Friday, 14 December 2012

Urban Bush Carpenters

I recently did a workshop at CERES Environment Park & Community Gardens with the Urban Bush Carpenters, and learned to turn discarded shipping pallets into useful things - in this case, a custom-built table that serves as both cover for my shade-loving worms to help them make it through the heat of summer, and as a shelf for some of my tiny veggie garden, to give the plants access to more sunlight above the fenced-in canyon they live in.



The trestle-style legs of the table are made of timber salvaged from a heavy duty pallet, connected with two hinges on top of each, and a length of rope running through a hole in the bottom brace of each trestle to set the height. The tabletop is a long piece of particleboard from a discarded cupboard, a temporary measure until I find a more weather-resistant piece. (The Urban Bush Carpenters suggested looking for a discarded door.) This works perfectly for its intended use, and the best thing is that it can be easily disassembled and moved, if need be. If the hinges are unscrewed and the ropes removed from the trestles, the sturdy wooden legs can even be remade into something new again, like two fixed tables. In fact, these pieces are just like the legs of my handmade jeweller's bench made from collected discarded materials.



Now not only do I have a neat new table, but I'm hooked on urban bush carpentering! The UBC was formed by a group of volunteers who want to bring back basic carpentry skills and a DIY attitude that used to be commonplace, while making use of discarded materials that can be easily sourced from the urban landscape. The concept of bush carpentry draws on the history of the Australian pioneering spirit, using available materials and basic skills. It looks like in an urban context, there's just as much usable timber to be found right in our neighbourhoods.

Ever since the workshop, my eye has been drawn to the many, many, many pallets (and other scrap wood) put out with the rubbish all around us. There are some alarming statistics about pallets (compiled in the US) on the Green Building Elements website - for instance, two thirds of pallets are used only once before being thrown out! That seems like a shocking waste of resources, but it's good news for the urban bush carpenter, because you can make any number of things out of old pallets: plans for planter boxes and a wooden Esky (cooler) are available on the UBC website; several sites offer instructions for a pallet fence; the Micro Gardener shows how to make vertical gardens out of pallets; you can follow this tutorial for a pallet coffee table; and Tiny Pallet House even publishes free instructions for a pallet house. Now I have a new dream... a tiny pallet studio!

The most important thing to remember when working with discarded pallets is that some of them are treated for pests before being imported into the country. Pallets are marked on the side with the type of treatment:


  • HT: Heat Treated. These are natural wood treated only with heat, and are safe for all projects including gardens. 
  • MB: Chemically Treated. Wood from these pallets is not suitable for use in garden projects, because over time the chemicals leach out of the wood and into the soil and eventually the root systems of your garden. This wood can still be considered for other projects, like table legs for an outdoor table - the decision has to be made based on the project. 
  • Neither HT or MB: If the pallet is marked with neither of these codes, it is likely that it was made in Australia and so it hasn't been treated at all, since it hasn't traveled internationally. This wood is safe for any project, but be sure that you have a complete pallet (or at least the portion with the identification stamps) before you decide that your pallet is not treated. If you've found a pallet that's partially broken, you might have a chemically treated pallet that is missing the stamps. The pallets made in Australia will still have an identification stamp showing other information, just not the letters HT or MB. 


The Urban Bush Carpenters' workshops will start up again in early 2013 at CERES. It's only a $5 donation to join them (plus a bit extra if you use their materials and take your project home), and it will make you look at discarded timber (and your ability to do something worthwhile with it) in a whole new way.


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