Wednesday, July 3, 2013

A few thoughts about pallet wood

OK, I have finally managed to sneak away from my kids for a few minutes. Don't get me wrong, they are darling girls, but I haven't been able to get much done since school got out. hence the big gap in posting. Sorry about that.

But I have wanted to post desperately, because I have been doing the coolest things! Working with major power tools. The kind you don't use unless there's another adult in the house, because you really could cut your leg off, a la Monty Python and the Holy Grail. That's right friends, I've been breaking down pallets with a reciprocating saw. Ya Baby!

Despite all the buzz on Pinterest, breaking down pallets is not for the faint of heart. It takes time and tools and a lot of "be careful" awareness and planning. Thank heavens for my neighbor Travis. He is a craftsman and woodworker, so he has all the tools that I don't. And he lets me borrow them! Hee hee! Actually, I think he and I have an unspoken agreement that as long as I talk to his wife, my dear friend Dana, ad nauseum about all her decorating ideas and projects for their house so he doesn't have to, I can use his tools as much as I want. But I digress. You guys are here to hear about breaking down pallets.

1. The first thing I learned is that all pallets are not created equal. Some are way cooler looking than others. I actually found one that I think is either Douglas Fir or mahogany. I'm keeping that one to build a large easel with. But pallets come in a variety of woods and cuts and sizes. Pick your favorites and leave the rest behind. Make sure they don't have any dangerous chemicals on them like oil or gas or antifreeze. I had to discard many of the ones I looked at because of hazardous materials dripped on them. And steer clear of ones that have mold or mildew. That is just trouble to get rid of. There are so many free pallets out there, don't bother with anything substandard. Remember, it's going to be INSIDE your home. No amount of wax or chalk paint can cover up something toxic.

Here is a tutorial for what to look for in a pallet when you are using of them for projects.

2. Be very, very careful when using large, sharp power tools. Travis almost didn't let me borrow the reciprocating saw because they can cause so much damage if used incorrectly. This is the tool of choice when builders rip out the pipes and support beams in a house. It can cut through anything. Including your arm or leg or bike or car. So be aware all the time when you use it. Wear covered toe shoes. Don't cut over your feet. Don't hold the blade so that it could fall and hit any part of you, even if that means you have to stand to the side to cut something. Make sure that you have the pallet braced fairly well, so it doesn't fall over from the vibrations from the saw. Once you've taken care of all that, let the adrenaline flow, because using a saw that can cut through ANYTHING is a total rush!!! Plus if you cut through the nails, they stay in the wood and you get the cool look of having the old nails in your project. Besides, how cool is it to CUT THROUGH NAILS?!?!

Here is a great tutorial for how to break down a pallet with a reciprocating saw.  I HIGHLY recommend you check it out before cutting anything.

3. It is handy to have a circular saw nearby when breaking down a pallet.

I found that the blade I had on my reciprocating saw was too short to cut the center posts off with the boards still attached, so I just cut the boards along the center and then I got the center support off with no trouble. I also managed to cut a hole all the way through my dear friend's table that I had borrowed, so be careful of the clearance between the blade and your table. 4 in is good. 2 in is not enough. And yes, it was hilarious and insanely embarrassing all at the same time. I had no idea I was cutting a hole through the table until I was done and saw the slice through my drop cloth. Oops.

4. Gloves are very good to have when handling pallets. Pallets are a very rough cut of wood and that makes it very easy to get splinters. I think I got about 4 splinters before I thought to put my work gloves on. Gloves also give you one more layer between your hand and that sharp saw blade.

A few other handy helpers are a palm sander, sand paper in various grades, and eye protection. I wore my safety glasses every time I was cutting or sanding anything. This is rough wood, friends. Protect your eyes.

5. When choosing your grit of sand paper, decide what your goal is with that piece of wood. Do you want to keep the exaggerated grain or make things smooth as silk? If you want to keep the grain, I suggest starting with a higher grade of sandpaper (The higher the number the smaller the grains on the paper. Smaller grains mean less material is removed.). You can go back with a lower grit if you have big shards sticking out or grooves that just won't get smooth, but for the project I was doing, I wanted to have the grain really exposed. I found that a 150 grit sandpaper on my palm sander worked great for the first sanding on a really rough piece of wood. From there I went to a 220 and sanded until the wood no longer caught on anything rubbed over it. I think for some deeper, more jagged bits, I pulled out the 100 grit, and then sanded back through the grades gently.  I knew I would be painting and waxing this piece, so I didn't go quit as smooth as I would have if I was just sealing the wood or not doing anything but sanding.

Could you die with all that gorgeous motion in the grain? And the embedded nails? 'Sigh'
Pallet wood = love.

6. A few more tools I found useful were a small hacksaw and a hammer. 

The hacksaw is great if you have a hard place for a reciprocating saw to reach nail. They cost about $7 at Home Depot and come with the blade attached. Make sure you get one designed to cut through metal. It takes a little time and elbow grease to hand saw through a nail, but it can be done and sometimes it's just safer. This was my technique of choice if I only had one nail left holding things together or if I needed to start things off and it was a weird angle to use a saw.

The hammer was great if  there were the ends of nails sticking out. I just pounded them our or in depending on what I was trying to do.You can also use a hammer to increase the space between boards for your saw blade to fit between. Just pound on bottom side of the top board and that should give your saw blade a little breathing room. 

I WOULD NOT RECOMMEND TRYING TO TAKE A PALLET APART WITH A HAMMER AND/OR CROWBAR. Pallet nails have little needle like spurs sticking off them that are designed to work like little fingers that hold the nails in the wood. They are rather ferocious looking little things.It makes the pallets super strong and it will make you crazy trying to get them out.

In short, pallet wood is one of my new great loves in life.

 It has tremendous grain and project potential.

But just be ready for it to take a while to get at. It takes me about an hour to completely break down each pallet. I think it's worth it, so I'll be doing more, but it 's best if you know what you are getting into. 
 This should show you why it's worth it.

Isn't it dreamy?


  1. You go girl! Love all the tips! I am a pallet wood fan myself. :)

    Happy day to you rock star!

  2. Pallets are an interesting thing to me. They are so simple yet so useful I think its remarkable on how many people use them. I hope to get some of my own to ship my supplies on.