5 Things to Know Before You Build With Pallets

by Ivory Soap


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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Sharon July 24, 2013 at 4:53 am

To point #1…….I work at the local feed/garden/pet store, and you are totally right in telling people that just because a stack of pallets are outside, doesn’t mean that they are discarded. Of course we store them outside…..if we didn’t, our warehouse would soon become clogged up with empty pallets. But almost all of our feed companies charge us a “pallet fee”. If they leave us 10 this week, they pick up 10 empty ones……..or we get charged for them. Most of the charges now are up to $3 a pallet. Too much of those not sent back results in higher feed/food costs, no matter where you are. So before helping yourself to pallets, ask the store/warehouse owner before you take them. Some times if you pay that pallet fee they will let you take them. Also we usually have a pile of “rejects” that are just up for grabs. Points #4 & #5 not knowing where they have been stacked/stored/transported/etc most definitly power wash with a disinfectant cleaner before bringing them into your house as furniture! And I’m with you, sand, seal, paint!

Ivory Soap July 24, 2013 at 7:07 am

So glad to know I’m not talking out of my hat, Sharon. Thank you!

Mary July 24, 2013 at 8:43 am

We have a lot of experience with pallets, using them extensively for animal cross fencing, pens, shelters, etc… We use them for chicken coops; rabbit hutches; kids’ play forts & swings; gates; hay feeders (only the crates, not the actual pallets); sheds/barns; signs; non-food planters; and outdoor furniture. We even built a round pen for our gentle horses (would NOT recommend for spunky horses!) We also do not use them around food areas such as gardens and food planters–it’s just too hard to know what has been on the pallet, and we don’t want chemicals or ecoli leaching into our gardens.

We never use pallets from food sources because of the increased chances of ecoli, salmonella–we’ve just read too many stories about that possibility. Also, we use only untreated or heat treated pallets (look for either a CT stamp or an HT stamp–CT means chemically treated; HT means heat treated). The pallets do not come into our house (we don’t like even sanded and sealed pallets coming inside because of the chemical residues in our home….but we have a child with an auto immune disease….so we try to be intentional about what is in our home environment–at least as much as possible….)

We have several small businesses in one of the towns near us (a tile company, a pool building company, and a plant nusery) that we have arrangements with–it keeps them from having to burn them or haul them to the dump, and it benefits our microfarm. We consider this truly repurposing. BUT, we never just take any that are sitting around. The pallets are their property, and to remove them without permission is theft.

Pallets have many uses, but also their own issues. Most have so many variations from each other–in size, thickness, coloring, spacing, etc…. Also, many of them have broken boards, stains, etc…. It’s very difficult for us to find enough pallets to make something look nice…. We’ve never had great luck prying boards off without breaking them…maybe someone else can speak to that…there are so many beautiful photos on pinterest…but for us, we’ve found making some of those projects to be very time consuming, and much more expensive than we would have imagined. So, at our house, pallets are an outdoor, practical, rustic repurposing resource.

Also, remember the fire risk of large areas of untreated wood….that’s an area we’re currently trying to address.

Like many other items, they’re a wonderful resource when properly used; but, please do your research. Thanks for the wonderful article!

Doreen July 24, 2013 at 1:40 pm

Wow so true!!! Thanks be to God for your timely advice and knowledge!!!

Nanette Nilssen July 26, 2013 at 1:15 pm

OR you can just buy new ones from Uline.com!! They’re advertising right on this page!

DC Liquidators July 28, 2013 at 8:08 am

This is all so true! Anything that you bring into the house that’s not really from a store or a reliable source should be washed down properly before use to avoid health problems or other issues. Cleanliness is always the safest side.

Todd Malcom April 16, 2017 at 3:07 am

The washing is so so important, so many crafters overlook this issue, it can become a safety hazzard, thanks for sharing this, really valuable advice !

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