Introduction: How to Disassemble a Pallet

Picture of 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

Picture of 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

Picture of 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

Picture of 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

Picture of 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

Picture of 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.

Video

Comments

jkb_6 (author)2018-01-15

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.

luposays22 (author)2017-12-08

The only effective way to do it!

antioch (author)2017-12-07

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

SergeE (author)2017-12-06

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 ...

johnny3h (author)2017-11-29

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].

SergeE (author)johnny3h2017-12-06

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 ?

jwzumwalt (author)2017-11-29

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.

DanielT144 (author)2017-11-28

Nice and fast !

perfo (author)2017-11-27

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..

perfo (author)2017-11-27

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..

notbad (author)2017-11-27

Yes! I was disassembling a pallet to be used as a table this weekend but the boards were nailed so tightly that I couldn't get my pry bar underneath it. I broke out the reciprocating saw and it cut through the nails with ease. I wished I'd discovered this earlier in the year when I had to dismantle a stack of pallets for another project by hand. That took a couple of days.

brandg (author)2017-11-27

With the projects I work on, de-nailing is one of the priority issues. As such, the sawzall solution is more difficult for me. My method is to use a long crowbar to start raising the slat from the 2x4, then using a rubber mallet to push the slat back down and expose the nails. From there, a claw hammer does the trick for de-nailing. I can get about 2-3 slats per minute. Not going to win any races, but it does all right for me.

Anyway, this is just a thought for the situation where cutting the nail is unwanted or you are in a power-deprived position.

jessies38 (author)2017-11-26

I spent an hour diassembling one and my boyfriend walks in and does that exact thing. I was so mad

David.8 (author)jessies382017-11-27

At least he saved you an hour per pallet on the remaining ones! Look on the bright side...

bo88y (author)2015-01-08

To denail, I would use a 1/16" or 3/32" nailset with a rubber jacket. Stanley makes a set of three sizes for about $10. Unless you have tiny little hands, they're easier to hold than the shorter, unjacketed ones (5" vs. 4"), and provide a little cushioning for whatever side thrust occurs from a not-perfectly-straight hammer strike. If you're using one all day, both of these factors make a noticeable difference.

nhampto9 (author)bo88y2015-01-08

This suggestion is excessive & unnecessary. Most nails only take one or two taps before they're exposed enough to pull. We're not talking a lot of serious nailing. If u have it, use it, but I wouldn't spend $10 extra just for this use.

...or you can use a masonry drill bit to eject the nail with a couple of hammer hits. Better results on an open vice.

oldoug (author)bo88y2017-11-26

If you must pull the nails, find one of these Japanese nail sets-easier to hold, gets in tight where it counts, larger striking surfaces means less work

surviver (author)2017-11-26

Does any one have a simple way where u do not have power?

You can try with a hacksaw and cut from the sides of the pallet, it's basically the same idea, considerations on the blades apply too.

Gofish (author)surviver2017-11-26

There is a You Tube video of a neat tool a guy has made with a bit of steel plate, a pipe fitting and a pipe. I'm thinking of making one for when I am far from home.

Very like a 'Pallet Pal' but with only one blade which allows the removal of boards from the center of the pallet.

Gofish (author)2017-11-26

As one of the proletarians I am permanently broke and by nature a scrounger. I am also lazy. The quickest way I have come up with to dismantle a pallet is with an air hammer fitted with a wide chisel blade and two pry bars like the one pictured. Lift the ends slightly with the chisel then the center and finish working off with the bars. I work on two folding tables and it takes under ten minutes a pallet at my slow pace usually with no damage plus I save all the nails and take them to the scrap yard for beer money.

sgbotsford (author)2017-11-26

Very cool.

If you don't have a kid to help try this: Put two fence posts in the ground 3 feet apart. Lean the pallet against the posts.

Downsides: You don't want to run these boards through a planer or rip them.

Where you cut them apart, you'll take off half a blade thickness more or less off of either side, leaving a rough patch.

Consider your project: If short lengths will do you can just cut the slats next to the stringers with a circular saw. This is faster than than the sawzall. Often you can do this for at least one end of the slats.

Pallets are made from a variety of woods. I've gotten pallets made from red oak, doug fir, and once mahogany.

Certain industries use heavier pallets. Tires are often shipped 4 stacks on a 6.5 foot square pallet. Stringers are 3x4's and there are 4 or 5 stringers. Slats are 2x8s These pallets need equipment to move around. individual ones weigh 300 pounds.

chumpi (author)2017-11-26

Good technic, but it renders the 2x4 useless with to many nails with no head deep inside trhe wood, some time the real gold is in the 2x4s

KellyW90 (author)2016-06-20

Thanks! Should my sawzell be set to orbital mode? I have a demolition blade and still am having some difficulty breaking down the boards. Thanks!

BryanM81 (author)2016-06-16

THANK YOU! I was looking for a way to break down some pallets for a gate, and dreaded the thought of so much time with a hammer and crowbar. Bought a sawzall and saved SO MUCH TIME and wood. Also, I have other uses for this amazing tool.

jazzza (author)2016-04-18

Thank you, so simple

avgiancola (author)2016-02-18

followed the video - Great movie! Thank you!

avgiancola (author)2016-02-18

followed the video - Great movie! Thank you!

avgiancola (author)2016-02-18

followed the video - Great movie! Thank you!

Robert HH (author)2014-11-28

HI, good advice. I'm a retired heavy construction guy (30 + years, millwright, ironworker, pipefitter, sheetmetal mechanic, and wrote the textbooks used in a lot of community colleges on those subjects, the Pearson Contren series) This is exactly where the Sawzall comes into its own. It is used in remodeling and demolition work the same way. Good to see you present it to recyclers....

MicheleD36 (author)Robert HH2016-01-10

Robert,

I am also a Pearson writer and own a small B&B. Any chance you'd like to consider a shed remodel using all your skills and a great imagination??? Cool gig for a retired guy. We're on Smith Island, MD at smithislandinn.com Serious offer, let me know if any interest. innkeeper@smithislandinn.com

135steward (author)2015-12-03

This works great! I got a cheap Porter-Cable Sawzall, some 6" and 9" blades rated for wood with nails, and broke down my first pallet in about 20 minutes! I'm sure I'll get faster with practice. The 40 board feet of 1x4's and 12 board feet of 2x2's (I trimmed the main boards) was well worth the effort. Thanks!

135steward (author)2015-09-24

I may try using a jigsaw. I have one of those.

crtorrespr (author)2015-04-20

Works excellent!

jacob_st (author)2015-04-11

Good info thank you. For longer timber slats, I have used a std. car jack to wedge the timber apart. It's fiddly and you have to move the jack up and down each slat until the timber is wedge apart. Some nail heads will pull through the timber due to nail glue etc. Give it a go!

jehowe8 (author)2015-03-27

Love this! Thanks!

Chuck Priest made it! (author)2014-12-11

Great Instructable, it really sped up my deconstruction time using the Saw Zaw and less wood was damaged. Here is a picture of all the Holiday Wine rack gifts I was able to make out of 2 pallets; I still have wood enough for one or two more.

nhampto9 (author)2014-12-08

@ abeaule
I've made 1 desk, but I need 2 or 3 more. I'll probably do an Instructable on it.

asbeaule (author)2014-11-28

I'm currently building a desk from pallet wood. I really wish I'd seen this before dismantling them and had those tools.. It was such a pain to do ! Pallet wood is brilliant to make stuff though. Nice sturdy wood.

vanweb (author)2014-11-25

We needed our wood to be mostly nail free but we could afford to loose a bit of length so what we did (on 130 pallets in 3 days) was to cut the end rails off with a circular saw just inside of where it was nailed. That left just the center bar holding the slats. with this you could easily wiggle the slats a bit loose the just use a pry bar down the middle. As you said many pallets actually use spiral nails with epoxy so they are very difficult to get out so any way to avoid pulling them one by one is a good way!

https://www.instructables.com/id/How-to-use-Free-Pallets-to-Build-a-BBQ-Restaurant/

pfred2 (author)vanweb2014-11-27

When I took apart pallets I did it how you did it. I'd use a circular saw just on the insides of the nails. Losing an inch of slat was no big deal, and messing with those nails increased the chance of a slat splitting anyways.

acheide (author)2014-11-26

Nice way to process waste pallets for re-use.

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