Introduction: Pallet Demolition (Part 1)

About: Programmer by day, musician and tinkerer by night.

This is my first Instructable so pardon any grammar, missing steps, etc.

If you, like me, are an avid DIY'er and like to repurpose materials, save money and take pride in finding solutions where others would simply pay, then you'll likely find yourself wanting to take down a wooden pallet. Successful pallet demolition (hereby after referred to as demo or demo'ing) takes minimal supplies, minimal skill but proper tools. My goals in this method are:

  • do it cheap
  • do it fast
  • do it safe
  • minimize material waste

Cheap is easy. Free pallets are super easy to find, see step 1. Doing it fast takes time to find a method that works for you, but once you've found it, you're good. Safety is paramount and I am not talking just about ears, eyes and hands. Being nearly 40, doing martial arts for 8 years and picking up preschoolers over the years, my back is somewhat delicate. I do not want to be working hunched over or on my knees. Minimizing wastes is easy with this method as there is virtually no wood waste.

Step 1: Finding Pallets

Finding pallets is easy enough here in the United States. I was able to source several supplies by simply browsing/posting to the internet. You can find many sources by visiting:

  • Craigslist,
  • the Facebook Marketplace
  • asking local DIY'ers
  • driving by local industrial parks (be sure to ask permission)

Many sources will be business that have stored pallets. They are usually more than happy to give them away for free because otherwise they have to pay to have them removed.

Step 2: Types of Pallets

For Part 1, I am going to be dealing with your standard wooden pallet (so no crate siding or other heavy-duty purpose pallets). Your typical pallet usually has 2 types of boards:

  • surface boards
  • rails

The nails used on pallets are not your typical wood nail. They are commonly referred to as either spiral shank or screw shank nails and they are not easy to remove with neither a pry bar nor claw hammer. They are designed to withstand a variety of stresses and still keep two pieces of wood tightly together. The spiral locks into the wood grain, which means removal requires either untwisting the nail (which is impossible) or destroying the surrounding wood material.

It should be mentioned that with the abundance of wood pallets out there, do try to avoid any pallets that have either orange or red painted on them. This usually indicates to manufactures and business what the pallets were storing. In the case of orange and red, I believe this indicates they were storing chemical barrels or other potentially harmful products.

Step 3: The Right Tools

When I started out I was using a pry bar, mallet and sledge hammer. It was tough work and took well over 30 minutes to get a smaller non-standard pallet taken down. No way was I going to do it that way again.

In any repetitive task, having the right tools makes the difference in being efficient vs. being miserable. If you plan on demo'ing dozens of pallets, you'll find yourself getting frustrated and more likely to abandon the project altogether if you are miserable, sore and spending too much time on each unit. Having the tools makes the difference in taking over 30 minutes per pallet to taking down a pallet in less than 10 (my quickest is 6:30ish).

The right tools for this method are:

  • hearing protection
  • eye protection
  • gloves
  • pallet jig/stand
  • reciprocating saw w/
    • metal blades
    • wood blades
  • pry bar
  • claw hammer
  • sledge hammer or mallet
  • coffee can or other receptacle for nails

Step 4: Making a Pallet Jig

This will take probably 5 minutes at most. I wanted a way to keep the pallet vertical. My jig used a scrap piece of 4x4 and a scrap piece of OSB. Because your typical pallet height is barely enough to fit a 4x4 block through, I cut the 4x4 in half and nailed it to the OSB. I happened to have some 16-Penny nails lying around but any nail or screw should do. Because the 4x4 fitting in between the boards is a snug fit I used my wood blade on the reciprocating saw to chamfer the corners. This made it slightly easier to put the pallet on the jig.

I used two blocks so that I could straddle the middle pallet rail and not have to deal with twisting. If this jig is not to your liking, find what works for you. The key is keeping the pallet vertical and keeping you from having to move to many times.

One thing to note is the difference betw. a wood blade and a metal blade. I believe my wood blade has 8 teeth per inch (TPI). My metal blades have 16+ TPI.

A word of caution: The black smudge on the blade was where I stupidly grabbed the blade with my work gloves and it melted the rubber. The blades get HOT so don't be a dummy and grab it like I did.

Step 5: Swap Your Blades

We'll be slicing through the nails now, so switch to your metal blade after you've chamfered your jig's posts. I'd also recommend using a longer blade.

Step 6: First Cuts

Before putting your pallet on the jig, cut the nails on one end on the middle rail. If you're lucky and have a longer blade, you can bend the blade slightly to get in there and go all the way through. Otherwise you may using your pry bar and hammer later.

After you cut the middle rail's nails on one end, flip it over and put the pallet on the jig. The pallet will likely remain here until it is fully demolished.

Step 7: Cutting the Edges

With your pallet on the jig, position yourself at the edge. Start at the top and place your blade where the boards meet the rails. Saw down through one side and then the other. Then move to the other side and do the same thing.

Part of the reason I used a larger OSB board was to 1) be able to stand on it and prevent the jig from rotating but also to 2) protect my blade as I cut the lowest boards. I didn't do a good job of picking the right OSB piece as it was still too small in some ways.

Step 8: Cut the Middle

After you've cut the edges, you can move to the middle. This can be a little tougher depending on how tight the nails are in there. But since you've cut the edges, you can give the boards a little wiggle to make a gap for your blade. As you cut the middle, the boards just fall off. I chose to do the middle last because if you leave an edge last, you can potentially get your blade in a bind when the board rotates. Leaving the middle for last means they fall straight down (hopefully).

Step 9: Problem Pieces

If you're able to fully use your saw on a pallet with out lifting a hammer, then you're lucky. Before I found this method, I would leave the middle nails uncut and then pry them loose. As such I have to remove the nails. Even with this better method, you may have to pry off a board or two depending on if you can get your blade in there.

Using your claw hammer, simply hammer the nail end back through the wood. Then with the claw or your hand, remove the nails and place in your coffee can (or other receptacle). Afterwards you should have no nails protruding from your boards.