By Rick Brentlinger

Issue #53 • September/October, 1998

If I could show you how to manufacture a product anywhere in the country and if I offered to find you the raw materials free, would you be interested? If so, here is a business plan that works.
Have you seen those weathered wooden pallets stacked behind grocery stores, piled beside feed stores or next to the dumpster in your local lumber yard? Those pallets, your initiative, and the information that follows could mean money in your pocket for years to come.

Pallets are often available free for the asking. Businesses are glad to get rid of them so they don’t have to pay to haul them away. There are two kinds of pallets—reusable and throw away. The reusable pallets are often made of oak, poplar, and occasionally maple. If there is a big stack of them, some stores will give these away free too. But the ones I like best are the throw away pallets made of pine, oak, or poplar wood.

Birdhouses and bird feeders made from wood scavenged for free

Birdhouses and bird feeders made from wood scavenged for free

What you do is locate a stack of pallets and ask if you can help the business owner by hauling them off for free. Always get permission before you take pallets. When you have a pickup load, stack them neatly near your workshop and you’re ready to begin.

I use a circular saw to dismantle the pallets, cutting the wood off the stringers and stacking it in a dry place. The 2 x 4 stringers can be cut in half and burned in your woodstove. The wood you’ve cut off the stringers is where the real money is.

Pallet wood is naturally weathered and looks like old barn siding. I use it to make simple, rustic birdhouses and bird feeders which I then sell at flea markets or wholesale to garden centers around town. I get $10 to $20 a piece for these birdhouses. The retailer usually resells them at double my price.

At this point, you’re probably thinking, “Yeah, but I’m not a woodworker” or “I don’t have any power equipment.” The truth is that anyone can learn to make a nice birdhouse in just a few days of experimenting. After all, a birdhouse is a simple structure with seven basic parts—two sides, a front and back, a bottom, and two pieces for the top. And you don’t necessarily need power equipment to cut the wood. It can be done with a handsaw if that’s all you have. Once you’ve made some money selling your handmade rustic birdhouses, you can think about buying some power equipment to make the work go faster.

I use a circular saw to do the initial cutting and a Delta 12-inch bandsaw for the rest of the work. I can cut up enough pallets in one morning to make 40 or 50 birdhouses or feeders. Once the pallets are cut up and I have the wood stacked in my shop, I can make 4 or 5 birdhouses a day (less than 8 hours). That is a minimum of $40 a day for pleasant work in the privacy of my own shop, with no boss breathing down my neck.

Once you have a bunch of birdhouses ready to sell, load them on the truck and head for the local gardening center. Carry several of your creations with you and offer them with a smile as you ask, “How many do you need?” Some buyers will want you to put them in the shop on consignment, something I always refuse to do. I prefer payment up front since I know I have a good product that people want.

Birdhouses and bird feeders sell well at hardware stores, garden centers, larger grocery stores, craft stores, feed stores, and, sometimes, antique stores. The rustic pallet wood bird homes nicely complement antiques.

Some people do not want rustic birdhouses. For them, I make birdhouses or feeders from number one pine and fir, maple, oak, and even mahogany which I also get free. In most areas, there are cabinet shops and wood working shops which throw away scrap wood in the dumpster. You can locate woodworking shops, cabinet shops, and other sources of free wood by using the Yellow Pages. I stop at these businesses and find the owner or manager. I explain that I putter around making birdhouses and ask permission to go through the dumpster for wood. I have never had anyone say no. They have to pay to have the dumpster emptied. If I carry off some of the wood, I’m saving them money.

Small pieces which the cabinet shop cannot use are perfect for birdhouses. A birdhouse business recycles material that would otherwise clog the landfill. And it provides income for us backwoods types who prefer not to work for someone else. An entrepreneurial type could make this a full-time business. Dumpster wood and pallet wood is also suitable for making shadow boxes, chicken or rabbit nesting boxes and book shelves.

If I want bigger pieces of wood from the pallets for building wood fences and chicken sheds, I use a Milwaukee Sawzall to cut the nails so the pieces of wood are intact. By the way, I bought the Sawzall used, but in like-new condition, at a pawn shop for $99. It makes short work of pallets and I have larger pieces of wood for bigger projects. I figure it this way: seven birdhouses at $15 each pays for the Sawzall.

Rustic pallet wood bird houses sell well at hardware stores, garden centers, craft and feed stores.

Rustic pallet wood bird houses sell well at hardware stores,
garden centers, craft and feed stores

For a few weeks of work gathering and taking apart pallets, you can have enough wood for 100 birdhouses. At four a day for five weeks, you can have 100 birdhouses ready to sell for $10 to $20 each. That is a minimum $1000 in six weeks or less. Enlist your wife or children and make it a family endeavor. If you are lucky enough to live in a tourist area, birdhouses are impulse buys that create vacation memories for years to come. They can also be sold at your roadside produce stand.

Here are some tips for making a quality birdhouse that will catch a buyer’s eyes and make them want your product.

(1) Sand saw cuts so there are no splinters or rough edges.

(2) Use a Forstner bit or spade bit to drill your entrance holes. Forstner bits make the cleanest cut. It’s easier to drill the entrance hole before you assemble the birdhouse. You can also make a rectangular entrance hole using your bandsaw.

(3) Use paneling nails for assembly since they hold better than finish nails.

(4) When using oak, it’s best to pre-drill nail holes since oak is hard to drive nails through.

(5) Cut a piece of roofing tin with tin snips to form a rustic metal roof. Rust only enhances the antique appearance. Old license tags also work as roofs.

(6) Cut and trim a tree branch in one-inch lengths and nail three pieces to the front porch of your birdhouse to make a woodpile. Takes just a few minutes and customers love it.

(7) You can utilize small pieces of wood by sanding one side lightly and painting a hand-lettered, rustic sign: Coke, Burma Shave, Canoe Rental, Park Ranger, For Wrent For a Song, Don’t Feed the Bears, No Crows Allowed, etc. Tack these to the side, front, and back. They’re real eye catchers and help sell birdhouses.

(8) Cut up Coke, Pepsi, or beer cans and use the logos as signs. Tack them onto your birdhouses with 1/2-inch brads. The aluminum lasts a long time and looks great. In my area, red Coke signs are the most popular. Metal bottle caps also make a colorful birdhouse decoration. Specialty beer bottle caps are the most colorful.

(9) If you have a resort, bed and breakfast, or other businesses in your area, use their name on a birdhouse sign. They may buy several to display or resell.

(10) Use your imagination and experiment. If you have access to driftwood, utilize that in your birdhouses and feeders.

(11) Exterior house paint, in vibrant pink, red, yellow, green, and blue, gives birdhomes an art deco look. Specially mixed colors that other customers decided not to buy can be purchased for $3 to $5 a gallon.

Additional sources of pallets and free wood

1. Motorcycle dealers, (Crating around new bikes) 2. Snowmobile dealers, (Crating around new machines) 3. Major appliance dealers, (Crating) 4. Cabinet shops 5. Tool & die shops 6. Machine shops 7. Lumber yards 8. Paint stores 9. Grocery stores 10. Garden centers 11. Behind shopping centers 12. Brickyards 13. New home sites 14. Custom window & door builders 15. Kitchen countertop makers 16. Electrical supply houses 17. Plumbing supply businesses 18. Manufacturing plants 19. Hardware stores 20. Old barns, sheds, and houses

Easy steps to making a beautiful birdhouse

(1) Find and prepare pallet wood as described above. Be sure to make the front and back at the same time.

(2) Choose two same size pieces and draw a 45 degree angle to form the gable.

(3) Nail these two pieces lightly together with a smooth finish nail, leaving enough to pull out the nail after you cut the wood.

(4) Now saw the angle you drew. This forms the A gable for the roof and gives you two pieces cut exactly the same. Remove the nail. (5) Drill an entrance hole in one of the pieces you just cut. Sand any rough edges.

Make the sides:

(6) Find two pieces, approximately the same size and trim them to fit.

(7) Using one inch paneling nails, nail the side pieces to the front and back pieces. Pine and poplar usually do not require pre-drilling. If the wood splits or if using hardwoods, pre-drilling is required, with a 1/16-inch drill bit.

(8) Now you have the basic shape of the birdhouse.

Making the bottom:

(9) Choose a piece of pallet wood wide enough to extend to the outer edge of your side pieces. If you do not have a piece that wide, make one by nailing two pieces together. Lay them side by side and connect them with one-inch wood straps. Drive the nails clear through and then bend them over or snip them off.

(10) Nail the bottom to the sides, again pre-drilling if necessary. We should note here that if you want your birdhouse to have a front porch, you can make the bottom piece two or three inches longer than the birdhouse. This gives the birds a place to perch outside the nest.

(11) Before roofing the birdhouse, nail a bottle cap or aluminum can sign to the front. It’s easier to do now, while the roof is off. If you want to add a small woodpile, now is the time. Three pieces, two nailed to the porch floor and one nailed on top of the two, makes a nice looking woodpile.

Making the roof

(12) The roof should be as long as the bottom piece, so your bird porch has a roof, or just slightly longer so that it overhangs the entrance hole to keep out the rain.

(13) Your roof can be multiple slats that overlap to give a chalet look. Or you can use just one piece on each side of the A gable. Pre-drill before you nail, making sure the roof piece is straight. Nail the second roof piece and your birdhouse is finished.

 It's possible to make 4 or 5 birdhouses a day in less than 8 hours.

It’s possible to make 4 or 5 birdhouses a day in less than 8 hours.

(14) I like to make my birdhouses distinctive so I often cut a 1-inch thick branch and trim off the limbs. Then I cut the trimmed branch and use it to make two rustic porch columns. I pre-drill and attach these with drywall screws, countersinking the hole. This makes a good, solid fit and is strong enough to be used as a handle when picking up the birdhouse.

(15) Now is the time to make use of the signs we mentioned earlier. Using ½-inch brads. Nail bottlecaps or hand lettered signs, or colorful logos cut from aluminum cans to the sides, front, back, or top of your birdhouse.

(16) If you used dumpster wood, you may wish to paint the birdhouse. Use bright, vibrant colors for an art deco look or woodsy, subdued colors to blend with the natural surroundings.

(17) Now you are ready to make another birdhouse. The more you make, the better they’ll look. Practice makes perfect. Soon, you’ll be putting them together easily, almost on autopilot.

(18) Offer them to your customers with a smile. You might offer wholesale buyers a 10% price break if they buy five or more.

(19) Remember, use you imagination. Look in books and decorator magazines for birdhouse ideas. Try your hand at bookshelves, shadow boxes, laying boxes for chickens, doghouses or what ever strikes your fancy. The wood is free and about all you’ve got invested is your time. You can make a nice profit using the tools you already have. If you have to buy or borrow tools, you can still make enough birdhouses in a month to pay for the tools.

As you get more proficient at woodworking, you might want to use your dumpster or pallet wood to make other craft items. Now that you have an almost inexhaustible supply of free wood, you can go as far as your enthusiasm and entrepreneurial ability will take you.



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