Thursday, April 8, 2010

How to reclaim wood from pallets

Wood is the material of choice for a lot of my projects. In an effort to keep my hobby budget tight, I've ventured into the world of reclaimed and re-purposed wood. I'll often collect shipping pallets, crates, and wood that has been previously used for sheds and decking, then re-purpose it for my projects. Sometimes, this wood has been taken apart for me and I just need to cut out any rot and remove and any pieces of metal that have been lodged in it. But Most of the time, I have to take it apart myself.

The most common structure to reclaim wood from is a shipping pallet. They can be found anywhere across America. Small companies often want to get rid of these ASAP. Large companies sometimes have a process to reuse or recycle their pallets, but are often willing to give a few away to anyone who asks.

With all of the boards and nails, it can be a little intimidating and difficult to start separating a pallet. Just going at it with a pry bar and hammer isn't going to work very well. You'll have trouble getting the pry bar in to those tight joints and you can easily crack the wood, rending it hardly usable. Here is a guide with my steps, precautions, and techniques to help you reclaim the wood used in a pallet with maximum efficiency and minimal damage to the wood.

The tools I recommend are

  • a 4x4 piece of wood, long enough to lay across the pallet.
  • a 2 pound or heavier mallet, possibly made of rubber
  • a piece of 2x6 or similar, 1-3 feet tall
  • a regular hammer with a good claw
  • a pry bar - Stanley 21-Inch Wonder Bar
  • gloves
  • safety glasses
  • punches - 8 Piece Pin Punch Set
  • optionally, a sledge hammer and an empty jar for rusty nails

Start by

putting on your gloves and laying the pallet out on a hard, flat surface. I use my garage floor, but a sidewalk, porch, or driveway will also work well. Make sure you have sufficient space to walk around the pallet. I like to start the pallet with the heavily planked side up, the same way the pallet would lay if the shipping cargo were sitting on it. Grab the 4x4. Raise the pallet with one hand and slide the 4x4 underneath with the other. Position the 4x4 so that it is side to side with the first board you want to remove.

Once in position,
grab your mallet and 2x6 and stand it on the board you want to remove. You will need to hold it steady and can choose to hold it at an angle if you need to. Stand the 2x6 near where the pallet board contacts other boards and try to hold it so that as much of the 2x6 end is touching the pallet board as possible. This will distribute your hitting force more evenly around the nails attaching the board to the rest of the pallet, preventing cracking while still allowing you to deliver a lot of force. Hit the 2x6 with the mallet. Give it a few good hits and you should notice the pallet board slipping away from the other pieces of the pallet. Once it reaches about a quarter inch of separation, move your 2x6 to another part of the board where it is connected to the rest of the pallet and continue. Go up and down the length of the board until the board has fallen from the pallet. The more evenly you separate the joints, the less likely you'll crack the board.

If the board is in a really hard to reach place,
use the sledge hammer. Don't go nuts and start swinging at the board! Use gravity and the weight of the sledge hammer. Just lifting it and dropping it a few times is enough to dislodge the board from the rest of the pallet. This technique allows you to place the head of the sledge hammer sideways into a small space, then just lift and drop to get the board moving. You could use this method for the entire pallet, but this method is prone to creating more cracks in the boards.

Before moving on to the next board,
make sure to move the recently removed board far enough from your work area that you won't accidentally step on it or the rusty nails sticking out of it. Then move your 4x4 next to another board and start removing that board with the mentioned techniques. I like to work from outer-most to inner-most boards, helping keep the pallet rigid while I'm working with it. Once finished with one side, flip it over and do the other side of the pallet.

When deciding which side of a board I want to place my 4x4 against, I choose the side with the least weight. This puts the board I want to remove in between the 4x4 and the floor, as opposed to the 4x4 and the air. I can't follow this rule when removing the boards on the ends of the pallet, so to help keep the pallet heavy and steady against the 4x4, I stand on the pallet while making my hits. Another thing to note is that hitting too hard into a small area will cause cracking in the board. You never want that. That's why I recommend using the mallet in conjunction with a 2x6 and only using the sledge hammer in tight spaces.

Once the boards have all been separated,
you should take the time to remove the nails. This will make your new boards safe and easy to store. I take each board, one at a time, and lay it on the edge of a work bench or flat stool. I make sure the nail heads are on the bottom side (floor side) of the board and that I'm looking at the points of the nails. I then take my regular hammer and start knocking the nails out to the other side. Keeping the targeted nails close to the edge of a sturdy table or stool keeps the board from flexing and makes each swing of the hammer count that much more. Once I've knocked each nail flush with my side of the board, I grab another board and do it again.

As I finish each board, I lay it on the floor, nail heads up. Once they are all on the floor, I put on my safety glasses and grab my jar and pry bar. Make sure you have your safety glasses on, because sometimes these nails will flex on their way out, causing them to fling into the air when being removed. I've already been hit in the face a couple of times and hit in the goggles once. I begin walking on the boards, taking care not to step on any nails, using my pry bar to pull the nails out. This is a cake walk on thinner boards and can sometimes be difficult with thick boards. Thicker boards, like 2x4s, might require you to get down on your hand and knees to pull their nails out.

Some stubborn nails
will lose their heads. To get these out, you need to get creative. If the nail hole goes all the way through the board, I take the board back to my workbench or stool and flip it over, the same way it was when I knocked the nail through to the other side. I then use a punch set to drive the nail the rest of the way out from the bottom side. If the nail hole doesn't go all the way through, I will lay one of my punches next to the nail and us the hammer to bend the broken nail over the punch tool. Then, I'm usually able to use the claw on the hammer to get enough grip to remove the nail.

Now you're done.
You'll want to store the nails in a safe place, like a jar with a lid. I haven't thought of any good uses for rusty, bent nails yet, so I just recycle them. Make sure that before using the reclaimed wood, you pass a metal detector over it. You don't want any missed nails or staples damaging your saw blades and other tools. Also, I try to plane my wood ASAP. I do so with a lot of dust protection. The reason I do this is because some pallets get fumigated and treated with bad stuff and strong chemicals while they are being moved around the world. It's my belief that this stuff typically sticks to the surface and doesn't absorb deep. Holding the boards to the light, you can sometimes notice an eerily shiny surface layer. So, I plane or cut the surface layers away before storing and using this wood, getting rid of that shiny layer. I wear an N95 or better rated mask while doing this to protect myself from contaminated saw dust.


  1. For headless nails, you can also try pulling them out with a pair of locking pliers (Vise-Grips) and the pry bar slipped between them and the board.


  2. Great post. The Design Pallet has been making pallet furniture for a few years now, and while the lumber is reclaimed and often procured at no cost, the labor required to produce the lumber needed to make a quality piece of furniture can't be underestimated. It requires tools, time, and tenacity to get what we need. I'm glad that you are helping people to understand what it takes!

  3. you won't find a better tool for stripping pallets quickly and without damaging the timbers than the Cargo Cycles Pallet bar.

    I have one and it real does do what he says in the video:

  4. Great post, pallets are hard to work with and this maes it look easy. I love making making things out of pallets and

  5. Replies
    1. I use a circular saw. A lot quicker than a reciprocating saw.

  6. Battery op sawzall.This is the best method 4 me.Love all the ideas though.Dont forget the mettle blade.

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  8. i use my dewalt grinder however, once you use this method, that side (nail head side) is damaged, but I found the beauty of the lumber is on the inside, takes me 8 minutes per pallet to disassemble.

  9. Just a fyi for you. Lay the 2x6 flat against the wood running parallel to the nails to be removed. Leave about a half inch to an inch gap in between nails and 2x6. Place your pry bar on top of the 2x6 and proceed to remove the nails as usual. The 2x6 will give alot more leverage and pulling the nails becomes almost effortless. This works extremely well on thicker wood such as 2x4s and 4x4s. Again just an fyi. Oh yeah forgot to mention that I work at LOWES and we recycle all of our pallets but if you would ask one of the managers they would gladly give you a couple.

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  13. I clamp the pallet into our Jawhorse.I am disabled and in a power chair.The Jawhorse allows me to work on the pallet by myself. After disassembling the pallet I put the slats in the Jawhorse to remove the nails.I can.break down most in about 45 min.

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  15. I have found that pallet nails have a spiral body that makes them very difficult to remove and it is easy to break off heads. I agree that it is better to cut them off and wok around nails. Taking these things apart is a lot of work and it is crappy wood for the most part so make sure you are willing to work cheap. My only pallet project was a sawhorse which was used for several years. I just saw a wine shelf that looks like fun but make sure your wife will let you hang it in the house before making any pallet project. I just saw that Woodcraft is selling a new softcover 127 page book called "Wood Pallet Projects " for about $20.00. If you really want to have some fun forget pallets and make stuff from tree branches. It is totally free and there is a ton of books on rustic furniture. It might be a good combination with pallet wood ?

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  22. Your blog is very helpful, but I need some information as to what to do after the pallet is apart. Do you put the boards through a planer to get the board smooth?

  23. I have discovered the easiest way to remove pallet nails is to get a pile of pallets and hire someone to remove all the nails 3 dollars a pallet works around here and i can sit back and drink lemonade and relax.

  24. I have seen a lot of cool things lately that people have made from pallets. I really want to try making something to put in my home. This is important to know so you have nice wood to work with. Wish me luck!

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  29. My brother and I are accustomed to pondering over plastic vs. wood pallets like most people ponder over paper or plastic bags in line at your grocery store. Which one is better?

  30. I use a pallet paw which removes the pallet boards in one go. There are a few nails to remove but you keep the wood good.

  31. You can use your old rusty nails to make wood stain. Just soak them in vinegar for a couple of days and paint on. The longer you leave it the darker the stain.


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