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Preparing Wooden Pallets for Upcycling

22 May 2015

After a working lifetime of use as a frame to ship and stack loads ranging from toys to bags of cement, the simple wooden pallet can be transformed into a work of art. This could be furniture, shelving, bunk beds, picture frames or an entry into the coming year’s Turner Prize.

The process of taking a wooden pallet that is not longer usable for its original purpose and transforming it into something of higher value is called upcycling – an imaginative and often profitable version of recycling.

Choosing the Pallet

It may seem easy to go to a local warehouse who offer pallet collection, throw them in the back of car, go home and start your work of art during the evenings and weekends. But this wood needs to be prepared. You also have to know which types of wooden pallets not to touch, as they could be hazardous.

Wooden pallets are used for up to 50 trips, transporting a wide variety of materials. Spills from any variety of toxic liquids could soak into the wood. The first thing to do is to discard any pallets that looks stained or strangely discoloured and seek out a spotless one.

For the most part, wooden pallets are used and reused within one industry sector. The best strategy is to choose pallets that have carried lightweight and dry goods. These will be as free as possible from physical damage and any chemical contamination.

Search for Markings

The next step is to examine the sides of the pallet for any company logos or markers. A side marking means that the pallet has been used in international shipping and that the wood has been treated. You must be clear about which types of treatment make the wood safe to use in things such as furniture.

If the pallet has been marked DB, it has been debarked, while HT means heat-treated, making it largely infestation-free. Both are safe to use. MB means it has been treated with methyl bromide fungicide and is unsafe to use. An EPAL pallet is the current heat-treated and debarked European Pallet Association mark and makes the wood safe to use. Pallets with the old European mark, EUR, and pallets without a logo should be avoided.

Nail Removal

Once you have identified a good pallet, disassembling it into wooden planks is a careful process. Use a nail punch, drill or oscillating tool to remove exposed nails without damaging the wood.

Washing

Then scrub down the wood using a solution of bleach and soapy water and leave it to dry. The bleach will remove most bacteria on the surface, but remember that wood is porous and bacteria will be embedded. No wood is 100% free of infestation, including the heat-treated variety.

Surface Finish

Wooden pallet materials have a rough surface and are largely unfinished. If this is the type of surface you are looking for, say for a flower box outdoors, you may leave it that way. But it’s always a good idea to sand it down a little to remove any large splinters that could cause later injury.

Lengthy sanding is a necessary process if the wood is to be used for any item indoors. If you would like to produce the combination of a rough-looking veneer that is smooth to touch, rub in natural beeswax. This will highlight the wear on the surface while making the wood safe to use.

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