Introduction: Pallet Wood Mailbox
Pallet-made furniture/decorations/art/stuff seems to be one of the coolest trends lately, and why not? The wood, if properly worked with, is really beautiful, can look as good as new, and can also show quite a bit of character depending on which damaged sections or spots you choose to leave in the final project. The material is also (usually) 100% free, and it really lends itself well to those of us wanting to push the limits of the imagination.
So I have obviously got into it as well, and although this is not my first pallet project, it's the first I'm documenting and turning into an instructable. I hope you enjoy it.
The basis for this one is the need for a mailbox. We're getting our front door replaced, and while the current one has a mail slot the new one will not, so we need a place for mail to be dropped off. One option is obviously to buy one, but hey - that's not how things work here :)
The mail box follows a very simple design and is modeled after the pretty standard ones you can find at any hardware store. The front also has quite a large footprint that could be used for engraving, carving, etc. I toyed with the idea of either carving a motif or transferring one from a laser printout, but in the end kept it simple. I might end up mounting metallic address numbers onto the front down the road and add some kind of lighting, but that would be food for another article ...
Step 1: Tools, Materials and Getting Started
The material list is pretty short - you obviously need some pallets that have been broken down into separate planks and have had all nails and foreign material removed from them. You'll also need hinges for the top (make sure they're galvanized, nickel, plated, etc - anything that will provide rust resistance or proofing), screws to attach them (I went with #6 3/8 because they were short enough to not protrude through the planks), spray paint for the hinges (get something that is rated for the outdoors and is preferably provides rust protection well), and stain + varnish (ensure it's rated for exterior usage).
As far as tools go, though, the main thing is a table saw and a dado stack. There are ways to make box joints using a regular blade, but you would need a specialized jig for that so I opted for the simpler method. You still need a jig to cut box joints with a dado stack, but it's much simpler to make and use.
Other than the basic tools you'll also need wood glue, clamps, a chisel, a square and calipers.
A note on the jigs and process followed: There are several jigs and sleds needed for the table saw, and I'm not covering their construction in this article since they have been extremely well documented by hundreds (if not thousands) or others online. One set of examples I followed is by Steve Ramsey, who has several excellent and straight forward videos on projects like this. Some of my jigs are loosely based on his instructions:
Super easy box joints:
Edge jointing with a table saw (note that I modified the model here by switching the clamps for threaded rods in order to edge joint taller/thicker stock):
Step 2: Preparing the Wood
Once you've acquired your pallet and have separated the boards, it's time to clean them up, remove all foreign material (e.g. nails) and get their edges jointed (i.e. cut straight so that they be glued together without any seams showing).
The cleaning part is easy, and you must pay special attention to the nail removal as failing to do so could mean running into them when cutting the wood on the table saw, and this could damage the blade or even result in injury.
Edge jointing is basically a two step process: you start by assuming that all four edges of your lumber are uneven, and therefore none of them can be used as a reference to cut the others (since both pairs of opposite sides must be parallel). To get around this, the board gets clamped down in a jointing sled that slides over the saw blade and gives the lumber a nice clean edge on that one side. You then rotate the piece 90 degrees (putting the fresh new cut on the bottom) and repeat the process. You now have a piece of wood that is perfectly straight on two contiguous sides.
The next step is to remove the jig, put the fence on, and position the wood such that the freshly cut sides are touching the table and the fence. When you pass the beam through the saw, you now get a third clean cut. Rotate the piece 90 degree again to set the last uncut side facing the blade, pass it through the saw, and voila - a nicely jointed and clean piece of wood, ready for your project.
Don't worry about the side edges at this point, as you want to leave the pieces long. You will cut the edges off later on, once you've assembled your panels and are ready to trim everything down to its final size.
Step 3: Assembling the Panels
Now that your beams have been jointed and are of the same thickness, it's time to assemble them into panels. Using the measurements for your project, determine how many pieces of wood you'll need and always overestimate the quantities (I usually try to work with an extra inch or so per side).
Joining the pieces can be done in many ways, they differ in complexity and strength. The method you choose will depend on the amount of work you want to do as well as how the panels themselves will be attached to each other, and in my case I choose to go for half lap joints. These are joints where a square notch is cut out of the edge on one piece of wood, the same notch is then cut of of the piece next to it (but on the opposite face), and the two pieces are then glued together by combining those notches; just picture two "L" cuts, with one rotated 90 degrees, hooking into each other. I repeated this process over several segments of wood in order to assemble a single panel.
The notches themselves are fairly easy to cut with the table saw. Using a pair of calipers, measure the thickness of the wood and divide that by two. Set both the blade's height and distance from the fence to this measurement, and that's pretty much it. Run a piece of wood through the saw and cut a groove. Then rotate the piece in order to cut a second groove at 90 degrees to the first one, creating the notch. You'll definitely want to run a few test pieces and make micro-adjustments in order to get it perfect, but it's pretty a straight forward process.
Once you've got the saw set up, mark the pieces on your panels in order to remember the order in which they go as well as which corners will get the cuts, and go ahead with all the half lap cuts. When done, prepare all your clamps and keep in mind that you'll need to also add supporting wood on top and below the panels in order to clamp those together and keep the whole thing from bowing during the clamping period. To prevent the support pieces from sticking to your panels you should cover them in packing tape.
Apply plenty of glue to all the joints, assemble the panel and clamp it up. Leave the whole thing to dry over night, and the following day just come back and sand it down (I went through 60 and 100 grit sheets) to remove the glue marks and leave everything nice and clean.
Step 4: Box Joints and Initial Dry Assembly
The box joints are one of the most fun parts to do, and they also add a lot of rigidity and beauty to the piece. By using a dado stack and a box joint jig, you can cut teeth of pretty much any thickness and height. The limits are really just defined by the maximum width of your dado stack and the height of their blades.
For this project I went went a tooth width equivalent to the thickness of the panels, so a bit over 1/4". As mentioned in the intro step, the sled I used was loosely based on one by Steve Ramsey, but I added a feature I saw elsewhere (couldn't find the right video, so unfortunately cannot credit the owner) where the backing of the jig is removable and gets screwed on to the sled. This way, a different backing can be put on for a different joint size.
I started off by cutting the panels down to about 1/4" oversize on all sides and then cut box joints on two sample sample pieces to ensure the cuts were right and lined up properly. When the cuts were working properly, I went for the real thing and processed all four panels. Since the back of the mailbox is taller than the front, the finished sides will be slanted towards the front and therefore have a different number of teeth on their back vs their front. And because I wasn't sure how many teeth would be needed, I cut all the way on both edges of each side panel and would just cut off the unnecessary sections at the end, once the box was glued up.
Step 5: Assembling the Bottom
Attaching the bottom panel can be done in several ways, ranging from simply gluing it to the bottom of the box and maybe strengthening that with pin nails, to using a half lap dado or even more box joints. I opted for cutting a dado, which offers strong support for the bottom and lots of gluing surface, but has the draw back of the slot being visible from the outside of the mailbox.
To get around this, I used stopped dados, which is basically a fancy way of saying that it's a dado slot that doesn't go all the way to the edge. It's quite straight forward to do this, but you do need to be comfortable with your table saw to get it to work. There are several videos out there on how to achieve this, but the concept is essentially this: Measure your panel to see how far from the edge you want the dado cut, and measure your depth as well (I went with half the thickness of the panel's material). With those numbers in mind, adjust the blade height and distance from the fence.
Ensuring the saw is off, stick a long piece of masking tape to the fence all along the opening of the face plate, and make a mark in two places: Where the blade emerges from the plate (the "exit point), and where it goes back in (the "re-entry" point). On the panels, mark the farthest ends of the dado cut you want to make.
When ready, turn the saw on and slowly lower the panel onto the spinning saw blade, aligning the "exit" mark on the fence with the first mark on the panel; this will start the dado groove. Slide the panel over the saw, and stop when the second mark on the panel aligns itself with the "re-entry" mark on the fence. Do NOT lift or move the panel at this point. Simply turn the saw off and wait for the blade to stop spinning.
As with all cuts made with a table saw - ensure you're standing off to one side and not directly in front of the blade. If something catches and there's kick back, you don't want that piece flying into you.
Once the stopped dados are all done, finish the ends of the cuts with a chisel and ensure the bottom panel fits snugly into them.
Step 6: Final Assembly and Glue-up
Now that the joints have all been cut and the dado slot for the bottom is ready, you can assemble the box. Start by dry assembling and ensuring a proper fitting all around, and make final adjustments where necessary. When ready, apply glue to all the box joint teeth and dado slots, assemble three panels, slide the bottom in, and add the fourth panel.
Depending on how tight your teeth turned out and the type of glue being used, your working time might be a little shorter than usual so don't take too long to assemble the unit once the glue has been applied or the pieces might be too tight to put together.
Use plenty of clamps on all sides, and if you're using supporting material make sure it has been covered in packing tape to avoid getting it glued to the box.
Let the whole thing sit overnight and try not to go check on it every 30 minutes (not that I did ...)
The following day you can remove all the clamps and begin sanding the surface. I went through 60 grit and 100 grit sandpaper, and once all glue marks were gone and everything was clean I looked into filling in any minor gaps and cracks. This can easily be done by mixing in the dust from the sanding step above with some glue and applying the paste with a spatula. Let it dry for a few hours, and then come back to sand it down.
The final step is to cut the sides down to their final angle. Trace a line from the back wall down to the front and cut the protruding piece of the side panel off. The back wall will then need to have its top lip adjusted to follow the newly cut angles, so you can easily trace a line on the inside of the wall to mark the lower boundary of the lip and then just file/sand it down.
Step 7: Preparing the Cover
The last "woodworking" step in this project is to prepare the cover, and that's basically done in two steps: Cutting the cover down to size, and accommodating the hinges.
The cover sits flush with the back of the mailbox and has a 1/4" overhang on all other three sides. In addition, the back and front edges are angled so that they end up being vertical (taking into account that the cover actually slopes down). To get the angled cuts right, use an angle finder to determine the slope of the mailbox and then transfer it to the table saw by fully extending the blade, adjusting the angle to match, and then retracting it for the cut. It also helps to transfer that angle to the cover itself in order to make sure your cut is in the right place.
Hinges are next. The ones I got only opened up to a 90 degrees which was too small for me. By flipping them upside down they opened to a wider angle (which accommodated the sloped cover perfectly), but the holes no longer had the chamfer needed to completely hide the screw heads so those needed to be recreated with a hand drill.
The hinges were then placed in equidistant locations (as measured from the edges) and their holes marked. I used a piece of masking tape to mark the depth needed on the drill bits by laying it next to the screws and going for a little less than their total length, and then drilled all 12 holes.
Using the hinges upside down also meant that their pin was no longer up in the air but rather underneath the hinge mechanism, so I had to chisel out a small "trench" to accommodate it. This actually ended up looking better than having the pin on top. The trench was made by simply laying the hinge on the cover, marking out the area and depth needed for the pin, and then slowly chiseling it away.
Once the trenches were cut, the cover was ready. All that remained was to put the mail box, cover and hinges together and screw them in place.
One last piece of work here was to add holes to the back of the mailbox to allow sliding in a screw and washer to attach it to the wall. I marked the location of both holes on the back, I started off with a hole that was slightly larger than the screw head, and then marked a larger circle underneath it to allow for the sliding in of the washer. I cut the larger circle out with a dremel.
Step 8: Fire, Stain and Varnish
One of the best looks I've found for wood is achieved through torching and subsequent staining. Using a simple propane torch, go over the piece slowly from side to side, and make sure you don't change your speed mid-pass or spend too long in one spot. You can always go back to a certain area to darken it a bit more, and if you've gone too far you can also sand it down a bit to remove some of the charred surface.
When the torching is complete, apply your stain of choice (I went with Golden Oak) followed by varnish (and since this is an outdoor piece, ensure you're using exterior graded varnish).
The hinges and all screw heads get a coat of mat black, and the easiest way to do this is with a spray can. Just attach the screws to a temporary piece of wood, ensure there's plenty of space between them and that the heads are not blocked, and spray everything with a thin coat. Let it dry, come back and add another one, and ensure all angles are covered. When the paint is dry, you're all set!
Attaching the mailbox to an exterior wall really depends on the wall material, but just make sure you're using a screw and washer, and that the washer is bigger than the top holes we made in the back of the mailbox. Attach the screws to your wall, slide the mailbox onto them, and enjoy :)
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