Sustainable Alternatives: Pallet Furniture

Let me just preface this by saying I’m by no means a woodworker and have had pretty minimal carpentry experience in my life, so this will be less of a tutorial and more of a story of what I learned. It is amazing though what being a broke resourceful college student will teach you about building things yourself. The impetus for this project came from signing a lease for an unfurnished apartment and realizing that I own a very minimal amount of furniture, sigh. With a whole summer before my move in date though, I decided to try my hand at making some pieces of furniture out of salvaged pallet wood. After a quick Google search to get inspired, I quickly consulted Craigslist to find local sources of free pallet wood. Below is a picture of the first couple pallets I scavenged from the back of Joe Riley Ballpark. As a general note, I highly recommend wearing gloves when handling pallets that you find around town, as these things can be pretty splintery.

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While finding abandoned pallets is fairly easy, harvesting usable wood from them can be a real pain. This was definitely the most labor intensive phase of the project. Unfortunatley I didn’t take any pictures of this part, but there are basically two schools of thought when it comes to deconstructing pallets. Some suggest using a jigsaw to either cut the nails that are holding flat boards to the three paralell beams (this allows you to keep the flat boards their original length), or cutting the boards into two pieces by making cuts to them right up against the beams (this yields two shorter flat boards). The other strategy is to use the back of a hammer, a crowbar, or any other leverage tool to pry the flat boards off of the connecting beams. I tried all of these methods and ended up using the second jigsaw method primarily. I found that using a saw to cut the nails was really tough on the saw blade, and that using leverage to pry the boards off of the beams almost always split boards.

After harvesting the wood from the pallets, and sanding all pieces copiously, the next task was deciding what to make with all of it. My girlfriend was looking for a simple night stand/end table so we chose to start with that to test our skills. We decided on a rectangular prism design for the night stand, with spaces between the 5 boards on each face. It’s important to take measurements and plan the spacing of everything beforehand to make sure you don’t end up with a wobbly piece of furniture. To attach everything together, we used wood glue and nails. Using screws would have no doubt made everything sturdier, but they tended to split our wood so we stuck with nails. Here’s how it looked before putting the top on.

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We chose 5 of the nicest cuts of wood for the top and gave them some extra sanding to make sure the surface was nice and smooth. Use a series of increasingly fine sandpapers for the best results.

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With the top on, all that was left was to finish the wood. This is a part where you can really customize how you want your furniture to look, as there’s a whole spectrum of wood finishes to choose from at the hardware store. We went for a clear satin finish for this piece and applied several coats. The result was a nice smooth and darker looking wood that was much more visually appealing than the pallets it came from!

-Carter Allen, Sustainablility Intern Summer 2016

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