Build a Bookcase from a Pallet

posted in: Furniture | 0

This project was definitely a learning experience. I have never worked with pallets before, not that I don’t want to do it again, but there’s a few things I need to take into consideration next time. In hopes of saving you some heartache, here are a few things that I learned:

  • Craigslist is a great place to find pallets that people or businesses want to get rid of and a lot of times you can just come by and pick them up without having to talk to anybody
  • Be careful where you drive, if there’s pallets, there’s nails, and while I’m not sure that’s where the nail came from, it might not be just a coincidence that I ended up with a flat tire the day after I went to pick up pallets
  • Not all pallets are created equal: there are some really nice pallets and some not so nice pallets. This project is made with not-so-nice pallets and it took a lot of extra work. If you’re looking to do a project from free wood pallets, make sure they’re not just crappy pallets
  • You need to make some muscle before you decide to tear these babies apart, either that, or a saw that will saw through the nails so you can pull them apart
  • Don’t skimp corners, sand real well, and don’t forget to stain the underside of the shelves… oops!

Okay, on to some instructions…

Pallet to Bookcase


First you need to gather materials. You’ll need pallets, more about that soon, hammer, chisel, saw, tape measure, pencil, drill, power screwdriver, screws, stain/paint, and some sort of finish.

Pallets: Look on Craigslist and find someone who is getting rid of pallets and get some for free. Or, buy them, if you can’t find any for free. Either that, or find someone that is getting building supplies and have them give you some pallets. I would recommend two pallets for this project, possibly three, depending on your size and shape of it. Inspect the pallets. You’ll find the word easier to work with if you get good quality pallets and not ones that are a bazillion years old or ones that have been out in the weather. They are easier to take apart, work with, and then finish.


I didn’t follow any specific plans, but I decided to draw them up myself. This particular bookcase was going in my oldest son’s room for his growing PILES of books (I’m tired of them sitting on the floor). I decided where I wanted it to be, thought about just about high I wanted it, and then how many shelves I wanted it.

I then looked at the pallets I gathered, did some measuring, and made some adjustments to the size of bookshelf I was going to make based on those measurements. I also tweaked those measurements as we go… hey, I really wasn’t sure what I was doing!

Basically, I wanted 3 shelves and wanted to make it wide and not so tall.

Put some muscle into it

First thing I had to do was take the pallet apart. This was rather difficult and I decided that next time I might just saw through the nails or cut off the ends of the board in stead. However, I did the slower way, and probably right way, of using a chisel and hammer and pried all the boards apart, taking out each nail, and putting it aside until I had a nice pile of wood.

Next I took my more heavy duty pieces and laid them out on my garage floor, these would be for the shelves themselves. (I couldn’t decide If I needed to use them for the sides or the shelves, so I decided to use them for the shelves.

Obviously this pallet I was using wasn’t in the best shape, see the boards above how they are all ratty and messed up? Yes, not the best decision I made. I moved the boards around and decided how I wanted these to go, decided which boards would be towards the back and which side would be facing up, and then I measured them to see exactly how long to cut the boards.

Tip: If your pallet is in good shape, you can just use the width of the boards. Mine was not, so I first cut of the bad part on one end, then measured from my new cut to get the width of the shelves. (FYI: I used 40 inches width)

Here’s my little helper helping me. This is my oldest, who the bookcase is for, so I had him help me during naptime. I measured the length of the wood, and marked it with a V shape. Then measured again to make sure I did it right. (Measure twice, cut once.) Then with the help of my son, we used a triangle straight edge and created a cut line that goes right through the point of the V’s.

Cut your boards and then lay them back down together.

Next you want to measure the depth of your book shelf. This measurement would be taken from the width of both boards laying next to each other. I used a piece of the pallet that was a 2×4 and cut two pieces, for each shelf,of this measurement. And then I cut an extra one for an added support for the bottom shelf. (I believe my measurement was 11 inches)

Then I glued and screwed, using 2 1/2 in screws,  the bookshelf boards to the 2×4 boards- see below. (Two screws for each book shelf board)

Hint: Always drill holes into your wood before you actually grab the screws, it’s much easier that way. Also, and this is something I learned on this project, make sure you have the right side screwdriver drill bit for your screws you bought, that’s why there’s a 1, 2, or 3 before the length of your screw on the packaging… duh!!! (learned this one the hard way)

There’s one of my shelves. On the bottom, I just measured where the middle was and put the extra 2×4 I cut in the middle of it.

As I was making these shelves, I only had 5 boards that I could use, but I wanted 3 shelves and each shelf used 2 boards. So I went down to Home Depot and bought me a 5 1/2″ fence board, the kind with the dog-ears cut out, and cut it off to the same 40 inches. This wasn’t the best choice, but I couldn’t find anything better. The problem was, the boards I was using where thick, almost 1 inch thick, and they make nothing one inch thick. Because it wasn’t as thick, I placed a small piece of playwood/backing board underneath so they would be similar in height. If you look closely at the picture below, the board on the right has it slipped in underneath it. (Do you also see how I broke a nail drilling it in on the board on the left??? Ooops!)

At this point, I did pull out the sander and went to work with 80 grit sand paper on the shelves. These were pretty roughed up boards, and I knew that it was going to need a lot of sanding to get them all nice.


Next comes the sides of the book shelf. Once again, I decided how high to make them by how long my boards were. I laid some of the smaller pieces down, side by side, until I got them so they were very similar in widths. I think I even used some scrap pieces out of my garage as well. I measured them and cut them until they were all 42″ inches tall.

Note: Even though my shelves are 11 inches deep, I wanted the sides to stick out further, so they are closer to 12 1/2 inches width, instead of the 11 inches.

Then, using the shelves I had already made, I line them up with the bottom of the 2×4 and used 2 inch screws and screwed them to the bottom shelf.

I then measured from the top of the bottom shelf to the top of the sides. I divided that by three, and that was how far apart each shelf was going to be. The only problem: apparently I did my calculation wrong and I ended up with a top shelf with a bigger opening. If I had done this on purpose, I would have made the bigger hole on the bottom.

I then cut a 1×3 the same width as the sides and hooked it at the very top of the side boards as a support for the top of the book shelf. and then I cut boards to put on top. I don’t have a good picture of it, but I didn’t cut the boards for the top of the book shelf all the same length, and they stick out a little farther from the sides.

But here’s the project at this point:

Other than a few hiccups, I’m very please with how it is at this point.

The next thing I did was I found some 1×3 for the top two shelves and a 2×4 for the bottom and cut them the same 40 inches and placed them on the front of the shelves to make them look a little cleaner. I nailed these on with 2″ finish nails.

Below are three pictures that shows this.

Last, I laid it flat on its front, and cut wood so that it would go along the back of the bookcase and fill in the back. Make sure you cut-to-fit this wood so that you can nail it into the sides of the book shelf.

Pretty much your done with it at this point.


Now you have to decide how you want to finish it. First and foremost, you need to sand it. I skimped on the sanding, and wished I had spent more time on it. But I did not, so some of the edges are a little rough and splintery. When sanding, start with a low grit, like a 60 or 80, and work on it hard. Then gradually go up to a finer one, possible making several hops: 120, 160, 180, 220. Depending on how particular you are, you want to sand it til it’s nice and smooth.

Then vacuum it and wipe it down with a wet wash cloth to get any leftover sawdust off of it.

Then, paint or stain it, and finish it with a polyurethane or wax.