Canadian Woodworking

9 TIPS for Using Pallets to Make Furniture

Author: Rob Brown
Photos: Scott Adams
Published: October November 2016
pallet furniture
pallet furniture

It’s easy to create beautiful, functional pieces of furniture using wood from discarded pallets, as long as you know some tricks. Learn some pallet basics so your experience working with this endless supply of free wood will be a great one.

Habitat for Humanity is a not-for-profit organization whose main focus is to provide house owner­ship to low-income people. There are 83 ReStores across Canada, where people can purchase used, but still valuable, building materials. Products from hardware and tools, to appliances and moulding, are available at the dif­ferent locations. People in the community can also volunteer their time in many different ways.

Wine Rack
The bottom of this wine bottle rack has slots for six wine glasses.

pallet wine rack

Keep it Cold
Outdoor cooler stands are one of the more popular items the ReStore has produced.

pallet cooler

Scott Adams is the director of business development and ReStore advancement at Habitat for Humanity Brant, in Brantford, Ontario, and heads up the location’s pallet furniture manufacturing operation. The ReStore he works at has been building pallet furniture to help raise funds for their local build­ing projects since January 2016 and have learned a lot along the way. The crew at the Brant location have built interior fur­niture like wine racks, chairs and tables, as well as planters and swinging chairs for the exterior. Here Adams shares some tips for anyone who’s interested in building furniture from pallets. You can learn more about the pallet furniture at the Brant loca­tion by visiting www.habitatbrant.org.

1. Look in manufacturing/industrial areas for pallets

Often you will come across a stack of pallets out front of a business. They are generally there for the public to take free of charge, as otherwise the company will have to pay to dispose of them. If you’re at all unsure, it’s always good to ask.

2. Look at hardware/home improvement stores

If you live far from an industrial area, take a trip to your local home improvement or larger big box store. Essentially, any store that receives its products from a large truck will likely have pallets to dispose of. Even if you don’t see any around, just ask – often pallets can be found away from the regular customer area. Even shipping or farm feed companies will have the odd pallet in need of a good home.

3. Pallets come in two general types

Though there are many different methods of construction, the woodworker rarely cares about the specific function of a pallet. On the other hand, we do care about the type of wood in a pallet. Softwood pallets are very common, and are almost always free. Hardwood pallets were likely purchased by a company for a specific use, and they will often be reused, so they’re harder to find. If you have the choice, keep your eyes open for the hardwood vari­ety. Here’s a tip on getting lucky – look for a pallet that’s painted blue, at least in part. They’re usually made from hardwood.

4. 4' lengths are common

Though they will be of many different construction styles, when taken apart, the wood pieces are often about 4′ long. You can sometimes find pallets about 6′ long, but they are rare. Plan your projects with these shorter lengths in mind, unless you want to start stack laminating.

5. Wood thickness is usually about 3/4"

While it’s great for many furniture construction applications, it’s likely not strong enough – visually or structurally – to make large pieces of furniture from. If you need the odd thicker piece, you have two options: either face glue multiple pieces together or (and some may say this is cheating, but I disagree) use mate­rial from your local lumberyard when it’s absolutely necessary.

6. Dismantling a pallet

If you have a Sawzall, this is the time to use it. Stand the pallet on end and cut the nails between the slats and backbone. Adams says two people take about 10 minutes to completely disas­semble a pallet properly. If you try to use a pry bar and hammer you run a strong risk of breaking the slats, and it’s also simply very hard to do. Nail halves left in the wood provide an extra dose of authenticity to a rustic project, though they ruin blades very quickly. If you plan on dressing the pallet lumber before using it, make sure all the metal has been removed from the wood.

7. Check for foreign objects

Rocks, metal, and other objects that can quickly ruin woodworking machinery, as well as cut hands, may be present in the pallet wood you salvage. A quick check of all the parts will go a long way to a pleasant time in your workshop.

8. Fumigation?

Adams says it’s very rare to have any sort of bugs – even ants – come in on a pallet. In fact, in the six months since they started this project, he has not come in contact with any pests. A visual scan of the pallet before bringing it into your shop, especially a basement workspace, is a good idea though, as you don’t want to be the exception to the rule.

9. Moisture Content

Pallets are typically kept dry during shipping, but if you feel the wood is heavier than it should be, and you don’t have a moisture meter, it’s a good idea to let the parts dry out a bit. Because of the nature of pallet furniture, moisture con­tent issues are rare, but it’s something that should at least be considered.


Rob Brown - [email protected]

Rob is a studio furniture maker and the editor at Canadian Woodworking & Home Improvement.

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