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How to Take Apart a Wooden Pallet

How to Take Apart a Wooden Pallet

By Erin O’Donnell, Founder & CEO, Dovetail Community Workshop

Pallet projects are super popular, and most are quite easy to accomplish. The hardest part is breaking down the pallet in the first place. These are industrial devices, built to withstand forklifts and exposure to the elements. They are not, unfortunately, intended to come apart like Lego.

Here are a few things I’ve learned about finding and dismantling pallets so they can be reassembled into kick-ass coffee tables, picture frames, wine racks, bookcases, and more.

How to Take Apart a Pallet

Where to Get Pallets

The cardinal rule of finding pallets is always ask — never take pallets without permission. Some stores return or recycle them for credit. No Dumpster diving. Fortunately, many businesses are happy to let you haul off pallets for free.

The best sources are local businesses that receive large equipment or regular shipments of heavy items and supplies. Think automotive centers and hardware stores. Approach merchants with whom you already have a relationship. I met a furniture designer whose favorite pallet source was her neighborhood paint store.

Garden centers are often recommended. But I avoid them. These pallets could have carried loads of pesticides or herbicides, which can soak into the wood. If you make anything from this wood and put it in your home, you’ll be breathing those toxic fumes.

Finally, it never hurts to look up postings of free stuff on sites like Craigslist. That’s how I met the furniture designer 😉

Pallet Deconstruction

I have tried two of the three ways to take apart a pallet. They each have pros and cons, so choose the method that best suits your needs.Pallet Deconstruction

Pry Bar and Hammer

I have used this the most because I wanted long planks. I’s hard and slow-going work, and you may lose up to 50 percent of the planks from splitting. But it’s oddly satisfying to wrench a board free from the nails without damaging it.

Here’s what to do. Wedge the pry bar into the biggest gap between the top slats and the pallet’s bottom rail, close to the nails. Work it up and down to widen the gap — but don’t force it too hard, or the board will split.

Split board
[sad trombone]
Once you have about a centimeter of space between the bottom of the board and the rail below it, whack the board back down with a hammer or mallet WITHOUT hitting the nails. The nailheads should stick up enough now for you to pry them out.

Pry up the nails

How to Take Apart a Wooden Pallet
Ta-da! These are full length slats with some great individuality.

Circular Saw

When I was in need of shorter slats, I didn’t mind cheating using this more efficient method. I positioned my circular saw as close as possible to the end of the slat, where it was nailed to the bottom nail. Then, I just sawed off the nailed ends.


You can repeat this when you come to the nails in the middle of the pallet slats, which will give you boards about 18 inches long. Or, you can revert to the pry bar method to remove the middle nails and preserve the longer boards.

CAUTION: Pallets are notoriously full of hidden nails. You do NOT want to hit a nail with a power saw. Inspect the wood carefully for any evidence of nails or staples in your saw’s path. You could ruin your saw and injure yourself, badly, if you run into any hardware.

Protruding Nails
Just look at those suckers.

Reciprocating Saw/Sawzall

If you don’t mind leaving nail fragments behind in the wood, you can just cut through them with a reciprocating saw, as explained here. Once again, you need to pry the boards apart, just enough to fit the saw blade through. The important thing to remember is, once you’ve disassembled a pallet this way, you can’t safely use a power saw again on these slats. You won’t always be able to see where the nail fragments are.

Now that you have successfully reduced your pallet to usable lumber, you need a project! Head over to our Pinterest page for inspiration.

Happy building!

Erin & Sonja
Co-founders, Dovetail Community Workshop