A Pallet-able Solution to the Waste Problem

What if you could simultaneously clean up your little corner of the world,  whack some nails and build a stylish box to grow some yummy food in? Maybe only one of those appeals to you, but if that’s the case, you get the other two as bonus.

I’ve been trying to build things from wood since I was a young tyke who had just gotten his first hammer and begged his parents to let him work on something ‘right away’. Although no birds inhabited that first project, that did not discourage yours truly from helping build chicken pens, frames for window treatments and later life decks and a fancy-pants wooden entry way to a rural print shop. Suffice it to say, I like to hammer wood together into useful contraptions.

Over the years, I have noticed that we have an unfortunate habit of throwing perfectly good or slightly damaged things away because they are not immediately useful in their current configuration. One example of this is how our society deals with the ubiquitous shipping pallet.  These unsung heroes of the shipping industry make it possible to efficiently move and stack everything from food to automobiles, and yet, what thanks do we give to these trusty pallets? To the dump! we say, and off they go to rot their wood and rust their nails. In fact we throw out so many of these that according to earth911.com, “pallets account for 20 percent of the wood that ends-up in the landfill”. Given the fact that many pallets are made from hardwood, which take substantially longer to grow than softwoods such as pine, this is quite a shame that so many get relegated to the rubbish heap. What can one ordinary citizen do about this state of affairs?

I don’t know what your interests are, but I’ll share some of what I’ve done with pallets and hope that that may spark some ideas for projects that you’d be interested in. Once you have some ideas of what you want to build, any time you see a stack of pallets, they will likely fuel your imagination (if not your wood stove). This past fall, during a weekly grocery run, my wife and I saw a stack of pallets behind a video game store.  We proceded to the door of the establishment and asked the cashier if we could have the pallets. He gave us a playful smirk and said he’d have to call his manager. After getting approval from the higher ups, he gave us the ok.  We jostled groceries and my guitar around and hefted the three pallets into our Altima. Two of these would team up with a similarly sized pallet to contain our growing compost heap and the larger one became an herb planter over my spring break.


(Planter box on right, I have not yet learned how to recycle plastic into snazzy pots like the one on the left. Planters inside dimensions 1′ wide, 4′ long, 11″ deep.)

After we’d determined how large we wanted our planter, I set to work measuring the pallet to determine the most efficient way to use the wood. Once we’d mostly hammered out the details, I set to work prying the pallet apart.  This is one of the trickier parts of getting the most wood for your work from pallets. The main thing to remember is to wiggle your prying implement and to NOT make sudden, jerking motions when your pry.  Otherwise, you are likely to end up with splinters and kindling instead of nice long planks. At the same time though, expect some damage to the wood, as nails are likely to remain firmly planted in the lower piece of wood and its head is thus likely to pull through the top piece, leaving a rough, ugly hole. I didn’t worry to much about this though as I was making a out door planter, not a mahogany coffee table. This part of the work can be a good way to release stress or destructive energy in a constructive manner, at least I have found a strange peace in this at times.

The nails may prove difficult to remove and may require pliers, catpaws and what ever else you have at hand to deal with them and even then, you may still be foiled. It can be a good idea to save the nails that aren’t too badly bent to reuse, back in the olden days before cheap nails, folks had to use such arcane practices.  I was pleasantly surprised by how well this worked on my last project.

Now that I’ve said a bit about pulling apart pallets, I’ll say something about making the box itself. I spent a few our cutting the pieces on my chop saw.  I then nailed two 4’x5 ½” to two 1’x5 ½” to form a rectangle with the shorter pieces at the ends. Now that I had a frame, I found it easier to imagine the rest of the project. I cut foot long pieces to be attached vertically at the corners to add structural rigidity. I realized that I would not have enough wood for the bottom of the box, so I went scavenging on our landlords property and found partly buried and partially rotted pallets and pried off some still useable boards. I cut these to one footish lengths and nailed them to the bottom of the box with my newly acquired second hand nail-gun   After splitting one of the corner pieces with a nail, I realized that the nails we’d bought were ill-suited for this project and that I’d need something stronger than the trim nails in my gun. I remembered a friend telling me about using used nails and I thought I’d give it a try. Although they took some straightening, the old pallet nails served their new purpose well.

After a few days of kneeling and squatting on the concrete garage floor, I had very sore leg muscles, but I also had a handsome wooden planter to show to Julie that cost under 10 dollars, saved some good lumber from the trash, and will help us grow yummy herbs to season our meals.

So, now that some of the days are feeling “spring-ish” you can go to the commercial section of your town and look behind video game stores, supermarkets and home improvement stores for those marvelous sources of free wood: shipping pallets. Then rely on your creativity and ingenuity (or that of a friend, if you’re not he crafty type) and see what kinds of cool spring planter you come up with.


Here is a link to a potentially helpful website: http://georgiapellegrini.com/2012/05/10/blog/pioneer-skills/how-to-build-a-planter-box/

Also, if you don’t have a hammer, drill, saw, etc., just check around in your circles of friends, family, and acquaintances and see if you can borrow some or all of these. You may be able to work out some sort of mutually satisfactory trade (cup of fresh basil for an hour of saw usage maybe). This will potentially deepen your connections with folks in your neighborhood.

Good luck growing your gardening ideas into realities with reused pallet wood and growing herbs which which will satisfy your palate.


About isaaczika

Isaac is a new resident of Darke County, Ohio and he enjoys gardening, reading, making music, and cooking with his wife and best friend Julie Brewer.
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