Here's a little secret about building furniture out of pallets, those simple wooden structures used to schlep goods: Not all pallet wood is cheap, rough-cut pine.
Sharp-eyed scroungers can find oak, hickory or even cherry pallets, since hardwoods are needed to transport heavy goods. Finding one of those is hitting the jackpot for do-it-yourself pallet-furniture aficionados.
"The first time I found a hardwood, it was hickory, and I was giddy," says Becky Lamb, of Bozeman, Mont. "And I made a bench out of that one."
Wooden pallets in the U.S. often measure 40-by-48 inches. An online slideshow by Country Living magazine features 17 pallet projects, including a headboard, garden frame, daybed, wine rack and artworks. More projects — including guitars — and how-to tutorials can be found on the website 1001 Pallets.
"I've seen people do some amazing things reclaiming the wood," including paneling a wall or ceiling, says Jami Supsic, style director at Country Living.
She says there are two ways to approach DIY pallet furniture: Use the pallet intact, as the foundation for a coffee table or sofa, or take it apart and use the slats. One of the most stunning creations she has seen, she says, was a chandelier hanging from ropes in a party tent: It was made from a pallet hung with battery-operated tea lights in mason jars.
Beginners might want to start with a daybed or console, for which the pallet could be kept mostly intact, or a simple art project such as a front-door wreath, she says.
"Start with something small and you only have to use one small nail on your wall to install it," Supsic says.
You can find wood pallets behind businesses such as flooring and plumbing-supply stores, or the local newspaper, says Lamb in her new book, "Crafting with Wood Pallets" (Ulysses Press). Ask if they're free for the taking. Or find free pallets on Craigslist.com.
Not all pallets will make good furniture. Each needs to be inspected. Steer clear of those that appear to have a chemical or oil residue, says Lamb. Choose pallets that have mostly usable boards, without cracks or splits.
Look for an IPPC (International Plant Protection Convention) label or the HT (heat-treated) stamp on the pallet. The IPPC label verifies that the pallet manufacturer followed standards for treating the pallets, while the HT stamp assures that the wood was heat-treated, not chemically treated.
Pallets used just in the U.S. might not have the IPPC label, says Lamb, but play it safe and use pallets that have it. Always look for the HT stamp; besides being safer for human use, the sterilization of heat-treating ensures that the wood won't harbor insects. Lamb hasn't found an unstamped pallet, but "if I see one without a stamp, I won't take it."
As for tools, Lamb suggests starting with a hammer, saw, drill and sander. A reciprocating saw helps disassemble pallets faster. She can take apart five pallets in 30 or 40 minutes with her Sawzall, she says, and explains how in her book.
You can tear pallets apart with only a hammer and crow bar, but it takes a lot longer: "You don't need the gym if you're going to do that," Lamb warns.
Dimitri Boulze of Toulouse, France, who launched 1001 Pallets two years ago with a friend, thinks pallet furniture has become popular because it combines recycling and creativity. And it's cheap.
"On one side, people are realizing that resources are finite and that recycling can help with saving things and money," says Boulze. "And then it gives them a goal to create something, and it's something very positive."