on Woodworking With Pallets Wrap-Up
Pallets are also most times a free source, which makes the exercise even more fun. Any time you can save money while woodworking, the better.
Source your pallets well, and invest time in milling and maintaining the material. Take them apart carefully, and store the materials after you clean them up.
The more time you invest up front, the better your wood selection will be in the end when you go to make a project. Then, you will have a lot of free wood to make fun projects with.
If you have any questions on 15 Important Tips on Woodworking With Pallets, please leave a comment and I will be glad to answer them.
Also, here are the 15 tips one more time. Happy building.
- Only use Clean Pallets, Nothing Chemically Treated.
- Take Apart Pallets Carefully to Avoid Injury.
- Completely Separate Your Pallets Before You Begin a Project.
- Remove All Nails and Carefully Inspect Your Pieces.
- Don’t Steal Pallets. There are Plenty of Legal Sources.
- Make Friends With a Store Owner/Manager for Free Pallets.
- Sand the Surfaces to Smooth Them Out.
- Search For Higher End Wood Species on Pallets.
- Invest Time in Cleaning Up Your Materials.
- Look for Pallets That Match the Look You Are Going For.
- Invest in a Pallet Stripping Tool or Make One.
- Find a Good Place to Store Your Wood.
- Always Be on the Lookout For More Materials.
- Other Free Wood You Can Find.
- Wear Your Safety Gear, Pallets Can be Rough.
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