Over the past couple weeks, I’ve been building raised beds and a couple of new gates for the garden. From old pallets. Which seemed like a pretty clever idea.
Pallets are free. And when you have a key pallet connection like I have, they’re easy to come by. Pallet wood is by no means high quality stuff and it’s always a random assortment. But it’s strong enough to be kicked around and beat up during the rigors of shipping cargo, which is all I’m looking for. And it’s free.
However, let me share a couple things I have learned about pallets that may temper the freeganistic, Pinterest-fueled motivation so many of us have in repurposing pallets for more creative uses.
Pallets are held together with nails, right? These nails are designed and intended to keep a pallet in one piece while it’s being kicked around and beat up. And they do a good job. They’re basically “don’t f with me” nails.
Of course, if your creative plans involve taking the pallets apart, you’re going to have to f with the nails.
My particular plans for the raised beds and the gates are based on removing and rearranging planks.
If you try to pry the planks off a pallet, you end up destroying them because the nails don’t want to let go. If you cut through the plank around where it is nailed to the frame, you’re just destroying planks in a more orderly fashion. If you cut through the nails with a sawzall (between the plank and the frame), you get a complete plank but leave most of the nail embedded in the wood frame.
Then when you try to cut through the wood frame, you’ll wreck your circular saw blade. Or two. Maybe damage a third and wonder aloud who let the dumbass in the workshop before you figure this isn’t a good idea.
I asked a buddy of mine if he had any ideas for cutting through nails in wood like this; he’s a carpenter of several decades and an all-around smart dude. His response:
“I decided years ago that even for free, pallets are not a worthwhile source of material. Everything that makes a pallet perfectly suited to be a pallet makes it a total pain in the ass to use for anything else. The nails they use are case hardened, usually spiraled, and “cement coated”. The pallets are also usually built green and then dried which also shrinks the wood fibers around the nails. Those case-hardened nails are sudden death to even carbide blades.”
Not encouraging. Mostly because he’s right when he concludes, “Pallets are a perfect example of evolutionary specialization.”
CAN you find a way to get past, through or around all these nails? Sure.
SHOULD you spend the time, energy and money to do it? I refer you back to the “free” rationale for using pallets. It implies your project should involve a minimal expenditure of time, energy and money to accomplish it. Once you get past this “minimal expenditure” part of working with pallets, you’re getting dangerously close to $64 tomato territory.
#2 Bacteria, poisons, and other assorted nastiness
Here’s another fun consideration: what kind of toxins, poisons or other undesirable substances are on the pallets?
Pallets are used to ship all sorts of things and sit in all sorts of places. Oils, chemicals, fecal matter, bacteria and an “all of the above” mixture can accumulate.
Fun fact: 10% of wood pallets have reportedly tested positive for E. coli.
Pallets can also be fumigated with methyl bromide to prevent unwanted insects from catching a lift between international locations. Methyl bromide is a particularly noxious substance, a known carcinogen and has been banned in most countries. But there’s an exception that allows methyl bromide to still be used for fumigating pallets. (Side note: it’s suspected that the Emerald Ash Borer got into this country hitchhiking on pallets, so I’m not wholly opposed to the fumigation.)
These are important things to think about in your repurposing.
I’m using pallets to build raised beds for the garden. A supposedly organic garden. Do I want all of this nastiness potentially getting into my food and soil?
Of course not.
Is this even likely to happen?
No one knows for sure. It’s not as if there’s been a major study about “the impact of repurposed pallet use in the garden on the toxicity levels in vegetables and surrounding plants.”
But there are some easy, common sense ways to minimize the potential for such contamination and still put pallets to good use.
Always inspect the pallets you want to use. If they look oily, stained or otherwise contaminated, don’t use them. Don’t let your excitement to repurpose get the better of you.
Any pallet that has been fumigated with methyl bromide is required to have “MB” printed on the side. You could also ask the person in charge of the pallets if any have been shipped internationally.
You can look for heat treated pallets. This is an alternative method for debugging. Heat treated pallets are cooked in hot air (~140 deg F) for at least 30 minutes to kill any hitchhikers. Unless some sort of nastiness has been spilled on them, heat treated pallets are just plain wood with no additional chemicals. And no bugs. Which seems to make them ideal for use in the garden and indoors. Heat treated pallets will have “HT” printed on the side.
And there are easy ways for dealing with the nails, too.
The sawzall works great for cutting the nails between plank and frame. The planks come off in one piece and are functional as uniform-sized material. Exactly what I need. Make sure you have metal-cutting blades.
And a plain old jigsaw with a cheap multi-purpose blade cuts right through both wood and embedded nails with unexpected ease.
When I told my buddy about the jigsaw solution, I prefaced the conversation with, “You’re not going to like this…” Because we share a low opinion about the brand of jigsaw.
“No, I DO like it. Any solution that works is a good one!”
Like I said: smart dude.
Alexander, W. (2007). The $64 Tomato.
Ammalahti, E. (2001, May 11). Heat-Treated Wood Provides Alternative to Hardwood. Retrieved from http://composite.about.com/library/PR/2001/bltekes1.htm
Pallets Unlimited. The Heat Treated Pallets Process . Retrieved from http://youtu.be/bQE3pkFa4B0
Pesticides Information Project (1993, September) Methyl Bromide. Retrieved from http://pmep.cce.cornell.edu/profiles/extoxnet/haloxyfop-methylparathion/methyl-bromide-ext.html
Striepe, B. (2012, March 19). How to Tell If Wood Pallets are Safe for Crafting. Retrieved from http://greenupgrader.com/19085/how-to-tell-if-wood-pallets-are-safe-for-crafting/
Wikipedia. ISPM 15 (International Standards for Phytosanitary Measures No. 15). Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ispm_15
Wikipedia. Pallet. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pallet
Wikipedia. Wood Preservation. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wood_preservation