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A Pallet Construction Primer, Page 2


Pallet Basics
Pallet Disassembly
Pallet Construction

Pallet Basics

Pallets come in many shapes and sizes, and degrees of wear and utility. Before using pallets in our project, let's get more familiar with their characteristics. As it turns out, palletry is almost a science in itself! Be sure to read this entire article to avoid common hazards and to maximize the utility of each pallet.

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Anatomy of a Pallet

To the right we see a typical pallet. For clarity, this pallet has been flipped over onto its back. Throughout our discussion here, the strong longitudinal members, shown in red, are called rails. The flimsy lateral members, shown in green, are called slats. Other sources may call the rails posts or beams, or call slats stringers, etc. The top of a pallet (shown against the ground here), will contain slats at more or less regular intervals, while the bottom will consist of a slat at each end and one or more slats in the middle for rigidity. The example shown here has three medial slats on the bottom. In general, the end slats will be wider than the interior slats, but will have absorbed more rough handling and forklift hits.


The pallet in the picture above is made entirely of oak. Oak is tough, heavy and durable, but it splinters easily when working with it. Other materials may include pine, or poplar, or practically any kind of wood which happens to be inexpensive where the pallet was made. Some pine pallets will be made of sawmill rejects in which the rails are rough-hewn 2x4 stock, while the slats may be rough-hewn 1x4 or 1x3 stock. Other pine slats will be indistinguishable from dimensioned 1x4 or 1x3 lumber you might find for sale at the building supply. Poplar will be notable by its soft, fuzzy appearance, Poplar rails will also usually look like rough-hewn 2x4 stock, but the slats will normally be thinner than 1x4 or 1x3 by 25% to 50%.

In general, regardless of materials, expect to see slat thickness ranging from about 1/4" to 1/2", with some thicker, but very few thinner. Also, the width of the slats will vary from about 2" to 6", again with the inner slats typically narrow, with the outer slats at the ends typically wider. Also, if the slats are of dissimilar thickness, the interior slats will be thin, while the edge slats will be thick.

Pallets are assembled with nails of various widths and lengths. One thing that practically all pallet nails have in common is the use of spiral flutes along their length. This characteristic makes pallets durable for material handling, but practically impossible to pry apart without destroying the slats in the process. We've tried many ways to take down pallets without damaging the slats, but all produce miserable yield compared to our favorite, the chainsaw. More about that in a moment.
Pallet Styles and Sizes

In the photo above, the ends of the slats are flush with the rails. However, some pallets are made so that the ends of the slats overhang the rails, as shown to the right. Extended slats, as shown in this photo, will affect the technique by which you recover the slats. In addition, extended slat pallets are not suitable for use as main structural members. But, extended slats offer a key advantage in that the end of an extended slat is usually free of nail holes or old nail heads. As a result, you will want to obtain a variety of pallet styles to use for different purposes.

Pallet rails will also vary. The example above shows rails with shallow grooves cut in them so that forks can be used from the side. Some pallets, however, will use solid rails. Grooved rails can be used in almost all applications, while solid rails are best for specific purposes requiring a more or less uniform member. As before, get a variety.

Most pallets will have thin slats with generous spacing between them, as shown above right. Other pallets will be almost completely tiled with slats. Spaced slats are great for roofing applications where the slats serve as support for clapboard shingles. Tiled-slat pallets are great for flooring, or for recovering a large amount of slat material. Some floors may need to have no gaps, and so a spaced-slat pallet can then be tiled with recovered slats from any source. Again, variety is helpful.

Pallets are also distinguished by size. A typical pallet will have 48" rails, and 40" or 42" slats. We prefer the 42" slats for structural members, but can use the latter for recovered slat material. Very heavy loads may require small pallets, also known as narrow gauge pallets. We call a flush slat with 42" slats a standard gauge pallet. Narrow gauge pallets are good for applications in which you need to keep something heavy off the ground in a limited area, such as an air compressor, but don't want to haul around a large pallet. Or, you might use a narrow gauge pallet for moving water or fuel barrels. Ususally, we don't strip the narrow gauge pallets down, but instead use them as pallets.

Pallets also vary widely in material condition. Some pallets are in such great condition that it seems a shame to use them as pallets, but these are great for stripping for building materials. Some pallets are so badly damaged that the material can't be recovered. We use these pallets as sacrificial ground cover to keep our projects off the ground. A sacrificial pallet below a chicken coop or livestock pen will make the latter last about three or four times longer. And, with a forklift, it's easy to replace the sacrificial pallet for another if needed. Most pallets will be in the middle of these two extremes, with most of the damage done to the end slats and the ends of the rails. Normally, at least half of the slats of most pallets, other than those badly damaged ones, contain recoverable material. And the scrap from any of them make great firewood or kindling.
In the next section, learn about disassembling pallets to recover their materials.

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