Dismantling a pallet into reusable wood planks

This post originally appeared on the Sustainable Witney website.

Wooden pallets are practically the original and most recognizable example of discarded and waste wood. Also, you usually expect to see them consigned to the flames: it almost isn’t a successful Guy Fawkes’ Night, until you’ve put at least one of them on the bonfire.

But they’re also a convenient source of second-best reclaimed wood, if you can get your hands on them well in advance of your DIY project. Taking apart a pallet is really satisfying – it’s feels a bit like magically conjuring usable wood – but there are a few tricks you’ll need. Here’s a video that shows one successful method:

In short, you start by lump-hammering the chocks – the cuboids of wood between the planks – at right angles to the nail direction. This gradually bends the joins apart and eventually frees the chocks entirely. Once you’ve got some chocks to prop up the upturned remainder of the pallet, you can lump-hammer individual planks away from others, and they drop down between the chocks. As you proceed, continually claw-hammer any nails back out, in the opposite direction from how they were hammered in.

The problem with such instructions, and the videos that accompany them, is that they tend to assume that your pallet is in pretty good shape: some other videos I’ve seen appear to dismantle brand-new pallets! So if you’ve only got Hobson’s choice of a pallet to start off with, you might find that things don’t work out so smoothly.

I recently took apart one of these pallets, of slightly unusual design, very graciously donated by fellow Sustainable Witney volunteers:

pallet_original

There was a lot of wood to it, more than normal; but that was because it was bigger than the “standard” pallet, and therefore had more strengthening structure to it (not what you want when you’re pulling it to bits!) So here are some of the problems I encountered, and the solutions I came up with:

  • Wet wood. If the pallet has been outside, the wood will be too flexible. This means that as you try to hammer the joint apart, the joint just bends and absorbs the hammer blows. Eventually, the nail heads can even pull through the wood, tearing as they go. Try to store the pallet somewhere dry for a few days before working with it.
  • Soft chocks. The cuboids of wood that separate the pallet top from the strengthening planks underneath can have softened with age and weather, so as you lump-hammer them they just split. The ones on my pallet were also made from MDF, not solid wood, which made them split more easily. Have a crowbar or prybar handy, and hammer the bar into the joints between chock and plank; but take care not to damage the planks when you do so.
  • Extra strengthening planks. The standard pallet has nine chocks assembled in threes, with a plank under each triplet. Sturdier pallets (like mine) can have crossbar planks, joining the triplets. These mean that you can no longer lump-hammer the chocks as easily, as the bending stress gets passed along all three connected sets. Consider using prybar on just the first layer of crossbar planks, before then lump-hammering as usual.
  • Repaired pallets. If the pallet has been repaired – maybe with an extra plank of wood in places, or just partially disassembled then reassembled – then you can find some nails are actually completely hidden under the repair, and cannot be hammered backwards. Learn to spot the change in tone when a nail starts to move under your hammer-blows: if that doesn’t happen after half a dozen blows, check to see you can see the nail head at all. Try to disassemble the pallet in such an order that you never need to remove a trapped nail.
  • Splintering planks, lost nail heads, left-behind bits of chocks. All of these can happen if your pallet is complicated. Don’t worry too much, but avoid putting too much stress on wood once it starts to splinter, and try to keep track of stray nails: you probably want to discard any wood that has nails irredeemably stuck in it, or only use it where the nails won’t cause you problems trying to make a join. Wear sturdy gloves to avoid splinters, and use gentle taps on the prybar to remove any fragments of chocks towards the end.

Despite what sounds like a lengthy list of problems, it was still fairly straightforward to get the pallet apart. And I ended up with a large quantity of wood:

pallet_disassembled

Nearly eighteen metres of 10cm-wide, 17mm-thick planks! That’s more than enough wood for me to build a small raised bed (one metre squared) and try out some square foot gardening. But that’s a project for another day (edit: click here to see how to make a raised bed from pallet wood!): right now I’m just chuffed to have all this wood to work with!

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