How to Break Apart Pallets

Tools being used on wood pallets
  • 1-4 hours
  • Beginner
  • 0-10

By now you’ve probably seen the Pinterest pins and Facebook links showing all the amazing things you can create out of pallets. There’s benches, patio furniture, wood signs, flooring, backyard sheds, wall paneling, and more. Then you scoured the back alleys in search of free pallets stacked behind local businesses (you can also check Craigslist and other social media pages that advertise free items).

You even managed to cram your new find into the back of your car and unload it at home. But now what? How do you even begin to break that pallet into useable wood? There are a few different ways you can break apart pallets depending on the use you have in mind.

Consider the End Goal

Garden made of pallets

Typically pallets are made with 2x4 or similar centerpieces for support. Crossing those, boards are mounted to create a flat surface for whatever load they were intended to carry. Before making any cuts you’ll want to consider what you plan to use your pallet wood for. If you primarily want to remove and use the flat front boards then you’ll want to focus on keeping them in good condition as you remove them. For some furniture pieces, or to make a magazine rack, your goal will not be to remove the boards but to make cuts through the thickness of the pallet. Whatever your goal, it sounds easy peasy until you actually try to take a pallet apart. They are structurally sound and secured.

Technique One

The first technique is a physically demanding one: breaking down a pallet using a crowbar and hammer. The advantage is that it keeps the boards intact while removing nails that could later rust and ruin the look of your project. To do this, place your crowbar near the end of each board. Tap it into the place where it meets the center 2x4 and pry it apart.

This can create enough pressure to split your boards, so work slowly. You may need to trim the end off your board if a split is unavoidable. Repeat the process until all boards are separated and removed.

Technique Two

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While the manual method is effective in maintaining the integrity of the boards, a faster, more efficient, and less strenuous technique is through the use of a reciprocating saw. The key is to use the correct blade for the job. If you are cutting through nails, make sure you’re using a saw meant for metal. Similarly, a wood blade will be more effective when cutting wood.

If you want to keep the rustic look of the nail heads still mounted to the wood, cut through the nails where the sideboards attach to the centerboards. To do this, stand the pallet on its side and work your way down from the top to the bottom of each row of boards. Another quick and easy option is to cut down the front of the pallet while it is facing you. Make your cuts just inside of the nails. This is a good option if you don’t want the hardware to show and only need shortboards for your project. It does, however, create more waste than other techniques.

Whether you manually pry apart the boards or bring in the power tool, pallets can be a great source of free lumber for any number of projects. A word of caution: watch for boards that may have been treated with chemicals. It’s better if you know where your pallets come from by sourcing locally. Although most pallet boards are fine, especially if they look new, watch for international shipping codes stamped on the boards, which may indicate that they’ve been treated at some point. And avoid any pallet stamped “MB,” a very dangerous pesticide. To be safe, always use a certified face mask when sanding down pallet boards.