Our Upcycled Pallet Picnic Table

On a hot day in late July, Angie and I were sitting in the pharmacy drive-thru when we spotted the tiniest wooden pallet we’d ever seen. It was leaned next to the building and, for a moment, we were tempted just to grab it. Instead, we talked about all the cool things we could do with such a find – a platform for the outdoor shower we really need to build, new shelves in the garden shed, and on and on we went. Our restraint was rewarded. The very next morning, we found not one, but two, small wooden pallets by our dumpster.

The pallets we found fit perfectly in our tiny car! It’s amazing just how much a Chevy Spark can hold.

With pallets in hand, the idea of making a picnic table was born. Over the past four Saturdays, we’ve worked on our project. The hardest part was breaking the pallets into usable wood; but even this was made easier with a pry bar we purchased at Dollar Tree. Yes, Dollar Tree. For a dollar.

Much harder than it looks on HGTV!

As you’ve probably guessed by now, we had to get a few more pallets to make our picnic table. Until this point, I never knew how easy free pallets were to come by. We scored 2 through an ad on Facebook Marketplace and 3 more by simply asking for them when we went to place an order for flooring (for my mom’s bathroom).

Aside from a compost bin, Angie and I had never built anything together and aside from a hammer we found on the side of the road and a hand saw, we had no woodworking tools either. So we went to Harbor Freight (they have coupons!) and bought a small sander ($13), a reciprocating saw ($19), saw blades ($5), and 2 paint brushes (49 cents each) to assist in our project. We picked up the paint from the clearance rack at Lowe’s (thus the color choices) for $5/quart. Both quarts were exterior paints with WeatherShield, which usually cost $20 or more.

We designed the table as we went along, meaning we made a few mistakes in the process. The 2nd piece of wood at the top edge was one of them. It was pretty but not practical. You can’t put your legs under the table with it there.

So far, we’ve completed just one bench.

As we were working, I couldn’t help but think how pleased my grandpa would have been to see our project. During his lifetime, he rescued more than 1,000 pallets and turned them into porch swings (and a few picnic tables too). In 2008, I wrote a story for the Denver Post about how my grandpa’s love of woodworking has inspired me throughout my life to do only those things that bring me joy. I don’t think there was a day in that man’s life that he was not happy.

Making a picnic table has been more than just a fun project for us. It has been a lesson in resourcefulness and skill building as well. Do I think we could build a tiny house now? Maybe not (yet), but I do think we can do more than we often think we can.

We all can.

Remembering Grandpa’s Porch Swing

On Saturday, Angie and I built an outdoor compost bin for my mom’s backyard. We made it out of an old wooden pallet that we got for free from a neighbor. This was my first time to work with a pallet. I had no idea they were that heavy and hard to break down. Needless to say, our little project took the better part of the day.

Making the compost bin reminded me of my Grandpa Willie. In his lifetime, I’d dare say that he transformed more than a thousand old pallets into beautiful new porch swings.

Several years ago I wrote a story about my grandpa’s swings. The story was published (in part) in the Rocky Mountain News (Denver, CO) in September 2008. The message of that story is just as timely and relevant today as it was back then – do what you love and nothing else will matter.

September 21, 2008 – Adults are funny creatures. We are surrounded by a world of bright blue skies, purple mountains, green grasses, yellow fields, and orange sunsets, yet all too often we filter that world through a black and white lens and see only gray sidewalks. Unlike the days of our youth when a bicycle could be a horse, a motorcycle or even a unicorn, today it is just a bicycle. A house is just a house. A car is just a car. A job is just a job.

As adults, we define ourselves by our job titles and status symbols, yet we complain every moment because our dull, boring lives center around those things. What if it wasn’t that way? What if a house was the place that friends gathered for coffee? What if a car was a space ship that took you to exotic places instead of that office you dread going to? What if a job was that thing you loved to do every day?

My grandpa Willie was a hard worker who knew how to use his hands. For more than 30 years he worked in a factory. Towards the end of his career, his job was to oversee deliveries. Every day new parts would come in to the factory on pallets, which my grandpa would stack outside the loading docks for the truck to pick up the next day. During this routine, an idea struck him. He knew that the pallets they were using were made out of oak, to safely secure the glass that was being transported. He also knew that once a pallet was damaged, it was destroyed. With that in mind, he struck a deal with his employer – he would sort the pallets and keep the damaged ones. What started as a project to build a porch swing for his wife, turned into my grandpa’s second career.

For more than 20 years after his retirement, my grandpa continued to collect pallets from different factories and turn them into swings. I can remember standing in his workshop as a teenager and watching him work. Making swings wasn’t a way for him to escape. It wasn’t a diversion until something else came along to occupy his time. It wasn’t a hobby. Making swings was his passion. He loved what he did and it showed in every nail that he drove and every coat of stain that he applied. When I asked him once why swings he said very simply, “Because swings bring people together.” And he was right. As quickly as he could make a swing and put a “for sale” sign on it, it was gone.

All along our street on any lazy southern summer day you could hear the creak of chains as kids and parents alike rocked to and fro in my grandpa’s swings. You could see bashful teenagers secretly holding hands, shuffling their feet to move his swings to the rhythm of a love song only they could hear.

My grandpa Willie died making a swing. He sat down to rest in his own swing and fell into an everlasting sleep. He was 84. In life we have few true role models – people we aspire to be like. My grandpa was my role model. He taught me to do what you love, not what you think you’re supposed to do.

My grandpa wasn’t CEO of Porch Swings, Inc. He didn’t call himself Mr. President. In fact, if you asked him about his work, he’d say, “I’m just a builder”. He wasn’t just a builder though; he was a man with an idea who pursued it. In his career, my grandpa hand-crafted and sold more than 200 swings. Knowing my grandpa, I’m sure when he built that first swing he ran right in the house, pleased as punch, and told my grandma he was going to make a dozen more. I’m sure, knowing my grandma, that she said, “OK, Willie, you go do just that”, all the while asking herself what on earth were they getting into this time.

This week, I’ve thought a lot about my grandpa and my own path in life. Pursuing one’s passion is a hard course to chart, even when you know where you want to go. I am just as guilty as the next person of seeing a house as just a house, a car as just a car, and a job as just a job. Sometimes though, opportunity presents itself in an unusual package. It doesn’t always come in a power suit, wrapped neatly into a leather briefcase or tied around a stock certificate with a gold name plate. Sometimes it shows up as a pallet full of nothing more than its own infinite possibilities.