Introduction: Pallet Wood Nightstand (with Minimal Tools)

I recently moved and found myself in need of a nightstand. I had a pile of pallet wood laying around, so I decided to use that for the build. This way, it cost me virtually nothing. I might decide to make fancier nightstands later (or just buy them), but at least now I have a spot next to my bed to put stuff.

This project is very suitable for a beginning woodworker. You only need a basic set of tools and it doesn't require a lot of accuracy. When there are gaps or when some pieces are out of square, you can just call it 'rustic'.

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Step 1: The Design

I always like to get an idea of what I'm making by drawing up a plan. The top is a glued-up panel, and each leg is made up of 2 boards that have an angled cut and are nailed together at 90°. The drawer is added later by cutting away a part of the legs. Measurements are given directly on the photos in each step (in red). They are in millimeters, so convert to inches by dividing by 25.4 if you use imperial.

If you're interested in the drawing program, I used a free online tool called Tinkercad. It's really meant for designing 3D-printable objects, but it works for woodworking too. It uses a basic set of geometric shapes that you can add or subtract, so it's super simple and quick.

Step 2: The Top

One of the pallets had slats that ran only half the length of the pallet, so they were the perfect length to glue up into a panel. A strong glue joint requires no gaps when you press the boards together by hand. Obviously, this wasn't the case, but luckily there's a tool for that: the hand plane.

Fold two boards together as if they were an open book, laying on its cover (see arrows on 1st pic). Clamp them into a vise and plane both edges at the same time, until you have two continuous shavings (pic 2). It doesn't even matter if you plane slightly out of square, because the angle on one board will compensate for the other. Do this for all boards and test for gaps. If you are satisfied, glue all boards together (pic 3). Notice the piece of wood clamped to the panel with yellow clamps. This keeps the boards level while clamping pressure is applied. Leave to dry for approximately 2 hours (more is even better). When applying glue, a zigzag line of glue on one edge of a glue joint is enough (pic 4). If you rub both boards together you'll distribute the glue evenly.

If you'd like to know more about setting up a hand plane, I can refer you to a video of Paul Sellers.

Once your panel has dried, you can cut it to exact dimensions: 360x360 mm. If you own a table saw, by all means use it. But hand saws work well too. You have to realize you need a saw for crosscutting (pic 5) and a saw for rip cutting (pic 6). Stay away from your pencil line and then plane to your line for best results. While you have your plane handy, also break all sharp edges:

Finally, give both sides of your panel a light sanding:

If you're interested in learning more about hand saws, I can again refer you to a video of Paul Sellers.

Step 3: The Frame (bottom Side of Top)

In order to attach the legs to the top, you'll need some kind of structure to attach them to. Therefore, I ripped a bunch of 20 mm strips on my table saw (pic 1) with the underlying idea to make multiple nightstands. You don't need that much strips, so a hand saw (rip cut) would do the same job. I cut them to length (pic 2 and 3) and decided which side of the panel I wanted as bottom. Put the strips on the panel in the configuration seen in picture 3, and try to space them evenly from all edges. Also check the corners with your square.

All strips are nailed, and the strips that run with the grain are also glued (pic 4 and 5). The strips that run across the grain should only be nailed, to allow for wood movement (see red arrow in pic 5). The panel can shrink and expand with changes in temperature and humidity, so it's never a good idea to restrict that movement. If you do, the tension will build up until cracks start to form.

Step 4: The Legs

For the legs, you'll need 4 boards with a length of 650 mm: 2 boards are 105 mm wide and 2 boards are 125 mm wide. Draw a diagonal on all boards, and cut along that line with a rip saw (pic 1). Picture 2 shows 2 of the 4 boards that are cut diagonally. These will make 2 legs.

To make each leg, simply take a broad and a narrow triangle and glue and nail them together (pic 3 and 4). Make sure the edge of the narrow triangle is nailed to the flat face of the wider one, and not the other way around. This way, your leg will be the same width on both sides, measured from the corner.

The ends of the legs do not line up nicely (pic 5) but that's not a problem. We will cut each leg to a length of 480 mm anyway (pic 6). With the top added, this gives us a nightstand height of 500 mm (roughly 20 inches).

Step 5: Attaching the Legs

Now it's time to attach the legs to the frame we made in step 3. Apply glue (pic 1) and use screws of appropriate length to attach each leg (pic 2). All holes were pre-drilled with a smaller diameter drill bit before screwing, to prevent the wood from splitting. The last leg is a bit more tricky because there isn't much room. Hold your drill upside down for these last screws (pic 3).

Flip your work-piece upright (pic 4) and test if it's stable. If not, find the shortest leg and cut the others to the same length. If only a little bit of wood needs to come off, you can use a chisel. Make sure it's super sharp, because you're slicing end grain.

If you wanted to make a side table, you are done already! If you want a drawer, read on.

Step 6: The Drawer

Originally, I wanted to make a simple drawer, held together with nails. But then I decided to make dovetails, just for the fun of it. I won't go into detail about how to make dovetails, because Paul does a far better job at it. And it would lead us too far for a beginner project anyway. So I'll stick to the essential steps, and put some photos of the dovetail process at the end of this step. Whether you use butt joints or dovetails is entirely up to you.

I wanted a drawer that was deep enough so I could fit a lot of stuff in there. After browsing through the pile, I found a board that was 130 mm wide, but it had a cup in it (pic 1). I planed the board flat again, and made sure I kept one short piece rough on one side (pic 2). This will later be the front of the drawer, so it has to have the same rustic look as the rest of the nightstand. The other pieces lost some of their character because of the planing, but I do like it that the inside of the drawer looks 'clean'. If you use butt joints, simply nail all 4 sides together. Wood glue won't do much good here because this is end grain on long grain. The sides should be 280 mm minus twice the thickness of your wood, to end up with a drawer of 280 x 220 mm.

For the bottom, I glued up another panel. I didn't want the bottom to look thick and clumsy, so I re-sawed a board in half (pic 3). For the last part, I flipped the saw upside down and used a shim so the saw wouldn't bind in the cut (pic 4). The re-sawing went pretty fast, and the result wasn't all too bad either (pic 5). The trick to keep straight was to do a number of saw strokes on one side of the board (20 or so) and then switch to the other side and do the same number of strokes. Repeat until you're all the way through. Now you're ready to glue up your thinner boards into a panel (same procedure as in step 2), cut the panel to size, and nail it to the drawer (pic 6).

To finalize the drawer, I made a handle from a scrap piece:

I cut the angles with a hand saw and rounded the corners with sand paper. Initially I just glued it in place, but then I realized it was end grain, so I reinforced it with 2 screws on the inside of the drawer.

As promised, here are some additional photos of the process of making dovetails:

Step 7: Install the Drawer

First decide which face you want as front face. Then lay the drawer on top of it, and trace it with a pencil (pic 1). The top of the drawer should be level with the underside of the frame we made in step 3. I used a jigsaw to cut out the shape of the drawer (pic 2). Picture 3 shows the resulting cut-out. If you don't happen to have a jigsaw, you could do the same job with a compass saw:

Test if the drawer fits, and trim where needed until it does (pic 4). The drawer runs on two supports called 'runners'. These runners are 40 mm wide and slightly less than 260 mm long. The side that contacts the drawer is planed smooth for easy gliding. Pre-drill both runners and position them on the bottom of the drawer, with a folded paper underneath (pic 5). This paper makes sure the drawer has enough clearance to run smoothly. Once you got the correct position, clamp the runner to the legs and put the screws in place (pic 6).

Repeat for the other runner. In my case, there wasn't enough room anymore for the drill, so I drove the two screws in manually:

Notice I had to put a shim in the corner to make the runner parallel.

Step 8: Finishing

You can leave the wood natural, or you can give it a protective coat. I had a leftover of a water-based polyurethane finish, so I applied one coat. After it dried, the nightstand felt a bit rough because of the raised wood grain, so I lightly sanded it with 220 grit sandpaper and removed the dust with compressed air. This finish is almost invisible, so I'm happy with the result.

I also had some colored shellac on a shelf somewhere, so I thought it would look nice to have a contrasting color for the handle. I couldn't find a brush, so I applied it with a cloth (pic 5). The color is a bit on the red side, but we'll say it's padauk. I can always add another coat to make it darker.

I hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed making it. Feel free to ask questions in the comments. Don't forget to give me a vote in the 'Trash to Treasure' contest!

Trash to Treasure Contest 2017

Participated in the
Trash to Treasure Contest 2017