Cheap Seats: Wood Selection and Initial Processing

A part of me wanted to entitle this post “Making the Best of a Bad Situation,” for reasons that will become evident.


One Ash Pallet

Finding pallets as scrap is apparently fairly easy, and can usually be had for the cost of picking them up. Though I consider myself pretty good at sourcing materials, actually finding hardwood pallets as scrap took a bit of legwork. Your experience may be different. The choice between hardwood and softwood pallets is an easy one. While softwood pallets may be easier to come by, the properties of Spruce/Pine/Fir are pretty inadequate to this project. The slats from pallets are typically quite thin, therefore a pine pallet would have very little strength in comparison to an equally thick piece of ash or oak. I’d initially gotten a hold of an oak pallet for this project, but soon discovered that there was too little usable lumber from the piece. Pallet lumber is typically the worst parts of the tree, then often repaired after severe abuse. Being constructed in the crudest methods possible doesn’t make recycling them into something useful very pleasant either. You may notice that a number of the visible slats are broken or simply not even close to square along their lengths. This will mean careful selection of materials from this pallet, and a fair amount of waste. Good thing we aren’t paying for these pallets.

rotten board

Another common problem in using pallet lumber is the incidence of rot. Pallets often see long service in poor outdoor conditions that can lead to damage which renders the wood unusable for reclamation. Here is a board from the Ash Pallet that appeared to be excellent but needed to be discarded because it was water rotted under the surface.

Disassembling the pallet was a relatively simple affair. A breaker-bar and hammer were used to pry the slats from the rails as neatly as possible. Significant splitting is a common occurrence in used pallets, no need to exacerbate the situation by attacking them pell-mell. If you are lucky, you can get most or all of the nails to extract from the rails when removing the slats. That makes for a much simpler operation of removing the nails in the next step.


Bent nose pliers and an old pair of nips will ease the removal of most of the nails.

Along the top edge of this image, we see quite a few nails still stubbornly holding to the rails. These are going to require a lot more work to remove than those that came out with the slats. It was also disappointing to discover that this pallet had been rebuilt at least once, as there were a significant number of nails sheared flush with the rails which did not attach to any of the current slats. Otherwise, the rails are some pretty good rough finished 5/4 material. This is a great dimension to start with for constructing the framework of Pre-17th Century furniture.


Straightening fails in the slats.

The nips, with their beveled jaws, are excellent for getting any bent nails straightened back up for tapping out with a hammer.


Once mostly straight, just tap them through. On the other side, the last bit of the nail can be pulled through with the nippers or bent nose pliers.

Be sure to double-check for any nails that are sheared off inside the slats (and rails) discovering these when putting a sharpened or powered tool to this wood would be disastrous.

20131022_132129Prying out the sheared off nails, and any that remained in the rails, is an arduous process. This is an additional “cost” of getting the material for no direct monetary expense. The nippers excel at gripping the wire nails while the curved faces of the pliers are very convenient to lever the stubborn nails out. This still will require a good deal of hand-strength and time to get them all out.


Stubborn, stubborn.

This pallet had been rebuilt at least once. This left a number of nail shanks embedded into the rails which were essentially if not completely flush with the narrow edges. The picture shows two nails that were sheared off. One is rather evident as it sticks up about 1/16th an inch from the surface. The other is that slightly reddish-brown spot with a black ring around it, a little to the left of the obvious one. Short of trimming to either side of the shank, and soaking the whole board in water for a couple days to soften the fibers before drawing them out with pliers, I don’t see an “easy” way of getting these nails out. There are at least two dozen sheared shanks still buried in the four rails of this pallet. This kind of trouble isn’t easily distinguished when selecting a pallet. Putting any tool to these faces is a very bad idea until all metal bits have been thoroughly removed. Considering the requirement for milling the lumber in order to make useful parts, leaving these nails in place is unsatisfactory.

It looks like I’ll either be hunting down another pallet, or spending the money to build a soak basin to soften this wood enough to get those nails out easily.

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One Response to Cheap Seats: Wood Selection and Initial Processing

  1. CJ Roberts provided an elegant solution that I hadn’t considered. Instead of trying to make space to work out the sheared off nails, use a nail set/center punch to continue the nails through the wood.

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