Building greenhouses and planters. Chapter 1 - Pallets.May 19, 2006 (Updated May 22, 2006) Write an essay on this topic.
Popular Products in GardenThe Bottom Line In the first chapter of a multi-part series, we discuss pallets as a source of cheap wood.
"We don't need no stinking planters," said my wife with a smile, but her tone of voice and tight grip on the steering wheel said, "You're not gonna win this one, buddy."
I stayed quiet and sat back to think. The problem is, she was wrong, and when wrongness and mule-like stubbornness get together, the result is rarely good.
Alas, I had brought this on myself. Last year, I had decided to start organic gardening in pots growing herbs and veggies. I had started by building a $100 greenhouse/planter that would allow three season plantings. However, the project had been less than successful. The prior year's hurricanes and the war in Iraq had driven the price of wood through the roof. Then, I had decided that making it in cedar would save money in the long term -- it will, it really will. Combine that with some over engineering, and the cost tripled.
Then, I made a number of beginner gardening errors that wasted money, and yielded little produce. The spring crop was a total bust. Luckily, the fall crop was decent, not miraculous but decent. However, the design, that was supposed to allow a late harvest and early spring planting, failed disastrously when faced with an early, heavy, wet snow. I need to rethink that part again when I can afford another failure. At the moment I have about as much credibility as a White House Press Conference.
The one saving grace was the tomatoes. I had an old, 6'x6' rabbit run. I put some black garden cloth on the ground, put the run over it, and placed a number of pots of tomatoes inside. The hutch protected the tomatoes through their early growth, then I opened up the top as they grew larger, leaving the 2' high walls to fend of local critters. It all worked quite well.
However, quite well was not good enough. The run, resting on the ground as it was, would soon rot and fail. The 6'x6' space was only 3'x6' usable space, since I could not reach to use the middle. And although I was spared the worst of critter ravages, I did lose a significant number of tomatoes to birds and squirrels in the fall.
To make matter even direr, I had, in my infinite wisdom, decided to grow from seed this year instead of buying flats. Through good luck or good judgment, almost all my plantings had germinated, and I had twice as many tomato plants as last year, all looking for a home.
Yep, I needed planters.
I had visions of making a wooded frame like an upside down library table. By using the 6'x2' wire covered panels from the hutch for the front and back, I could make three 3'x6' planters for little cost. Hmmm....
I did the math. Using pine they would cost about $50 each for the wood alone, and using Cedar they would cost more, much more. This wasn't going to fly.
I was still thinking about it two days later when we passed a sign near my home. The sign said, "Free Pallets." Of course, since the place is at the end of my street, I pass it virtually every day, but today I noticed. The fact was that the planters I needed looked a lot like pallets, and could easily, I thought, be made from the same wood.
After much discussion and constant repetition of the word FREE, I finally got permission, and so a few weeks ago, I started work on the first planter.
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In the following text, I am going to describe what is involved in braking down a pallet for use, what wood you can expect to recover, and how much work is involved. The actual construction of the greenhouse/planters will be covered in later chapters.
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Every pallet is made from two basic construction pieces, studs and laths. The studs are nominal 2 by 4s, (about 1.5" by 3.5"). The laths are about 1/2" thick, and vary in width considerably, even in a single pallet. A range from about 2" to about 8" is common.
Each pallet, no matter what its size, is made in the same way. Three or occasionally four studs are laid down parallel to each other, with the 4" side vertical and the 2" side horizontal. Three or four laths are nailed at right angles across the studs. The whole thing is turned over putting the laths on the bottom, and more laths are nailed across the top, parallel to the first set. How many depends on the use, but it can be anything from about four up to a dozen. The structure, essentially the studs sandwiched between the two layers of lath, is incredibly strong.
The pallets are made from various woods. At the two places I have raided, an electrical storehouse and an engineering workshop, I have found six types of wood: pine, ash, cedar, white oak, red oak and mahogany. The two oaks seem to compose about 70% of the available pallets.
I only found one cedar pallet so far, and did not have a use for it at this time. The only mahogany pallet was too old and beat up for me to use. I primarily took the white and red oak pallets, with a pine/ash pallet or two for construction pieces.
The studs range from about 1-1/8" thick to 1.5" thick, with the thicker studs being primarily ash and pine. They run from about 45" long up to a full 96" (8'). Most are planed smooth on one side only, but the pine and ash are often planed on both sides. Some pieces are straight as any you get at the store, and some are bent like bananas. Some have scallops taken out of the underside to reduce their weight. This was no problem for my planters, but made them fairly useless for anything else. The hardwood studs were obviously used for strength so, unsurprisingly, they were rarely scalloped.
The laths were all unplaned and 1/2" thick, except for the cedar. The laths on the cedar pallet were planed both sides and a full 3/4" thick -- thats why I could not use it for the planters, and yes, I am going back for it. The laths vary in length from 30" up to about 48". The grain on the laths is vertical and runs lengthwise so they split very easily, like shingles.
With the exception of the cedar pallet, the laths are probably only useful for firewood, planters, fencing, edging, crates, and other rough outdoor projects. The studs on the other hand, had some very nice wood -- more about that later.
As far as I could tell from examination, handling, smell and so forth, the pallets were not treated with any chemicals. Obviously, I do not know this for sure. I did find some woodworm and termite damage on a couple of pallets, and did not use them.
The pallets I have found have been assembled using three types of fastener: common nails, twisted nails, and/or 5/8 wire staples. Unless they have been repaired, all the fasteners on a pallet are the same. This is important for the technique to disassemble them differs based on the fastener.
Dress for Success:
Before attacking the local pallets, put on appropriate clothing. You need:
- A baseball cap or brimmed hat.
- A long-sleeved heavy shirt.
- Sturdy denim pants.
- Heavy work boots.
- Leather palmed work gloves.
- Safety glasses.
I know this seems an odd stipulation, but free wood stops being free when you run up a $3000 emergency room bill while harvesting it. The pallets are unwanted so tend to be thrown in a pile. They have probably been picked over by other scavengers, some of which only want firewood. Consequently, they tend to be stacked pell-mell with tons of rough wood, splinters and rusty nails sticking out.
I wore a baseball cap, a long-sleeved top from a sweat suit, a pair of white denim painter's pants (complete with bib and shoulder straps), and a $30 pair of K-mart work boots, with nail resistant soles and a heavy plastic reinforced toecap. I wore my prescription sunglasses and heavy work gloves. Of course, only the extra heavy gloves were unusual. I tend to wear the other stuff on all woodworking projects.
By the way, those tetanus shots you got as a kid need a booster shot every 7-10 years. Now would be a real good time to make sure that you are up to date.
16+ oz Curved Claw, Rip Claw or Framing Hammer
12" Pry Bar
7"+ Curved Nose Vise Grips (7" will do, 10" is better.)
An old, narrow bladed, flat head screwdriver
Crosscut Saw or battery operated Circular Saw
Long Handled Pincers
Step 1 - Dismantling a pallet:
The first step in using a pallet is to get it into its component pieces. This takes about 30 minutes a pallet.
Because pallets would not fit into my wagon, I had to do this at the source. If you need to do this too, remember to be quick, as quiet as possible, and to leave the site tidy.
Pick the pallet you want. Start at the side with least laths. Drive the pry bar between the lath and the stud at one side and pry it apart. Repeat on the other side. Repeat on the middle studs. Once all the laths are off one side, lay the pallet flat, remaining laths down. Using the hammer (and judicious kicks), bend the studs over sideways and lever them off the lath.
If the pallet is fastened with common nails or staples, the lath will normally pull the nail from the stud. Twisted nails won't budge. They will either pull through or split the wood.
The ends of the lath are particularly prone to splitting. If you need them intact, cut through them with a saw parallel to the end studs instead of prying. A crosscut saw is fine, a battery-operated circular saw is quicker, but be sure there are no nails in your path. You will still have to pry off the middle stud, but that is quite easy once the ends are free.
If all you want are the studs, cut all the laths off with a saw, and stack the pieces nicely for the firewood crowd. A few sideways whacks with a hammer will spit and remove the remaining lath wood from the studs.
After step one, I stacked the wood, nails and all, in my wagon and took it home. I felt this reduced my time at the pallet pile, and made my presence less likely to be annoying.
Step 2 - Nail reduction from studs:
The studs now have a few common nails and staples sticking from them, and almost all of the twisted nails.
The claw headed hammer will make quick work of the common nails. The easiest way to get rid of the staples and twisted nails is to grab the end with a hefty vice grip or mole wrench and lever it out. Both claw hammers and pry bars are totally useless against twisted nails. This takes a couple of minutes per stud.
Note that pulling twisted nails from oak studs takes a fair amount of effort. If your normal amount of exertion is pushing down keys and mouse buttons, expect some sore arms in the morning.
Step 3 - Nail reduction from lath:
The lath will have common nails, twisted nails and/or staples sticking through it.
To get the nails out, whack the pointed end with a hammer till the other end sticks up, and then pull it with the claw.
Staples are a problem; they bend too easily so the above technique usually won't work. Instead use an old, flat headed screwdriver with a head narrower then the inside width of the staple. Drive the screwdriver into the wood and under the crown of the staple with a hammer, and then lever the staple up a bit. As soon as you can, grab the staple's crown with the vice grips and lever it out. This can take a couple of minutes a staple.
Step 4 - Pause for a soda:
You now have all the wood apart, and all the nasty sharp pointed nails and staples removed. For my purposes, this was all I needed. To get to this point took about 60 minutes a pallet.
Common nails are rare, but super easy to remove. Staples are easy to pull from the studs, but very time consuming to remove from lath. Twisted nails are hard to remove from studs making dismantling very time consuming, but, in the very rare case of one being left in the lath, it comes out as easily as a common nail.
Step 5 - Finished Wood:
The wood from the prior step is nail reduced, but not necessarily nail free. There may be nail points that broke off left in the wood. Pallet repairs may have left nails hammered flat. Before you can use this stuff as finished wood you MUST remove all metal. Not only does a nail hitting a $50 circular saw blade negate the advantage of free wood, it is also EXTREMELY DANGEROUS.
You can examine the wood by eye, and use tools like a cats paw or long handled pincers to try and get any remaining pieces out. This will give you wood that is good enough for finished work, but for HAND TOOLS ONLY. Maybe a quick cross-cut with a hand held circular saw, if you are nowhere near any nail holes. Gentle use of sanders should be okay. Jig saws or saber saws with combination wood/metal blades can be used with care. However, I would not put one of my valuable hand plane blades at risk.
Before you use any major tools, like a Router, Radial Arm Saw, Table Saw, Joiner or Surface Planer you MUST get all metal from the wood. For this you need a metal detector. These come in various types. I saw one on TV that has a ring that you pass the wood slowly through. It beeps and lights up when it spots metal. Detectors are relatively cheap -- less then the cost of a quality 10" saw blade. You cannot rely on eyesight and luck.
Remember, a single nail can shatter your saw blade and take chunks from your planer blades. Not only is this expensive, but high-speed flying metal can cause serious injury.
Is it worth it?
For me, yes. I did not need to do the time consuming Step 5. Also, I needed both lath and stud. Only 2-3 pallets supplied me with enough wood to make a 6'x3' planter. For greenhouses, planters, fencing, raised beds, and other rough outdoor projects, this wood is certainly an option.
However, I could not help noticing how good some of the wood was. The red and white oak studs were usually straight, very dense and hard, and free of major knots. With work, they would produce 1" x 3.5" finished select boards in 4' to 8' lengths, with just a few character building nail holes in the edges. Boards like these would be quite expensive to buy new, and are suitable for quite a few projects.
By using a battery-operated circular saw, you can remove the lath quickly. By choosing newer pallets with nails that have not had time to rust you can reduce step five to a formality though you still need to use a metal detector to be sure. With practice, you can probably bring harvesting time down to about 10 minutes a stud. For a big project, you probably need to harvest from several sites. Each piece harvested would probably cost $20 or more to buy in the lumber yard. So, not counting travel time, you are "earning" over $100 an hour. For finished furniture work, you still need a surface planer. Then again, if you make furniture, you probably already have one.
So, if you have the right tools, you certainly could harvest this wood for finished projects. I guess it just depends what you have more of, time or money.
As for me, I am going to keep an eye open for more of those cedar pallets. With nominal 2x4 studs and nominal 1x4 laths, both with 2-sides planed smooth, they are a find. The one (so far) that I found was fastened together with only common nails, so was super easy to harvest. Insect and weather resistant cedar is extremely useful for any outside work.
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