You’ve likely seen a beat up wood pallet transformed, or upcycled, into home decor on some social media site. You’ve never tried it, but the holidays are approaching and that blank dining room wall, unwelcoming front porch or boring buffet needs something special. And, preferably, something relatively cheap.
Well, big-box stores and some businesses give away wood pallets. Score one and follow this holiday pallet sign and stencil tutorial. A homemade pallet sign can be an inexpensive way to step up your holiday decor and get crafty bragging rights. For those of you I lost at the word “homemade,” there’s a quick – but still crafty – option: no sanding, painting or staining required.
Full disclosure: I didn’t realize how many things I conveniently had “on hand” until I started writing this tutorial. The items I used are in bold throughout the tutorial and in the safety instructions. Subtract what you own – or can borrow – to determine any needed purchases. Reduce costs by checking out dollar store retailers and using coupons offered by at least three local craft retailers: Jo-Ann Fabric and Craft Stores, Michaels and Hobby Lobby.
Option 1: Store-bought, already stained “pallet” sign and ready-made decorations.
You can nail or glue store-bought, ready-to-paint designs to it or try a stencil (directions to come). Buy an unstained pallet and stain it yourself. Or, paint it with chalk paint and write a holiday greeting.
Cost: Depends on how many coupons you score and what supplies you buy, but you can create a pallet sign for no more than $25.
Option 2: A full on, made from a pallet you ripped apart yourself, holiday sign.
If you’ve done some craft or small building projects, you’re likely pretty prepared to handle this one. If not, you’ll learn some basic skills for use on future projects. Take your time and don’t hesitate to rope in a crafty friend for help.
Cost: If you (a) score a free pallet and (b) have everything else you need, zilch. Other than that, take a good look through the directions at the items in bold.
Remember: Something might not go as planned, but that doesn’t mean it went “wrong.” There were a couple of times things veered off course in creating this sign. Keep reading. You’ll see.
Step 1: Making the sign
Rip it: Disassemble the pallet, using a hammer, pry bar or jigsaw to cut the nails and carefully remove the nails from individual boards. If you don’t want to pull the pallet apart and reassemble the boards, look for a pallet with slats close together. Good luck finding one.
Pick and choose: Choose the number of boards you want depending on the size of your sign and condition of the individual boards. You’re looking for boards that look good together to you. Once you have the number of boards you need, measure and cut the boards to size. Since this sign is mainly for demonstration purposes, I didn’t worry about exact measurements (or I would have used my table saw). I cut the boards to roughly the same size with a circular saw set up outside on a sawhorse. Even a handsaw (and some muscle) can be used.
Put them together: Attach your boards to each other using scrap wood. I took two spare pallet boards and cut them approximately two inches shorter than the sign and placed them roughly two inches in from the edges on all sides. To help prevent the wood from splitting, first drill pilot holes. Attach one board to each side of the sign using two wood screws in each board. If you own a jig (aka a joiner), which I do, you’ll recognize those oblong pocket holes in the photo. You do not need a jig. But I’d just gotten this one, so I created a couple of pocket joints in the center for extra support. (OK, and because I wanted to play with my new toy, I made extra ones just for the fun if it.) I attached the boards together with the screws. Since I added the extra center support with the joiner, I used fewer screws.
Once this is done, you have officially created a “sign.”
If you plan to hang your sign, or would like the option to do so, attach the hanging hardware of your choice. I planned to use D-rings and wire because they can easily support the weight of this sign and I had them around the house.
Fill and sand: Fill any large holes with a paintable or stainable wood filler (assuming you plan to paint or stain your sign). Sand, either with a sanding block, a piece of sandpaper or using a sander, being careful to smooth the corners and remove all splinters. You’ll likely need to start with a lower grit, like 60 or 80 and move to higher grit numbers. The pros say not to skip any sandpaper grit. I’m not a pro and this is a pallet sign, not fine furniture, so I skipped from 80 grit to 120 grit sandpaper because that’s what I had on hand. Then I wet a sanding sponge and went over the sign again, making sure everything was nice and smooth. If you plan to paint your board, chose your color (or colors) and skip the section on staining.
Condition, stain, and maybe stain again: I had wood conditioner on hand, and I don’t like splotches that can appear without it, so I used it. Then I used a dark walnut stain. The wood still had too much of a gold tone after the first coat of stain, so I stained it again, and left the stain on longer to deepen the color. I didn’t see a significant difference. Then I gave up and let it dry, which darkened it a bit.
I still didn’t like the look of one of the boards after it was stained, but I wasn’t about to take the sign apart to remove it. I looked through a couple of drawers and found a scrap of burlap that would work nicely with a Thanksgiving theme. (Don’t hate. You too can one day have pieces of nonessential fabric hogging space in your cabinet drawers!) I later decided not to attach any burlap and instead hide most of the offending board by placing real pumpkins in front of it.
While your board is drying, move on to the stencil, decorating or both. Got a ready-made stencil and decorations? Skip ahead to “affix your stencil.”
Step 2: Decorating
I chose the words “Give Thanks,” found a font I liked on my computer and enlarged the type using a printer at work. Note: If that option is not available to you and you don’t own a stencilmaker, go to a copy center. It will cost you approximately $2 to $5 for an enlargement, depending on the size. You’ll notice from the pictures that the word “Give” initially was noticeably larger than word “Thanks.” I reduced the enlargement for “Give,” using the one that was closet in size to “Thanks.”
I knew going in that the stencil would not cover all of the sign, but I picked up a couple of items with a coupon that I planned to paint using leftover paint from a pillow stencil project. For the stencil letters, I mixed yellow paint with white paint left from other projects until I had a buttercream kind of color that I liked.
Get the words down: To make a stencil, trace the word or words for your stencil onto contact paper, (one roll from a dollar store should be more than enough) then adhere the contact paper in place on your sign. Clear contact paper is ideal, but a light patterned contact paper (as the one shown in the pictures) will do. Contact paper works best because the adhesive backing helps it to stay in place, helping you avoid dreaded paint seepage under the letters.
Stencil placement: Determine where you want your stencil on the sign. Make sure the words are level and mark the placement using masking tape or, like me, eyeball it.
If you scored clear contact paper, cut a piece from the roll to the size of your stencil and place the contact paper on top your stencil. Secure the contact paper and stencil together with clips or tape to prevent it from moving. Using a flat surface, carefully trace the words onto the contact paper with a marker. You have just created your “stencil.” If, however, there was not any clear contact paper within a country mile of you: Cut the contact paper and place the stencil on top of it and clip them together. Using an X-acto knife, trace the outline of each letter. Using the tip of the blade, gently peel each letter away from the white sheet of paper. The contact paper should be visible through the spaces left by the shape of the letters.
Repeat the process, this time cutting the contact paper. Carefully remove the letters.
Note: You’ll need to save the extra pieces that form the inside shapes for some letters to place on the sign. For instance, I saved pieces that were left from the “inside” of the letters “a” “e” and “k,” and once the stencil was in place, transferred these small shapes into the centers of their corresponding letters.
Starting in one corner of the stencil, slowly peel away the backing, exposing the contact paper’s adhesive side, Place the stencil (adhesive side down, of course) on the sign in the area marked by the tape. Depending on the length of the word or words chosen, this step can be a bit tricky. The contact paper can be manipulated multiple times, so take your time. Try not to rip it. You’ll note in one of the pictures that I failed at this and there was a lovely rip in a nonessential area over the letters “k” and “s.” Transfer the shapes into the appropriate letters on your sign.
Affix your stencil to the pallet sign in your desired location using tape or something that will hold it securely in place. Place the extra pieces for the letters noted above into place.
Run a credit card or something similar over your stencil to remove as many air pockets as possible. If you’re lucky, you will remove them all. However, if, like me, you were basically plagued by the things, there’s an easy trick or two to mitigate any design damage done by creeping paint.
Dab, dab, dab: A key part of preventing the paint from seeping under your stencil is to use as dry a brush as possible. Grab a foam brush (available in packages for $1) or a stencil brush, dab it into the paint, then dab most of the paint onto a paper towel. Then dab paint onto the stencil slowly. If you have spots where the contact paper did not adhere to the sign – like I did – use a finger on your opposite hand to press down that spot, then dab the paint. Using a dry brush will create thin coats of paint that dry quickly. Repeat the process until the color is achieved. Slowly remove your stencil.
If it looks great, move on to the next step. If not, here are a couple of tips:
1. Excess paint can be removed or its look lessened. There were a few random paint drops and spots where the paint seeped under the letters on this sign. Those that were still wet, I removed with my finger dipped in water, but a cotton swab or perhaps the tip of a sharp blade also could work.
2. Once the board was completely dry, I wet my sanding sponge and used a corner to gently sand the edges of the letters where needed.
Step 3: Finishing
You’re done! Or not … If you’ve stained your board, you may want to add polyurethane. If you painted it and you’re going for a distressed look, sand the edges of the sign until it looks good to you. I skipped the poly and used some finishing paste wax I had on hand. If, like me, you have other do-dads to attach, read on.
I used the green paint alone as the base for one leaf, then added a bit of the red. On the second leaf, I mixed some brown with the green for the base and then swiped the brush through the red and yellow paints until I got a look I could live with. I used wood glue on the back of the leaves, positioned them, then sat a cup on them and allowed them to dry overnight.
The finished board was accessorized with burlap fabric and flowers. It will be a peace offering to a neighbor, as I likely disturbed their rest on at least two early weekend mornings with the noise from my saw and sander.
Depending on the items purchased, use wood glue, a glue gun, nails or screws to attach the accessories to your sign.
Ruby L. Bailey, a lifelong crafter, teaches local classes on various crafts and (very) basic woodworking techniques. Email her: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Things to consider
Picking a pallet: Pallets are available for free at places including big-box stores and small businesses. They vary in size, wood tone, board width and the spacing between the boards. I avoid pallets with odd stains, as they could have been used to transport chemicals.
Wear protective gear: The basics include gloves, protective eyewear and a dust mask.
Power tools: It should go without saying to make sure your saw, sander or other tools are working properly and that you handle them safely. But there, I said it anyway.
Follow the manufacturer’s instructions: When using paint, stain, thinners or other chemicals, follow the directions carefully, always work in a well-ventilated area and dispose of containers and rags, sponges or towels in accordance with local, state and federal laws.