Burned Pallet Wood Pirate Flag

This wooden pirate flag is a cool project I came up with using free pallet wood and paint FIRE! The piece is something that just may be the start a decorative theme for our backyard / swimming pool area. The kids are going to love it.

I crafted this rustic, shipwrecked piece of maritime debris by taking the art of wood burning to a ridiculous extreme, torching the absolute heck out the wood with the fiery fury of Bernzomatic torches. Trust me, it's easier than it looks; I've got some tricks.The large board can be built many ways, but I'll walk through how I did it, because...


Salvaged Pallet Wood


I'd already torn the pallets apart, picked the choicest of boards, and removed all the nails and staples I could find (here). In order for the boards to nestle somewhat tightly together, I had to straighten the edges out a bit. Surprisingly, free pallet wood is not the straightest, purest of wood stock to start with. I probably won't be building an heirloom china cabinet out of it, but there are plenty of of cool projects to be done.

A board edge can be straightened a number of ways: with a power planer, a table saw, a router, a hand plane, etc. I'm lucky enough to have a joiner in my garage, designed to do the deed perfectly. Still, I didn't get too precise with it so I'd still get the rustic look of aged ship boards.

please no hidden nails... please no hidden nails...

Each board had its own character. It was weathered, warped, stained, and battered from the abuse of its former career, likely bouncing cross country in the back of a long-haul cargo truck raiding Spanish galleons, plundering their holds of priceless cargo from the New World. I cleaned up the best side of the planks with a good sanding.

Orbiting and sanding, randomly.

Assembling the Board

When they were smoothed up, I laid them out, arranging the varying thicknesses and colors in the most pleasing pattern and best fit. The knots and nail holes left no doubt this was used wood.

It was good that it was recycled, because it would be a real shame to build this thing out of select, beautiful grade-A planks from the store, only to heap on the abuse that I had planned for it. 

I really didn't like how it still looked like obvious, salvaged pallet wood with the nail holes lined up in three rows. It didn't look anything like shattered timber scavenged from the hull of a battle-worn craft, washed up on a beachhead after a fierce naval engagement.  It just looked like a pallet.  

I chopped a few of the planks in two, whacking them randomly on the big miter saw.  

Much better. The Jolly Roger would be burned onto a scrap hewn directly from the side of a fatally damaged vessel floundering in the pounding surf on the shores of an uncharted isle. 

To build such a large piece, I used a Kreg jig to drill a series of pocket holes from the backside, along the mating edge of each plank. I placed a hole roughly every 6 inches or so along the entire length.

I applied glue to the edges, clamped, and ran the pocket hole screws tightly into place. There were a couple different thicknesses to the boards, since I'd salvaged them from a variety of obliging pallets. 

There was no way I was going to take a chance with my thickness planer blades versus whatever bits of crud could still be embedded in the boards, so I simply pressed hard, downward as I screwed them from the backside. The face would be relatively flat.

Applying the Design

I'd blown up a Jolly Roger image on the computer and removed the black background (to save expensive toner). Unfortunately, I didn't have easy access to a large format printer to output the design in once piece. It was nothing some good ol' frosted tape couldn't fix. I simply overlapped several prints and taped them into place on my plank.


I used an X-Acto knife to cut out the pattern from above, scoring slightly into the wood surface.


I traced the scored lines with a pencil and did a little free hand drawing. For the teeth, I shaded the back of my pattern with the pencil, put it back on the board, and traced hard from above. Poor man's transfer paper.

Wood Burning the Design

The trick, of course, would be to control the flame along the edges of my pencil drawing. Luckily, I picked up this cool tip from Kayleen McKabe's Facebook post. Soaking Sodium Polyacrylate  in water quickly expands into weird jelly-like, bead-ish stuff. I pushed it around on the work piece, effectively masking off the areas I didn't want burned. 

This odd stuff is the magical absorbent product they put in diapers. It's also sold for science experiments (and pranks I would imagine). I hunted around locally before finding it on Amazon.com (HERE)

Even masked off, this was precision work. I used a sweet, little handheld torch to blaze the edges black. The Bernzomatic ST500-3-in-1 Micro Torch and Soldering Iron is a refillable, butane-powered mini-torch that comes with a variety of tool options. I set the fine-soldering and hot-air-blower tips aside and dialed in the pinpoint torch flame.

The micro torch was lightweight and comfortable to use, like a marker (a marker with a flaming hot jet of blue flame). It was plenty hot to blacken the wood in a few seconds. I worked it slowly away from the edge of the design by a few inches. 

The sodium polyacrylate could be pushed around a little and re-used a couple times, but it was difficult to use for tight, precise work. It completely blocked the flame and left a crisp, somewhat lumpy edge. I wanted the finish to be a little more shaded and rustic.

I started using a drywall joint-taping knife as a flame shield. I found I could vary the flame intensity by letting it bounce off the blade and just lightly lick the wood or I could blast right against the knife edge, leaving a line crisp on one side and feathered on the other. I got pretty good at pivoting the knife around curved areas and varying how long I'd let the flame touch the wood. I did the swords and teeth entirely with this method. 

With the basic edges laid out, I did a touch of free hand shading and expanded the black field further away from the design. 

I did the outline of the entire design with the micro torch, only refilling it with butane four times. 

There was no sense using the micro torch to char the entire field. I broke out the big, bad Bernzomatic TS8000 High Intensity Torch, with propane, to lay down some serious flame.

I used this particular torch because I could adjust the flame level from a light "toast a marshmallow" all the way up to the hell-fire of  "I love the smell of napalm in the morning." It made quick work of the job, blackening the whole plank.

The next day I decided I wanted to really burn the heck out of the right side and give it a more ragged edge. Even though I had a cup of water and a fire extinguisher in the garage where I'd started torching, I wasn't going to take any chances when I upped the ante to hotter burning MAP-Pro gas in the Bernzomatic TS8000 and literally set my project on fire. I took it outside, clear of anything combustible.

I burned the right edge and random parts of the flag until it started to check and turn to ash. It was glorious. I lowered the flame and went over the lighter shaded parts I could see better in the bright sunlight, darkening them even more.

Seeing it out in the light, I decided I wanted to shade and distress the design a even more. I brought the micro torch back out and did a little free hand work. 

I had to quench some smoldering areas with a damp rag and aggressively brush the whole thing with my shop brush to remove the loose ash, before bringing it back into the garage. 


Since this would be displayed outside, I needed a serious protective shield. I cracked a can of spar urethane, the stuff they use on wooden boats. I chose a satin finish with a heavy dose of UV protection to shield it from the weather and our ever ferocious desert sun.

I started by applying the spar urethane over the "white" areas first, so I wouldn't contaminate them if any more of the black ash came loose. 

Note: This serious, exterior grade urethane is NOT soap and water cleanup stuff.  You have to be very careful not to spatter it on your beloved  "The beatings will continue until morale improves" pirate t-shirt. If you need a pirate t-shirt like this one, I found it at a quaint little merchant you probably haven't heard of, called "DisneyLand". 

Even though it was to be a rustic and not fine furniture, I kept the brush strokes with the grain of the wood. I didn't bother with a fine quality brush, just used cheap-o disposables. They got the job done just fine. 

I applied three coats to the front, with serious drying time between. I applied a couple thick coats to the back, letting the urethane seep into the the pocket holes, sealing the screw heads from the elements. 

Of course, I was less than pleased when I discovered urethane had seeped through the original pallet nail holes and adhered to the newspaper laid down to the finished design. It was embedded in the completed front side. I had to scrape and sand it down and recoat those areas. Ahhhh well, it's more distressing, for that battle-damaged authenticity today's aspiring pirate loves.

Installing the Flag

Eventually, after a few more coats of urethane and serious dry time, the deed was done. The Jolly Roger was ready to be run up. I used some zinc plated eyehole screws and stainless steel wire to hang it on the fence like a painting. Of course, most paintings don't require a masonry bit and the squeal of a hammer-drill to set the anchors.

On you honor, as a ruthless Pirate of the Seven Seas, do not reveal the location of the hidden grotto.


This post is sponsored by the scurvy bilge rats of Bernzomatic. 

I am a proud to be a Bernzomatic Torch Bearer, though all opinions expressed are 100% my own. I won't recommend products I don't believe in. 

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