HackSpace magazine

Improviser's Toolbox: Pallets

By Rosie Hattersley. Posted

With wood (and other DIY materials) hard to come by right now thanks to a combination of global supply issues, finding an alternative source of timber may allow you to complete projects that would otherwise be on standby. Typically found discarded on pavements after a delivery of large electrical goods or home improvement materials, pallets have been around for the past century. There are differing accounts of who first dreamed up the idea of pallets, but the first such US patent was granted in 1925 to one Howard T Hallowell for his Lift Truck Platform. Given the invention in the preceding two decades of various vehicles in the UK and US that closely resembled what we now know as the fork-lift truck, a standardised pallet size and design made sense.

As you’ll discover during any mission to rescue and recycle such handy pieces of woodwork, pallets come in many varieties. Depending on what you intend to use them for, you should look out for a stringer pallet, which has two rows of slats, meaning a decent haul of wood to chop up and use, or block pallets, which are more structural, with widely spaced blocks underneath and slats only on the top. Use domestic pallets (which are unmarked) or ones labelled HT, DB, or EPAL, and avoid any marked MB, as these have been treated with methyl bromide – a poison.

There is also plenty of variation in terms of how easy a pallet may be to disassemble: some pallet-making masters suggest workarounds so you don’t need to remove the most stubbornly embedded nails, while others propose homemade tools specifically for this purpose: instructables.com/Pallet-Breaker.

Pallet Seating

Blogger Kezzabeth wasn’t content with simply stacking and nailing together a couple of pallets as an outdoor seat. She deconstructed, and then assembled, 14 pallets into a sturdy corner sofa that’s ideal for an outdoor gathering. Rather than take a chance on finding suitable discarded pallets, she bought a job lot of the same design for £1 each.

Kezzabeth’s garden chill-out zone cost less than £100 and is made from 14 matching pallets she bought for £1 each

Kerry set about removing the middle slats from her pallets, leaving a square box shape. The discarded wood from these pallets, and the timber from four pallets she fully disassembled, were set aside. Having treated the wood with decking preserver to weather-proof it, Kerry corralled her stacks of pallets into a rough corner sofa arrangement and nailed sets of three stacked pallets to each other. The sofa base was placed on thick weed-suppressant fabric. With a handy brick wall behind the sofa, it made sense to add a back-rest made from 100 cm lengths of exterior-treated timber.

Next, the lengths of wood that had been removed earlier were cut into even lengths, then nailed into place to form the seat and sides of the sofa. The back-rest came into its own here as it helped secure the planks in place. The whole thing was thoroughly sanded down, and leftover wood blocks used to create an armrest. Kerry suggests using sturdier wood blocks for the armrest, and adding extra nails to secure it since there’s every chance people will lean heavily on it. Planks were added to the top edges to neaten everything, and cushions added for comfort.


Raised Bed

Photos of pallet gardens abound online, but the basics begin with a well-planned and well-constructed raised bed. The Gardening Channel provides an excellent YouTube walkthrough. James advises ignoring the nailed sections and salvaging the wooden slats in between. This saves on time and effort, and results in a fairly even set of wooden lengths to use for the verticals of the raised bed. You’ll need roughly 54 planks for a 4×8 ft bed – the width of each pallet plank affects the amount required.

Raised beds, ponds, and even hot tubs, all built from pallets, can transform a garden

Use a set-square to fine-tune the cut pieces to match. By using a drop saw set to 0 degrees, you can quickly work through the planks and apply the same setting. Use one of the remaining pallet frames as a brace to attach the planks to and to set the bed length. If some boards are wider, put these at the outer edges so that there’s a strong board to attach to. Apply linseed oil to preserve the wood, give it ten minutes to sink in, then wipe off excess before brushing oil onto the next side.

A special corner clip holds two sections of the pallet-board raised bed sides in place at right angles while you screw them to a vertical block. James advises pre-drilling before you attempt to attach screws. A top rail made from lengths of 2×4 is used to neaten and strengthen the structure. Homemade compost, a layer of rotten leaves, and one of mushroom compost are used for the basis of the bed, cutting down on the amount of bought-in compost needed to fill it ready for planting.


Pallet Wood Guitar

Wood working expert JackmanWorks lovingly crafted his own guitar from a combination of specially selected pallet woods. A combination of maple, cherry, oak, poplar, mahogany, and pine pallet slats were first planed down using a thickness planer to ensure each slat was smooth and equal in depth. Jackman then cut each piece to a uniform two-inch width, and used a cross-cut sled to trim them to 23-inch lengths, before clamping and laminating the now barely recognisable pallet strips together. He used friend Tim’s CNC machine to cut out a basic guitar blank shape with countersunk screw holes and a cavity where the neck would be attached.

A selection of six different pallet woods were used as the basis of this expertly crafted guitar

The guitar body was laser-engraved and organic shapes crafted by hand using an angle grinder. Jackman then attached a premade guitar head unit to use as a guide for the fretboard and pickup placement. Holes were bored for the electronics, wires, and knobs, with slug tape hidden inside the guitar used to earth the electronics. The bridge was screwed into place and a strap attached. As “hipster millennials”, it was a “requirement” that Jackman and Tim used repurposed vinyl records to cover the electronics. Finally, the guitar was given a 220 grit sanding and finished with five coats of tung oil.


Pallet Tiki Bar

There are plenty of fairly straightforward outdoor bar designs that reclaim pallet wood; Jodi House’s tiki bar has a little more panache, not least because it nestles among some tropical foliage. Jodi and her husband began by sketching out the bar’s footprint, deciding two 4 ft pallet widths would suffice to seat four at bar stools. Six 4×8 ft posts, anchored with ground master post holders, give the bar structural integrity. Corner brackets and tie plates secure the pallets in place.

A piece of 2×8 laid along the top of the weather-proofed pallets evens out the pallet-based front wall. In an ideal world, Jodi hoped to use an old surfboard for the bar top, but they couldn’t find one they liked during the build. The roof is made from picket fences and the whole thing shaded by an existing palm tree. Once the bar was assembled, it was time to complete the beachside look with coats of Tropical Lagoon colour paint.


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