Introduction: Pallet Wood American Flag (A.K.A. the Pyro Flag)
With a brand new (to me) tablesaw and Memorial Day right around the corner, this project was just calling my name. As always, I tried to make everything from scrap that would otherwise be heading toward a dumpster when possible. Enjoy!
I've entered this project into the Woodworking Contest, don't forget to vote!
DISCLAIMER: Sorry Brits, Australians and folks in other countries, this Instructable focuses on making an American flag, but the technique could be adapted fairly easily for other flags by simply changing the shape of the slats. If you do, make an 'Ible about it!
Scrap steel plate
Tablesaw (Skillsaw, bandsaw, handsaw, etc. can work)
Belt sander or angle grinder
Wood rasp or pocket knife
Power tool usage
Particle mask or respirator
Step 1: Make a Plan
Gather your thoughts into a concrete plan, including size, thickness and colors. Mine was as simple as making a rough sketch and marking dimensions onto it.
I chose to make a 37" x 19.5" flag, not including the frame that I added later. To make one to a different size, this American flag dimension calculator on USflag.org is very helpful for figuring out the ratios.
The first flag I made was a 13 star Betsy Ross style, with a Thin Red Line flag that someone ordered soon after, and later a standard 50-star as a Father's Day gift as well. The pictures in this Instructable will be a "best of" mix of the ones I have made so far.
Step 2: Grab Some Pallets
Pallets are an awesome source of free, pre-weathered wood that are great for projects (Did I mention they're free?). For those of you who don't already have your own personal source of pallets, ask around at local stores, especially the ones that you know receive frequent shipments of items or materials. If you see a pile of pallets sitting out, be sure to ask before taking them! Some places don't like people stealing their precious pallets(I don't say this from experience, I promise). Facebook sale pages and Craigslist are also good sources. A local manufacturing company was kind enough to let me raid the large stash they had behind the shop.
You can make a full flag from one standard 40" x 48" pallet if the slats are in good shape, but it could take more if they're badly damaged, so try to grab some that are in better condition if possible. The more undamaged wood the pallet has the more material you will have to work with. Also, Euro pallets (the wider ones) are especially nice as they have longer slats to use.
Step 3: Break It Up
Break up your pallets however you choose. I found the easiest way that didn't require specialized pallet breaking tools and left me with the most usable wood was to use a tablesaw or skillsaw to cut the deckboards (top & bottom 1x4's or 1x6's) close to the edge of the two outside stringers (the three 2x4 crosspieces), rock the deckboard back and forth to loosen the nails out of the center stringer enough to get a hammer claw in, then knock the remaining bits off of the stringers with a hammer. If you cut as close to the stringers as you can, you should be able to get 37" of usable length out of the deckboards.
Getting the nails out of the stringers is fairly simple. Set a block under each end of the stringer, tap on the nail point until the head protrudes, then pull it out with a claw hammer or pry bar. If you're careful some of them may be salvageable to use for later projects. I looked on Etsy to see what kind of project i could use them for, and found people selling plain rusty nails for $10/pound! Looks like I might need to start boxing them up to make my first million eh?
I sort the wood into 3 piles- Good condition, partly salvageable ones with good sections, and complete junk. From the usable and salvageable ones, pick out 3 or 4 slats that are 37" long, 3 or 4 that are 22.5" long, and enough to cover a 10.5" x 14.5" square for the stars (I used two 6" slats cut to size). Hang onto the stringers as well for the frame.
As a rule around here, nothing is ever wasted. All the scraps that were too small to use for other projects got tossed in the bonfire pile in preparation for a Memorial Day BBQ.
If you want to sand or powerwash the slats to make the flag look less rough, now is the time.
Step 4: Cleaning Up! (Always Optional)
If your slats are more rough than you'd like or slightly warped, it's time to clean them up. I did this only when the pallet wood was too dark to get good contrast with the scorched sections.
If you have a planer, use it! I don't (yet) so I improvised with the tablesaw.
Set the fence to the width of the slats, then tap it over just a hair so it will take off a thin layer. Raise the blade to just below its max height.
Lay your slat on its edge and send it through the blade. If it isn't as clean as you'd like it, tap the fence closer to the blade by another hair.
Once the first pass looks good, flip the board end for end and run the other side through the blade to trim the other edge. I cleaned up just the side that will be visible in the end and left the back rough.
This is going to create a heck of a lot of dust, so be sure to have a respirator and do it in a well ventilated area.
Step 5: Rip a New One
You will need seven 22.5" x 1.5" strips, six 37" x 1.5" strips, and three 3.5" x 14.5" sections.
Cut the pieces to length, trimming off any badly damaged sections if possible. I cut the nail holes off of both ends but they could be left for an even more rustic look.
Set the tablesaw fence to 1.5" and rip off the 13 stripe strips.
Also cut out whichever sizes you're using for the 10.5" x 14.5" field area. Try to use boards wider than the stripes for this area, as it will give it a different texture and look from the stripes. I used two 5.5" x 14.5" or three 3.5" x 14.5" pieces, depending on what I had available.
Set the strips out to get a feel for the size and shape of your flag.
Step 6: Fire at Will!
Set out the stripes in the order you'll have them for the flag. You can number the ends in pencil to keep track of where they go.
Starting with the top strip, every other one will represent a red stripe (see last picture). Do your best to put the lighter colored strips where the white stripes will be, since they're meant to be, well, white.
Pull out the soon-to-be "red" stripes and bring them to a well ventilated area on a non-flammable surface and give them a once over with the torch. Don't burn too much that they crisp up, just enough to darken them slightly and make the grain really pop.
It can take a bit of practice to get the texture that you want, so be sure to practice on some scraps before burning your project. Remember, you can always burn it deeper later, but I have yet to figure out a way to unburn something.
Bring your new red stripes back to the rest of the flag and set them back in place. It should be starting to look like an American flag now.
Step 7: See Stars
In order to torch over the field but leave the star areas unburnt, you need to mask off the stars while you torch it. I tried a number of ways for doing this- masking tape, wood, and some scrap steel plate.
The masking tape burnt easily and left some nasty glue residue on the wood.. that is, if it came off at all and didn't melt right onto the board. Tape was straight out of the picture.
Wood worked decently as a template, but wouldn't work for many in a row because well, the point of this step was to burn wood. If you don't have any metal plate around wood could work for a one-time use.
I was a little hesitant to use steel plate because I thought it would heat up too much and scorch the wood beneath it, defeating the whole purpose of using a template. But I was running out of other options and up for an experiment. I had an arrowhead-shaped scrap left over from a previous project and tried it out. It worked quite well! Very distinct edges and no scorching beneath the steel. From other tests I found that the edges would get blurred somewhat if the wood was uneven or the steel was warped, but that would just add to the rustic look.
Be sure not to use super thin metal or it can warp too much from the heat. I used .050" (about 1.3mm) thickness. 1" tall stars are pretty close to proportional for the 37" long flag.
I printed off some 1" stars from Google Images and cut them out on paper, then sized them onto some offcuts from the scrap bin. I used a bench shear to cut the steel to about 1.25" squares, then traced the stars on with sharpie and ground to shape on a belt sander with heavy grit sandpaper. I also touched them on a buffing wheel to get rid of any sharp corners that I would definitely cut myself on later, as well as to remove the heat discoloration from grinding, but that isn't necessary.
If you don't have a bench shear, you can use tin snips or a hacksaw to cut out the rough shape before grinding to the final star shape, or start with small scraps and simply grind a little more. You could also swap out the belt sander for an angle grinder. A dremel with a cutoff wheel might work but would take much longer and quickly wear out the wheels. Be sure to use gloves while grinding because the steel will get hot, and a breath mask so you don't breathe in the metal particulates.
I originally planned to make just a few stars and move them around as I burned the wood, but they were fairly quick to make so I made 5-10 a day after work and soon ended up with 50 after all. This makes the next step simpler. If you don't have enough steel to make all 50, you can do it with 10, 5 if you're pretty careful, or maybe even with 1 if you are highly skilled and want a challenge. Just set them out in one area, burn around them and move them to the next area. Be sure to use gloves to move the stars as the steel will get very hot.
Don't worry if the stars aren't all identical, you can barely tell later and it just adds to the character of the project.
Step 8: Fire! Part 2
Grab the planks you're using for the field and bring them to your burning area. Set your stars into place on them. The American Flag dimension calculator is again helpful for spacing.
I made a 13 star "Betsy Ross" flag the first time before I had all my stars finished, and a 50 star flag later on. I've included pictures of them both.
I wasn't able to find any dimensions online to position stars in the Besty Ross style, so I decided to set the stars around something circular and just eyeball it. I tried a handful of different objects: a 3-gallon bucket, a loop of wire, a dinner plate, but none of those seemed quite the right size. This multi-purpose antifreeze proved to be truly multi-purpose and worked perfectly to size my circle (I think a vinegar jug would would be the same size). It will change slightly depending on the size of your flag, so use a circular object that looks right for yours.
For a 50 star flag, set out 5 stripes of 6 stars each, then 4 stripes of 5 stars centered between the stripes of 6 (See photo 5 for a visual). I had planned to use the flag dimension calculator to figure out what the spacing should be, but ended up just eyeballing it until the stars looked fairly even. I left about 3/4" of space open on the top and left side that will be covered by the border in the next step.
Set out your stars and burn around them in the same way you scorched the stripes. I burnt the field a slight bit more to give it a bit of a difference from the color and texture of the stripes, as well as to give the stars more definition.
Be aware that if the wood is not fully dry and has a lot of resin in it, it will not work well for burning. The heat will cause it to bubble up and shift the stars around, as well as catching on fire quickly but not scorching the wood beneath. I had this problem with one of the Betsy Ross field halves, and ended up having to scrap it and make a new piece from scratch.
Be careful removing the stars after burning, they will be hot!
Add the field to its position in your stripes. Your flag should be looking like Old Glory!
Step 9: Frame Someone
Putting a frame around the flag is good for a number of reasons- To hold it together, make it look more professional, hide any imperfections along the edges, and the potential to add a hidden storage box behind the flag.
Cut two 1" x 1" x 39" strips and two 1" x 1" x 21.5" strips from the pallet stringers, then cut them to 45° on each end (see picture). With the solid stringers I only needed one to make the whole border, if you have stringers with U-shaped cutouts you may need to use all three (One for each 39" side and the third cut in half for both 21.5" sides). I cut mine all with about 1/4" extra length, just in case.
Next you want to make a 3/4" slot to fit the flag slats into. If you want to do it the easy way, use a router, mill, or dado blade. I hadn't set my router up yet and don't have the other two so I used a regular blade on the tablesaw and took a few (about 8 or 10) passes to make the slot wide enough, then cleaned it up by scraping with a flat head screwdriver. Most definitely professional. But hey, it won't show in the finished product and that's all that matters right?
All the edges will be 90° corners (or close) from cutting them on the saw, so take a pocketknife or wood rasp to the ones that will be exposed in order to soften the edge and give them more of a rough-cut look. You could also use a router with a round-over bit if you're going for a less rustic feel.
I chose to scorch the frame also. Do this before assembly and glue up. There are some pictures in the next step to compare between scorched and bare.
Step 10: Do a Dry Fit
Gather everything together and do a test fit to make sure it all sits together well before gluing it Once you start gluing it gets harder to make the small tweaks usually necessary for everything to slide together nicely.
Line up your stripes, put the field in place, and slide everything into the slots in the frame. If they don't slip in with firm pressure you'll need to widen the slots slightly or sand down the edge of the stripe. If the frame seems too big and loose, trim small amounts off the end of each piece until it fits fairly snugly.
When you've got it all together, take a moment to admire how it looks. Looks like it was made by a pro doesn't it? (Of course it does, all the professionals use Instructables!)
Step 11: True Glue! (True Blue?)
Pull it back apart from your dry fit and apply wood glue to all the top and bottom side surfaces of the stripes (minus the two outside faces) and the faces of the field that will contact other slats. Basically any part that should be connected to another board. I used Titebond Original Wood Glue but not for any special reason, just a quick Home Depot purchase. The bottle lasted me for about 4 flags and held up well.
I set the flag vertically while gluing to make it easier for me to slide the stripes into the frame. I would apply glue to the top of the last stripe I had put in and into the slots of the side frame, then slot the next stripe on top of it. The second photo above shows somewhat how this works. I didn't take many pictures of this step due to having to work fairly fast and not wanting to touch a camera with gluey hands.
Put it all together and clamp it tightly. Just before clamping it, I realized my 1-foot-long clamps wouldn't quite work here, so I had to get a little creative. I cut 8 short lengths of 1.5" x 1.5" (ish) from scraps and cut one end of each to 45°. I had the idea that if I wrapped a ratchet around the outside they would hold tight to the corners similarly to a simple mitre clamp. That wasn't quite the case so I flipped them around with the angles facing the other way and they worked fairly well. I also put a layer of planks underneath the flag to keep the stripes and field from sagging while it dried and put a layer of parchment paper left over from my Climbing Holds project beneath beneath everything to keep the glue from dripping onto the table. (In the future, my tablesaw table might not be the best place to glue things). Then I wrapped a ratchet strap around the outside and tightened it down.
The improvised mitre clamps worked pretty well for this project, and I will be 3D printing some improved ones to use in the future.
Wipe off any glue that leaks out with a slightly damp rag. Leave it clamped overnight (or longer) to dry.
I used a wood rasp and 120 grit sandpaper to smooth the corners slightly, then touched them up with the torch before adding polyurethane.
Step 12: Make Your Mark (Optional)
You're proud of your work and what you've made right? So go ahead and sign it!
I had somewhat of an idea of a "logo" that I wanted, a Michigan outline with my initials inside it. I cut the Michigan stencil the same way as the stars, but the JB was a little different because I wanted to burn inside of it rather than outside. I traced out the shape I wanted onto piece of scrap steel, then instead of grinding down to the shape I punched out a series of holes inside of it. I then used hand files to shape if further.
There's no need to get too detailed with your stencils, you can see in the 1st and 2nd pictures that Old Mission Peninsula didn't show up on the wood.
Hopefully you can see how it's meant to be a JB instead of J3 that everyone thinks it is. I also had someone say it looks like just a cursive B from a distance, which is fine by me.
I actually screwed up and painted polyurethane (the next step) over the back of the flag before burning this on. Thankfully it had only dried for a few minutes before I realized and I was able to wipe most of the poly off, then reapply it after burning the logo. I wouldn't recommend burning polyurethane, it smells funny and can't be good for your lungs.
Between burning the mark and making this portion of the 'Ible I hadn't moved the flag from its face-down location, so it was only as I was adding the pictures for this step that I realized I had made the mark upside down in the wrong place. I located the mark in the lower right corner (at that time), but the lower right corner to me ended up being the upper right corner in relation to the alignment of the flag, as well as inverted. I almost left it as it was, but this flag was ordered by a customer and I wasn't going to give them a screwup, so I sanded it off and redid the mark correctly before reapplying the poly.
Step 13: Polyeurethane
Once the glue was all dry, it was time for a sealer coat. I used Varthane Triple Thick Matte finish but again, any old polyurethane would work just fine. This was the one that was on sale at Home Depot at the time, and the can lasted for about 3 flags worth. Matte finish will keep the rustic look a lot better than glossy type finishes.
Give it a nice thick coat over every exposed face, and be sure to get into any cracks of knot holes that are exposed. You don't need to fill them completely but make sure there is enough to coat them well. I used a wide bristle brush and kept the parchment paper beneath the flag to keep any leakage off the table.
Let the urethane dry at least overnight. I coated the flag face and sides, left it to dry a full day, then coated the back and left it another night.
Sand lightly and add another coat if needed.
Congratulations, you're done!
Step 14: Show It Off!
Once it's dry, add a mounting points to the back to hang it up on the wall, nail it to the side of the barn, or simply stick it above the mantle surrounded by moose antlers. However you display it, "fly" it with pride!
I sat it below the deer head on the wall for a photo, but it will be getting hung on the barn soon.
My first flag took about 2 weeks working a few hours after work every other day, about 7 or 8 hours (not including drying times). By my third one I had it down to around 2 hours, so it really doesn't take a lot of time once you figure out a system.
I would love to see your guys' flags once you make 'em!
Step 15: What's Next?
Other ways to modify or continue this project:
-Add hidden compartment behind the flag similar to this
-Use steel template idea to wood burn other shapes (Instructable in progress)
I hope to be able to make more of these flags in various sizes to sell.
Ideas, comments and questions are always welcome!
I've entered this project into the Woodworking Contestso if you liked it please give it a vote!