DIY Cowboy How to reclaim wood from pallets

DIY Cowboy How to reclaim wood from pallets

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 4×4 piece of wood, long enough to lay across the pallet.
  • a 2 pound or heavier mallet, possibly made of rubber
  • a piece of 2×6 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

DIY Cowboy How to reclaim wood from pallets

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 4×4. Raise the pallet with one hand and slide the 4×4 underneath with the other. Position the 4×4 so that it is side to side with the first board you want to remove.

Once in position,

grab your mallet and 2×6 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 2×6 near where the pallet board contacts other boards and try to hold it so that as much of the 2×6 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 2×6 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 2×6 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 4×4 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 4×4 against, I choose the side with the least weight. This puts the board I want to remove in between the 4×4 and the floor, as opposed to the 4×4 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 4×4, 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 2×6 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.

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.


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