How to Disassemble a Pallet





Introduction: How to Disassemble a Pallet

As an avid pallet recycler w >100 pallets disassembled & repurposed this summer, I am sympathetic to the pains & frustrations of disassembly. But when I heard that someone took 6 hard hours to take a single pallet apart when I do it daily w 100% usability in <7 minutes, I knew I needed to tell folks that there was a better way.

Step 1: Pallet Construction

Pallets are built strong to hold tremendous weight on top, yet light to facilitate transport of that weight. Because of the multitude of loads, there's no specific "standard" pallet, just more or less common in a given industry. Since most of my projects are 4' in size (benches, tables, etc.), I tend to accumulate more pallets w 48" slats than other sizes, but I've got small 36" wide pallets & 60" long pallets & everything in between.

Basic construction regardless of size is a 2x4 (w or w/o fork cutouts) to support the top (more slats) & held vertical by the bottom slats (fewer). Pallets that hold heavier weight (such as bottled water) usually have 4x4 blocks instead of 2x4s boards.

The slats are usually 1x4 or 1x6 secured via pneumatic nail gun w spiral twisted nails pretreated w glue. The heat from forced entry activates the glue. The twist prevents pull out. Since pallets can have a LONG lifespan & extensive reuse, they are designed to NOT come apart.

They are also treated to prevent rot. Some make a huge "life threatening" speech about Methyl & Ethel chemical treatment, but I haven't found one of these pallets yet. Maybe it's a regulation thing of what they used to do back in the '80s or something. Of the 109 pallets that I've brought home & the 1,000+ I've seen in piles around town, ALL of them are stamped w the HT code for "Heat Treated". Stay safe, but don't let the scaredy cats freak u out too bad.

Step 2: Disassembly Options

Most DIY folks use hammer, pry bar, & homemade wood or metal contraptions to pry the slats off the 2x4s. This has 3 BIG problems:

  1. Work
    I'm lazy. I don't like to break a sweat over a simple task when I've got better things to spend my energy on.
  2. Time
    Breaking pallets down by brute force takes forever! Each nail has to be pulled & prodded. Each slat has to be tapped & twisted. Then u have to denail each board or risk scrapes & worse.
  3. C) Damage
    Even worse than all that, you spend 30 minutes to an hour ripping the pallets apart only to end up w splinters & short pieces that won't build what u wanted the pallet to begin w. 3 pallets w 15 slats each might only yield 35 usable boards. Unless u need a reliable source of kindling, there has to be a better way.

    A quick search online reveals industrial level pallet recycling machines that cost thousands but will allow 2 men to disassemble a pallet w no breakage in as little as 30 seconds. Another style of machine lets a single user disassemble a pallet in 45 seconds. Obviously, this isn't practical for the handyman trying to build on the cheap, but what do they do different? Instead of pulling the slats off w force, they CUT the nails!

Step 3: Reciprocating Saw

To give credit where it's due, I got this from Old World Farms.
For <$50 u can buy a brand new reciprocating saw. At pawn shops, garage sales or Craigslist, you can find them even cheaper. Sometimes called a Sawzall from the original machine built by Milwaukee Tools, these are awesome rough cut demolition tools. Insert the special blade between the slat & the 2x4 to cut the nail w no stress on the slat or you. Let the tool do the work!

Step 4: Saw Blades

Not all reciprocating saw blades are created equal. There are 4 basic styles:
A) Wood only
B) Metal only
C) Crosscut / Tree Trimmer
D) Bi-Metal
You want this last style. Not all of them are created equal either. Bostitch makes a great Nailcutter blade. Milwaukee makes a superb TheAxe blade. The secret is to not let the nail get too deep between the teeth to prevent tooth breakage.

Step 5: Process

Step 1) I prefer using a 6" Bostitch Nailcutter on the ends. These were on sale @ WalMart so I bought several packages. 6" doesn't bend much, & these blades last a good dozen or more pallets each. 2/3 done!

Step 2) Switch to 9" Milwaukee TheAxe blade. Keep your blade straight & work the middle support.

Step 3) Denailing is optional, but if u really want or need to, the slats are easy w just a dull nail to drive them up & a quick pull out. 2x4s are a bit trickier but can be done w a slice down the middle long ways w a circ saw followed by the dull nail & wire cutters.




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I took a full day taking apart a stack of pallets (10-11) with a hammer and pry bar. Ruined a good chunk of the boards before I decided to just take a circular saw to them. Guess I grabbed the wrong saw! This seems much easier! Much appreciated.

The only effective way to do it!

Slightly misleading title, since you only depict 2 methods. "How to disassemble pallets using a reciprocating saw and the advantages" would be fitting.

So that's why some of those nails are hell to impossible to pull out !

this the first time I read about glue / epoxy being used to hold those nails in the pallet wood ...

The only way to pull them out is with pliers. Almost like pulling teeth, but using leverage. Nails end up curved, but completely out, whether headless or not, in seconds. Unless they break too close to the surface of he wood that is .... The pain is getting the wood slats off in one piece.

I'll be trying johnny3h coring trick. Slats should come off in no time. Split cores and use plyers to extract the nails as they wait sticking out of the beams/studs.

Got a small stack of pallets and three old barn beams - lots rusty nails in those, waiting out back ...

At 75, I've tried most of the methods described in the comments, and this 'able.

Even after carefully 'denailing,' there are ugly nail holes remaining. SO...

I made a 'hollow' drill bit from a small diameter [1/4 in O.D.] piece of scrap pipe. I accomplished this by placing the pipe vertically in my vice, and filed simple 'teeth' into it with a small Warding file.

I then drilled through the pallet slats, around the nail heads, releasing them. Any holes appearing in my assembled projects were plugged with dowels made with my dowel cutting bit, from matching pallet-wood scraps.

IF I wanted to save/use the 2 x4 [or whatever size] 'studs,' it was easy to split the small wood 'dowel' from around the 'screw-nail,' which could easily be 'unscrewed' with a pair of locking pliers [Vicegrips in my case].

Why didn't I think of that ? ;)

I have used pliers to pull the nails out of the studs, and even old barn beams. The latter often have nails so old and rusted they break, leaving a piece deep within the wood. Your trick should help get those pieces out... It would be like core mining.

I'll be trying it on the next batch of upcycling pallets and such. Although some pallets can have 3 or 4 nails holding the slats at each stud/beam.Would make clusters of plugs ... giving the finished upcycled wood more character, right ?

This came at the right time. I just got access to an unlimited supply of pallets and picked several up to experiment. Now I know ho to salvage the wood - thanks.

I don't do this very often. But when I have I have spent time trying to pry the heads out enough to get a jimmy on them. broken pallets and a fair bit of effort was the normal result. This way seems so much easier and better and simple especially as I have a chunky Bosh reciprocating saw and didn't think of using it... Thanks for the tip..

I don't do this very often. But when I have I have spent time trying to pry the heads out enough to get a jimmy on them. broken pallets and a fair bit of effort was the normal result. This way seems so much easier and better and simple especially as I have a chunky Bosh reciprocating saw and didn't think of using it... Thanks for the tip..