Introduction: The Pallet Bible: Finding, Inspecting, and Dismantling Pallets
For those of us in the DIY, upcycling and woodworking communities, reclaimed wood has been a rising force as a medium for home projects for years. Its appearance and history give our furniture and home decor a character that people admire, and it can be very fun to work with. Within this classification of material lives the pallet, a seemingly innocuous item that is much more important than most people realize, but one that also carries with it an unknown past. Using pallet wood in your home projects can result in great-looking pieces of furniture and art, but knowing how to find and use pallet wood safely is a facet that should not be overlooked.
What follows is an extensive wealth of knowledge that I've gained from both research and hands-on experience, and hopefully it can provide you with an understanding of how pallets come to be, how to find safe pallets easily, and how to transition wood from its pallet form into a handsome finished product in your projects. Though I've tried to be as thorough as possible with detail in the following sections, I'm by no means the definitive expert on these subjects. If there is any information that you feel has been omitted or that you find yourself disagreeing with, please leave your comments at the bottom and help me maintain this as an accurate and comprehensive resource.
Pallets are one of the most widely used products in the shipping and transport industries, both domestically and around the world. It was estimated recently that there are approximately 2 BILLION pallets in circulation across the U.S. alone... It could legitimately be argued that they may be the most important tool in the global economy. Their rise to domination within international transport began in the early 1930's with the spread of affordable electric forklifts, and they allow for the loading and unloading of trillions of tons of products per year at a fraction of the time it would take to do so without them. Pallets are the invisible juggernaut of the world's trade market. Once you begin to look for them, it seems you will start to see them everywhere...
Step 1: Where to Find Pallets
So why can it seem so damn hard to get your hands on some free pallets?! This is a question many DIYers find themselves asking. With the right strategy and a little patience and understanding, you'll soon end up having a garage like mine: with literally more pallets than you know what to do with.
The first thing to realize is that even if you see an 8ft-high tower of pallets behind a store or business, these pallets aren't necessarily free. Many businesses - especially national chain stores - contract with the transport companies that deliver their goods and materials to "rent" their pallets. These companies get refunds for returning these pallets the next time a delivery is made. Nabbing a pallet from a random store is technically theft. I'm not saying that I haven't done it before, but just because you as a DIYer might subscribe to the phrase "one man's trash is another man's treasure," you must realize that pallets are very much not trash.
So where are good places to find truly free pallets? Well, aside from the word "theft," the most important thing to take away from the paragraph above is the phrase "national chain stores." Simply put, don't waste your time stopping in to ask the employee at the first register inside the door if you can take a pallet or two from the mountain of them you saw next to their dumpster. More often than not these businesses have a pallet agreement with their delivery companies, and would rather not give you their pallets for free when they may be getting a refund of as much as $10-15 for each. Instead, your best friends when searching for pallets are your local neighborhood stores that may view their pile of pallets as a burden more than a blessing. Here are some great places to start looking for pallets when you're in need:
Craigslist - Yes, I know you probably thought of this already, and don't assume that this suggestion being at the top of my list is a sign of me just being lazy. Before you hit the streets to scour the back side of your neighborhood businesses, do a quick search on craigslist. Depending on where you live, you can find some great resources here. Skip over the listings for one or two pallets that someone has put on the curb outside their home. When you get there it will be gone. You want to look for businesses indicating a decent stock of pallets they'd like to see disappear. You aren't the only person with this strategy so don't be shocked if you get beaten to the punch.
Construction Sites - Often times, especially at smaller commercial construction sites, there are a bevy of pallets sitting around that once carried construction materials. With the amount of waste from construction projects that usually ends up at the dump, some contractors are more than willing to toss their used pallets into the pile of material scrap once the build has ended. You don't want to bother workers while they're busy, but if you see pallets piled around, you might strike it rich if you're willing to pull up and ask.
Motorcycle/Auto Body Shops - Most small or boutique car and motorcycle shops get parts delivered regularly, and if you're buying a large amount of shiny brand-new parts, you're probably getting them delivered on nice, clean pallets. These guys are usually very friendly and are happy to donate a few pallets to someone who, like them, has a desire to get their hands dirty building something. Avoid larger parts stores (like an AutoZone or equivalent), as they almost always have agreements with their delivery companies.
Feed/Farm Stores - These are usually friendly, locally owned businesses that get a ton of large deliveries on pallets. Also, since much of their stock is used for animal/agricultural use, the pallets are generally safe from chemicals that you want to avoid.
Liquor/Package Stores - With the sheer amount of inventory coming in and out of liquor stores, they're a great bet to have a pile of pallets out back.
General Tips -
Drive around the back side of neighborhood strip malls to see if there are any stores in particular with left-over pallets sitting outside. Then you know which stores to approach about taking pallets off their hands.
When you're asking for pallets, briefly explain to the owner why you're looking for some. If they know that you're looking to build a table for your wife or a treehouse for your kids, they'll be much more willing to donate them.
Try to hit up places either early or late in the work day. If you bother someone while they're busy, they're much less likely to take the time to talk to you and be inspired to share their pallets with you.
If you happen upon a friendly store manager/owner who is happy to let you take their pallets off their hands, ask if they regularly have excess pallets. Eventually, you may luck out and get to know two or three businesses that don't mind you showing up sporadically to pillage their pallet overflow without having to ask.
Be conscious of recent weather when you're out pallet hunting. If you've gotten a lot of rain recently and a pallet looks like it may have been outside a while, you should be aware that even treated pallets can sometimes harbor mold. It's best to find pallets that look dry and not discolored.
Avoid taking pallets from places like garden centers, pool companies and other businesses that you think might be dealing with chemicals. This is discussed at length in the upcoming section, but you want to do everything you can to avoid working with pallets that may have been contaminated with potentially-dangerous substances. NEVER use a pallet that looks to be colored, spilled on, or questionably dirty in any way. It isn't worth it.
Step 2: How to Select a Pallet & Read Pallet Stamps
There is a TON of info online about pallet safety, including a few articles here on Instructables. You have to realize when working with pallets as a medium that you can and will never know just where your pallets have come from and what they may have transported. There's simply no sure-fire way to know if your particular pallet is free from potentially harmful toxins and chemicals, so this is really a game of educated caution rather than black and white safety.
This isn't meant to scare you away from using pallets in your creations by any means, but awareness is key in keeping yourself and your home safe. The best way to do this is to have an understanding of how pallets come to be, and how to read their markings to ensure that you're avoiding the kind of pallets that may be harmful to you.
The first thing you should look for when trying to find a pallet is any sort of stains, coloration, spills, mold, spots, paint, powders, etc. If your pallet has any indication that it isn't completely clean, don't use it. There are PLENTY of pallets out there and it isn't worth gambling on a questionable one.
The next step in identifying a safe pallet is looking for a pallet stamp. Every pallet that is used in international shipping and transportation requires a branded stamp that indicates a number of very important details about the pallet's origin. For the most part, a pallet without any stamp on it was made domestically and does not require any safety markings. If a pallet lacks a stamp and looks clean, it is most likely safe for use, but you can't be entirely sure.
As mentioned above, pallet stamps paint a partial picture of a pallet's history. Being marked with a stamp does not necessarily mean that this pallet has been used for international transport, but there are a few key details here worth examining:
The IPPC Logo: The International Plant Protection Convention is a regulatory commission that was formed in the 1950's to prevent the spread of pests that could endanger plant life in particular regions around the world. Untreated wood can harbor unwanted insects and pests, and regulations were put in place to treat wood used for transport (i.e. pallets, crates, boxes) to prevent pest infestation. All pallets used internationally SHOULD abide by these regulations. If you find a pallet with a stamp on it that does not have the IPPC feather logo, you have no way of knowing how it was treated, and thus should avoid using it.
The Treatment Code: There are a number of different ways that pallets can be treated, and IPPC standards have changed over the years to allow for various treatment types. Some of these involve chemicals that you don't want to tangle with, while others indicate that a pallet was treated safely. Sometimes your pallets will have multiple codes on them. Here is a look at some of the most common treatment codes you are likely to see in the United States:
• HT - By far the most common treatment code you will see stamped, Heat Treatment is the modern process for treating wood used for transport. This process uses a kiln to fire the wood to a core temperature of 56ºC, which helps deter wood-boring insects. This stamp indicates that the wood has been treated without chemicals and is safe for use.
• MB - Increasingly less common, this stamp indicates that the pallet was treated with the chemical Methyl Bromide, or bromomethane. This chemical is used primarily as a pesticide or fungicide around the world. In 1987, the Montreal Protocol aimed to regulate its use along with multiple other chemicals found to impact the ozone. Though still used occasionally in the commercial agricultural industry, it is becoming more heavily controlled and, thus, more rare. If you encounter a pallet stamped with MB, it is likely from Asia or Oceana and should be avoided and - if necessary - properly disposed of.
• DB -The process of "debarking" wood involves a planer or other cutting tool to remove rough outer-layers of wood. Aside from generally smoothing the wood, this is done to allow for a more thorough treatment of wood before being approved for transport. Newer pallets no longer require this stamp by the IPPC, as most modern wood treatment procedures require debarking as a standard part of their process.
• EPAL & EUR - These codes are respectively the modern and outdated codes indicating that a pallet was made for transport in a European territory. EPAL/EUR pallets are the most widely used in the world, though are not as common in the U.S. Pallets marked 'EPAL' have undergone the debarking and heat treatment process and have been inspected by the European Pallet Association, and are thus safe for use. 'EUR' is a no-longer used regulatory code that officially ended in 2013. The regulation of pallets marked 'EUR' was not necessarily held to the current standards, and so are not guaranteed to be safe. However, these pallets are still inspected throughout their lifespan and will often be updated with the 'EPAL' stamp as well.
The Country Code: In addition to codes indicating the pallet's treatment method, you may find other markings on a pallet that indicate the country of origin. A list of the two letter codes associated with these countries can be found here. In addition to the country code, you'll often see a string of several numbers following these letters, which simply indicates a serial number from the plant it was manufactured at. Not all pallets will have either of these stamps on them.
Other Stamps: If you're a regular pallet hunter, you will undoubtedly come across other acronyms stamped on your pallets. Often times, this will indicate the name of the pallet inspection firm, manufacturing company, or an uncommon type of wood. If you encounter a stamp you are unsure of, it may be best to avoid it just to be safe, or inquire online to see if others may have come across it before.
Colored Pallets: Every so often you may come across a pallet that looks to be dyed red or blue. These colored markings are used to easily designate the brands of three of the largest pallet pool companies in the world. BLUE CHEP (Commonwealth Handling Equipment Pool) pallets are manufactured by an Australian company, while RED pallets usually indicate one of two companies: LPR (La Palette Rouge) from Europe or PECO (formerly the Pallet Exchange Company) from the US. These companies run global pallet rental services that allow transporters and manufacturers to use their pallets on commission, and they can be picked up from and returned to numerous locations throughout the world. These pallets are never truly owned by the businesses who lease them, and as such you should avoid taking these pallets. Many sources also claim colored pallets to be potentially dangerous as they may often be used to transport chemicals.
Pallet Wood for Fuel: Lots of people look to burn pallet wood in their fireplace or wood stove because pallets can be so abundant and cheap. Let me caution you NOT TO DO THIS. Some people will argue that they've never had any issues burning them before so it must be perfectly safe... All of the information I mention above is meant to make you cautious and aware that you can't ever really know where your pallets have been or what they may have carried, and that's exactly the reason not to burn and inhale them. I have heard a couple of pallet-burning horror stories that may just be old wives' tales, but it is honestly not worth putting yourself or family at risk by filling your home with potentially toxic fumes.
Step 3: Dismantling Pallets
Now that you have found some solid and safe pallets to work with, it's time to go about dismantling them in a manner that will salvage as much useable wood as possible. I'll tell you from first-hand experience that this can be a frustrating process. Some of these pallets have been through a lot, and they've transported literally tons of goods throughout their lifespan - they aren't going to come apart easily. But I can offer some insight on ways to maximize your yield of reclaimed wood while keeping the cracked and damaged boards to a minimum.
First, let's take a look at how most pallets are constructed. The general design for a pallet is fairly simple: you have three horizontal weight-bearing boards, known as stringers, on which thinner pallet boards are attached to form the top and bottom decks of the pallet. In some designs, the stringers have notches cut into them to allow forklift arms to enter from any side. These are known as four-way pallets. The boards are very often attached to the stringers using helical nails which have a spiraled pattern along the shank of the nail. This design improves rigidity and reduces the chance of a pallet separating during use. Of course, this also reduces the chance of you cleanly separating your pallet boards during dismantling...
There are multiple opinions out there about the most efficient way to dismantle a pallet, but I'll give you the two strategies that I've found to work best:
Use a Pallet Breaker:
If you hear people refer to pallet busters, pryers, or breakers, they're talking about a tool designed specifically for dismantling pallets and crates at a quick rate. These allow you to position the teeth of the tool under a board on opposite sides of the stringer and pry up on the board using greater leverage than you might achieve with a smaller crow or pry bar. You can purchase these at most large hardware stores (HD/Lowes), or if you want to try your hand at making your own, you can check out walkthewalk's design. However...
Use a Pry Bar:
This is my preferred method, as I have had more luck removing pallet boards uncracked with a pry bar than I have when using a pallet breaker (I mean, it *is* called a pallet breaker...). This strategy allows for more precision and control than using a pallet buster, which is meant more for quick dismantling rather than delicate disassembling. If you do this correctly, it will only take a couple of minutes per board, so you can run through an entire pallet relatively quickly. For this method, you'll need a pry bar (this is preferred over a thicker crow bar), a hammer and a saw (a circular or reciprocating saw works best).
The idea here is to start by removing the two end stringers of your pallet entirely. While you will end up losing a couple of inches on either side of your pallet boards, having to only pry them from one point rather than three will save you time, effort, and accidental cracking. Pallet stringers can be utilized as well in several pallet project ideas you may come across, so set these aside for later. After you've sawn off both end stringers entirely, you'll be staring at several almost-liberated pallet boards attached to one stringer down the middle.
Next, follow the steps in the attached picture: 1) Lean your pallet up against a wall or workbench so that the stringer is vertical. 2) Begin working at the top board using your pry bar and hammer. You can use the hammer to pound the pry bar in between the boards to get further into the joint. 3) You'll want to have a good stance to maximize your leverage, so it helps to get a foot on the bottom board of the pallet to hold it in place.
4-6) The real key here is patience. Don't force anything too hard or you'll risk splitting and cracking the wood. I prefer using the Wonder Bar made by Stanley, but anything similar will do. Take the hooked end of your pry bar and work at your nails from every angle. By prying at the board a little from all sides - even the back - you'll ease the board out rather than force it, and chances are you'll walk away with a lot more intact boards than you would otherwise.
7) Keep working at your pallet until the boards begin to separate from the stringers. 8) When you get close, you can use your hammer to gently pound the boards out the rest of the way. Sometimes the nails will come out with your pallet boards. Other times the nails may be so old and rusted that they'll pull through your boards while you dismantle and will stay attached to the stringer. Regardless, make sure to safely dispose of your nails to avoid getting snagged on them (and being up to date on your tetanus shot regiment might not be a bad idea either!). You can hammer your nails out from the other side of your boards and finish prying them out with your hammer.
• A tip from Instructables member the_tool_man: "In my experience, nearly every pallet I've encountered uses nails driven from a pneumatic nailer. These nailers typically use nails that are bound together with small wires prior to use in the nailer. Once the nails are driven into the wood, these wire fragments frequently embed into the wood surrounding the nail holes, and can remain there after the pallet is disassembled. Anyone planning to plane and finish the wood from a pallet should very carefully inspect the nail holes for metal, or they will ruin a set of planer blades in short order, which will wipe out any material cost savings you might have dreamt of. If you use pallet wood a lot, you might consider buying an inexpensive metal detector (~$20)."
That should be it! You now have a heap of unbroken pallet boards at your disposal for whatever projects may come to mind (and I'm sure you have a few lined up). And, if you find yourself with more cracked boards than you had hoped for, take solace in two things: there are plenty more pallets out there and you'll get better with a little practice, and with some brainstorming you'll be able to come up with something to do with these cracked boards, such as building this Scrap Ends Table that I designed.
Step 4: Preparing Pallet Wood for Use
Now that the laborious process of breaking down your pallets is over, it's time to get them ready for use in your projects. There are so many great projects on Instructables featuring creative ways to use the great resource that is pallet wood, including several new ones in our Pallet Contest - there are simply way too many amazing ideas for me to begin listing them here. No matter what it is that you're planning on making, it's important that you make sure to prepare your pallet wood for use properly and safely.
There is a dilemma you'll likely encounter at some point during your pallet project. Pallet wood's very nature of looking rough and worn is one of its appealing characteristics, but it can also make it hard and/or risky to work with. Hopefully the previous section about pallet safety didn't scare you off and only served to make you more conscious of the potential hazards you need to be aware of. It's that awareness that you'll need to determine how far to go when preparing your pallet wood for use.
First, you need to ensure that you're going to the proper lengths with your safety gear whenever working with pallets. This should be the case even when you may be working with wood from the lumber store, but its importance is doubled here. Gloves and eye protection are a must, and using a mask or respirator is critical when sawing and sanding. Sawdust can be unhealthy enough to inhale, but the questionable history of even the cleanest-looking pallet should be enough motivation for you to do whatever you can to avoid inhaling dust and debris when working with your reclaimed wood.
As mentioned above, you'll want to find where the line is between making your pallet wood easier and safer to work with, while keeping that rugged aesthetic of the pallet intact. If you're looking to maintain the appearance of your reclaimed wood, you can sand off just enough of the outer layer of the pallet board to avoid splintering and unevenness while not disturbing the character of the wood. If you're only using this wood because it's a free alternative to what you'd find that the hardware store, you can go further with your wood and sand off the outer layer entirely. These pieces can still feature interesting grain patterns and shades of wood that can be very attractive in your finished project. Regardless of how much you decide to sand off when prepping your wood, you want to go beyond the point that you feel comfortable with the safety of your pieces. If there's any question to you that your wood may still cause a splinter or looks a little too weather worn, keep sanding.
• Since some pallets see their fair share of weather and work, you may find that some of your boards look a little warped after dismantling. An electric hand planer is a great and inexpensive way to fix this issue. With a few passes of a planer, you can take the most wobbly looking board and make it straight as an arrow.
• When cutting your pallet wood, remember that the nature of these boards often makes them quite brittle. Doing rip cuts along the grain of the wood can cause it to crack, so always try to cut against the grain when possible.
• Even after you've removed the nails from your boards during dismantling, avoid making direct cuts too close to your nail holes. These are often the weakest points of your board, and can splinter or crack if put under too much pressure.
Lastly, you want to make sure that you properly seal your pallet wood before finishing your projects. This is the last step in reinforcing the idea of making your pallet wood safe for use, and should never be avoided. The type of sealer to use depends on how you want your finished product to look. If you're looking for a natural, non-glossy finish, using natural penetrating oils (such as Danish Oil or Tung Oil) can brighten your wood grain and provide a protective seal for furniture that will not be subjected to outdoor wear-and-tear. This is my favorite method when working with pallet wood, as it acts as a stain and seal all in one, and is much nicer to work with than water-based stains and urethane finishes. However, if you want a glossy look, have a particular stain you want to apply, or are planning on using your furniture outdoors, you'll want to go with a polyurethanefinish (or something similar like a varnish or lacquer). This will give you the protection you're looking for while also making the final product look very nice and finished.
I hope you've picked up some helpful tips on how to get the most out of your newly-found pallets! Once again, please leave any comments below to help keep this Instructable accurate and up-to-date.