How to Use Free Pallets to Build a BBQ Restaurant




Introduction: How to Use Free Pallets to Build a BBQ Restaurant

This Instructable will walk you through the process of designing and building a BBQ themed restaurant with a VERY small budget. We relied on our own ingenuity, our scrounging ability and our creativity to make a restaurant that looked like we had spent a fortune, when in fact we did not. The secondary goal of this project was to keep as much out of landfill as possible, as construction is one of the leading producers of landfill waste, we re-used, re-purposed, recycled and bartered our way through this project.

As this was a very large project I cannot capture everything that we did in this one Instructable, but my goal is to give you a glimpse into what is possible with a little creativity and I hope it will inspire you, not necessarily in building a restaurant, but maybe for your regular home improvement projects as well.


My best friend and her business partner have owned a martini lounge in Toronto, Canada for 10 years but it was time to reinvent the space with a new idea and fresh energy. The surrounding area which once was a haven for the homeless and the street lined with shelters & soup kitchens had given way to a condo boom with tens of thousands of young professionals and families now living in the neighborhood. The dark hidden away lounge needed a transformation...

The owner, having spent much time in Austin Texas visiting her mother, fell in love with the BBQ culture and the casualness of the Texas "BBQ joint". She wanted to bring that feel and atmosphere back home to Toronto so the planning began in the spring of 2012 to convert this old martini lounge into a Texas inspired BBQ joint.

This instructable will cover some of the major projects:
  • Re-use of Free Wood Pallets for the walls
  • Tables made from Pallet "ends", left over boards & Gas Pipe Legs
  • Sheet Metal covered Bar
  • Reclaimed Vintage Neon Bar Sign
  • Reupholstered "Tufted" Booths
  • and much more...

The work was mainily accomplished by the two owners and myself. None of us are in the renovationion business (they own a restaurant, I am a manager at an IT firm) but we each had the vision to make this work. Of course we did bring in a licencend plumber and a licenced electrician to handle those specialized tasks but everything else was done by us (and a few friends) over the span of 8 weeks.

and so it began...

Step 1: The Old Space...

Above is a drawing of the space we had to work with. There were two partition walls built to define an entrance hallway of the martini lounge along with a horseshoe shaped bar at the back of the space. On the east wall there were three built in booths with bench seating along most of the west wall.

On the west side of the space there are a series of 6 supporting posts that were in a line dividing the space into an area approximately 2/3 & 1/3. These could not be moved as they are supporting beams for the apartments above. Also because of these apartments, when the lounge was originally built a "hanging insulated drywall drop ceiling" was installed for sound dampening. This ceiling was hung about 2 ft below the actual ceiling on wire hooks, meaning that there could not be anything directly attached to the existing ceiling.

The lounge was painted mostly black in the last two years of its existence as you will notice in the demolition photos in the next step (the pictures above here were taken several years ago when it was painted blue / gray).

Step 2: Plans & Demolition

In planning the new space we wanted to increase the usable floor space, allow for more seating, but still have separate areas so that groups could be sectioned for larger parties or functions. The hallway would be removed to allow the bar to be moved closer to the entrance. The old lounge was not a "sit down" restaurant so the new layout needed space for tables and chairs. Booths are always sought after buy customers so it was decided to leave the three booths as they were. The new bar was positioned to take advantage of the row of pillars to build a wall with liquor shelf for the main service area of the bar and to avoid pillars in the center of the floor.

Note:The 3D mock-ups were done before the demolition was started. Once we started working in the space certain features changed as we got a better feel of the space. 3D mock-ups were done in it is a great free tool for doing floor plans and will automatically generate the 3D mock-ups.

The demolition was done in just a few days with the biggest work being the removal of the existing bar and the entrance hallway. A colleague was opening a new bar of his own and came in and took away the old low seating, existing cocktail tables and some custom plaster wall art that was in the hallway to use in his new bar. In return he also took away all of the demolition debris generated on the first day for free so we did not need to pay for a dumpster. The electrician took all the metal waste (metal studs, copper plumbing pipe) in return for a discount on his electrical work. 

The only debris that hit the landfill was some drywall from the partition wall and the MDF from the original bar as it was too water damaged to be reused.

Step 3: Free Wood...

One of the first things we needed was something to cover the walls, which were originally just drywall. We wanted the warm look of wood but the amount of wall space made using new "designer grade" wood wall finishes too costly for our budget. I remembered a posting I had seen on a decorating website where someone had removed the planks from wood pallets and used them to cover their wall.

A little searching on Craigslist and I turned up many sources of free wood. One guy had put in a new fence and wanted someone to come and take away 40ft of 15 year old solid wood fence panels and another company had 130 pallets sitting in their parking lot that were broken and beyond their useful life. For the price of a rental box truck we now had all the wood we could use to cover the walls!

The fence panels came apart very easily but the wood was too "consistent" to use on a full wall, it would have just looked like an old fence. The pallets were a wide variety of woods from pine to oak to redwood and everything in between. Many of the pallets had cracked or rotted areas so taking them apart in a way to salvage as much usable wood as possible was tricky. Most pallets are actually constructed with spiral nails coated in epoxy which makes them extremely hard to remove.

After much trial and error and "Googling" we settled on the final method. We would take a circular saw and cut down the edge of each pallet as close to the end rails as possible to maximize the length of each plank. This way we only had to remove the center nails of the pallet. Since the ends were removed there was easy access for pry bars between the planks and the 3 of us sped through the disassembly of 130 pallets in 3 - 8 hour days over two weekends.

To install the wood on the walls we first tacked wood strips to the drywall with construction adhesive along with some nails into the studs. This would give us a better nailing base for the pallet wood. The next step was to sort the wood by width of the plank. As each pallet was different the planks ranged from 2.5 inches wide all the way up to 6 inches. We made stacks on the floor of planks that were of similar width and would do full rows of this width and alternating rows between thin and thick boards all the way up the wall. The saving grace for this was an air gun nailer, you could put 6-8 nails in each board in a matter of seconds.

Where we hit a corner we actually interleaved the wood so one row would overlap the wood on the other side of the corner and the next would go under (see corner picture above for more detail). This is the same as how you would do bricks around a corner and gives a very clean professional look with only a little bit of extra effort. We also made sure we staggered the ends of the boards so that no two rows ended in the same line.

We had enough wood so we also clad the front of the built in seating with vertical boards to give a consistent look. In the bathrooms we made removable ceiling panels by nailing a square frame behind the pallet boards. This was held in place by a railing on each wall and also down the center of the room. The panels would just lay on the railing and can be easily removed as the air-conditioning unit is above this ceiling.

Step 4: Got Gas...

The old lounge did not have dining tables as it did not serve food so we needed to acquire 12 - 15 tables that would set 2-4 people. We scoured Craigslist and could not find anything that was in our price range (dirt cheap!). We were able to find some old bar chairs for $5 each, these needed the seat to be reupholstered and a bit of glue and screws in some areas but they were solid wood, vintage and had a great rustic look with the weathered black paint that would perfectly match our decor.

As we continued construction we ended up with a pile of cut ends from the 2x8's & 2x10's used for the beams and benches that were big enough to use for table tops BUT we needed something to frame the soft pine. When we were taking apart the pallets we noticed that many of them had thick side pieces that had logos & words "branded" or stencilled into the wood. These sides also had the "cut-outs" where the forklift would slide under and pick up the pallet. So instead of these ends going to landfill we repurposed them into our tables. To do this we matched and cut the pallet ends and created a rectangular frame. This frame was screwed together and then we cut the scrap 2x8 / 2x10 pine boards to fit within this frame and screwed them through from all four sides. We wanted the tables rustic so we did not worry too much to make a perfect seam where the boards met as long as there was no "lip" to knock a beer over we were happy. The tops were then sanded and sealed and ready for the bases.

We were able to find some used bases for the low dining tables but not enough for all of the "high" tables and the window counter. In keeping with the rustic theme we wanted something industrial. At the front of the restaurant there was a gas pipe running up the wall which gave us an idea: use threaded gas pipe for the extra bases, it is readily available in many standard sizes and has fittings and flanges that would allow us to create a base without getting custom metal work done. 

Since gas pipe is threaded it was just a matter of attaching the flanges, T's and end caps to make the base stable. For the counter we put the flanges on both the top and bottom so that it could be screwed directly to the floor. This gave it more stability as it was so narrow. Any good bar has a foot rail around the main bar so we ordered some larger 2" gas pipe and created a foot rail at the base of the bar. We left these iron pipes and fitting with their original finish it will age and eventually rust into a nice industrial "patina".

Step 5: Booths...

The original booths were just plain black fabric pulled over foam covered wood. While they would serve the purpose in the new restaurant we wanted to "up-cycle" them a bit to make them more appealing. It was decided that we would "tuft" the backs. This is where you have a button pulling the fabric into the foam and tied off in the back creating a texture in the fabric.

First we picked up some reddish vinyl at a going out of business sale (70% off!). This material would be easy to clean and also not wear out as fast as cloth fabric. The backs were removed from the booths and a diamond pattern was drawn on the wood back. Holes were then drilled where the lines met (where the buttons would be added). These holes were drilled right through the wood back, the foam and the old black material on the front. This way it would be easy to get the large needle to go straight through to attach the button. We bought up a bunch of large black plastic coat buttons (that had a crest on the front to add some contrast to the red seat backs) along with some upholstery thread & needles.

Next we cut the vinyl to size and covered each seat and back. The vinyl was pulled tight along every side and stapled using a manual staple gun. Using the holes we drilled in the back as a guide we pushed the needle and thread in from the back and out the front then added the button and pushed the needle back through the same hole and out the back. The thread was knotted and pulled tight - pulling the button into the foam about 1/2 to 3/4 of an inch. Once the distance was right we stapled the knotted thread to the wood back, pulled it the opposite direction and stapled it again. Making sure it was secure enough that it would not slip loose. Once all the buttons were in place the diamond pattern was visible in the vinyl. The tufting actually helped hide any inperfections in the installation of the vinyl as it pulled any sagging area tight.

Step 6: Beam Me Up...

One feature that we wanted in the bar was an upper bar rack storage area, hanging from the ceiling, to display and store bottles of booze. Problem was that the ceiling was a "drop-ceiling" so nothing could be attached to it. We tossed around several ideas: going through the drop ceiling and mounting it 2ft higher to the actual ceiling, putting in posts and mounting it up from the bar but no idea really worked as they were either too much work or would cause obstructions. I finally came up with the idea of mirroring the existing beams and basically building a free standing beam structure that would not only hold the rack but also be a visual focus to add interest to the bar.

To build the beams we used low grade white pine from Home Depot. This wood is really cheap and comes in long, wide boards perfect for our needs. The first step was to mount 3 - 2x8's to each pillar bolted through the original beam with 12" carriage bolts. These new pillars were cut to a height to allow a horizontal beam and three cross beams on top of that. The cross beam needed to be 18ft which was longer then the boards available. Since we were laminating 3 boards together we could use shorter boards and stagger them before bolting them together to create one long beam. With only 3 of us working on the project we screwed in some "safety" boards to the end of the beam and the side of the pillar so that there was no way the one side would slip out while we were lifting the other side. On the opposite wall there was an indent where an additional two pillars and horizontal beam would be installed following the same basic method.

Once the horizontal beams were complete on both sides of the bar the cross beams were installed. Luckily the span was the exact size of the longest board that was available. This allowed up to set a single 2x10 board flat between the two horizontal beams and then tip it up and into position. Once the first one was standing up the next one could be put between the beams and also tipped up. When the third one was put in then holes were drilled through all three boards and carriage bolts installed to hold them together and increase its strength. This process was repeated for the two other beams.

The actual bottle rack was made by a local welder in 3 parts and when installed was bolted directly to the beams. The interior of the hanging storage was fitted with custom cut plexiglas so that bottles could be safely stored but would still be visible to everyone.

Step 7: Raising the Bar

The main focus of a "BBQ joint" is the bar, our place is no exception. It needed to be large enough to seat a lot of people with room to eat but also cozy enough to allow for conversations with staff and other customers. The key to a "workable" bar is the layout. You need storage, garbage bins, glass washers, shelves, fridges, draft and glassware all easily accessible with enough room for the staff to work and make drinks. To get the layout right we used an age old process of taping the design on the floor. We first started with the interior outline then added the position of the equipment. We then taped where the overhang of the bartop would be and tested the spacing with stools to make sure there was enough room to pass by in tight areas such as near the booths.

Once the layout was finalised, we fabricated 2x4 wall panels to the height of 39", this would allow us to add the bar top on and be at the 42" standard bar height that we required. The 2x4 walls would allow electrical & plumbing to be run behind the equipment easily without wasting space. The 2x4 panels were screwed into the floor and into each other for stability. We had ordered 1/2" plywood cut to 39" so it just needed to be screwed to the 2x4 walls.

The optimal depth of the bar top was determined to be 18" which would give a good overlap, room for dinner plates but still not too deep that the bartender could not reach to wipe the edges. We cut 2x4s to be placed under the bartop. These would be laid flat and screwed into the top of the wall. Again precut plywood was ordered and screwed to the 2x4 supports. To finish the rough top 2x4's were screwed to the inside and outside edges. This joined all of the separate parts into one continuous bar that was strong enough to dance on!

Between the first two pillars near the front entry we decided to put in a wall that would serve two purposes. First, it would give a spot to put shelves to hold the liquor and second, on the other side, allowed more low seating tables to be placed against the "back bar" wall. On the inside of the Bar 2x8 pine boards were installed between the columns making shelving for the glassware and other supplies.

Step 8: Heavy Metal...

While wood is great and our free pallet wood is even better, we needed to balance the wood with other textures. We decided on sheet steel for a number of reasons. Steel is readily available, fairly cheap to buy and the suppliers will cut and bend it for you for a very reasonable price. There are a number of different types of steel and varying thicknesses. We used a thicker hot rolled steel for the bar top, hot rolled steel has a really cool blueish tint that varies over the surface resulting in an "aged" looking finish. We would have loved to have used hot rolled for all of our metal needs but it is more expensive then cold rolled and also cannot be made as thin so thinner cold rolled steel was used for the vertical surfaces.

We used the cold rolled steel to cover the bar face, the bottle display and a couple of feature wall areas. To create a smooth transition around the bar top we had a thicker guage of cold rolled steel cut and bent into a "U" shape. This was sized to fit exactly over the 2x4 bar edge. This cap was secured over the edge with screws and construction adhesive. To finish corners we cut a "V" groove (two 45 degree cuts) in the cap and just bent the steel by hand around the corner which gave it a slightly round edge. Sheets were cut to the bar height and glued and screwed to the plywood bar front overlapping each joint. The bar base corners were covered by standard angle iron which was again screwed into place. The screws while very functional also performed a decorative duty as they added interest and an "industrial feel" to the metal elements (makes it look like the bar is riveted together). For the walls full 4x8' sheets of steel were used.

Since the bar top used a thicker hot rolled steel and was placed flat on the bar it did not need to be screwed to the wood. The steel was cut to the exact size by the supplier so installation was just a matter of cleaning the bottom of the steel and putting it in position. The top was just glued down with construction adhesive to the plywood bartop and its weight helped hold it in place. 

In order to "age" the cold rolled steel to match the bar top and give it more "interest" it was sprayed with an aging chemical from the steel supplier. This was then sponged off once the desired color effect was reached. All the metal surfaces were then waxed with car wax to seal them and help preserve the metal from liquid spills.

Step 9: 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall...

The original lounge had a large square of drywall (about 6ft square) that protruded from the brick wall by about 3 inches. It was decided at that time to have an artist paint a mural on this "blank canvas". The mural did not suit the new theme, and a friend wanted the original painting, so the drywall with the mural was carefully removed from wall. We had no idea what was behind this drywall or why it was originally put there in the first place.

When the drywall was removed we found steel studs covering an 8 inch deep opening in the brick wall. This opening had been sealed up and included a large original 1800's wooden beam at the top. The steel frame was removed and metal was inserted to cover the hole. Once we saw what we had it was decided we could use the space to display "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall" to show customers what beers the bar served.

I was lucky enough to find, on Craigslist, some cheap vintage neon sign parts (The original sign the parts came from was from the 1950's) that I could use to create a one of a kind neon sign for this space. I built a quick frame out of aluminum bar stock that would hold the neon to the wall and I acquired a used neon transformer on eBay (there are many available from broken neon beer signs). This sign became the focal point of the beer wall (see for additional details and what I did with the rest of the parts).

Step 10: The Reveal...

This Instructable just covered some of the main projects but as you can imagine there were many other smaller tasks to do as well. "Decor" items were found and mounted to the wall, shelving & fridges put in place for the beer & liquor. Bar stools and a custom neon sign were purchased and installed. When all this was finally complete we have what you see here: a true "Texas Style BBQ Joint" open and serving up Toronto's best smoked ribs & brisket (along with plenty of bourbon & tequila!). After being open only 3 months, and in the middle of a harsh Canadian winter, business is booming and everyone loves the new decor and makeover. The increased business has gone a long way to already paying for the renovations.

I know most of you will not be building restaurants but all of these techniques and ideas can be used in everything from finishing your basement to designing a workshop. If you have any questions please feel free to comment. OR if you are in Toronto come to the bar and check it out for yourself!

138 Adelaide Street East
Toronto, Ontario, Canada

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    42 Discussions

    WOW... This is really great! old things new life

    Hah! Awesome!! Seeing the pictures before reading, I thought it WAS here in Austin. Good job.

    1 reply

    This is the biggest compliment that we could have gotten! The owner loves Rudys for the BBQ and the style and cool factor of places like Luster Pearl & Clive Bar.

    One of those little extras we put in that did not make the instructable cut... :-)
    The width of the wire fit exactly between the two pillars. Just stapled it on as we rolled it to the roof.. We now have wine filling those shelves..

    This was amazing! My hubby used to live in Toronto and knows where you are. I am very impressed with the whole Texas BBQ feel you all have accomplished, especially with the pallets. I'm a Tennessee girl and we have a couple TX BBQ places here that look similar, so I would definitely visit the new space!

    Best way that we found was to use a circular saw and cut the end suports off completely. Then stand the pallet up with one end of the boads that you just cut on the ground and "wiggle" the pallet to loosen the center nails. Then use a 4ft prybar to get between the center support and the now loosened boards and pry them up. The 4ft bar give enough leverage. We lost about 20% of the boards with them splitting or falling apart as we tried to remove them but we figured that they were teh rotten ones anyway and should not be used.

    Depending on how much square feet you need it woul dbe best to hand pick the pallets we just got a truck full and only 1 in 10 pallets were usable. There was some amazing hardwood and redwood ones mixed in where the wood was amazing.

    Excellent job and THANK YOU for all of the documenting work! Little tips and tricks here and there found in big projects like this can so often be VERY helpful in a completely unrelated project! I hope the new look and feel brings you much success!

    You used steel sheet where normally they would have mirror for a more gritty feel. great look. Now they're using old corrugated steel roof pieces.

    1 reply

    In the "big city" here we could not find suitable "aged" corrugated. And the sheet was cheap enough that it worked with the budget.

    Bravo! here in Memphis the cooking area is built first and would love to see how you did that. Your smoke is your best advertising.

    1 reply

    Unfortunately the building has apartments above, a hotel directly behind and a very small kitchen area so wood smoking on site is out of the question. The owner has a licenced commercial kitchen at their home just outside of the city and two wood smokers so they start a couple of briskets when they get home form work in the wee hours of the morning then it is ready when the go to work for the dinner hour. Ribs and the pork (for pulled pork) are done during the day on teh other smoker. Not ideal but you have to do with what you have.

    They hand slice the whole brisket to order and everything is done with dry rub no sauce, with the custormer getting a small squeeze bottle of sauce with their order to apply as they feel fit.

    They only have 5 items on the menu, but they do them well...

    If I am ever in town, I will make it a point to come by and have a drink.

    If you'd had time to leave the wood out in the weather for a winter I think any worries would be gone and have more texture, too.

    Upholsterers (around here anyway) are forbidden to reuse the foam from furniture they are reupholstering so it goes to the landfill.. hint, hint!

    i love it, great idea and a great job too!!

    The wood on the walls look awesome. I like how the different colors of the wood looks. I had this idea to do an my workshop and was wondering how it will look. I haven't decided yet but I think I'm going to try this on my smaller workshop first. The place looks good. Great job!