Last year, Carrie Martinez came close to having a contractor craft a decorative Christmas tree out of pallet wood to display outside her Fort Wayne workplace.
Martinez, office administrator for K&S Pallets, which manufactures and recycles the shipping skids, thinks the decoration would have been a dandy way to market the company’s products.
But the idea also would have tapped into a trend in home décor.
About six months ago, Martinez says, she started noticing that more and more company customers were seeking out pallets for craft projects. "We called them the pallet people," she says with a laugh.
The customers were recycling the pallets’ wood into tables, couches, shelves, patio furniture, even bed frames, she says.
"I had some people making Christmas presents from their pallet projects. They were making wine racks out of them – they said they made eight of them, one for each relative."
Yes, these days, thrifty crafters, lured by the burgeoning upcycling trend, are repurposing pallets, perhaps the most simplistic, ubiquitous and utilitarian of wood products.
Designed to help warehouse forklifts move heavy loads of boxed products or other materials – or just to keep items off the ground in case of flood – pallets are just narrow planks nailed together to form an open-sided box.
But surprisingly, says Becky Lamb, author of "Crafting with Wood Pallets: Projects for Rustic Furniture, Decor, Art, Gifts and More," pallets are usually made from brand-new wood – even though their usual fate is getting smashed to smithereens after one or a few uses and tossed in the trash on their way to the landfill.
"I realized that there was all this free wood out there that would go to a landfill or maybe would get burned, and I started driving around trying to find pallets," Lamb says of her entry into the craft a few years ago.
The Montana writer says she started with a simple shelf with coat hooks and progressed to designing dozens of projects. About 25 of them, including a sofa table and wine bar with glass holders, found their way into her book.
"What people don’t know is … you can get every kind of wood. I can get hickory pallets and oak pallets, because when it’s a heavier load, you need a heavier wood," she explains. "Most of them are pine and lighter woods, like soft cedar, but you can stain and paint them to any finish you want."
Indeed, Lamb’s book, published in October by Ulysses Press with numerous step-by-step photos, shows how versatile pallet boards can be.
"Basically, they’re a two-by-four," Lamb says. The first step of any project, she advises, is to take the pallet apart to reclaim the boards. A reciprocating saw (such as a Sawzall) with a blade for cutting metal will quickly and easily saw through pallet nails, she says, adding that nails also can be removed with a claw hammer and crowbar.
From there, it’s a matter of cutting the pieces into the correct sizes. Some pallet boards are wider and thicker than others. For long or wide surfaces, such as for a table or bench, she says, one trick is to use several shorter boards lined up horizontally next to each other with their ends fastened to a frame.
"When you connect them, you can have any length you want," she says.
Another tip for novices: Lamb says pallet board users should be careful to select pallets that have been treated with heat and not chemicals.
If heat-treated and used in international shipping, the pallet will have an IPPC label showing compliance with the International Plant Protection Convention.
If the pallet is made and used only in domestic shipping, it may not have the label, so check with the supplier, she adds.
Linda Vanderveer and her husband, Jerry, own the Wood Shack, a recycled wood store in Fort Wayne. She says crafters also should look for pallets that are relatively well-finished, with boards uniform in size and free of cracks or other defects – unless, of course, a highly distressed look is desired.
Cracked boards are fine to use if they’re not weight-bearing, she notes.
For most projects, the boards will need sanding, Vanderveer says, especially if they’re for interior use or seating.
"I’d get a power sander," she says. "This isn’t something that you’d necessarily want to use a hand tool for because of splinters you can get."
The Wood Shack doesn’t sell pallets, she says, but she often can direct customers to local industrial facilities that offer pallets for free.
Indeed, Martinez points out, because of a recent crackdown by the federal Environmental Protection Agency on pallet storage, some companies may be thrilled just to have someone cart away their used pallets.
Stored pallets are seen as a fire hazard, she says, and the government also wants to keep them out of precious landfill space. Some of those that can’t be recycled are being processed into garden mulch, she says.
K&S offers pallets to individuals from $4 or $5 up to about $45, depending on the size, Martinez says.
Vanderveer says customers often show her and her husband pictures of pallet projects they’ve completed. She’s seen many kinds of signs, wall art and furniture, including a sofa with its frame made from pallets.
"We have a lot of artistic people in Fort Wayne, and their minds are just fantastic in dreaming up things," she says, adding that the shabby chic, rustic and industrial looks in decorating all lend themselves to pallet projects.
"It’s fun when people can make things," she says. "And you don’t have to worry because the wood is so cheap that if you make a mistake, you can just take it apart and start over – or burn it."
The Fort Wayne area even has pallet entrepreneurs, says Emiley Roman, co-owner of Emiley’s Haute Cottage at 515 W. Berry St., noting that one vendor at her shop makes pallets into wall clocks and wall art with inspirational sayings and has seen other items at vintage markets.
"A lot of people flock to Pinterest for pallet ideas," she says.
Lamb, 49, and a mother of three, says one popular idea is paneling an accent wall with pallet boards. She didn’t include that idea in the book because it’s already in wide circulation, she says.
Among the millennial generation or anyone with limited money, pallet furniture fills a need, she says.
"It’s basically free furniture. That’s why I love it. Yes, you put your time into it and some money for the tools and paints, but it’s still very economical," Lamb says, noting that the simplest project in the book, a pet bed stenciled with the words "Good dog!" took only about an hour and a half from start to finish.
"I think this is something that’s going to last," she adds. "Finishes may change a little bit, and style. … But I think there is always going to be a need, and with the need for sustainability and recycling, I don’t believe that it’s a fad."