The Thing Is…

…wood is wood. I know for many, cost of wood is always an issue and whereas people do often romanticise the using of pallet wood, at the end of the day it’s just a useful alternative as well as good not to be wasteful. Whether it is truly a free resource is questionable because wherever your input of labour becomes an issue there is of course a cost to it. Someone retired with a pensioned income for their latter years may perhaps have a little time on their hands to start stripping down pallets and denailing the wood. That’s not at all always the case though. Someone working full time with a family has to start prioritising their time and money and then even denailing pallets can cost them more than buying in the wood so they can get cracking straight off. Time as they say is money. All considerations at the end of the day. Of course saving wood from burying and burning is going to be the positive alternative. I doubt I would buy pallet wood when it is often free for the asking.

Though this wood type, exploited for shipping and distribution pallets, is a fast-growth material intended for the ugly side of commerce in the mass-industries of the world, it can work quite nicely for low cost boxes. The boxes could never really be described as premium but there are options; they can be left as the one here is in a natural condition or they can be painted, stained, varnished and so on or covered with another material, leather or fabric, even decorative papers and such.

They can also be inlaid with alternative woods and woods with different grain configurations and colour to form say leaves, geometric patters, that kind of thing. The world is your oyster! Softwoods used for pallets is generally a little softer and less dense than say lime but can often be readily chip-carved. Decoration increases saleability if you planned on selling as an end product. These would make quite nice gift boxes even if only nailed – a bottle of wine or such, maybe.

So it takes me about an hour to plane up the wood from rough-sawn to a finished dovetailed a box as shown. As you can see by the discrepancy in the corner joints, the dovetails are not of course measured and neither do I use a template guide for the angles.

Eye-balling is fast as is sawing all of the tails first before negotiating pins. I’m going to make a couple of simple alternatives to show options I think but not promising. I decided not to cope out the waste with a turning saw because on pine the grain tends to tear out when levelling the cut. It’s much easier in maple for that as maple has consistent grain density and so does not tend to crush with alternating growth aspects of the growth rings.

I was quite fortunate because the grain moisture levels were already low when I first cut into the pallets. After a couple of days in in the workshop, stacked as said, this type of wood readily gives out its moisture. When I began the joinery my wood measured around 5 – 6.5 percent when checked in via end-grain cuts. No likely shifts in that going forward so no worries with regards to either shrinkage or expansion. The key to working any softwood, and that’s just about all of the softwoods from coniferous the forests and woodlands we get from more temperate zones, is the sharpness of our tools. Without this sharpness we cannot hope to get the crisp lines at the shoulders where one part of the joint unites to the other. It is well worth going all the way to 10,000 on the strop. Also key is the knifewall. Again start out with a sharp knife and the lines will meet perfectly and also give you the accuracy you are striving for. It’s also a good idea to use much less force via the chisel hammer as this will compress the fibres and move the knife wall which will show as a gap. I will often use just my fist, the side of it, as an initial entry into the wood, and then, as the cuts deepen, revert to the chisel hammer. This will be enjoyable for you!

Nailed boxes and trays are useful. I mean seed trays and wine presentation boxes, things like that, from wood scraps, such as this: They will last for years of seed raisings or as paraphernalia catchalls. One time I took a section of wood and a blowtorch to an iron manhole cover in the town where I was born and lived because the manhole had a raised name and town in the casting: ‘NEEDHAMS’ on the top half of the circle and ‘STOCKPORT’ down below. Heating the iron on the small section gave me an immediate brand for nothing but gas. It worked fine. Of course stencilling with card stock and misting with spray paint works fine too. I have cut through masking tape to get patterns for stencilling with a stiff brush and dabbing in chalk or milk paint as well.

Pre-drilling with a same-sized nail used for nailing stops the wood from splitting even when directly near the ends of side pieces and bottoms as shown. Simply file the pyramid point to create sharper corners to the point first and away you go. This works with small pins and large nails too: four inch even. Try it!

Plane flush if it matters and then sand and round the corners as you like.

I filed the heads flush for appearance here but just leave them if a utilitarian look suits you better.

Maybe more even yet!

11 Comments

  1. Greg on 31 May 2019 at 5:56 pm

    These look very nice – I like the idea of simple gift boxes or even shop containers. The filed screw heads look like the joints were pinned with metal rod vs nailed, and it definitely dresses it up (as long as the finish keeps them from rusting!)

    Unfortunately, though, I’ve never had pallet wood turn out this nice for me. THe few times I’ve tried, the wood has been very stained, cracked, full of knots, etc and it wasn’t so usable. Maybe they treat pallets nicer in the UK 🙂 I’ll have to be more discerning with my pallet choices next time. Thanks for sharing.

  2. John2v on 31 May 2019 at 7:10 pm

    Oh Paul you are just so clever…in this one article…so many tips.

    Trouble is so much to do ….so little time ….

    Forever greatful John2v

  3. Ryan O'Hayre on 31 May 2019 at 7:23 pm

    I have that same moisture meter but it seems to behave oddly sometimes. I’ll get 6% reading in the end grain of a board and 0.0 just an inch away on the face. Also, is it true it doesn’t give readings below 5%?

    This could be me exposing my ignorance on the subject too.

  4. Ben Tyreman on 31 May 2019 at 8:05 pm

    I use pallet wood for things like workshop boxes that hold screws e.t.c, perfect use for it.

  5. Andrew on 31 May 2019 at 11:13 pm

    Really delighted with this article: it’s nice to see alternatives on the spectrum of labour and degree of perfecting the result.

    I have been putting off making boxes for some of my tools (eg router plane) feeling that the full dovetail box was excessively time consuming for me (prob 6-8 hours!). These options provide a solution.

    Having used a lot of reclaimed roadside wood, and having a busy job and kids, I think the discussion on the implicit cost of time is spot on. The cost of buying a couple of 8 foot planks of pine begins to look quite appealing after losing a couple of weeks of evening to thickness planing by hand (fun though that is at first).

  6. Holland on 1 June 2019 at 2:02 am

    The ponderosa pine pallet wood I’ve been working lately is very challenging to dovetail. I find it very good practice. It’s really only good for utility boxes though. It dents & bruises so easily. Thanks for your insightful thoughts, Paul. I’m going to miss you when you finally retire.

  7. Sandy on 1 June 2019 at 1:11 pm

    Sometimes you can find some pretty nice wood in pallets. My neighbor years from years ago cut wood for pallet mills. They don’t just use pine. The sawmill will cut everything thrown in front of them. From my observation, the saw doesn’t know the difference.

  8. Paul Oram on 3 June 2019 at 11:02 am

    I’m using a lot of old unwanted furniture, that people give away on the Dutch local equivalent of eBay. I pick it up, take it apart and reuse/recycle/reimagine the wood. So I get to use good quality materials that don’t cost anything – mostly oak and beech.

    I also like to keep the patina that had built up on the original item as a feature of whatever I turn it into.

  9. Richard King on 3 June 2019 at 12:13 pm

    Paul, the pallet wood that you get seems to be far netter quality than I can get. Dismantled about 20 for our woodworking group, but the wastage was enormous, nails, knots, splits, warps and even embedded stones. We just about get 5 dovecots out of them.

    • Paul Sellers on 3 June 2019 at 3:32 pm

      Try finding an engineering firm. They don’t palletise for economy but shipping quality parts.

  10. Jeffrey A Dustin on 3 June 2019 at 6:24 pm

    Any plans to do those cute shaker boxes? The ones that are made of fine veneer and the sides wrap around and are pinned together with brass tacks? Those are classy and would be a fun Christmas build.

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