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How to decorate with pallet wood

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A floating deck is made of pallets as well as the painted sign above.
A floating deck is made of pallets as well as the painted sign above.

Even if you’ve never heard of them, you’ve seen them. In fact, you may have a few on your property right now. Shipping pallets are everywhere — behind stores, piled high at construction sites, tucked away in sheds, and lying unceremoniously in junk piles. Any business that has received a large delivery has at least one pallet on-site. While many people view these wooden platforms as trash, more and more DIYers are regarding them as treasure.

As a 24-year-old teacher and writer who loves home improvement but has student loans to pay off and also likes to eat, I’ve found pallets to be uniquely suited to my hobby. They are typically free to procure and very easy to work with — after a brief learning curve. Once broken down, pallets yield a surprising amount of quality wood to build an abundance of projects— both functional items (I’ve made tables, benches, shelving, and even a deck) and decorative pieces (signs, planter boxes, storage crates, etc.).

Because pallets are made from a variety of different woods and often have markings from their time in service, everything made from them has a worn look that works well with a range of indoor and outdoor motifs. Personally I go for “beach house.’’ On the other hand, nothing says “farm’’ like old hardwood, if that’s the style you’re aiming for.

Where can you find them?

Pallets are wooden structures used to ship items to stores and construction sites. Next time you pass a flatbed, look at what the cargo is sitting on. That’s a pallet. They come in different shapes and sizes.

Some businesses put a large pile of pallets out front with a sign saying “free wood.’’ Obviously that’s a good place to start, but if you don’t get lucky, call hardware stores, nurseries, or construction companies and ask a manager whether they have any spare pallets. I have a relationship with a local store that lets me pick them up whenever I want. Always ask for permission before taking pallets, because some stores sell them back to the provider. Make sure each one has an “HT’’ stamped on the side. That stands for “heat treated,’’ and it’s how you know the wood doesn’t contain harmful chemicals. Wear gloves to avoid splinters. Also, make sure you have plenty of room to haul your find back home. A pickup is ideal, but you could manage with an SUV or minivan.

You have them. Now what?

Before you do anything else, give the pallets a light rinse with a hose in the driveway (you don’t know where they’ve been). I recommend waiting to sand until you’ve finished building your piece; this saves time and sandpaper. When you’re ready to build, there are thousands of ideas on Pinterest and websites like 1001pallets.com, but you’ll often be working strictly from photos, so don’t be afraid to try your own ideas.

Almost every project will require you to disassemble the pallet. It’s not easy because these things are built to hold up under a lot of wear and tear. There are a few ways to take them apart, including with a hammer and pry bar, but I find the fastest way that’s least likely to lead to injury is with a reciprocating saw. Set the pallet upright (it helps to have someone hold it), insert the long blade in between the slats on the side, and lean down; the saw will slice right through the nails holding the slats to the side. (Use protective eyewear.) This will leave metal shards in the wood, but they can be hidden easily, and they fit the rustic motif. For a demonstration of the method, check out videos on YouTube.

Things I’ve learned

Flexibility is key. If something isn’t coming out perfectly, make the best of it. Remember: You didn’t have this wood precut to perfect specifications, and pallets aren’t designed to be reincarnated like this. I like to use nails instead of screws to secure everything because they don’t look out of place. Pallets are made of very hard wood so don’t be discouraged by bent nails, just remove and try again. Don’t use a circular saw or handsaw to cut the wood, because hidden nails might damage the blade.

To make signs or anything flat, use a “strap.’’ This is just a piece of pallet wood running vertically along the back of the project. Nail the pallet pieces into the strap, rather than trying to secure them to one another. I learned this the hard way.

Be sure to give any seat you build the “butt test’’ before completion.

Finishing touches

Once your piece is done, use pliers to remove any big splinters, go over the finished piece carefully with 100-grain sandpaper, and then make another pass with 220-grain sandpaper. You could stop there and just give the piece a wash, or you could apply any outdoor paint, a clear varnish, or stain (my favorite is Behr’s “Cape Cod Gray.’’). After that it’s just a matter of finding a spot for your creation and making your Facebook friends jealous.

See some example projects:

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Make an antique barrel table

This is a very simple project that showcases the worn look of the pallet wood. I used an old wine barrel I bought at an antique show as the base, but this end table can be made from any wooden crate or container you have lying around — the older the better.

Materials

■ Pallet wood

■ Antique wine barrel (these can purchased at antique shops and flea markets and typically cost $15-20)

■ Reciprocating saw

■ Hammer

■ 1¼-inch galvanized roofing nails

■ Wood glue

Step 1

Measure the opening of your barrel. Mine was a foot across, so I cut a 14-inch piece of pallet wood. Lay the cut wood across the barrel opening to make sure you have the right size, then repeat using the same measurement until you have enough pieces to completely cover the opening (I used four). You can use the leftover wood for the straps.

Step 2

Lay the pieces across the opening and arrange them into a tabletop with as little space between the boards as possible. (Because of inconsistencies in the wood, there may be some unavoidable gaps.) After you have the arrangement you want, take a photo or number the boards with chalk so you remember the order. Lay two straps on a flat surface and then lay the tabletop pieces across them horizontally in the configuration you want. The pieces should completely cover the straps. Going piece by piece, nail each into the straps (you may have to reposition as you go because the hammer can knock them out of line). At this point you should have a completed tabletop you can lift and carry.

Step 3

Place the tabletop — top side down — on a flat surface (I use my driveway). Place the barrel — open side down — in the desired position on the straps. Mark the contact area with chalk and remove the barrel. Liberally apply wood glue to contact points on both straps. Re-place the barrel, making sure it has contact with the glue. Then apply more glue along the areas of contact and wipe away any excess with a paper towel. Wait 12 hours for the glue to set, and then flip the piece over. All that’s left to do is sand the tabletop down (I do this by hand) and give it all a rinse. You can paint it, but I like the rustic look.

Jon Mael can be reached at jmael2014@gmail.com.