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I'm very new to woodworking, and for my first project I decided to make a very simple shelf out of reclaimed pallet wood.

If you can imagine the pallet standing on it's side, with the planks vertical, that's where I'm getting with the shelf.

The top side is going well (yes, I regret starting top down).

The issue is that the bottom wood is rotted out and I have to cut it before completing the shelf.

I am plagued by fears that after all my measuring and cutting, that the bottom won't be level. How do I guarantee the bottom will be level? I am very new to all this and very scared of getting the cut wrong.

Is there a technique or a method to do so?

To elaborate: I have taken a pallet that has been left out in the elements for some time and partially stripped it down.

My intent is to set it upright (boards running the length are vertical). And then add more boards at the top and center for shelves. I doubt I could have it freestanding, because I suspect it might be unstable, so I'll have to make some sort of base for it.

The main issue, and why I delayed the base is because the ends of the board at the base are pretty rotted having been left in a pile of dirt and leaves for so long. I figure I need to cut out the rotted portion before anything else. I know how much length I need to cut. But with this being the base, I need it level with the ground, and the thought of not getting the measurements or cut right is making me anxious. I'm really new to this.

I have basic tools. Overall, I have a hammer, a wedge, a clamp, a handsaw, a tape measure, and a spirit level, among others.

I need to mark 14cm from the bottom of the rotted boards, and cut those all off in a way that it's level to make a base which will support the entire shelf.

Yesterday, I had gotten as far as to mark some spots where on the boards I need to cut, but then I stopped. I just had this feeling that I didn't know enough of what I was doing to continue.

EDIT 2: I apologize for the lack of clarity. I'm not used to explaining these things. But I'll get there. I can't take a photo, because the camera on my phone is broken, but I did make a very, very crude drawing on Paint. I really hope it makes things clearer. Again, I'm still getting the hang of how to convey all this. Attached in a rough layout of what I need cut/level.enter image description here

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    Welcome to WSE. It is unclear exactly what you are doing ( what is your sequence for construction?). For instance, are you mounting shelves to the pallete? Is the assembly freestanding? Are you using a spirit level? The more you tell us, the better your answers will be. It might help if you posted a picture of your project or a sketch of what you are building. It would also help to know what tools you have available. – Ashlar May 31 at 15:30
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    Maybe provide a simple drawing of what you have in mind, as well. Even the simplest projects often benefit from a quick drawing of how you expect the parts to connect and the dimensions of what you are working with. It could be that once you draw this out, the answer to your question might be obvious. – jdv Jun 1 at 1:01
  • Hi, welcome to SE. "scared of getting the cut wrong" What cut? Using what kind of saw? You see the issue we have, you know what you're doing so the image is clear in your mind but we don't. We're a bit lost on exactly what cut it is that you're going to be attempting. I think I know what you're going for, but I've been wrong in the past and will be again in the future. Now say you do make the cut and it turns out to be slightly off (easily doable, even with experience) you should have a means to correct the problem, and here too we don't know what other tooling you have. – Graphus Jun 1 at 5:54
  • Draw a picture showing the orientation of the wood you are using, and the rough dimensions, and take a picture with your phone and attach it to the question. I it still unclear to me what you are cutting. I think you are relying on the pallet being square (which is probably not true) but we should be clear. A simple sketch will also help you get your own dimensions and steps in order, minimizing both your mistakes and your anxiety. Really. Everyone doing woodwork should at least start with a simple sketch. – jdv Jun 1 at 12:24
  • An aside for those wanting to use pallet wood for projects: don't. Pallets are often treated with a lot of pesticides and preservatives, and then used in industrial situations to potentially pick up as many toxic chemicals and metals as you can imagine. Think of it as the dodgiest pressure-treated lumber you can buy. If you must, always wear a mask, and treat the dust as toxic (more than you would regular wood dust) and wash your hands after handling it. If this is to be used inside, make sure you finish it well with some sort of poly. Honestly, don't use it inside. – jdv Jun 3 at 13:27
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I think what you are asking is: How do I ensure all my vertical boards are the same length. Often, this is more important than being a particular length. Another way to say it is: You desire precision over accuracy. This is a common goal in cabinetry, and you should be pleased that you figured out that it's important.

Here is the trick I use to help make sure things are the same length: Cut them all together. I have the benefit of a chop saw, which helps immensely. I trim one end off, just to be sure it's square, and repeat for each board. Then, and here is the trick, you stack them up, stand the stack up on a flat surface, align the edges, and clamp them together. You now have a bundle of boards which are perfectly aligned on a) the cut end and b) one long edge.

Since I have a chop saw, it is now trivial to mark and chop the bundle to length all in one fell swoop. But as you have hand tools, it will be a bit more difficult. Using your square (Don't have one? Buy one. This is essential. A plastic speed square will cost about $5) and a sharp pencil, mark the bundle to length, and draw a line all the way around.

Now your bundle is marked and ready to saw. I'll give you a couple more tricks to make this go better. First, clamp the bundle to something solid. You do not want it jumping around as you saw. Hand saws can get grabby, and having your bundle secure will minimize this. Second, take your saw and start at the top corner on the far side. Just make a little cut, 1/4" to 1/2" deep, with the edge of the kerf exactly on the edge (the waste side, of course) of your pencil line. You now have a little groove that will guide the saw blade, so you can turn your attention to aligning the saw with the marks. Put the saw in the groove, close one eye, and just spend some time looking at your saw. Sight along it long ways and make sure you are aligned with the top mark. Take a few more flat strokes with the saw, so you've made a groove that extends the full width of your stack. Do this carefully because this will help guide you through the rest of the cut. You only need 1/8 to 1/4 of an inch groove. Now, as you did above, reset the saw in the groove, and spend some more time sighting along the saw. This time sight up-and-down, along the line drawn on the side of the stack. Take a moment to feel the position of your arm. Make sure your elbow and shoulder are exactly in the same plane as the cut. You can't make a straight cut if your arm is swinging in an arc. Once you have aligned the saw and your body, take some gentle strokes. Blow away sawdust so you can clearly see the line. Recheck your body position every few strokes. Take smooth and gentle strokes... you should feel like you are brushing sawdust out of the groove. If it seems harder than that, you are either pushing too hard, or you have the saw crooked in the kerf. Whenever the blade binds, or you seem to be wandering off the line, STOP, and recheck your body position.

This sounds complicated, but once you have a good sense of the sequence, you can be sawing, blowing, sighting, resting, and continuing, in about a 5-second loop, and make good progress through your stack.

It does occur to me that your pallet may still be assembled, and you may be unwilling to disassemble it to make a stack of uprights. If you want it square, you might have to disassemble it. But if you can establish that it is square at the top corners, you can use the principle of a rectangle having equal diagonals to make your bottom square, and use the tricks I've mentioned about sawing to ensure a straight and true cut all the way across the bottom.

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  • Whew! I'm glad you got that last paragraph in there. Most people don't want to disassemble a pallet to cut it just to reassemble later. Otherwise, very good instructions on how to hand-saw any sort of lumber (from a thin fence picket to a thick door or table slab). – FreeMan Jun 5 at 12:05
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    Heh yes that was a bit of an afterthought. It didn't occur to me that this pallet project might have depended on... an intact pallet. – Puddles Jun 5 at 16:00

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