After breaking down the pallets into usable pieces you end up with some decent material for a few projects and the rest is pretty much a mess. The boards are pock-marked with nail heads that have to be removed, and the runners are studded with little jagged tips that will snag on just about anything. The remainder is bits of wood from broken ends and other cracked pieces which will end up in the fire bin.
The slats are pretty easy to clean up a bit with a hammer and small punch. Do this over a bin so you can recover the nail heads. After this step, the boards are safe to be cut sanded and milled in any fashion you choose. This will be covered in a little while, but first we will discuss the runners.
The runners are very difficult to work with in the normal sense. If it were not for the nails you could get quick a bit of very nice hardwood out of most of them. With the nails I have relegated them to being used for structural pieces of outdoor furniture and other places that would not require much cutting. On the rare occasion that there is a lengthy section without nails, you can definitely get a nice piece for carving or re-sawing into thinner pieces.
Sometimes, If I have a really nice set of runners on a pallet, I will use a jigsaw and cut the runners loose and then work on prying the nails out. This will net a decent piece of wood, but only if you are patient and have some luck. I believe the nails pallets are constructed with are ring shank, cement coated nails with breakaway heads. This effort, at least for me, is futile in most cases, but I will give it the old college try at times. Quite often, as said before, they the nails get pounded in and the runners are used structurally.
Now, back to the slats. I like the rustic look as much as anyone. The saw marks, scuffs, and other quirks these pieces have really give character to whatever you make with them. I have a shelf that I made with pallet boards and 1×4 whitewood that definitely has a bit of character due to the distinct dissimilarities in texture and color. However, sometimes this repurposed lumber has a sleeping gem inside.
My father is a retired cabinet-maker. His skills with wood are vastly unmatched with anything I could begin to attempt. Until his official retirement, he had worked with or around wood and wood tools for the better part of 50 years. And such is the case, he probably has forgotten more about wood working than I will ever have a chance to learn. However, he is a great resource and I am thankful that I have his guidance when I need.
When I first started dismantling pallets and using them as lumber, he was perplexed. I could have very easily gone to a lumber yard, or sawmill and gotten what I needed, so why would I need to use the trash wood. He still doesn’t quite understand, but he went along with it and even loaned me a few tools to further my endeavors. First, he loaned me an old Craftsman table top saw. I think this saw, although underpowered is brilliant. The fence is ratty, and the current blade is too small as you can’t readily find the correct blades for it. It also weighs about the same as my circular saw.
I have recently purchased a hybrid Ridgid table saw that does most of my work now, but the “shoebox” saw comes out every so often and gets used to rip some of the best furring strips you can make. My father also loaned me an antique joiner. For those of you that don’t know what a jointer is, it allows you to work one side of a piece of wood and make one edge both flat and square. This allows you to then place that edge against a table saw fence and then cut the other side parallel to the original side.
The use of these two tools was the best gift anyone could give when it came to working with pallet boards. With just a few passes on the jointer and then a quick trip through the little table saw, you end up with a stack of lumber that although still rough on two sides, is very serviceable for making wider panels. With this wood, table tops and door panels are easy to create without sizable gaps between the boards.
Granted the use of these tools has been at no cost to me, I have seen several comprable versions on Craigslist for cheap. Are they necessary? No, not really, but they definitely do make the wood much more attractive. I recently broke down a pallet that I’m quite sure is mahogany. The boards dressed down nicely and I am looking forward to making something really nice with them. My next goal is get a thickness planer so that I can surface the wide edges of the boards to first make them smoother, and second to make them more uniform in thickness.
Hopefully, if you find pallets useful this has helped give you at least a little inspiration to make something. Projects to follow soon!