Hi. I’m Keith Decent and this is From the Ground Up. A podcast about how we make what we make, the materials, the tools, and the stories behind the things we build. In the world of reclaiming and upcycling, as it pertains to woodworking, there is no topic more divisive than pallets. Some see them as a fantastically affordable resource for beginner woodworkers, others see using pallets as a means of environmental conservation, while others still see working with pallet wood as a potentially deadly and monumentally stupid endeavor.
For the uninitiated, Pallets are a shipping tool, most often made of wood, on which products are stacked so they can be moved, stored, or displayed more easily. Pallets as we know them were basically invented around the same time as the modern forklift, in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Their popularity skyrocketed during World War II when global manufacturing boomed and the need to ship and store items around the world became a priority. It was at this time, 48x48 inch, double faced pallet became the standard used between the Allied nations. Later, with the further development of warehouse and shipping technologies, the 48x40 inch “4-way entry” pallet became the new standard, and is likely the same on you’ll see stacked outside of your local grocery store to this day.
And while history of the pallet is unsurprising and easy to trace. It is a utilitarian object custom fit to the needs of the time. The history of any one, single pallet is an entirely different story. None, exactly zero, of the roughly two billion pallets circulating in the United States today, provide the ability to check where it has been used, stored, or built. This is a bit of an issue in the food industry, for example, where studies have shown that some pallets could contain animal fecal matter, pathogens, or chemicals that you normally wouldn’t want on your zucchinis.
It’s also a bit of an issue in what seems to be an entirely unrelated industry. Since the early 2000s, designers, makers, trendsetters, and woodworkers of all types have been increasingly using pallets in the production of household goods. In the first half of the two thousand and teens, the instance of the search term “pallet wood” increased 400% on google. An explosion of pallet-wood inspired projects flooded the design blogs and pinterest boards, telling their readers and followers “hey, this stuff is free. It’s just sitting out there waiting to be used!”
It seems people were tearing apart pallets and making them into wall art, wine racks, coffee tables, ottomans, and even toddler beds, starting up their own pallet-based furniture companies, and selling them on the web faster than you could say “Etsy.” Readily available designs and tutorials for pallet wood projects on sites like Pinterest and Youtube, along with a down economy, fueled a fiercely competitive marketplace. On the surface, these products seemed like a fantastic value for consumers. They were made by “Mom and Pop” entrepreneurs, they were sustainable, and they were cheap. Most importantly, they were a rugged and individualistic departure from the IKEA-sphere, where most affordable furniture design had been bouncing around since the mid-90s.
Most people didn’t really know anything about pallets except that they were made of wood, and that they were used for shipping things. As the design blogs and style shows churned out more content about their virtues, information started surfacing about the little known, dangerous reputation pallet wood has in professional industries.
Warehouse workers started springing up, quoted in blogs and websites, with anecdotes about how pallets, soaked to the core in toxic sludge, were sold back to the recycling company and sent out into the world again. Tales of rotten boards, fuzzy with mold, being ripped off and replaced, piecemeal, right before shipping them out were now becoming more and more common, as well as the horror stories about the industrial processes used in order to make the wood suitable for a long life of international transportation and storage in widely varying climates. Some of these warning signs are easy to distinguish thanks to, well, warning signs. Pallets treated with harmful chemicals are typically marked and stamped as such, and are readily identifiable. But what about the rest? How can someone who makes a dining table out of pallet wood be sure that it has never been exposed to any harmful materials? How can someone who buys it be sure the maker cared enough to find a suitable stash of pallets? They can’t. This uncertainty stokes fears, which ignite a backlash.
There are hundreds of articles written these days about the inherent risks of using pallet wood. Most major DIY blogs and sites have their own, and usually they contain a blurb about how, despite your best efforts, you can never really be sure if it’s 100% safe. Any time an article or project is posted to Reddit, Instagram, or Youtube that uses pallets, there are sure to be comments that warn others to never, use pallet wood, typically followed by anecdotal evidence of their shady and deadly nature. Yet, people still use, and search for, and buy pallet wood products more than ever. Influencers still post content extolling the virtues of pallets and pallet wood, and commenters still call for an end to it all. And sometimes things get a little out of hand. Friend of the podcast, Paul Jackman, is a woodworker and reclaimer, and using pallets is kind of his thing. He makes a living creating content for Youtube and other social media sites, as well as marketing and selling his products, so I reached out to him to shed some light on the dark mystery of pallets, their appeal, and what it’s like being a lightning rod for the fear and anger that surrounds their use.
It makes sense to be cautious when venturing into the unknown. It makes more sense to be cautious when you’re taking the unknown, pulverizing it into dust, gluing it back together, and moving it into your home. But are pallets really something to be shunned and avoided, or are they just the bogeyman of woodworking? As makers and tradespeople, we take risks every day. We put our trust in our tools, protective gear, and even the materials we use. Sometimes that trust is betrayed and our safety is compromised. But that sort of thing just comes with the territory, right? I suppose, in the end, whether or not a fear of pallets is justifiable is really up to you.
From the Ground Up is an ongoing experiment, and it is now and will always be available free of charge. If you’d like to support this podcast, please visit keithdecent.com/FTGU to learn more about the show and how you can help out. Until next time, this is Keith Decent saying, later makers.