I did my research before attempting to break down my first pallet. I read about people who had created all sorts of tools that you can either buy or make yourself. I also read that wetting down the pallet can make it easier to pry apart. By far the most common suggested dismantling method was with a pry bar or crow bar. I’ve put most methods to the test! Here’s what I found.
1. Pry bar/crow bar
First, there is a difference between a pry bar and a crow bar. You’re going to want to get yourself a pry bar. If you’re small like me, go for the long one so you can get lots of leverage. I’ve found the best way is to start with a chisel and hammer. Pick a slat that’s already got some separation with the stringer below if you can. Hammer the chisel in underneath and gentle pry the paling up enough to create a few mm gap. Then get in there with the pry bar and hammer – hammer the pry bar into the gap, and gently leverage the bar down. If you hear a crack, stop immediately and try coming at the slat from another direction. What I’ve learnt about this method is it’s very hit and miss. Some pallets come apart easily with no slats breaking (thank God the first one I ever tried was like that or I may not have kept going with the pallet thing!). And others are a bit of a nightmare. I’ve discovered that different brands of pallets have different nails in them; the ones that have rivets on them like screws are extremely difficult to pull apart and require quite a bit of care and patience. I haven’t found hosing the pallets with water to help at all; in fact, I think I’m leaning toward the alternative theory that water actually makes the wood swell, making it tighter on the nails. At the end of the day, if the pry bar is your only method, accept that you may break a few slats in the process!
2. Circular saw or jig saw
If you’re keen to get a specific piece of wood, sometimes it’s better to leave nothing to chance and cut the slats just in front of the nails. This guarantees you won’t split it but also reduces the length of paling you will get. It also limits you to the palings, as the stringers will still have chunks of wood attached to them. Still, this method is fast and accurate.
3. Reciprocating saw
My favourite! Bought one of these on the weekend and it cut a half hour dismantling project down to less than 10 minutes! For those of you who are new to this like me, a reciprocating saw has a long blade that rapidly moves back and forth (like an electric bread knife on steroids!). With the right blade, they will cut through wood and metal – including wood with nails stuck in it. They come in chord and cordless. I got a chord ryobi from bunnings for 100 bucks. The cordless ones are much dearer by the time you buy the battery and charger, but depending on what type of car you have, could come in handy to take with you when scouting for pallets so that you can dismantle them to fit them in the car. I have only dismantled one pallet with the reciprocating saw, and might stop here and say that I definitely need some practice! They are very powerful and for a chick, a little unwieldy! Safety is absolutely paramount. See my post here on tips to use a reciprocating saw safely. It was easy to cut the slats off in front of the nails like how you would with a circular saw; however accuracy is important if you are trying to cut down in between the slats and stringers, to cut through the nails. My first few attempts were pretty horrific and I produced a few cuts that made the wood unusable. But the great thing about pallets is… They’re free! I even used some parts of the pallet that I shouldn’t have if I was going for a polished look, but I decided that what I was going to make could afford to be a little dodgy! See my slap dash bathroom storage here to make yourself feel better about your terrible cuts! One thing to keep in mind when you’re cutting through nails is that the nails are still there when you go to sand your work. All you need to do is punch them through and out, or deeper into the wood using a hammer and nail punch so that you don’t catch them with the sander.
I know that dismantling pallets can be time consuming and frustrating at times, but it’s totally worth it in the end when you get beautiful rustic free timber. But if you really can’t stand the dismantling bit, search my site for projects where the pallets are kept largely together. They’re not as flexible if you want to change the dimensions, but they’re much faster.