colored pallets

How to Prepare Pallets for Upcycling Project

Wooden pallets have become a very popular source for upcycling projects over the last few years. If you go to Pinterest, you can find tonnes of upcycling projects involving pallet wood. From coffee tables and garden sofas to shelves pallet beds, accent walls, ideas for garden beds, even bars, and wine racks. It seems like whatever comes to mind, you can build from pallets. 

You like the idea of upcycling pallets but, at the same time, may wonder what the best way to get started is. In this article, I’d like to tell you about how to prepare pallets for upcycling projects so you can do it safely and achieve great results.

Where to find pallets

Where to find pallets 

To start, you first have to get your hands on some pallet wood. The easiest way is to go to your local hardware or garden stores and ask. Other places that you can find used pallets include residential construction sites, newspaper delivery, and distribution centers.

Craig’s list or pallet Facebook groups are also a great way to source pallets for projects. Whatever the way just make sure you ask first. Don’t assume that a pile of pallets that you’ve found is free for you to take.

Pallet safety- How to choose the best ones for upcycling

wood pallet

Before you start any pallet upcycling project, you must(!) make sure that they are safe to use. Because of their nature and purpose i.e., use for transportation of goods, some of them come in contact with toxic chemicals or are treated with one to get rid of insects and fungi.

So how to make sure the ones you’ve picked are safe?

You have to look for stamps and treatment codes. They will tell you if a pallet has been treated with chemicals or not and where it comes from.

There is an exception to this rule. Pallets used for national shipping i.e., not used for international transport, don’t have to have any stamps or codes as they mostly heat treated.

But I advise caution, and it’s best to check their origin if possible.

What should you look for?

IPPC stamp – it’s a seal of approval for pallets used internationally. If your pallet comes from abroad and lacks this stamp, it’s best to assume that it’s not safe and don’t use it.

Treatment codes

  • HT – heat-treated- safe to use
  • MB – chemically treated with methyl bromide- not safe!

Toxopedia says:

Bromomethane, commonly known as methyl bromide, is a broad-spectrum pesticide used to control pest insects, nematodes, weeds, pathogens, and rodents. In the U.S., methyl bromide has been used in agriculture, primarily for soil fumigation, as well as for commodity and quarantine treatment, and structural fumigation.

This chemical is very dangerous to human health, and any kind of exposure should be avoided.

  • DB – debarked
  • KD – kiln-dried

Here you can find different types of code treatments explained in more detail and what they mean.

colored pallets

What about colored pallets?

These are own by shipping companies, and while not chemically treated are usually used for international shipping, so are controversial. Besides, they’re the property of shipping companies, so they’re not free to use.

Apart from stamps and treatment codes, you should also visually inspect the pallet condition. Choose ones that are clean and in good shape. Avoid ones with signs of spillage or discoloration. Check the nails. Some of them are very hard to remove, and you’ll end up with split boards.

How to prepare pallets for upcycling projects step by step

Smoothing pallet

When you finally have a good pile of pallets ready to be turned into amazing projects, it’s time to have them prepared. This involves several steps that are explained below.

Necessary tools

First, you’re going to need some tools. This includes tools to help you to take a pallet apart as well as to smooth the boards out and then finish.

  • Hammer, pry bar, or pallet buster
  • Nail punch
  • An oscillating tool, Sawzall or a jigsaw
  • Electric drill and drill bits
  • Random orbital sander/ belt sander/ planer
  • Sandpaper sheets/discs
  • Old clean rags
  • Stain/paint


Before starting, it’d be best to give the pallet a good clean with soapy water and bleach or use a pressure washer for faster results. Let it completely dry after you’re done cleaning.

Removing nails and disassembling

Removing unnecessary nails can be a pain. You can use Sawzall/jigsaw to cut through them or nail punch/drill to remove them. 

When it comes to taking pallets apart there are several ways to do it. The hard way – manually- using a crowbar and hammer. Or using a tool called pallet buster – elbow grease still needed, but it’s a lot faster.

You can also cut through the nails using Sawzall, a jigsaw or oscillating tool. Or you can cut the board’s ends with nails still in using a circular saw. The drawback to the latter method is that you lose some of the plank’s length.

Whatever the way, take your time and don’t rush. Some pallets can be really difficult to dismantle. You can end up with a lot of split boards if you’re impatient.


Preparing pallet

Once you have your pallet ready(cleaned/disassembled), it’s time to smooth it out. Sanding is one of the most disliked woodworking tasks, especially sanding pallets. Pallet wood is rough, so it’s essential to sand the surface before finishing the wood if you want the final result looking great. 

I don’t recommend doing it by hand unless there is no other way. Using a random orbital sander will speed up the process, and you’ll be able to get consistent results. 

You can also use a planer to get very flat, smooth results and sharp edges if that’s what you after. It can also be used to shave some of the wood to achieve a consistent thickness of the planks. Just make sure you watch out for knots that can damage the planer’s blade.


Finally, after all this work, you get to give your project a look you want. Finishing wood will protect it from elements and will prolong its life. You can choose whatever suits your needs. From wood stains and poly topcoats to self-sealing stains. Or you can use chalk paint or mineral paint if you don’t want to preserve the visibility of the wood grain. You can distress your piece for more shabby chic, farmhouse look as well. Be creative. Experiment.

colored pallet


There you have it. A quick guide on preparing pallets for upcycling projects. I hope you’ll find it helpful. If you, however, would like more detailed information on this topic, you can check the full article about preparing pallets over at


How to prepare pallets for upcycling project


Kasia is the owner of the Wooden Pallet Projects Toolbox. She’s a DIY and upcycling enthusiast. If she’s not painting, sanding, or drilling, she’s writing about power tools or tips for DIY and pallet projects that make the creative process easier and more fun!  

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