Friday, November 27, 2015

A Closer Look At Pallet Siding

Throughout our tiny house build, as well as in all aspects of our lives, Jess and I strive to reuse and recycle as many things as we can.

Not only did this give us a good head-start on saving tons of money during the build, but it also helped to keep us grounded. Our society tends to operate on a “use and dispose” ideology which is causing tons of problems for landfills (pun intended) and the environment in general. The most labor intensive aspect of our build was our pallet siding.

A few weeks ago we resumed work on our siding and almost finished three of the four walls. We are still debating whether or not to use pallet siding for the back wall. We still need to stain what we've put up but it feels good to have more of it done.

I’ve spent hundreds of man hours working on our siding all in the name of reclaimed materials and it occurred to me that we hadn’t put up a post giving in depth detail to our process. (Also, Jess is so busy with the bakery that I thought I’d take a whack at writing a blog post or two…and this may be the only thing I’m qualified to speak on, heh heh).

FIRST THINGS FIRST: When choosing your pallets you will encounter two different types. They are marked by a stamp on one side and these stamps tell you how that particular pallet was treated. Make sure to ONLY use pallets marked HT, which indicates that they were heat treated. The pallets to avoid are marked MB, which stands for methyl bromide.

When choosing pallets as your siding option (or embarking on any project utilizing reclaimed materials) you have to be prepared for the best lesson in opportunity cost you’ll ever receive. If you can’t remember that economics class from high school, don’t worry… you will.

By far, the biggest draw of using recycled pallets for our siding was the cost. Without counting the cost of the gas I used to wrangle pallets from every corner of the state, the grand total comes to a whopping zero dollars. But don’t let that unicorn of a price tag fool you, after all, your time is worth something.

After you’ve chosen pallets as your siding of choice (and your significant other has failed sufficiently at changing your mind to an easier option) your first step is to find some pallets! And, by all means, DON’T PAY FOR THEM! Craigslist will be your best friend in finding pallets to start. Make sure, when your cruising Craigslist, to find several viable options for pallet pickup. Plan a route of at least two separate places (there is nothing worse than planning your entire day only to find out that someone snagged all the pallets from your spot). If you find plenty at the first spot then just keep the other locations you find in your back pocket for the days when you’re not the early bird.

After amassing a truckload of pallets you’ll have to disassemble them. This is not as easy as it seems. Pallets are generally built to hold several hundred lbs of freight and are built with the sole purpose of NOT breaking apart.
I’ll save you some time and muscle soreness right off the bat, rather than pry every single nail out of a pallet, grab a skill saw or sawzall and cut down each side, perpendicular to the boards you want to take off (not all boards will be usable).

After each side is cut you’re left with an assembly that looks like a ladder with one brace board running down the middle of 5 or 6 boards. With a hammer and a pry bar these boards will pop off fairly easily and the mind numbing repetition of this process will turn you into a pro by the end of your second truck load.

When choosing your pry bar make sure you have one with a flat edge (sometimes referred to as a flat-bar). The length of your pry bar is also important. As with any lever the longer the pry bar, the easier the prying. However, with some extra long pry bars (AKA deck rippers or roof rippers) they simple have too much force and end up damaging the boards in the process. 

At this point the boards that you have ripped from your pallets will be full of nails. As stated earlier, these pallets are built to last so there will be up to 5 or 6 nails in each connection point. The nails used in pallets are usually 2.5 to 3 inch nails with spiraling towards the point. This design makes it extra hard to pull them out and their length pretty much guarantees to infuriate due to nail bending whilst trying to hammer them out of the boards. Your best option is to use tin-snips to cut the nail down to about ¼ inch which makes it much easier to pound it through the board, exposing the head so you can pry them out with your claw hammer or pry bar.

After de-nailing all your planks you'll be left with a pile of boards with a variety of edges. Remember that pallets are generally made with wood that has already been used a couple of times and due to their purpose, they don't need to be very pretty. Your next step is to cut all these boards down to a uniform width. We chose 3 inches for our siding width because most of our boards were around that width anyway and very few were smaller than that.

 You'll need a table saw to rip all the boards down to your chosen width. Make sure you look at each edge to determine which would be more beneficial. In some case it might make more sense to cut both edges if it is a particularly ugly piece of wood but some may still have a factory edge making two cuts a little redundant.

The next step, and my personal favorite, is to plane each board to reveal the new face of your siding. You will need your surface planer and depending on the look you want for your siding you may want to consider planing each board to the same thickness. For our house we didn't worry about using a common thickness because we liked the idea of having some texture to our siding.

When you plane your first board you'll quickly realize why the surface planer is my favorite tool. You can put some seriously funky looking wood through that thing and out comes a beautiful and unique piece of wood on the other side.

While your planing you will create A LOT of wood shavings. Depending on what your plumbing situation is for your dwelling you may want to collect these shavings to use as your carbon additive if your plan is to have a composting toilet. We were able to collect a huge amount of wood shavings during this process which came in very handy for our composting toilet.
Your final step in this process is to take your clean, planed and ripped pallet boards and bevel or ship-lap them so they fit together creating an overlap for weather tightness. We chose to ship-lap our pallets because we felt that would allow for a tighter fit. “Ship-lap” means to make a cut with a depth equal to approximately half of the board's thickness. There is an equal and opposite cut performed on the other edge of the board. A ship-lapped board will have a shape resembling the letter “Z”, like in the picture.

The best way, in my opinion, to make this cut is to use a dado blade. It can also be done with a router but I found that to be a little less consistent than a table saw with a dado blade setup.

There are two types of dado blades to choose from; a “stacked dado” or a “wobble blade”. A stacked dado blade set includes two 1/8th inch blades, a number of thicker partial blades called chippers and some spacers of various thickness. 

To use this type of dado you determine how many chippers and spacers you will need between you blades to create a blade with a thickness equal to the depth of your ship-lap cut. A stacked dado blade set comes with a chart that will tell you exactly how many chippers and spacers you will need to make up a specific width.

A wobble blade is a dado blade that can be adjusted to rotate on an angled axis which creates a wobble in the cutting edge. Because the blade is wobbling it effectively cuts a swath through the wood at the depth that you set your wobble blade to.

I was unable to use my wobble blade on the table saw I was using so I ended up buying a stacked dado blade and was very happy with the results. I strongly advise you to find a table saw guard specifically made for a stacked dado blade. Not all table saws have the room to safely install the dado blade.

As a guestimate, towards the end of our project I could process about 7 or 8 pallets in a day, which includes traveling from our house (where I ripped apart and de-nailed pallets) to my father's property where I used his table saw and electricity ( I didn't really feel the need to see how fast a surface planer and table saw could drain our battery bank ha). And those 7-8 pallets generally would turn into about 40 square feet of siding.

I hope this helps anyone who has a passion for reclaimed materials. I truly believe that a combined effort to reduce, reuse, recycle, upcycle ...(you get the point) not only helps our planet but also adds an element of history to anything built with those materials.

Thanks for reading!


  1. This is rad Dan--thanks for sharing your process!

  2. The product is bug proof. It never writes or cracks. It provides a more efficient covering around the entire house thus creating a great deal of energy savings for homeowners plus either reducing or eliminating paint costs. See more

  3. Bundles of thanks chum!! Very helpful post! It’s impressive too…. go to the website

  4. hi I'm Todd I'm building me a tiny house(sick of society)I'm using pallet wood for just about everything in my tiny house cuz I work in my brothers pallet shop wich is 80 feet from my camper(wich I am strippin to make my tiny house this spring/summer I got all my appliances,electical,plumbing,n trailor for $400)I'll post pix on my Facebook page through my whole prosses

  5. I read your website as often as possible and I just thought I'd say keep up the astonishing work! dry rot repair

  6. I'm planning on building a 250 square foot house and siding it with pallets. My animal enclosures will also be made of pallets. Thankfully my boyfriend can bring a couple of truckfulls of 8 foot pallets from work a week. Thank you for this post it has really helped.

  7. Thanks for the article! The wife and I are planning a small footprint cabin build in the mountains of Japan. In Japan, everything is a lot higher. a 2x4x6 runs almost $4.00 each! The 8 foot variety is almost $6.00 I believe. With pricing like that, we're going to need all the recycling and savings we can get. This article was a great resource! Thanks!

  8. This is so helpful! Huge thanks for posting this info. I see you also used a rain screen over your tyvek house wrap. It looks like from the one photo that not all the ends of your pieces of pallet wood siding land on a stud. Did you find that those free ends were floppy at all? Or was this not an issue? Thank you!