Preparing Pallets for Upcycling – All You Need to Know Guide

Before you start working with wooden pallets, you should know the material you’re going to be working with. A small introduction is in place, so you know what you’re into :)

First wooden pallets were introduced by Swedish concern BT Industries at the beginning of the 20th century. And they have been used in the transport industry ever since.

Since you’ll be using wooden pallets for a variety of upcycling projects, you should know a thing or two about them. In this article, I’ll tell you which ones are safe to use, where to find them, and what steps you should follow while preparing pallets for upcycling.

Pallet types, dimensions, and other features

Although pallets come in various sizes and shapes, there are two main pallet types. A 2-way entry one so-called a stringer and 4 –way entry one so-called a block.

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There are also several basic pallet dimensions like 1000 x 1200mm or 800 x 1200mm (Euro). But if you look closer that differs from country to country. I’m not going to go into specifics here. You’ll learn about them more in the process. Below you can find pallet dimensions and how they can look like:

Different Pallet Styles for Upcycle DIY Home Projects
Source: Fix.com Blog

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Size and type are not the only features you should consider. There is one more thing you’ll need to look at, and that’s pallet weight. Nearly all pallets come in 3 different weights: light, medium, and heavy. This property depends on what a pallet is used for and how much load it should bear.

It may seem that that’s not important for pallet projects, but it actually is. Mostly because the size (width and thickness) of the planks depends very much on that feature. I.e., the light pallet has thin and narrow planks; heavy pallet has thick and wide planks.

Saying that I recommend using a specific type of pallet for a particular project. Take decking, for example – a heavy pallet would best because it has small gaps between planks. That means no need to dismantle the pallets and then putting them back together to create a decking surface. Plus, a heavy pallet is more durable.

How to choose the best pallets for your projects

Choose safe pallets

When it comes to choosing pallets for your DIY projects, what’s most important, it’s safety. Because you’ll use them in your surroundings like a garden or a house, you must make sure they don’t contain any toxic residue or infestation. Below you’ll find some tips on how to choose the best pallets upcycling.

Logo/pallet stamp

The first thing you should check when looking at the pallet, it’s a pallet stamp and treatment code. This will tell you if it has been treated with chemicals or not and where it comes from. Usually, you can find a stamp on the side of the pallet.

If a pallet has no stamp and you’re not sure if it is safe, just don’t use it. The euro pallet is an exception, and you can use one safely, even without a stamp. European regulations forbid chemical treatment of wooden pallets.

No stamp also means that the pallet is a “national pallet.” It means it’s used for domestic transport within one country. It should be safe but best check its origins.

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IPPC stamp – it’s a seal of approval for pallet used internationally. If your pallet comes from abroad and doesn’t have it stamped, it’s likely unsafe to use. It might be fine, but you can’t be sure. Proceed with caution.

IPPC stands for International Plant Protection Convention. Pallets stamped with this logo are required to be produced to certain specifications. The treatment methods are supervised by approved agencies.

Treatment Codes

  • HT – heat-treated- safe to use
  • MB – chemically treated with methyl bromide- NOT SAFE!!!
  • DB – debarked
  • KD – kiln-dried

MB pallets are Not Safe! Check out this information from Toxipedia:

Methyl bromide is a broad-spectrum pesticide used to control pest insects, nematodes, weeds, pathogens, and rodents. In the U.S., methyl bromide has been used in agriculture, primarily for soil fumigation, as well as for commodity and quarantine treatment, and structural fumigation.

What about colored pallets? Are they safe?

The colored pallets are owned by rental companies. And although not chemically treated, they are used for international shipping, so they’re controversial. Some countries like Australia and New Zealand treat chemically all pallets coming from international shipping, so I’d say no to colored pallets to be on the safe side.

If you want to know more about pallet safety, I recommend this great article from 1001pallets. You’ll find there a lot of interesting, more in-depth information.

Once you’ve made sure your pallet is safe to use, there are several other steps you should follow when determining if the pallet is right for your projects.

  • Use dry, clean pallets with no sign of spillage or discoloration and avoid the ones from grocery stores. Mostly because of likely spillages, which can lead to the growth of bacteria. You don’t want that.
  • Look for ones in decent shape. You don’t want ones that have been left out in the rain for ages or ones that are very old. If the old/weathered look you’re after, you can always fake it. Check my article on aging wood.
  • Look at the nails, some of them are very hard to remove, and you’ll end up with split boards. The first pallet I was trying to take apart had ring shank nails that were glued as well. Believe me when I say it was horrendous.
    And since the only tools I had were a hammer and a crowbar, the planks were splitting, and it was taking ages. I don’t recommend it.

Where to find pallets

You can always buy new pallets but what’s the fun in that. We want to upcycle used ones and give them new life. There are so many places you can find them.

Forget about the big sites like supermarkets etc. they usually have a process in place to handle all the waste materials. Instead, try local places like a small garden and hardware and lumber stores, feed and tack supply, residential construction sites, newspaper delivery, and distribution centers.

New pallets used for the transportation of new goods – like motorcycles or lab/industrial equipment. You can check universities, colleges, and schools.

Craig’s list is also an excellent place to check as well as pallet Facebook groups. If you really struggle to find any pallets, you can simply buy them, but that is the last resort.

Preparing pallets for upcycling

When you finally got your hands on a stack of safe, great looking pallets, you need to prepare them for upcycling. This requires several steps and some tools to speed up the process.

Tools needed

  • Hammer, Pry Bar, or pallet buster
  • Nail punch
  • An oscillating tool, Sawzall or jigsaw
  • Electric drill
  • Random orbital sander/ belt sander
  • Planer

How to clean and disinfect pallets

First, start with scrubbing it with soapy water and bleach. You can also use a power washer, which will speed things up, and you’ll get better results. Then rinse down and let completely dry.

Nail removal

To get rid of unnecessary nails, use a nail punch or drill to remove them. Or you can use an oscillating tool/Sawzall/jigsaw to cut through them or cut off the ones that are sticking out.

The nail punch is excellent for spiral-shank nails and stubborn screws and ring nails.

How to dismantle a pallet

There are many ways of doing it. I’ve found that the four I’m going to tell you about is more than enough to take a pallet apart.

  • Using a crowbar and a hammer
    Try hammer and crowbar. It’s a shame I didn’t do the research before taking my first pallet apart hehe :). But I couldn’t wait to start on with my first project that it just didn’t cross my mind. It took my brother and me a good 40 minutes to do it using a crowbar, a hammer, and some elbow grease :)
    If you want to speed things up, use a pallet buster or Duckbill Deck Wrecker. These are fantastic and will make the job a lot easier.
  • Using a Sawzall or oscillating tool
    If the first method doesn’t work, loosen the boards a bit and use a Sawzall, an oscillating tool, or a jigsaw to cut through the nails.
  • Using a circular saw
    If this doesn’t work either, you can just cut off the planks leaving nails in the wood. This way, you’ll end up with shorter planks, but again it’s fast and easy.
  • A mix of the ones above
    For very stubborn pallets, you could try all the methods above, and I’m sure you’ll manage to take them apart. Just be patient.

If you have any other easy ideas on how to take a pallet apart?? All ideas are very welcome.

I didn’t have an electric saw at the time, so I had to learn the hard way :). I lost some of the boards in the process because the nails were glued(?!) as well as ring shanked. The planks were very difficult to pry off. Next time I’ll use a Sawzall or circular saw to save time and sweat.

Below you can find a short video I’ve found very helpful.

Pallet sanding or planing

Because of its nature, pallet wood is rough and needs sanding. I do not recommend doing it by hand. It’s just too labor-intensive and time-consuming. Instead, use a sander or even wood planer to smooth the surface. 

While using a random orbital sander or a belt sander speeds things up, it takes a bit longer than using a planer. But again, it also depends on the project itself. If you want a very smooth surface and sharp edges go with the planer, if you want a more used look, a sander will be the tool you’re looking for. If you’re not sure which sander to choose check my article about the best sanders for pallets.

Pallet wood finishing

The final finish on your project depends mostly on its purpose and the look you are going for. Once the pallet is sanded and cleaned of any sanding dust, you have a variety of choices.

From wood stains used to change the color and to enhance the grain of the wood at the same time. To beeswax or linseed oil that has a more natural look, but that is less durable.

Another good choice is clear poly to seal the raw wood or to be used on top of wood stain for better durability.

Paint is a great choice too. Any chalked paint or mineral paint will give you an excellent finish if you don’t want to preserve the visibility of wood grain. They’re also fantastic for distressing, so if you like the vintage shabby chic look, I’d recommend experimenting with that option.

Summary

While preparing pallets for upcycling is crucial for achieving excellent results, the process is pretty straightforward. Once you’ve made sure the pallets you have chosen are safe to use and in good condition, all you have to do is clean them, smooth them, and finish them with a top coat of your choice.

These 3 main steps will guarantee the best possible results. Take your time to learn how to properly execute them, and I’m sure you’ll have great projects to show off.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this article and that it helped to answer any questions you’d had about preparing pallets for projects. If there is anything that ‘s not clear though or you have more questions, please leave a comment below and I’ll be happy to answer them for you. 

And don’t forget to pin this post to your pallet projects board on Pinterest!

8 thoughts on “Preparing Pallets for Upcycling – All You Need to Know Guide”

  1. I am really interested now what you are going to do with dose pallets)) worked with them for years an i know there is plenty things you can do with them..I wonder WHAT YOU ARE GOING TO DO WITH THEM!! I am waiting inpatient…!!

    Reply
    • I have few ideas already. Just need time to actually do it. I’ve made a sanbox for my little one, so that will be coming up and a quick tutorial on how to disassemble a pallet. In a mean time reaserch, reaserch and reaserch :)
      Kasia

      Reply
  2. I have a guy who says his pallets are chemical free because the place he gets them told him so. No stamps nothing on them. Reading this I dont know what to do.
    If in fact pallets that do not have a stamp on them and we have no idea where they came from….what do we do? Take a chance or just wait for stamped pallets. In the past year I have never seen a stamped pallet. So I just dont know what to do as I have many orders using pallets.

    Reply
    • Usually, unstamped pallets are used for domestic destinations and I don’t think they chemically treated. In Europe, most pallets are stamped as they usually used for international freight purposes. Saying that it depends if you can trust the guy and what he’s saying. Also, you can be sure if there wasn’t anything spilled on them but that goes for all used pallets. You can ask in Pallet Crazy group on facebook there are many people there and I’m sure someone could answer your question more thoroughly. I’m sorry I couldn’t help more.

      Reply
  3. Fab article, full of hints tips and tricks.
    I hadn’t thought about where pallets come from or about washing them before use but it seemed obvious that’s what you should do after reading this!
    I’ll certainly be checking the info on them from now on and preparing them better for use.
    Thanks so much for writing this. I’ll be checking out your other articles now.

    Reply

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