Pallet projects are a popular DIY hobby for, among other reasons, the materials are often free or at least very low cost. It’s also cool to show your ingenuity in coming up with unique uses for pallet furniture, benches, coffee tables, and a myriad of outdoor garden applications like hanging gardens.
Oftentimes, small businesses that have occasional deliveries on pallets will simply want the pallets gone. If you ask first, owners will say sure, take it (or them) away, making them like found money for you.
They’ll require a little work from you to turn them into something good and useful, but when the materials for your project come free of cost, that little work is a very small price to pay. There are a couple of considerations before you begin:
- Were the pallets heat-treated? Many pallets are treated with high heat, up to 132 degrees Fahrenheit, to seal the wood. You will find a mark of HT (heat-treated) or KD (kiln-dried) if they have been. If a pallet bears these markings and no others, the wood is sealed, and no chemicals were used for further treatment.
- Were the pallets chemically treated? If a pallet is marked MB, it means the pallet was treated with methyl bromide, a toxic pesticide that has been linked to human health problems and environmental damage. Although its use has been restricted in the past few years (it’s early 2022 as this piece is being written), it’s often difficult to tell a pallet’s age. It’s best to avoid pallets with an MB stamp altogether, especially if you intend to use them in your gardens. Also, don’t ever burn pallets that have been chemically treated.
- How has it been used? What has been carried on the pallet? In some instances, e coli has been discovered on pallets that have carried contaminated produce. Although pallets do not carry a legacy index of uses, it is something to be aware of if you are thinking of a pallet project.
It’s best to exercise care and prudence when choosing your pallets. If they bear no stamps or have the MB stamp, it would be best to look elsewhere and find those with the HT or KD stamp.
All of that being said, you’ve found pallets that you consider safe and are ready to begin your project. Obvious upon examination is a rough surface that needs to be addressed. After all, they are just strips cut coarsely from rough timber. Splinters are a handling risk, as well as appearance. You’ll want a smooth, or at least smoother, finish for your project.
Let’s consider how to prepare them.
How Do You Smooth a Wooden Pallet?
Before you get to the smoothing part, you first will disassemble the pallet as the first step. You want to remove all nails, brads, all metal connectors that held the pallet together. Tool options for this first step include:
- Claw hammer
- Pry bar
- Pallet nail puller (no kidding – there really is such a dedicated tool)
- Pallet busters (again, no kidding – a dedicated tool for the task)
- Fencing pliers (sometimes come in handy, too)
Now that the pallet is apart, it’s time to smooth it.
Pallet wood can be planed, and the idea of getting finish quality wood free or at low cost is appealing. But, the purist pallet furniture hobbyist will try to preserve the rough integrity of pallet wood to some extent to add character to their project.
Sanding, then, becomes the best option. Lightly sanding the rough surface will help avoid splinters and smooth the edges, at the least. Heavier sanding will smooth the surface and allow a cleaner surface for some finish applications.
What Sanders Are Best For Pallets?
Belt Sanders and random orbital sanders are good choices for your pallet wood. Belt sanders are more powerful and will remove material quickly for you but can also be bulky. Orbital sanders are easier to manage and work with, too. Either will do the job for you, though.
A low number grit, coarser sandpaper of maybe 60 or 80 grit, is a good starter to remove looser surface wood splinters and rough edges. Move up in grit number, a medium grit of 100 to 150, to produce a smoother surface after the loose surface material has been removed. The highest grit paper for fine sanding would be used only if you wanted to create a very smooth finish.
The old schoolers among you who prefer hand sanding will want to use a sanding block, again starting out with lower grit paper and working up in grit as the coarsest surface materials have been removed. Always sand with the grain, too – – otherwise, cross-grain marks will be accentuated when painted or stained.
As an aside, here’s an earlier piece we wrote about belt sanders and random orbital sanders you will find interesting.
Should I Sand Pallets Before Painting?
The smoother the surface, the easier it is to paint. This general rule of painting wood can be broken with pallets, though. The pallet project hobbyist believes a certain degree of roughness adds character to the project.
The rustic look, especially in outdoor use, or beachside cottage chic, is quite desirable and adds an appropriate aesthetic to the piece. Be sure to remove all dust with a damp cloth before painting.
The answer to the question, then, is it depends. What are you making? How will it be used? Where will it be used? How much of a pallet project purist are you?
What Type of Paint Should I Use on My Pallet Project?
Pallet wood is likely to be porous, and that can give your project an uneven finish. We’d suggest using a primer first before the finish coat(s) unless an uneven, rustic finish is what you want.
Latex or acrylic paints will work well on pallets and shed and fence paint for outdoor pieces. The smoother the wood, the finer the appearance after painting. Again, though, remember that pallet wood is likely to be porous, meaning the paint will penetrate well and deeply to give your piece added protection against the elements in outdoor uses.
Do You Have to Sand Pallets Before Staining?
The answer again depends on the effect you want to create with your pallet project and where/how it will be used. But, the short answer to this question is no, you do not need to sand pallets before staining.
You can choose to skip sanding your pallet before staining. A light color can be had by staining without sanding your pallet wood. You can also use a Primer before staining to increase the durability of the stain. It will ensure better adhesion to the wood. However, if you want grain and wood character to show through the stain, you can skip the primer.
There are plenty of videos available on the subject of prepping pallets for projects. Here’s one hobbyist’s way of prepping pallet wood for his projects in five easy ways:
For some amazing pallet wood project ideas, take a look at this one. Wait until you see the bed frame/platform this fellow made.
As for the cost of pallets, and as mentioned earlier, it is possible to find pallets free. Check Craigslist as one potential source. If you see a few pallets outside the back door of a local business, the owner might simply want them gone (as crazy as that might sound – why throw free wood away?). Ask first, and you might get lucky.
However, you can purchase new pallets, too. If you’re a good shopper, you can find new pallets for as little as $10.
The limits of pallet use are only the limits of your imagination and creativity. We’ve used them to build garden workbenches with great success. With a bit of shed and fence paint in a bright color, they added a rustic character to our country garden.
Free is good. Search for the opportunities and get to work on your pallet project.