Transforming wood shipping pallets into pallet flooring cuts your renovation costs, reduces landfill waste, and gives your room an extra touch of personality. These pallets are often dumped into landfills after just a few uses, but by collecting them, you can get free material to build a one-of-a-kind floor. First, though, you’ll need to know what kind of pallets are suitable for flooring, where to find them, and how to prepare and install.
The Pros and Cons of a Pallet Floor
A pallet floor can cost as little as $200 to $300. What you will spend, however, is time. Depending on the type of pallets you want, collecting your materials could take one weekend or several months. Then you’ll need to install them.
It’s a great project if you’re a dedicated DIY-er and genuinely enjoy home improvement work. If the look of a pallet floor is all you want, you might be better off buying second-hand pallets, then hiring workers to disassemble and install them. If you want to save money, but you don’t have a lot of time, you can collect free pallets, then let a professional install them.
Shipping pallet floors have a rustic, mix-and-match look that’s rich in character. Pallets are typically made from low-grade wood with coarse grain, color streaks, and knotholes. Around half the pallets in the U.S.. are made from yellow pine and oak, but many more species are used nationally and internationally. To confuse matters, a single pallet can be made from several species of wood.
Chances are, you’ll be using both darker and lighter planks, possibly of different wood species, to build your floor. This creates a unique, variegated look many see as part of the charm of these floors. The variegation also makes pallet flooring easy to repair. If one plank is damaged, just replace it with any other and the new plank will blend right in. If you prefer uniformity or you have your heart set on a less common wood species, however, it could take months to find enough pallets.
Low-grade wood might look rough, but wood pallet floors aren’t any more prone to deterioration than other wood floors. Their longevity depends on foot traffic, maintenance, and the species of wood.
Choosing the Right Type of Pallets
Not just any pallet is suitable for flooring. Some present a health hazard or are just too damaged. Avoid pallets with mysterious stains. They might be perfectly safe, but it’s not worth the risk. Likewise, avoid pallets used to transport packages of raw meat. These could carry traces of bacteria such as E. Coli, which could transfer to your hands. Pallets used to carry industrial chemicals might have chemical spills that could either irritate your hands or weaken the wood.
Fungus is another common problem, so avoid pallets that have been stored in damp conditions. Likewise, steer clear of pallets with insect damage, excess nails, or splitting wood.
Pallets without identifying stamps are “national pallets” manufactured and used only within one country. These are usually free from chemicals and, provided they’re otherwise clean, they’re safe to use as flooring.
Pallets used for international shipments should carry the International Standards For Phytosanitary Measures (IPPC) stamp. This is a rectangular stamp with a wheat symbol on the left side and information about the pallet’s history on the right side. It includes a code for the pallet’s country of origin, such as CA for Canada, and codes for processing methods. The most common codes are [DB] for debarked, [KD] for kiln dried, and [HT] for heat treated. You might also see [MB] for methyl bromide treated. Never use pallets treated with methyl bromide, which is highly toxic.
Some national pallets also carry stamps with these codes. When you can, choose undyed, heat-treated national pallets stored in dry conditions and not used to transport food or chemicals.
Finding Quality Material
One standard 48- by 40-in. shipping pallet provides enough wood to cover between 1.5 to 2.5 sq. ft. of floor space, depending on the length of planks you can get out of it.
You’ll need a lot of pallets for the average room, but if you don’t mind searching, you can get them for free. Start by asking at businesses that regularly receive large shipments of packaged products. Grocery stores, department stores, garden centers, furniture stores, small retail stores, and even schools might have pallets free for the asking. New businesses are also good sources because they’re stocking up on inventory. Landfill sites often have piles of pallets, but these pallets are more likely to be damaged.
No time to hunt down clean, undamaged pallets? Some hardware stores sell used pallets you can be sure are safe and sanitary. You’ll spend more money, but save time.
Turning Pallets into Flooring Planks
Once you find your pallets, you’ll need to clean and disassemble them. Inspect each pallet again for stains, damage, or debris. Check for discoloration that could indicate a hazardous spill and insect holes that could still be harboring insects. Look for stray nails or other metal and remove them before you start work.
Hose down the pallets to remove debris. Then remove the individual planks by prying out the nails with a nail puller (cat’s paw) or a crowbar. For stubborn nails, try a nail punch. If all else fails, cut the plank out with a circular saw.
Next, sand the planks to make both sides smooth and even enough to use as flooring. Uneven planks will make your floor uneven. Lay each pallet between two sawhorses and sand them with an electric power sander or sandpaper, progressing from coarse to fine grit.
Finally, clean the planks. Mix 1 part dish soap with 10 parts water and use the mixture to scrub both sides of the planks thoroughly. Rinse the planks, then scrub and rinse them again. Mix 1 part bleach with 3 parts water and spray the mixture over both sides of the planks. Rinse and leave the planks in the sun or a dry indoor space to dry.
Installing Your Pallet Floor
Take some time to look through flooring designs and find one you love. While the straight-set pattern is the most common, you might prefer offset (brick or running bond), herringbone, chevron, basketweave or a variation on one of these. Creating your own custom pattern is also an option. Because you’ll be working with a variety of shades, plan out approximately where you want each plank, so you don’t end up with unattractive clusters of dark or light planks.
Before you lay your new floor, completely remove the old one. Thoroughly clean up any debris and make sure the surface is level. Install flooring underlayment paper according to the product’s instruction. Use a stud finder to find the floor joists, then mark their locations. Your floor planks should lay perpendicular to the joists. This way, you can easily nail the planks to the joints to create a secure hold. Lay the planks and nail them in place one at a time.
When the planks are nailed down, clean up any lingering debris. If you plan to stain the floor, first clean it with mineral spirits, then apply your chosen stain according to the product’s instructions. Follow up by applying a protective finish.
Because floor stain is tricky to get right, you might want to leave this part up to a professional. If you’re going for a truly rustic look, you can leave the floor unfinished. Just know that your floor will pick up stains and wear faster this way.
Fitting a room with pallet flooring takes a greater time investment than using commercial flooring material, but it will reward you with a distinctive and durable floor at a fraction of the cost. Sourcing usable pallets is the most time-consuming part of the job. Make sure you know what to look for before you start hunting.