The secret life of a pallet: Exploring a booming Alabama business, its rustic-decor afterlife
Farmhouse decor is all the rage. Rustic, raw aesthetic has taken over Target shelves. The Fixer-Upper Gainess have put their stamp on pale wood paired with vines and white tile.
But, Jimmy Wilson doesn’t know much about all that.
What Wilson knows is covered in sawdust and sandwiched between miles of soybean crop and buried under the heat of Baldwin County. Wilson knows pallets for what they are.
Not tables, not wine bottle carriers, not bed frames or bar stools. Just pallets. Functional, travel-friendly, locally made wooden pallets.
Wilson gets calls from curious crafters asking about their pallet yard, but he won’t sell to individuals. That’s just not what we do, he said. So, the adventure doesn’t start with the actual transformation of the wood pallet, but rather finding one to transform.
And just like the Pinterest search results from “wood pallet DIY,” business is booming. Wilson took a risk on his dream of owning his own business when he uprooted from Cartersville, Georgia, where he was born, raised and married to moved from Pensacola to Alabama over the state line in 1994.
Uprooting meant leaving behind everybody he knew aside from his wife, 4-year-old son and the folks he’d be working with. That risk made off like a tree and grew. Bay Wood Products, Inc. started with “17 guys and a lady in the office.” They pumped out 400-500 pallets a day then.
Twenty-five years later, Wilson employs more than 100 employees who piece together 5,000-6,000 pallets a day as a major supplier for the state.
Think of all the hanging bookshelves, crafters.
“It’s turned out pretty dang good,” he said and laughed.
Alabama — Baldwin County, specifically — was the perfect place for Wilson’s splinter-covered dream. Regulations were less rigid than those in Florida’s Escambia County, and the community welcomed the jobs with open arms, he said.
But, the economy of wood pallets cannot be sawed down to nail guns and delivery trucks.
It’s phone calls from customers wondering why the price of pallets is steady or higher when the cost of lumber, tracked in national media, has slumped. Those market predictions pertain to the high-grade products used in cabinetry, flooring and more. It’s the glossy, glitzy world of wood that’s taken a dive, he said. But if high-grade wood production scales back, so does the low-grade — Wilson’s bread and butter — making it a hot commodity.
Wilson uses the wood waste from high-grade production to make his pallets. He’s currently using Alabama Yellow Pine.
It’s a “crazed phenomenon” that’ll eventually level out, he said. Conclusively, wood pallets and their makings are popular all around. They are a necessity in transport and wonderful canvases for catchy sayings when they’ve finished their journey.
And each pallet’s journey is different. When perusing Pinterest, Facebook Marketplace or one of the billion DIY blogs you’ll find transformed pallets as a paper-towel holder, outdoor patio seating, an herb garden or a roomy armchair. There’s even a website called www.1001pallets.com.
Leah Chitty, a co-founder of Charmingly Chic Creations in Birmingham, hosts groups in her studio where she supplies the space, supplies and refreshments. The groups turn pallets into tasteful home decor. Her sips and strokes business was doing fine, she said, but she didn’t like what people were going home with on canvas. They switched to wood.
Her production costs were the same, the product was sturdier and it targets an up-and-coming farmhouse style that all of her customers craved. The style is “eye-catching,” she said, and customers are proud to say, “I did that.” Chitty makes her own pallets, which is probably wise, Wilson said.
You need to think twice before you throw that pallet you found behind Walmart in the back of your Honda-CRV. You might be stealing, Wilson said. Most pallets are owned by three large companies, and there are collectors dedicated to getting them back into rotation.
The pallet recycling industry has grown into a monster business since its genesis in the ‘60s. The pallets are dropped off, set outside for pick-up, repaired and set right back to the companies that rent them.
They go and go until they’re unsalvagable. Pallets live a long life whether it be carrying Pampers diapers to Walgreens or in its new form: a tiki-themed cocktail bar.