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Don’t grab the wrong pallet for your project!

As every great DIYer knows, wood pallets are an immensely useful construction material. You can use them in a wide range of projects, in a huge assortment of ways, and they’re totally free, which is a fantastic price to pay for wood. Better yet, many pallet projects are so easy you don’t even need ahandyman to do them! But…did you know what you can get into trouble if you choose the wrong pallets for your project? Mother Earth News has some smart tips on selection and issues you should think about while you’re out scavenging, and we’ve got a few of our own.

1. It’s always better to ask permission first

Many businesses are happy to get rid of pallets after delivery, and some even helpfully stack them in an accessible location with a “free” sign to make sure people know it’s fine to take them. However, some companies recycle their pallets for future shipments, or are obligated to return pallets to the shipping company. Before you assume a stack of pallets is free for the taking, check with the owner. Confirm the number of pallets you can take, and whether it’s okay for you to scavenge there in the future.

2. What was on that, anyway?

Pallets are used to transport a wide variety of goods. Some are smelly, toxic, or just unpleasant, and you may not want to use a pallet that’s contaminated with, for example, icy water that dripped from crates of fish (blech, it will stink later) or pesticides from a shipment of chemicals. Try to scavenge pallets from companies that are likely to have clean sources of wood (a print shop, for example, might get deliveries of paper on pallets, and they’re a safe bet for clean wood) and ask if you’re not sure.

3. Did they use treated wood?

Some pallets are made with treated wood. You can usually spot it because it’s darker in color and may have been stamped, but not always. You don’t want to use treated wood for planters and other containers holding things you’re going to eat, and it’s not a great idea for indoor furnitures. It is also not advised for burning because of toxic fumes. If you don’t know, ask.

4. Common sense: go for pallets in good shape

Avoid pallets that are waterlogged, grease stained and otherwise suspect, along with those that have protruding nails, obviously cracked wood, and other defects. They’re less likely to be useful for you, and they’re also potentially more likely to have contamination. Mother Earth News also recommends treating pallets with a bleach and warm water solution before use, as you don’t know where they’ve been and you want to make sure to eliminate any bacteria.

5. Sizing: it’s a thing

Pallets come in a range of sizes, which you may already be aware of, but it’s something to watch out for when you are scavenging. In addition to using standard-sized pallets, some companies use odd sizes for specific shipments, in which case you might find out that a pallet is slightly larger or smaller than you expected, and you’ll encounter problems with your project. Measuring tape is a good tool to take along on trips to make sure you’re getting what you came for.

6. What do you actually need?

While it might be tempting to load up on free pallets, think smart. Consider the needs of the project and select those that actually accommodate your needs, rather than indiscriminately grabbing anything that looks vaguely useful. Leave pallets for other scavengers and their own projects. By only taking what you’ll need, you’ll also avoid the problem of ending up with a large stack of material that you can’t use, and you’ll establish a more friendly relationship with other scavengers in the area.

You don’t need to be a Boston carpenter to build amazing projects with pallets, but if you need some inspiration, it’s definitely worth looking at what our friends on Hometalk are up to!

Katie Marks writes for

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