Make a six-pack caddy from pallet wood

My first book is out and it’s aimed at anyone looking for easy yet totally useful and stylish projects for woodworkers of all levels. Look to the right for more info. But my second book, due out in fall of 2018, is going to be a whole different deal. Yeah, there will be wood in there, and this project is a good example,  but it’s really about every part of the new maker movement, from micro controllers and LEDs to IKEA hacks to a rediscovery of traditional materials like leather, steel, and concrete. What will be exactly the same about both books is how easy and accessible yet brag-worthy and badass the projects will be (that’s the plan, anyway!).

This sweet six-pack caddy is a perfect example. Anyone can make this using simple tools and free wood, but it will add handcrafted style to your life. I sized it to accept all sizes of bottles and cans, from old-school shorties up to hip 22-ouncers, and I spaced the slats to show off the labels. Inside is a separate grid made from thinner oak slats (thanks, Home Depot), which keeps the bottles and cans from rocking and rolling before the music starts. I also added a classic Starr X bottle opener on one end, so I never have to search for one.

This project is so easy to make it could be your very first attempt at woodworking. You’ll need a fat drill bit or hole saw to make the holes for the dowel, almost any kind of saw to cut out the pieces, and then it all goes together with a hammer and nails. I’ll show you a few tricks to make things easier, but you’ll be cracking open your first IPA in no time.

I can’t wait to roll up to my first party with my new creation in hand, packed with an enticing collection of flavors and brews—something for everyone. Despite the simple tools, materials, and techniques—or maybe because of them—it looks awesome. I might use a wood-burning tool to burn an image of Gandalf (LOTR fans, holler) onto one end. Seriously.

Pallet-wood reality check

For decades now optimistic, frugal folks have been exhorting others to build projects with pallets. I applaud their passion and pluck, and I love a free stack of boards as much as the next maker, but I’ll kick off my own pallet-wood project with a caveat: While it’s true that pallets are free and widely available—in the biggest cities and smallest towns—this rough material is not right for every project.

As you might imagine, pallets are built to be strong and not much else. So the wood is roughsawn, full of knots and defects, and varying in width and thickness, even in the same board. Wood species—usually red oak or Southern yellow pine (a hard softwood)—are chosen for strength over style as well. And last, the pallets you’ll find in the free pile are usually outdoors, with dirt and grease ground in.

All that said, a little brushing and sanding goes a long way, and you can clean up pallet boards for all sorts of rustic projects, like outdoor planters, funky frames, a weathered rack for a row of coat hooks, or the sweet tote in this chapter. The key is to lean into the imperfection, embracing it as part of the appeal.

Rustic is the rule. I wouldn’t pull a bunch of boards off a pallet, run them through a planer (if you have one), and try to build fine furniture with them. The sand and grit will trash your planer knives, and, in the end, the low-grade wood won’t look that great anyway. There is no point using gnarly pallet wood when inexpensive boards from the home center will be more appropriate for the project at hand.

Embrace the roughsawn, weathered look, and let your imagination wander. For example, I’ve seen stylized flags made from pallet wood, with the boards turned into stripes by applying a diluted wash of latex paint in different colors.

 

Where to find pallets

I’ve driven by lots of “free pallets” signs from coast to coast. For this project, however, I was on a deadline, so I scrolled through craigslist to see what I could dig up in a day. I found six Portland citizens begging me to haul away their pallets, so I dug through the sketchy photos to find the best bets. Be aware that some pallets are totally trashed, often with only a few scraggly boards still hanging on.

On the flip side, there are extra-sweet, non-standard pallets around too, with better, smoother, boards in sizes other than the usual thick frame pieces and thin slats. Actually, that’s what I was looking for on this project, something that would yield a 3/4-in.-thick board for the ends of the beer caddy. (That’s just thick enough to let me nail into them but not so thick they look clunky.)

It took some digging and re-stacking, but near the bottom of the dirty pile of pallets I found on my first stop, outside a restaurant in North Portland, there were two winners: a standard pallet with thin slats for the sides of the caddy, and a custom pallet with a semi-clean row of 3/4-in. boards on top. And one—just one—was wide enough to let me make the caddy I had designed.

The easy way to harvest boards

When you lock horns with your first pallet, your inclination will be to start pulling nails, and/or yanking off entire boards. You have encountered another reality of the pallet game: Aiming for strength at all costs, pallet-makers use ring-shank nails that are a nightmare to pull out. I’ve heard tell of pallets joined with staples, making the boards easy to remove, but I haven’t found one of those unicorns yet.

There are lots of ways to defeat the nails—just ask Google—but none are fun, and you’re likely to split or damage as many boards as you save. If you can avoid pulling nails or pounding boards loose from the back side, I say do it.

My favorite way to harvest pallet wood is the simplest: Run a circular saw along the top of the slats, as close as possible to the frame pieces below, and the slats just drop free. You end up with pretty short pieces, but for projects like this one, those are perfect.

If you need your pallet boards full length, there are ways to separate them from the beams below, such as sawing through the nails from the back side, by slipping the blade of a reciprocating saw between the slats and frame. You can also bang the boards loose from the back side. I’ve also seen specially welded pry bars for the purpose.

Alrighty then, let’s get to it.

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By far the easiest way to remove boards from a pallet is to saw them off. You’ll get shorter planks, but you’ll get them in minutes.
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Start by laying out one end. It’s 6-3/8 in. wide and 13 in. tall, and the angles start about 7-1/2 in. from the bottom. Lay out the hole to fit whatever dowel you are using for a handle.
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Drill the hole first. I used a Forstner bit sized for my 1-1/8-in.-dia. dowel, and I clamped a waste piece below so the back of the hole didn’t chip out.
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You can make every cut on this project using a jigsaw.
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After smoothing the edges with a sanding block, just use the first end to lay out the second one.
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The caddy is 11-3/8 in. long, so the dowel and slats all get cut at that length. Simple!
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You’ll need to trim the side slats 2 in. wide, and also trim one of the bottom slats so you get a good fit down there. I did this on the tablesaw, but the jigsaw would also work.
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Assembly is a cinch. Use 16-ga. by 1-in. panel nails, which have a serrated shank so they hold super well. But drill first with a 1/16-in. drill so the nails go in easy and the wood doesn’t split.
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Lay the caddy on its side to attach all the slats.
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These oak slats are 1/4 in. thick and 3-1/2 in. wide, just the ay they came from the home center. The first step to making the interior grid is cutting the pieces a little shorter than the interior of the caddy. Then chop a little bevel on the top corners of the pieces. I used my miter saw but a jigsaw or handsaw would also work.
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The trick to laying out perfect notches is to use a shop pencil to trace around the actual pieces. Go a bit more than halfway across the pieces with the slots so you can be sure they will come together fully.
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Cut along the inside of your lines with a jigsaw and nibble away the end to get rid of the waste piece. 
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Try the fit. You can always use the jigsaw to nibble a bit more off the side of a slot. Once the fit is good, add some glue to the mating surfaces and assemble the pieces on a flat surface, so they end up flush at the top and bottom.
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The grid just drops in and looks sweet.
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Add a bottle opener on one end, load up your cool tote with tasty craft brew, and you’ll be everyone’s favorite party guest.
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