5 Things to Know Before You Build With Pallets

in Green Up,Simplify,Your DIY

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I have more than a couple of friends who working warehousing and retail and shipping and all that and I’ve been quizzing them over using wood pallets.

Here’s what you need to know:

1)  They aren’t always discards.  Many companies store the pallets outside before they are returned, recycled, etc.  If you take them, it costs the company money.  If a pallet is truly discarded, it’s usually because it’s broken and won’t hold the weight anymore.  Any pallet that doesn’t NEED repair is less likely to be a discard.  Also, for retail stores, it’s common to store the pallets next to the trash bin to await the pallet truck, so just because it’s near the trash, doesn’t mean anything.

2) Old wood isn’t bad wood.  It’s where the wood has been that makes it bad.  I have Adirondack chairs made out of a 100 year old hotel.  But it wasn’t made out of the wood from the bathroom floor just around the toilet, or the kitchen cabinet floor just below the pipes.  People use reclaimed wood from old building all the time.  The fact that it’s been outside and gotten rained on isn’t reason to not use it if it’s still in good enough shape for your purpose.  However, pallets are handled differently by different companies.  

  • For a food grade cereal warehouse, they are kept REALLY REALLY clean and only discarded when they break.  You might have the OCCASIONAL pest run across it, but they are really intense in those places about vermin.
  • For a retail store, they’ve been travelling on a shipping truck (which my retail friend says are ick).  They’re generally unloaded immediately and tossed next to the trash bin (where ALL the rats and roaches hang out) to await the pallet truck (which she says is one of the most disgusting conveyances you’ve ever seen.)  Any “patina” on those pallets is vermin and mold patina and the surface should be BLASTED WITH A POWER-WASHER until the patina is GONE.
  • For a construction site, we can tell you from personal traumatic the-dog-got-in-there-and-tracked-stranger-doo-doo-all-over-the-house experience that construction workers do sometimes use those as bathrooms.  

3) Outdoor, non-furniture use is generally fine, regardless of where you get it.  Just wear gloves. I’ve heard some people warn against chemicals in the wood or insecticide residue killing your compost pile or infecting your potato bin.  If insecticide were that effective long-term, they wouldn’t have to be reapplied so often.  So, for non-furniture outside use, there’s not much you need to do to them.

4) For indoor use, know the source and whether they use new or previously-used pallets.  Unless you are using brand-spanking new pallets, they’ve likely been reused all over the country.  That means sometime in their lives, unless you got them from a food grade warehouse, that patina is *more* than weathering.  They’ve sat next to the trash bin at Target growing mold and had rats and roaches pooping on them.  Then they took a trip on a pallet truck with everyone else’s moldy, pooped-on pallets.  So, would YOU sleep on/eat on the back of that truck?  What would you need to DO before you would be comfortable with it?  There you go.  And even my friend that manages a super-clean food-grade cereal warehouse says that before he would make a coffee table out of a pallet from his own warehouse, he’d wash it, sand it, and paint it.

5)  What about E. Coli and friends?  Pallets were blamed for some of the well-known food contamination in recent years.   I bet a nickel this is just more vermin poop contamination.  I can’t imagine someone rubbing raw chicken all over the pallet or smearing their personal stash of salmonella culture all over it.  Regardless, if you feel confident that you have power-washed it until the mold and vermin residue is gone, you probably got these too.

So, where does this put us?

Well, I am NOT anti-pallet for furniture, but I am totally anti-RAW pallet.  I don’t care how well you cleaned it, unless it came directly from a food grade warehouse, I want it POWER-WASHED WITH A DISINFECTANT CLEANING SOLUTION, sanded, and sealed before I have it in my living room and set my cup on it.  But for your compost bin, go right ahead.  Lash it together and walk away.

Before you bring it in your house, know where it’s been (in it’s whole life) and whether or not it just needs a scrub/sand/paint or a total power-washing makeover.



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