Preparing Pallet Wood

So, you’re done taking your pallets apart and now it’s time to prepare your boards for your project.

So, you have a stack of pallet boards like this:


well, my stack of pallet boards looked like this. It looked a lot like this. Now that I take a closer look, I’m pretty sure that this was my stack of pallet boards 🙂

Anyway, besides the look of your pallet boards, it’s now time to prepare your boards for your project.

First up: Getting rid of those nails

This is an important step because leftover nails will damage your sanding paper, but much more importantly, your planer and saw blades, and those are expensive, so take your time on this step and do it good. You’re not going to get second chances with your blades.

Finding the nails

What tools can you use to find the nails?

  1. your eye, of course. Most nails will be easily identifiable with your eyes. 👁👁
  2. magnet. you can use any magnet, but make sure you’re using a strong one. Ones that have a rubber band on them work nicely because you just drag them along your board and you will be able to tell if there is a nail by a strong attraction from the magnet to the nail, or sometimes by a small shift in the magnet’s trajectory. This is a pretty cheap solution.
  3. metal detector. Two metal detectors that are more used by woodworkers are the Lumber Wizard and the Little Wizard

Removing the nails

If your nails are sticking out of the wood, your best tool will be the nail remover

however, this only works with nails that stick through the board far enough.

If you don’t have this cool tool, or your nails aren’t sticking out of the wood far enough, you’re going to use your hammer to punch the nail out of the wood, and then pull it out from the other side.

Sometimes your nails are flush with the board’s surface, for example if you used a sawzall to take your pallet apart. In this case you’re going to need a punch of some sorts to make the nail come out of the board.

After that you just use your claw hammer to pull the nails out. I’ve seen a video on youtube where someone took a pallet nail and ground it down a bit, so he could use it to punch out nails, and the nail wouldn’t get stuck in the wood.

Next up: Planing

If you want to make your pallet wood into decent material to work with, you will probably want to use a planer. A benchtop planer is of course the preferred machine, but when you don’t have that, you’ll use your hand planer. Preferably electric, and otherwise manual.

If you don’t care about parallel surfaces or are going for a more rustic look, you can skip the planing step.

Then: Sanding

Whether you’re planing or not, next up is sanding. Depending on what you want your outcome to look like, there are different options:

No Sanding

Yup that’s right. Some people will do nothing with their boards, preparation wise. Just use the boards as is. This is what I did in my picket fence project. Not that I’m lazy or anything. Just efficient. And I like that rustic look. 😉

Heavier grits like 60 & 80

Use this rough type of sand paper to take off material fast. This will be your first pass at your wood (not when you used a planer).

Best tools to use this grit type are in order from best to worst:

  • Belt Sander. A belt sander is especially well equipped to remove material fast.
  • Angle grinder. You can use a sanding attachment for your angle grinder. It’s great for these heavy grits.
  • Orbital sander. You can use an orbital sander with this grit, but also for higher grits, which makes the orbital sander the more versatile tool here.
  • Your hands ✋. You can do this manually of course. This will improve your looks. Biceps and all that. 💪

When you’re done sanding with these heavy grit types, you’ll still have a rustic look.

Lighter grits like 220 & 320

If you want to go beyond rustic and have a decent looking product, then use these lighter grits to really make your material smooth before hand sanding.

Tools you can use for this are mainly:

  • Orbital sanders / angle grinder with sanding attachment
  • Your hands

Finishing grits like 400 & 800

Use these grits for your final sanding pass. These will really smooth your wood up to polishing. I’ve never actually used these grits yet, so can’t tell too much about it.

Stain / Paint / Lacquer

Usually this is the last step you’re taking in your preparation. Perhaps even after assembling your project, but it usually isn’t the hardest of steps. For example, in the case of my picket fence from pallet wood, I didn’t prepare the boards in any way. Well, I cut the boards to length, and cut off some little triangles at the top, but that was all I did for preparation.

For stain you can use anything from used motor oil (seriously!) to waterseal you buy at your DIY shop. Applying stain can be done with a brush, or with a piece of cloth drenched in stain and then smeared on your wood.

Applying paint and Lacquer you’ll want to do with your brush and depending on the finish you like, repeat layers. I’ll not get into all the details regarding painting. I’m no expert in that area yet? 😉


After all this preparation, start building! Just remember it’s not the end result that counts. The work in itself is good for you! See my article on Woodworking Psychology for more on this.

Your next read:

My previous article was about dismantling pallets: Pallet Busting

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