Pallet Wood Bunk Beds and a Handmade Christmas (How and Why)

Pallet Wood Bunk Beds

I’m not going to tell you that this project is easy. This is not Pinterest craft magic, in which we all drool over a project that calls itself easy but is about as likely to actually work as your chemical hair replacer.  This is the more special kind of magic: the changing of materials into product through work, and more work, and knowledge acquired through work. These beautiful beds were made entirely out of reclaimed hardwood, which means, basically, Nick pulled them out of the trash.

[Materials: reclaimed hardwood, plywood, dowel (for joinery), glue, sandpaper, stain]

Our kids needed beds.  But we could have met the need with cinder blocks. And perhaps we should have. Nick took three, maybe four weeks off from building our yurt, which is NOT finished and IS the place we plan to live in just a couple of months, in order to make some pretty Christmas gifts. Isn’t that kind of hard to justify?

Well, I don’t know. Maybe. Is it out of fashion to spend a long time doing something hard, and then feel good about it?

Maybe these days we tend to think of homemade Christmas gifts as something less valuable than the purchased ones. They are “thought that counts” gifts, the sort of gifts that kids give their grandparents. You can get away with it until you’re about 18. But I read somewhere once that the value of an item is related the quantity of energy that has been put into it. And I mean physics energy, quantifiable energy: the energy of sanding and cutting and applying stain. We want to teach our children (and ourselves) that handmade objects can capture that kind of value: they can be made beautiful, and functional, and built to last.

So that’s the why: to prove that real craftsmanship can still deliver the goods, despite the pressure laid on by mass manufacturing: that hard work and training is still worth something, even [especially?] in this post-consumer era: and that is absolutely possible to spoil your kids stupid at Christmastime, even when you don’t really have a job.

Part One: On Collecting This Kind of Wood

Some of the material was once old barn timbers. The rest of it was pallets. There was one particularly lucky find: a supply of 4 x 8 hardwood pallets without fork cuts, from a plastics distributor on the East Coast, probably used exclusively under flatgoods.

About pallet wood: Yes, we do use pallet wood for lots of stuff.  And yes, we have read up on the risks of using pallet wood. I’m not going to link up here, because reading that stuff at the wrong time absolutely will cause you to abandon your handmade Christmas in favor of peanut brittle and television, and I want your inner revolution to keep burning. But I will sum up.

Pallet wood is frequently treated with harmful substances, especially if the pallets have been used for international trade. Even if they weren’t treated with harmful substances, they can be contaminated with whatever they were carrying, or with bacteria and mold, just the sort of living things that the harmful substances are intended to kill.

This kind of risk is present with any wood that you can find in the trash, and also anything else you find in the trash, and also some portion of the wood sold in your local home improvement store. (Also, incidentally, some portion of the US food supply, but that’s another story…) If you are looking for perfectly clean building materials, you need to harvest them yourself, from nature.  And if you are looking for a risk-free life, you can go ahead and lie down in your coffin right now.

We can beat this. It takes intention, and education. If you don’t know how to spot pressure treated lumber, take the time to educate yourself. If the history of your materials is in question, take the time to protect yourself. Own a respirator. Know how to use it. Take a pass on pallets with visible signs of decay. If you start a project and find that the dust is affecting your skin or eyes, or that splinters from the wood are painful and get infected easily, stop and rethink what you’re doing. We want to be courageous, not scared into inaction, but also not foolhardy.

Along the same lines, but not so much about safety, know what kind of wood you’re working with. Hardwood pallets are less common, especially out here in the West. We are using pine pallets, intact, for underneath our yurt. But we probably wouldn’t use them for furniture. (Never say never…) Nick is so attuned to the look of a hardwood pallet that he can spot it twenty feet away through an open doorway while walking without losing speed. He did that at our storage facility the other day. I didn’t see the stack of pallets at all. I was probably too busy talking about my dream for a reclaimed wood revolution. It takes all kinds.

Part Two: On Turning Trash Wood into Pretty Wood

Before storing the wood, remove all the metal. ALL the metal. This is a safety issue, if you’re going to be removing surfaces. With pallets sometimes you’re working with twisted nails. In that case, Nick does this: “Use a crowbar to pry up the cross pieces so you can get underneath them and straighten the nails. When nails are straight enough, pound them out from the tip, just enough to get around the head with the claw of a hammer. Then pull them out. Sometimes you have to drill little holes around the nail to get it out.”

Remember, ALL the metal. If you’re not completely sure you got it all, you can use a stud finder, which acts basically like a small metal detector.

Now you may be the sort of craftsperson who finds a bunch of wood and decides what to do with it. Or you may be the sort of person who has a dream project in mind and collects the wood, storing it until you have what you need (someplace where it doesn’t get wet, of course). Or you may be some cross between the two. But there comes a point, when you have enough wood to make something, and so you take it out of storage and start to make it beautiful. Here’s Nick’s method:

1) Cut to rough lengths, cutting around the knots and curved bits. Cut the straightest portions possible.  As you cut, you may be able to imagine where on the project certain knot holes and nail holes are going to land.

2) If your boards are already straight enough to use, you can go straight to the planer to plane new, pretty faces on them.  If not, straighten them.  Screw the board to a piece of plywood that you know is straight, then let the saw guide against the plywood to cut a new straight edge on your reclaimed board. You can do this on a bandsaw with a fence, a table saw with a fence, or a skilsaw with a saw guide.

3) Go to the planer. Of course you have a planer. Someone you know has a planer. Plane with the new straight edge down until you have a consistent, flat, attractive surface. Flip it over and do the same on the other side to your desired dimension.

Part Three: Build Something Awesome for Your Family

(They will be bunk beds, when our whole family lives in one room, in the yurt.)

Even after all this work, your wood won’t look like wood that came off of the shelf. You’ll want to design your project in a way that celebrates that instead of competing with it. Nick went for an Arts and Crafts style design with pegged through-tenon joinery. He purchased new half inch plywood to go directly under the mattresses, no box springs. The only metal in it is a hanger bolt, which is a lag screw on one end and machine thread on the other end, screwed into the end of the long rail, with the machine thread passed through the vertical post. It makes the whole bed able to break down and move by extracting that bolt. Which is handy, since we are going to be moving in a couple of months.

But what will you do?  I don’t know.  Go have some fun. Or at least let your imagination run. When you find some wood you can reclaim, let us know! And let us know what you’re making for your next handmade Christmas!

Love,

Esther and Nick

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