Don’t Burn That Wood Pallet!

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Don’t burn that wood pallet – you can make a guitar with it!

When it comes to sustainability, Warren McKenney of Marinette, Wisconsin, practices what he preaches. Warren believes in the 3 R’s: recycle, repurpose and reclaim – and he shares that philosophy wherever he goes.

Playing guitars as a youngster, Warren also became proficient at fixing them when they broke, as they often did. These days, he uses materials he saves from old homes or finds in dumpsters to create unique repurposed wood guitars.

A part-time construction instructor at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College in Green Bay, Warren (who bears a passing resemblance to musician Neil Young) uses his pallet guitar concept as a way to get at-risk youths to use their hands in a productive way. He also teaches guitar building classes at his workshop, a converted 1904 two-story grocery store in Marinette.  Oh, and in his spare time, he is a sustainable residential building contractor who has worked  in the construction field for 35 years.

The guitars built in his classes can range from acoustic, semi solid electrics to electric guitars, depending on the student’s preference. His students are all ages and backgrounds, but one thing remains the same when Warren teaches – “Everything has to be repurposed,” he explained. “That’s the object of it.” 

Class meets 1-2 days a week for 6 weeks, and everyone is encouraged to bring in donated or repurposed materials to use. One gentleman brought in his old walnut cabinets and made a beautiful guitar from the wood. Generally the only things new on these instruments are strings and fret wire, although Warren has been known to strip an old guitar for parts. Most of the students have never worked with wood before, so Warren finds it particularly appealing to teach to those who feel they can’t do a little woodworking or be creative with their minds and hands.

Warren’s classes allow beginners, after safety training, to gain experience using various power tools, including 12" planer, oscillating sander, edge planer, routertable saw, palm sanderbelt sander, and drills. They also use hand tools like chisels, cutters and carving tools to create the final look they are after.

“People don’t realize the talent they may have buried. They’re just afraid to try it,” he encourages. “Try something.” And by following Warren’s three R’s, you don’t need a lot of expensive equipment to get started. “It’s pretty much your imagination and your hands. If you can do that, you can make it work.”

One of Warren’s younger students, teenager Max, built this “Ax” guitar made completely with recycled and reclaimed materials. It has three layers of mixed wood species and aluminum fret marks inlaid into the hand-made fretboard. “Not bad for 14 years old,” Warren beamed. “Plays well and it’s got that wicked look.”

To build a guitar with Warren’s method, he said he starts with the wood. “It depends on what I have around,” he explained. For the main body, he often uses pallets, which he can generally get for free from a local trucking company. “Pallets are made with beautiful wood, once planed and sanded,” Warren said. “And they have to be strong so you know the wood is good.” In a musical sense, stringed instruments need good, durable wood in order for the tones to resonate. He also reclaims flooring, stadium seating and other items, saying “I’m not afraid to dumpster dive if I see something.”

The Monarch

He often mixes species of wood in order to have enough to complete the project at hand, sometimes using various pieces of scrap wood artfully added into the design. “We as protectors of our environment need not waste,” Warren stated. “Use those small pieces of wood and incorporate them into works of art.” One example of this is the “Monarch” guitar seen here, which is a 12-string hollow electric concert size guitar. The monarch’s body in the center is made from a piece of a flowering crabtree that was hit by lightning. All other pieces were made from leftover walnut and ash flooring, and cut and shaped by hand. There are no dyes used; what you see is all natural coloring in the various wood types. 

"The Monarch" is made from pallets and mixed wood species. 
"Here's To Ireland" is fashioned from reclaimed cedar logs, formerly hand rails and posts. 

"47 Roadmaster" is housed in a case modeled after a '50s/'60s gas pump.

Here's to Ireland

The entire body of the “Here’s to Ireland Guitar” is made of cedar logs, which were reclaimed hand rails and posts from the Menominee Tourist Lodge after it was remodeled. The hollow, bowl-shaped body makes for a mellow sound when played. The neck is a combination of cedar and walnut, and the fretboard markings are an old, well-used, cymbal. The white binding came from the strip peeled off a 5-gallon pail lid. “It served the purpose,” he laughed. Warren painted the colorful design using kid’s latex art paint, followed by clear latex floor finish, left over from a job and applied with an HVLP sprayer. “We use HVLP spray paint systems for spray finishing and all low VOC products. Less environmental damage,” Warren stated. “I’m a tree hugger at heart.”

'47 Roadmaster

Another unique creation is the “’47 Roadmaster” guitar, inspired by Warren’s antique Buick and his passion for restoring old cars. He used the Roadmaster with the car-inspired guitar to get young people interested in his classes. “Kids love to play it,” he said. The hickory and cherry instrument is a hand-carved acoustic/electric guitar, finished with water-based materials. It is housed in a case modeled after a ‘50s/’60s gas pump and made from an old floor model radio.

Warren’s latest class was a group of men and women from the Marinette Senior Center. Although they had no previous experience, the students all left with beautiful guitars they built themselves. Nick’s musical-themed piece (second from right) is a tribute to his singing days when his band, The Overtures, opened for The Four Seasons. Medical issues make things a little more challenging for him, but Warren was pleased that he was able to adapt in order to create a keepsake he plans on handing down to his grandchild.

The happy campers pictured here are: Gene (acoustic), Mary (electric), Nick (electric) and Greg (acoustic). Not pictured Diane (acoustic/electric).

Warren said he will continue to share his message as long as he can. “Never throw away if you can use it. I guess that’s my concept,” he said. “I want things just to keep moving. They don’t have to get thrown in the garbage somewhere.”

Watch this short clip by Warren’s good friend and fellow musician, Marc Golde, to learn a little more about Warren and his mission.

For more information on Warren’s classes and his work, email him at And remember his 3 R’s: recycle, repurpose and reclaim!

To find classes on making musical instruments, check out the class schedules at a Woodcraft near you.

We hope you’ll be inspired! 

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