8 DIY ideas for repurposing wood pallets for your home
It’s good to save a buck on any day, but especially now with more than 40 million Americans out of work. Combine that with an increase in summer staycations and you’ve got ideal conditions for low-budget, at-home DIY ideas. And there’s nothing more low-budget than free.
Enter: the wood pallet.
You’ve seen them by the side of the road, usually in front of commercial buildings, out for grabs for anyone who wants them. Some are dirty and beat up, and some look pretty nice. But no matter their condition, the wood they’re made from can usually be repurposed into furniture, shelving, and a variety of other items. And that’s why you see thrifty DIY-ers loading them into their pickup trucks.
“When I first started with woodworking,” says San Francisco-based artist and NBC “Making It” alum Nicole Sweeney, “I really wanted to fully work with reclaimed wood, and my first thought was pallets. You can transform them really easily into a lot of different things.”
“It’s also a way to make woodworking accessible for people, for them to feel like they can build something on their own,” she continues. Which is true. You get wood pallets free of charge, and if you mess up, who cares?
What to know about pallet wood before you start
When it comes to pallet wood, it is generally low-grade oak (a hardwood) or southern yellow pine (a softwood); you may occasionally come across pallets made from hickory, mahogany, maple, teak, or walnut. Keep in mind that pallets are made for shipping, so manufacturers mean to keep durability up and costs down.
Even though pallet wood isn’t as fine as premium lumber, your project can still be original and unique. “That’s the beauty of pallets,” says Sweeney, who previously used them to create iconic window and store displays for Anthropologie. “They all have their own character, and you can stylize whatever you are creating by the pallet that you choose, like if it’s a little more worn down and rustic, or if you decide you want to sand it and make it a little bit nicer.”
Arkansas-based woodworker, educator, and author Doug Stowe acknowledges that pallet wood has its drawbacks. “You kind of have to lower your standards a bit. They’re often warped, and they’re rough sawn, which means that they don’t have a smooth surface,” he says.
“But, there are things that you can do if you are willing to have a more textured surface. Sanding them down will take the splinters off. Then, you can use milk paints on it. That’s a great way to color them.”
When not to use a pallet for a DIY idea
You do want to exercise caution when reusing pallet wood. Guidelines set forth by the U.S. Department of Agriculture indicate that pallet manufacturers must treat wood packaging materials to prevent the spread of pests and invasive species.
Two main treatment methods include subjecting wood to high heat for a set amount of time, which means the wooden pallet is safe to reuse, or treating it with methyl bromide, a toxic chemical that means the pallet wood is unsafe to reuse. Treated pallets are stamped with IPPC codes, so avoid any marked MB (for methyl bromide).
Tools you may need
- Good hammer
- Reciprocating saw, for getting in close to the stringers
- Circular saw
- Japanese-style hand saw
- Random orbit sander, with 100-grit sandpaper
- Rasp or sanding block, with coarse, 100- to 150-grit sandpaper
- Cordless drill, for creating pilot holes
- Impact driver, for putting screws in
Pro tips for working with wood pallets
If you’ve ever tried to take apart a pallet, you know it’s not an easy job. Here’s why: “If they build the pallet with green wood—meaning that it’s not fully dried yet—and it’s nailed together, the wood really shrinks tightly around the nails, which is why you have such a challenge getting them out,” Stowe says.
Sweeney recommends getting a good crowbar, a circular saw, and a jigsaw. “You’ve got to get in there and wedge some of the boards off.”
Stowe prefers to use a reciprocating saw to cut the length of the boards off, rather than try to wrestle the nails out of a wooden pallet. “You can spend a lot of time hammering or pounding. If the nails come out easily, that’s great. But if they don’t, just sacrifice the ends of the pallet stock and at least get something out of it.”
Either way, you’re bound to end up with bits of broken nails in your driveway or workspace, so be careful and make sure to pick up.
A wooden pallet’s other main issue is just as pointy: splinters. For the same reason that manufacturers use low-grade wood as a cost-saving measure, they don’t sand the pallet wood well.
“Splinters are much better when they’re attached to the wood than when they’re in your finger or your hand,” says Stowe. “You really want some way to smooth the wood. A random orbit sander is handy to take edges down.”
When it’s time to start rebuilding, consider what tools you’ll use, like a hammer and nails versus a drill, impact driver, and screws. “[The wood] is really hard to hammer nails into,” says Stowe, “so if you’re doing any kind of construction with it, you’ll probably have to use screws and drill pilot holes.”
Wood pallet projects to try
1. A compost bin
“I’ve had friends who have used pallets as recycling bins and composting areas,” says Stowe. “Any place you can use wood, you can use pallet wood, except that you’re restricted sometimes on the length.”
Generally, wood pallets measure 48 by 40 inches, an ideal size for a backyard composter.
No deconstruction needed for this DIY idea. You just need to find four pallets that are the same size and lash them together at the corners with baling wire or nylon rope. Dummies offers a simple instructional guide for building your own.
Since a composting bin needs to provide adequate aeration and moisture to the organic matter it contains, using pallets—with their spacing between the wooden boards and blocks—for this type of project is a no-brainer. If you’re worried that the area between the boards is too wide, you can wrap the composting bin in chicken wire to keep its contents from spilling out.
Never composted before, either? Here’s a beginner’s guide to composting at home to get you started.
2. A plant wall
Repurposing a pallet as a vertical plant wall requires very little work, because you don’t need to take it apart. Sweeney says she prefers to deconstruct as little as possible. “Leave it as is, and then just add on to it.”
To create a plant wall, find a pallet that has some character. You can leave it natural wood, or paint it a fun color. Depending on the tightness of the spacing between slats, you may have to remove a few boards.
3. A firewood bin or bench
Northerners who heat their homes with wood-burning stoves and fireplaces know how handy it is to have an indoor stash of firewood at the ready, especially when it’s cold and snowy out.
If your taste runs to a nature-inspired aesthetic, using pallet wood to build a firewood storage bin may be an idea you’ll love. “Pallets fall into the category of rustic furniture,” says Stowe.
Find a plan, like this bench with firewood storage from Lowe’s, or create a simple box, and sub in pallet wood for lumber where you can.
4. A kid’s clubhouse
Building a backyard playhouse for your kids requires some know-how, because you’ll have to do some measuring and framing, even if you use pre-made plans, like this U-Bild cottage plan.
Whatever your build method and clubhouse style, deconstructing pallets and using the wood as siding can be a huge money saver, especially for larger constructions. Letting your little ones select a few bright spray paint colors and helping them spray the wood down before you nail it onto the frame gets them invested in the project, too.
If you’re feeling less adventurous, you can follow HGTV’s lead by simply piecing together a few whole pallets and adding a roof. Since the pallets themselves aren’t overly large when used as walls, this option works best for little kids.
Creating a pallet-based storage option is an easy project for beginners who like to keep things neat and tidy. Again, there’s no dismantling required.
After cleaning it up, simply position the wooden pallet vertically and screw it securely into a shed, garage, or basement wall, so that it doesn’t tip over. This works as a fantastic organizer for tall, skinny yard tools like rakes and snow shovels, as well as leftover two-by-fours and other lumber odds and ends you may have hanging around.
Prettify the pallet with paint or stenciling and don’t stop at tools; storage like this can also accommodate rolls of wrapping paper in your craft room, umbrellas by your door, or pool noodles and wiffle ball bats out in the yard.
6. A rustic garden pathway
You’ll need some muscle to create a garden pathway using wooden pallets. You have two options: use a crowbar to pry the boards off the pallet stringers, or use a reciprocating saw to cut the ends of the boards off on the inside of the row of nails. You want to end up with a pile of boards from the deck of the pallet.
One idea is to spread mulch in your garden area so you have a soft, forgiving base and then arrange the pallet wood horizontally to create a path that you can walk on.
7. A coffee table
Sweeney has made a lot of coffee tables using pallets. “If you have four pallets and you stack two on each side, and you put a really nice piece of plywood or finished wood over the top of it, it kind of has this really nice juxtaposition.”
To execute Sweeney’s vision, you want to find four pallets that are the same size, so that the coffee table will be level.
“You can clad the outside of the pallets, so it doesn’t look exactly like a pallet, if you want to mask that,” Sweeney suggests. “That’s something that I did at Anthropologie, a lot. It ended up being really nice. I had a ton of customers actually want to take it home.”
8. Your own wood pallet idea
You can create any number of things using wooden pallets, so the next time you need something, pause before heading out to buy a quick fix. Maybe the item you need is one that you can make.
“Something made out of wood may be far more interesting than going to [a store] to get what you need,” says Stowe. “You get a sense of satisfaction from having created something that far surpasses a sense of satisfaction you could get from any purchase, especially when it is something made of plastic and you know it’ll be in a landfill within two years or maybe join the big pool of plastic floating in the Pacific.”
He continues, “I find that my students have ideas of their very own, that are all good and just as valid as anything I would try to tell them. Use your imagination.”
Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.