DIY inspiration: 12 tips if you want to upcycle old pallets
A few tricks to ensure you have a good pallet upcycling experience.
Words Nadene Hall
Wooden pallets are used to hold heavy goods and are moved around by forklift or pallet jacks, so they tend to be robust. But even sturdy, hard-wearing wooden pallets have a set lifespan and will be offered up for free on roadsides in industrial zones.
The best ones are:
• stamped with HT (heat-treated) or KD (kiln-dried);
• used to carry heavy machinery or parts, eg tractors, ride-on mowers, ATVs, motorcycles;
• clean, solid, good quality timber, eg not cracked or bowed.
Don’t use pallets:
• that aren’t solid timber such as a timber composite (MDF);
• stamped MB (methyl bromide, a toxic fumigation chemical);
• tinted in pink or green (a chemical treatment);
• that are glued together or painted;
• used to transport food products (ones outside food stores or factories), due to bacterial contamination and fumigation chemicals;
• stained with oil or mould;
• that smell;
• that have been sitting out in the rain for a long time.
LET PALLETS ACCLIMATISE TO YOUR HOME
If you want to use pallets or pallet wood inside your home, sit the dry, raw wood inside your home for a few days so it can acclimate before you start building. If its moisture level is higher than the inside of your home, it will shrink as it dries and may warp, crack, or split.
Tip: Free pallets often have a damaged, rotten, cracked, or missing batten/s. Look for a second ‘donor pallet’ of the same size, so you can replace boards to make up one good pallet.
TOOLS TO USE
If you need to dismantle pallets for your project, it can be difficult as they’re designed to be sturdy. You can do it using hand tools:
• use a hammer and a screwdriver to pry a 2mm gap between boards to avoid splitting the wood;
• slide a hacksaw blade into the gap and saw through the old nails, or use a crowbar or pry bar to carefully pry the timber apart.
The easiest, fastest option
Get yourself a reciprocating saw with bi-metal blades that can cut through the nails (and wood). You must be careful not to damage the wood as you cut into the pallet – you may still want to pry open gaps in joins to avoid accidentally marking it. If you want to remove the nails, you’ll also need a nail punch and a hammer.
You can use a hand sander or block, but an orbital sander is much faster and does a nicer job.
If you choose to use a reciprocating saw and/or orbital sander, it’s a loud, dusty job. Three things we recommend are:
• respirator, n95 (the same type you use to avoid Covid);
• safety goggles or glasses;
• ear plugs.
THE TRICK TO A GOOD-LOOKING WALL
If you want to create a feature wall using pallet wood, it’s important to paint the surface that will sit behind the wood (eg gib, plywood backing) a dark colour. Pallet wood won’t be perfectly straight, and a light colour will show through tiny gaps.
To attach pallet wood to a wall or backing board, either:
• nail it directly;
• glue it directly;
• nail and glue it;
• nail to battens.
HOW TO CREATE A VINTAGE LOOK
To get the vintage look on your pallet wood:
• Lightly sand the wood – you want to reduce its roughness, but it doesn’t need to be perfectly smooth – then wipe the wood clean.
• Apply a light coat of your chosen topcoat – don’t use a primer, and don’t paint to get perfect coverage.
• Wait for the paint to dry.
• You can either stop here if you like the effect or use a fine sandpaper (120-140 grit) to remove some of the paint.
FOR A DISTRESSED LOOK
Use two paint colours for a layered distressed look.
Step 1. Lightly paint the first layer, and leave to dry;
Step 2. Lightly paint another colour over the top, and leave it to dry;
Step 3. Sand back through the layers using 120-140 grit sandpaper until you’re happy with the effect.
TIPS FOR A GLASS-TOP COFFEE TABLE
Custom Glass sheets can be expensive, so look for a pallet that’s 1200mm x 1000mm. That will match with a ready-made glass panel for a pool fence of the same size. The panels are toughened, safety glass, come with rounded edges, and are available from hardware stores.
You can glue the glass directly to the wood or to stainless steel adapters (like this one at right), which screw into the wood. You use a special epoxy to glue the adapter to the glass, which dries optically clear. Caster wheels are available from hardware stores such as Mitre10 and Bunnings.