August 4, 2021

Build the Kids a Pallet Playhouse!

Have you got kids and a some time on your hands? Do you want a fun project that won’t cost a lot to do? Then why not use unloved pallets and reclaimed wood to build your kids this great cubby! What’s that… you don’t need a cubby? Then why not build it as a shed or workshop?

The Pallet PlayhouseThe Pallet Playhouse

This project was great fun. As a bonus, I got to travel a lot meeting many very nice people who were giving away perfectly good materials for cents in the dollar and often, free. I spent around $200 dollars on this project back in 2008-2009. Of that, more than a hundred dollars paid for paint while the rest went to those building materials I couldn’t get for free.

Take a look at the pictures. Spend a lot of time on your ideas and planning and then start collecting those pallets!

Ready to start?

Step 1: Break down the pallets

Breaking down the palletsBreaking down the pallets

I got about 80 pallets, five at a time, from my work. I got a chance to know the facilities people and they were very happy to let me take them. It saved them a trip to the dumpster and saved them from having to pay to have the dumpster emptied. That’s right. Almost all of these pallets go directly to a landfill. The rest are picked up by pallet salvage guys (they get $1 or so a pallet) or people like me. Many people burn pallets for heat. I got a lot of exercise carrying the pallets out to my Jeep which could fit about eight pallets at a time, but I rarely found more than five good ones on any given trip.

A few words about pallets:
There are all sorts. Some are oak, some are pine or spruce. Some of them are even mahogany or cherry or cedar. Stay away from the hardwood pallets. They”re almost impossible to deal with in large numbers. They’re just too darn tough. Unless you’re doing something small or you want them for fire wood  – for which they are great, stick with the pine or other softwood pallets.

About one in ten of the pallets I found were high enough quality. Most were rubish. I tried to find ones that were single use, roughly 48″ x 34″, and were built using three notched 2’x4’s connected by 3/4″ inch nominal boards (commonly called “one by” lumber.) All of them were heat treated (marked “HT”) and held together by nearly indestructible spiral nails.

Many people assume that pallets are pressure-treated. In my experience, very few, if any, have had any sort of treatment besides kiln-drying. I’m told that years ago they were also treated with pesticides, but this is no longer the case.

Step 2: Cut off the stringers

Cutting off the stringersCutting off the stringers

Cutting off the stringers - 2Cutting off the stringers – 2

I started by cutting off the outside stringers (the 2×4’s) with a skill saw. Trying to remove the spiral nails without damaging the wood was impossible. You’ll want to set your depth at a fraction more than the 3/4 inch board.

Image Notes
1. I lost a lot of time later because my cuts weren’t square. Take extra time and make sure they are close to square. It’ll help later, trust me!

Step 3: Knocking out the pallet stingers

Knocking out the pallet stringerKnocking out the pallet stringer

After you cut along each outside stringer (not the middle!), flip the pallet over and do the same on the other side.

WARNING: Pallets are usually made of timber that got rejected for other uses. It’s hard, often warped, has old broken nails imbedded in it, and generally is just a pain to work with. Be careful. Wear goggles. Repetitive work breeds carelessness. Trust me, I know. Use a hammer to knock the stinger off if it’s stubborn.

Step 4: Detach the board from the middle stringer.

Detaching the boards from the middle stringerDetaching the boards from the middle stringer

You’ll be left with a bunch of 1X4’s and 1X6’s attached to the 2×4 in the center. By rocking the 1×4’s and the 1×6’s back and forth, you can get the board off without totally destroying it. There will still be quite a few ruined boards. Good for the woodstove.

Pull or remove any nails left in the board and stack it to the side. I ended up having to rearrange and move my stacks of boards quite a few times as the pile grew. Think ahead. There’s going to be a LOT of stuff in your garage/shed/backyard. You may also want to grade your boards, based on knots, warping, bark, etc. This will help later when you try to decide what to use for what job.

Save the nails, too, if they’re straight. The blunt spiral nails are really the best type of fastener to use when you’re attaching the 3/4″ lumber to your playhouse. They minimize splitting. You’ll be amazed at how many you end up keeping.

Step 5: The pay-off

The payoffThe payoff

I got about (6) good 1×4’s and (3) good 1×6’s per pallet. I also got three 4′ lengths of 2×4. Notice the ends are ragged– I paid for that later when I made the siding. I had to re-square every board.

Step 6: Salvaging the 4′ 2×4’s

Salvaging the 4x2'sSalvaging the 4×2’s

The 2×4’s were painful. I put each in a vise and beat it into submission. I smashed off the wood with the hammer, then yanked the nails. Every 2×4 had at least one nail with a stripped off head. I cut them off with an old pair of linesman’s pliers.

People have suggested to me that using a sawzall to simply cut the nails was a better way. I did try it, but I decided on this method as being the best. Your mileage may vary, depending on exactly what kind of pallets you want to use.

Step 7: The long winter

I spent most of a New England winter collecting and breaking down pallets. I also trucked around two states picking up lumber, doors, nails, heck anything people would give me for free. As I menttioned, I met a lot of nice people and saw a lot of towns I otherwise wouldn’t have ever known about. I work pretty far from home, so I got to concentrate on two different areas as well as map out my “no fly” zone based on my long commute. Most of the time, I stayed very close to my normal work/home route. This is important if, like me, you’re looking to build an environmentally friendly structure. Doesn’t make much sense burning thousands of gallons of gas building a recycled playhouse!

Step 8: Making the windows

Making the windowsMaking the windows

Between collecting and breaking down pallets, I spent a lot of time building the double window and the diamond-shaped porthole for the playhouse. I have a garage, but it’s not heated. Sometimes it got pretty cold!

A few words about tools:
At a minimum, you’ll need a circular saw, hammer, crowbar or catspaw, and heavy cutting pliers. A handsaw will come in handy, too. A sturdy ladder is a must. By far the most useful tool I had was my tablesaw. It’s not necessary for the house itself, but without it I wouldn’t have been able to make the siding. It also helped a lot on the windows and as an all-around tool.

But….you could get away with the circular saw, miter box, and a handsaw. Or replace the methods I used with ideas of your own.

The first step for the windows (two for the “ice cream window” and one for the porthole) was the basic frame. My idea was to take some old storm windows I had from my house and frame them in 1×4 pallet wood. You could use plexiglass or old glass from sashes, or even simple screening material. I started with a long rabbet on the side of a 1×4. It took two cuts on my table saw, one for the depth, the rest for horizontal area. If you have a dado or a router, you could dig the rabbet out with that.

Step 9: making the windows- Pt 2

Making the windows - Pt 2Making the windows – Pt 2

I had these old storm windows left over from when we replaced some double-hung windows on the house.

Step 10:  Making the frame for the windows

Making the frame for the windowsMaking the frame for the windows

After the sides were rabbeted, I cut 45 degree angles on each side, exactly like you would when building a picture frame. I made the miter sled years ago. Makes it much easier, but you could use your circular saw, a miter box or even the handsaw.

Step 11:  Making the frame for the windows- Pt 2

Making the windows - Pt 2Making the windows – Pt 2

Ta-da. The basic building block for the windows. I’d say you don’t want the rabbeted-out groove to be too tight– I get a feeling that the wood expanding and contracting would crack the pane pretty easily.

Step 12:  Making the frame for the windows- Pt 3

Making the window frames - Pt3Making the window frames – Pt3

I countersunk a hole at four corners for a 2″ deck screw. I had them left over from an earlier project, so while they weren’t free, they were in inventory.

Step 13: Frame for the Windows, cont.

Framing the windows - 4 Framing the windows – 4

I finished the double windows by backing the frame with more 1×4’s. I just butted them together. The first picture shows the first two boards (horizontal, in the background and foreground. The board perpendicular is shown in the proper position in picture number (2). I put two 1″ wood screws in each corner, driven straight through into the undelying frame. You’ll want to countersink them.

Step 14: Building the double “ice cream window”

Building the double 'ice cream window'Building the double ‘ice cream window’

Here they are, complete and ready for their casing. This will be the front, gable-end double window.

Step 15: Ice cream window, continued

Building the double 'ice cream window' - 2Building the double ‘ice cream window’ – 2

I built a frame for the whole works out of some 2×6 lumber a nice guy in a nearby town gave me. He posted it on Craigslist and gave me a whole bunch of 2×6’s, 2×8’s, and 2×10’s. The joints are simply butted and screwed together with two inch deck screws. The “hinges” are pieces of an old dowel I had.

I would later build a rough opening for the whole thing, slide it in, and fasten it with long screws into the playhouse. I measured ahead; the overall depth of the window matched combined width of the framing, the siding, and the interior paneling. It was a simple matter to attach mouldings to the exterior and interior when it was time for the finish work. I also later added two handles, some wood strips to make it weather-tight, and a simple hook and eye lock to keep it shut when not in use.

If you look at the finished product in the later photos, you’ll see that there are also wooden “x’s” in each pane. These were simply glued, directly to the glass.

Image Notes
1. I made the “hinges” from an old wood dowel.

Step 16: The diamond-shaped porthole

Making the diamond shaped windowMaking the diamond shaped window

The diamond window was easy. I made the frame the same way, then cut a diamond shape and screwed it to the top. I glazed it later on with some old window putty to make it water tight.

Step 17: Finally– the real work! The playhouse floor/deck.

Setting the floor and deckSetting the floor and deck

I finally got tired of fooling around in the garage and decided to get started. It was cold (February), but I was eager and full of energy after being shut up all winter. I salvaged a bunch of old 4×4’s and set them on some bricks and cinder blocks (all free). I built a 8×10 square from reclaimed pressure-treated 2×4’s I got from a guy who had torn down his deck. He posted them on craigslist and I’ve been using them for every single project I’ve done over the last few years. He gave me almost 500 linear feet of 2×6’s!

I leveled the whole thing by adding and removing bricks. You’ll want to do that under the 4×4’s. When it was close, I laid across the pallet 2×4’s using the center 4×4 as a stringer. This worked very well as I did not need to cut any of the 2×4’s– I simply laid them side to side.

Notice the funky pallet 2×4’s in the picture– they have small, half-oval sections missing. This is where you would slide in the pallet jack.

The overall area is approx. 8×10. The playhouse itself is 8X8, the two-foot protruding section is where the deck will go. Throughout the build process, I constantly had to adjust spacing and the like to accomodate the roughly 4-foot 2×4’s and 30″ 1x (one by) lumber. I had various pieces of plywood for the floor, but I also had to make sure that the floor joists were no further apart than 15″, in case I had to use any of the 1×6’s. Why 15″? Because the short lengths of lumber need to have an alternating “butt” end, much like brickwork. A long, continuous joint would be too weak. By alernating, you add strength.

Step 18: Floor, continued

Laying the floorlaying the floor

The particleboard came from….what else? Pallets. I actually grabbed a bunch of them just for the 3/4 inch particleboard. The underlying wood, the 2×4’s and the 1x’s weren’t really up to par (they were oak and hard as granite), but I found a use for them here and there. The particleboard caused me some concern later when it began to rain. I thought they’d fall apart, but they actually held up well.

You can see the middle beam where the 2×4’s meet really well in this picture. I toe-nailed all the 2x lumber to the 4×4’s, every two feet or so. This is important– I may want to move the whole structure at a later date.

Step 19: Framing

The frame goes upThe frame goes up

The frame goes up:
I actually ended up running out of 4-foot pallet 2×4’s and purchased approx. (20) bargain 2×4’s for a dollar each. They weren’t exactly straight, but for $20, it wasn’t bad. Notice the 2×6 and 2×8 headers. This was more free wood I got off of Craigslist.
There are two doors, one in the front and one in the back. In this photo, you can see the rough opening for the diamond-shaped window and the front door. The 2×4 at the bottom of the doorway was cut out later.

The 2×4’s, spliced together and ugly, are 15″ inches apart. This is because the siding will be 30″ pieces of 1×4, with a staggered vertical seam. If you need some help with basic framing, check out google– there are some great sites out there. Basically, though, you should worry about optimizing the material you have without sacrificing safety. The tarp was to keep everything dry until the roof went up.

 Step 20: Framing, continued

Splicing the 4x2'sSplicing the 4×2’s

I never imagined just what a pain in the butt it would be to splice (scab) the 4-foot 2×4’s together. The wood was really hard and overall it just was not fun. I gave up on anything being square almost immediately. Because I planned on siding the playhouse with the 30″ pallet 1×4’s and 1×6’s, each stud was placed 15″ on center, rather than 16″. This allowed me to stagger the vertical joints.

Step 21: Ice cream window framing

Framing the 'ice cream window'Framing the ‘ice cream window’

This header is most likely overkill, but I wanted a very large opening. Some day, when the kids outgrow this, it’ll be converted into a garage for a riding mower. This will give me a very large door! It is dimensional lumber (ie, it really is 2″ thick and 6″ wide, not 1.5″ and 5.5″). There are two pieces sandwiched together.

Step 22: The roof

Framing the roofFraming the roof

I built this little stand to hold the ridge beam. In most houses, the ridge board is just a place to nail the rafters to. They don’t hold weight. This was setup as a true beam to help bear some of the roof”s weight. I got the beam from a guy on – wait for it – Craigslist. He gave me a bunch of old dimensional boards he tore out of his attic.

Step 23: The Roof

Framing up the roofFraming up the roof

Framing up for the roofFraming up for the roof

There are a number of web sites with rafter calculators out there, so I won’t go in to measurements. I spaced the rafters evenly, at 16″, because I planned on using regular old OSB plywood. You’ll notice that there is a two foot overhang attached to the main roof. I also put joists in the deck. The fascia is a ten foot board that helps to hold the over hang. As you can see, the windows are in. I made sure they were square.

Image Notes
1. 10-foot 2×4, set up as fascia.
2. two foot overhang
3. deck joists– some of these are oak. Make sure you drill pilot holes for any nails when you use this stuff.

Step 24:  The Siding

The siding profileThe siding profile

The siding profileThe siding profile

How to side the play house was a problem I chewed on for a while. I didn’t want to just butt the 1×4’s together since that wouldn’t be even close to water tight. I finally decided to make my own shiplap siding. It installed with the “inside” edge above the “outside” edge. See the picture notes. I have a dado blade for my table saw. Two cuts on each board. About 200 boards. Let’s just say it was something I regretted around board number 75. The second photo shows two pieces of siding together.

Image Notes
1. inside edge
2. outside edge.

Step 25:  The Siding, continued

My apprentice!My apprentice!

It’s always nice to have some help. This is my father-in-law. He thinks I’m nuts, but he loves a challenge. The shiplap is installed with the inside edge on top, outside edge on the bottom. This ensures that rain is kept out and channeled away by gravity.

The vertical butt joints were staggered to add strength, much like the pattern you’d see in bricklaying. They should always meet on a 2×4 member. I used two nails per board for the 1X4, one on each side, and four nails for the 1×6’s, two to a side. The corners of the structure are rough– they’ll be covered over with vertical moulding.

Image Notes
1. Rough corners will be covered with trim board

Step 26:  Roofing time

Roofing time!Roofing time!

Time to lay the roof deck. This is 5/8 OSB, rated for roofing. It was about $8 a sheet. I also bought (3) 10-foot sections of drip edge at Lowe’s, for about $7.50. If I waited around long enough, I could have gotten them for free off craigslist, I’m sure, but I was pretty happy with the very low amount of cash I’d had to spend.

If you look in the front door, you can see that the back wall is not pallet lumber. I ran out by this point and ended up using some very nice 1×10 boards my father-in law dug up at his place. They were shelves, 20 years ago. He has stored them under his porch, along with some vintage, turn of the century 6″ mouldings, but he didn’t forget about them.

If you look at the rough door opening, you’ll see that the left edge is very narrow (see note). This was probably the biggest framing mistake I made. Because it was so narrow, I had to rip the beautiful 6″ moulding down to 4″, plus I had to shiplap behind it with tiny little pieces of siding. I should have framed the door out at least 8″ from the corner.

Image Notes
1. drip edge
2. This was way too narrow an area. It cause a lot of trouble later, when it was time to put up the moulding.
3. 1×10 shelving, used as siding for the rear.

Step 27:  The end (almost)

The end result... lots of fun, some hard work and all for just $200The end result… lots of fun, some hard work and all for just $200

Here it is, the finished project. The shingles were free. My nephew had them left over from a job and very nicely donated to the cause. The mouldings, as I mentioned, were from my father-in-law. They really made a difference. The four-panel front door was a six-panel door I got from a guy on – yep – Craigslist. It was brand new! I cut the little side rails from scrap fence pickets.

We spent a whopping $120 on paint. This was by far the biggest expense, but I am a firm believer in quality paint. Don’t forget a LARGE bucket of exterior wood putty (no more than $8.) Just about every piece of siding had holes from pulled nails.

I later put a laminate floor down and panelled the inside in pegboard. We added some decorations here and there and the rest is history…

Image Notes
1. These crosses are thin strips of wood glued directly to the glass
2. Scrap fence pickets

Step 28: The end, continued…

The shiplapped 1x10'sThe shiplapped 1×10’s

You can see the 1X10’s here. I did actually cut a shiplap edge in each board so it would be water tight. The cornerbeads were salvaged materials, Craigslist, of course.

The back door and the 1x6 sidingThe back door and the 1×6 siding

Here’s the back door.  I made it from an old fence panel. I used the final dregs of the 1×4’s and 1×6’s on the inside, installed perpendicular to the vertical pickets. My father-in-law had the door knobs. I made a threshold later on, to cover the ugly place under the door.

On the right you can see I had to use 1×6’s on the side, instead of the 1×4’s.

Some other ideas–pallet doghouse

My pallet kennel complete with deck and gable ventsMy pallet kennel complete with deck and gable vents

I did some other projects, too, like this pallet doghouse. The design is almost exactly the same as the playhouse. I bought the shingles for $10 a bundle off Craigslist. No freebies this time, unfortunately.

I incorporated some improvements here, the biggest being that I installed gable vents on the roof. I made these from pallets as well. Total cost for this project was only about $35. This time, I used some old, leftover paint.

Thanks to jkratman for allowing us to share this great project!

What do you think? Are you tempted to plan your own pallet project? Share your thoughts in the comments section below…

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