Part 3: A Wood Pallet’s Artful Journey

In this part three of a four part series, I’d like to explore the creative side of the life cycle of some pallets. There is a growing urban hobbyists movement that uses the pallet to make basic yet creative products; check out 35 Creative Ways To Recycle Wooden Pallets for examples. Approaching the problem from a Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) perspective, however, I became intrigued by the relatively low public profile tertiary packages (sometimes called transport packaging) play in comparison to the flashier on-the-shelf primary packages. Secondary and tertiary packages understandably play the supporting role to the charismatic primary packages that are designed to get our attention. Yet without the supporting cast, the lead role would scarcely be very effective.

As the product owner of GreenBlue’s COMPASS® (comparative packaging assessment), an LCA tool tailored for packaging design evaluation and improvement, I was interested in developing a comprehensive model that applies LCA to quantify the environmental burdens associated with the entire packaging system needed to deliver a product to the store shelf, including all the intermediate steps. Along with the requisite research, software development, data modeling, and validation steps, I also embarked on a journey to learn about the materials that made up the ubiquitous wood pallet. I was interested in the potential of the materials—not mere reuse or recycle, but potentially up-cycling into truly long lived products. There is a lot of hardwood used in pallets made in the U.S. South East and I wanted to explore the potential of the material with its built-in limitations. I had just completed construction of my own Three Beagle Workshop, and this challenge was perfect for my interest in multimedia art made with materials from found objects. And, I found pallets almost everywhere!

The first task was to tear down a few pallets and see what made them work. It seemed simple enough a task, but it proved be more difficult than expected. You see, pallets, even the expendable types, are very well constructed and able to withstand a great deal of force. Muscle power wasn’t enough to produce usable pieces of lumber so I employed power tools and decided to cut the nails instead of pulling them out to separate the various parts. This worked well and I soon had a decent pile of wood parts of fairly uniform, though worn, looking lumber. The next, more creative part of the job was to envision the potential locked within the limited configuration of the boards and planks.  I was intent on producing a product that did not resemble a pallet as the example in the above link, and still retained the distinct characters of wood that had lived a completely different life. This meant working with the dents, the knots, and most of all lumber with nails in them!

The first couple of products still had remnants of the pallet. Here is one 48″x48″ 2-way entry stringer type pallet reconfigured into a potting table:


pallet potting table

 And a sturdy European block pallet (EPAL) that had some mass to it. It became the base for a small wood shed to complement the backyard fire pit. Both of these items were functional and long-lived, yet they reveal the pallet origins, so back to the drawing board. Both pallets were destined to be hauled away in the municipal solid waste (MSW) and disposed at the landfill or at best turned into mulch.


Any woodworker knows the havoc nails in wood can cause on hand and power tools alike. But, I was determined, and with a bit of planning and patience, success! Here is the result of patience and working with the limitation imposed by the materials at hand. In the end, the success was more rewarding because the final product proudly exhibited the scars borne of the past life of the lumber. And, from an aesthetic perspective, the piece below reveals the grace that comes from passage of time and weathering. See for yourself:

dining table made from pallets   pallet dining table

Of course, there was a pile of spare parts that couldn’t be thrown away. When the opportunity to design a display for a collection of native bird painting arose, they were just perfect. With a bit of imagination those bits and pieces from several pallets were reborn as a gallery display for Virginia bird paintings.

Creative Things to Do With Pallets Photo Display     creative reuse photo tree display made from pallets

This creative process of tearing down wooden pallets paralleled the LCA model development process for COMPASS, and invariably influenced the nuances therein. In the next and final article, we will examine the depth of the tertiary packaging model in COMPASS.

Until then, if you want to keep the conversation going, connect with me on Twitter at @amistryman or comment below.

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