Wooden pallets are most commonly used as safe frames for transport of various items via ship, truck or forklift, but their life doesn’t end there. Due to their simple shape and structure, they are often being remodelled into eco-friendly furniture items like bunk beds or coffee tables. However, before embarking on some DIY project, make sure you’re dealing with chemical-free, safe pieces. Here are some handy tips on how to recognise non-toxic pallets and prepare them for upcycling.
Pallet styles in a nutshell
Many people may not know it, but there are several different styles of pallets. These include the standard Euro pallet (1200×800), two-way entry types (reversible, wing type and close boarded without base board) and at least five variations of the four-way pallet style (perimeter base, wing type, closed and open boarded with perimeter base, and close boarded with perimeter base). Knowing this will allow you to search for the style that requires minimum work for your project.
Picking a stain-free, clean pallet is a good starting point if you want to secure non-polluted material. Considering pallets get utilised for transport of vast array of material, some of the chemicals or pathogens may get transferred to the pallet and make visible or non-detectable spots.
To ensure you’re handling a safe pallet, check the stamps on the stringers or on the sides. Complete absence of symbols and etchings is most likely a sign of domestic transport pallet which is non-treated and safe.
On the other hand, the pallet may have been used for shipping abroad, in which case it should have official stamps, company logo and registration number. There should be also an IPPC logo (a must-have for international shipments) and a treatment code. Some of the codes you may encounter are:
- DB (debarked, safe)
- HT (heat-treated, safe)
- MB (Methyl Bromide-fungicide, best to avoid)
- EPAL (debarked, heat-treated, safe)
- EUR (old-standard EPAL, best to avoid)
- Coloured (potentially highly toxic)
When general conditions are in question, the best well-preserved pieces are the ones coming straight from the warehouse pallet racking structures, since they’re sheltered from the elements and conditioned. Still, if you want to make use of that nice timber, you have to disassemble it with care. Here’s an overview of the methods of breaking down the pallet into handy components.
Use a flat clawed hammer and pry bar or cat’s paw to break apart the desired block of wood without causing any surface damage to it. The employment of (pneumatic) nail punch will allow you to drive the nails out (instead of pulling them), which is a foolproof method for tricky screw, spiral-shanked or ring nails. Once you have loosened the pallet planks with a cat’s paw, you can remove the rusty nails with a blade of an oscillating tool.
When none of the above methods seem to work and you have a stubborn nail to deal with, a metal drill should take care of the old nails that won’t budge. Finally, you can decide to leave the nails still connected to the stringer and use it like this.
When you finish with the simple disassembling process, there’s still a good deal of shaping, cutting and sanding ahead. Pallet materials are unfinished and rough in most cases. To avoid getting nasty splinters and scratches later on, some sanding is recommendable.
You don’t need to make it perfectly polished if you want to achieve a more rustic look of the furniture you’re making. Also, to preserve the tarnished veneer of your pallet components, use beeswax to make a smoother, splinter-free finish that still has a touch of patina to it.
When shaping and cutting is concerned, you must be careful not to cause accidental damage. The area around the nail is particularly delicate due to wood aging and shrinking process. Take your project to an outdoor station when you’re doing the sanding step (except on the windy days). Wear protective clothing and mask to prevent inhalation of harmful debris particles.
Pallets are simple yet versatile building blocks you can use for various DIY furniture-making and garden projects. Follow our advice to make sure you’re working with safe and well-prepared material.