2016 July 12 Tech Shop Tips
Pallet wood is useful for making things. From art to useful furniture, even buildings... there's almost no limit to what people are making with pallet wood.
Taking apart pallets can be rather challenging, though. If you want to do much of anything with the wood, you're going to want it nail-free.
Let's talk about how to disassemble pallets. We'll look at ways to get nail-free wood without splitting it all to pieces. This is not necessarily a groundbreaking topic, but I have included some insights from my own experience with dismantling pallets.
A Quick Note
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How Pallets Are Assembled
Know how they're put together, and you can take them apart easier.
Many pallets use special nails that are designed to be difficult to pull. This helps keep the pallets together during shipping. (Often the nails are also blunt so they don't split the wood as badly.) Once they get a little rust on them from sitting outside, these nails are really tough to remove.
Quite a few pallets nowadays are put together with nail guns. The nail heads are underflush with the wood. The divots are then filled with glue, sometimes. Not all pallets have this; it seems to depend on who manufactures them. I've taken apart modern pallets that looked like they were hand-nailed.
Most pallets have three main support rails called "stringers". These are made of 2x4, 3x4, or similar-sized wood. Some are 4x4, 4x6, or even 6x6, but those are some heavy pallets, and you probably won't deal with those most of the time.
A few pallets don't have complete stringers. They're just short blocks connected by thin slats. That makes for a flimsy pallet, although most of the basic techniques also apply.
Across the stringers of a typical pallet, there will be nailed some thin slats on the underside. These are the "bottom deck boards". There will be a larger number of thin slats, a.k.a. the "top deck boards", across the top. That's the surface where stuff is actually set, so it can be shipped.
This all sounds very simple. Just wait until you try getting the pallets apart...
The Basic Problem
If you chisel off the nails, that will leave pieces of nail in the stringers. If you ever have to rip down those pieces, the nails could ruin your good saw blades. Even if you just buy cheapo saw blades, you'll go through so many that it would build up too much overhead cost into your finished product. So, if you anticipate having to do rip cuts, you might want to avoid cutting or chiseling off the nails if possible.
If you try to pry the deck boards off with a crowbar, you will split too many of them. Many pallets have oak deck boards... and some of them are red oak, which splits terribly.
So, you have these pallet planks that want to split, the nails don't want to be removed, the nail heads want to break off, etc. Basically, the pallets don't do so well when pried apart.
So maybe don't pry them apart.
Hammer and Block
This is something I had to figure out myself, because the wood kept splitting and I was just gettin' tired of it. I've seen people use concrete planters and stuff, but not quite the method I'll show you here.
This is probably the least-sophisticated method you could use. There's no fancy leverage device, no custom tools to build. There's just a hammer and a block. You guys with the rolling Snap-On toolboxes that have 137 hammers, this is your time!
The advantage is that it helps get [most of] the nails out of the stringers. The intact nails will be in the planks, where you can tap them back out with a carpenter's hammer. Actually it can be a lot more work than just 'tapping' them out. ('nother article.)
To do this right, you should have a couple different hammers for different degrees of rusted-fast. You'll want a moderate weight, something between 20 and 28 ounces. Also you should probably have a sledge hammer. Get a four- to eight-pound mini sledge or engineer's hammer. Get a good one, because you will use it for eighty thousand other things besides knocking apart pallets. If you don't have a good mini sledge, get this hammer immediately. (They're also made in USA). Totally unbreakable, for what you get they're not even really that expensive, and you will be glad you got it.
For the moderate-weight hammer, I found that 20 ounces is about the lightest one that works OK. One like this should work well.
You will have to put something between the hammer and the pallet wood, so you don't mar it. Use a block of wood, but don't be tempted to use broken scraps of oak pallet slats. They will splinter all up and waste your time. Use scraps of 2x4 or 2x6, which are made from softwoods like pine or Douglas fir.
The photo shows the basic idea here. The slat you want to knock loose should be unsupported: empty space underneath it. On either side of it, supports made of two-by scraps.
See that block in the middle? Hit that one correctly, and the slat should loosen. Sometimes it will require extra weight, but the big iron is slow and not always the right tool.
The 2x4 blocks work better than using a stump or an old tire to brace the rest of the pallet. There has to be space between the pallet wood and the ground, so you can knock the slats out from the back. Most of the time, the slat will take the nails out with it. Just pay attention that the wood with nails doesn't snap back and hit you. Best technique is to knock one end out a little, then go to the middle, then the other end. Don't try to knock out one end of a plank all at once.
Sometimes the wood wants to split too much, leaving the nails stuck in the pallet stringers. If you can budge the nail heads a little bit with hammer-and-block, you might be able to remove them with a Super Bar.
A Simple Trick
If the wood already has cracks or splits in it, you might be able to stop them from getting worse. Drill a 1/4" or 5/16"-diameter hole at the end of the split. Do this before trying to pry the wood or hammer it apart.
Sometimes it is possible to fix splits later, by wood-gluing and clamping. As long as the wood isn't oily or dirty, the glue joint should be about as strong as the wood itself.
Sometimes the nails cannot be pulled. The heads will break off; the nails will snap off flush with the wood; it's just a mess. Even a hammer and a block won't work sometimes.
Instead of prying the planks, you might have to cut the nails off and leave them in the wood. I don't like to do that, but if you won't have to rip down the rails or stringers on a table saw, it's an OK method.
The simplest way is the chisel method. Don't use a wood chisel; use a "cold chisel", a brick chisel, or a stonemason's chisel. This is where you just go ahead and chisel the nails off, then punch out whatever steel you can from the wood. That means the heavy support rails or stringers will still have the nails in them, which limits how you can process them.
For sawing through nails, many people prefer the reciprocating saw. One of these would be a good choice. Fit it with blades such as these, designed for nail-embedded wood. Just be careful, because recip saws like to jump all over the place if you're not careful. I wouldn't try to do rip cuts with a reciprocating saw, either, although I'm sure it can be done.
If you used a reciprocating saw to get the pallets apart, the rails or stringers will be full of nails. These nails are tough to extract. If you want to rip down this lumber to make stuff, you'll have to get a "nail cutting" circular saw blade for your tablesaw. For some reason there is a scarcity of 10" nail-cutting blades for these things, but you can safely put a 7 1/4" circular saw blade in your table saw if it has the right arbor diameter. Get yourself two or three of these if you're going to do much pallet work. The reduced blade diameter will limit what kind of lumber you can rip with it, but you should still be able to rip lumber that's two inches thick. Most stringer lumber is only one-and-a-half to two inches thick.
If shorter sections of wood are of any use to you, here's a super-lazy way to dismantle pallets. Simply saw the planks away from the stringers by cutting where there are no nails.
Get yourself a semi-decent jigsaw and cut the slats away from the pallet, as close to the nailed portions as possible (without hitting nails or anything.) Leave the nails that anchor the deck plank to the center stringer. That's because once you get each plank-end free, you can often pry back and forth and extract those nails from the stringer without breaking them off.
As I said, this lazy method will give you shorter sections of lumber. This may limit your projects to little boxes, hanging shelves, spice racks, and that sort of thing. In other words, if you're planning to build picnic tables or something, you may need to deal with some nails in the wood.
Pallets can be a challenge to disassemble properly, but it's all about the technique. A crowbar and a stone chisel are two of the most basic methods. The crowbar gets the nails out (maybe) but splits the wood; the stone chisel preserves more wood but leaves the nails in.
The hammer-and-block method works well for many pallets; it might not be the only correct method, but it's good to know.
A reciprocating saw will dismantle a pallet the fastest, but it also leaves all the nails in the wood. Depending on what you're making, this might or might not be a problem.
What's the right way to disassemble pallets? Well, that depends on what tools you have, how the pallets are constructed, and what you want to do with the lumber.
Whichever method you choose, chances are you will have some lumber that still has nails in it. Hammer-and-block leaves probably the fewest, but any method will leave some in the wood. When you have to make crosscuts or especially rip cuts in this type of lumber, use a nail cutting saw blade for your table saw.
This has been a look at how to disassemble pallets so you can make cool or useful stuff out of them. I hope you've enjoyed it. Thanks for reading!
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