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    How to Build a Serving Tray

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    Tools and Materials

    This elegant serving tray uses a variation on the box joint, with routed handle openings on the sides.

    I made this tray out of mahogany because I like this wood and I had a piece of 1/4-in. mahogany plywood left over from another job. It may not be the easiest material to find, especially the relatively small piece you will need for the bottom of this tray. There is certainly no reason why you can't use a wood more to your liking and perhaps one that's easier to obtain.

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    Cut List for Serving Tray

    2 Long tray sides 20 in. x 2 in. x 1/2 in. solid mahogany
    2 Short tray sides 12 in. x 3 in. x 1/2 in. solid mahogany
    1 Tray bottom 11-1/2 in. x 19-1/2 in. x 1/4 in. mahogany plywood

    How to Make

    Cutting a Groove for the Bottom

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    1. Mill the solid-wood parts for the sides to the dimensions stated in the cut list.

    Cutting the Joints for the Long Sides

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    2. Cut a piece of 1/4-in. plywood for the bottom to the dimensions stated in the cut list. You will need to have the material for the bottom on hand to check the size of the groove it fits into.

    Cutting the Joints for the Short Sides

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    3. Install a 1/4-in. dado blade on your table saw, and set it to cut a groove 1/4-in. deep, 1/4-in. from the bottom of the workpiece.

    Routing the Handle Opening

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    4. Make a test cut in a piece of scrap wood to make sure the setup is correct. Check the fit of your plywood bottom panel in this test groove. It should be snug without needing to be forced. If it's too tight, you may have to shim your dado blade.


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    5. Once you are certain the setup is correct, cut a groove in the bottom inside face of each of the sides.


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    6. Leave the table saw as is. The setup for grooving the sides is the same for the first step in the joint sequence.

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    1 . Build a jig or carrier that will hold the frame parts on end while you cut the corner joints. The jig is nothing more than a right angle of plywood with a support behind the face, which also acts as a handle to push the workpiece and jig through the table-saw blade while keeping your hand in a safe place. Be sure to locate the screws that hold the jig together so that they will not be in the path of the blade when the jig is in use.

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    2. Without changing the table-saw dado setup, place the carrier jig against the rip fence.

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    3. Position one of the long tray sides on end, flat against the face of the jig with the bottom-groove side against the fence. The groove will line up with the dado blade, and the slot you will cut here will be filled with a pin on the mating part of the joint hiding the groove.

    4. Holding the workpiece in place, slide the jig across the dado blade.

    5. Flip the workpiece so that the groove side is away from the fence, and repeat the cut.

    6. Do the same for the other end of the workpiece and for both ends of the other long tray side. You'll end up with two notches in each end of the long sides, one in the same location as the groove for the bottom. This completes the joint work on these pieces.

    The next step is to create pins on the ends of the short tray sides that fit the slots you made in the long tray sides. You will need to make five cuts in each end of the short pieces, but the saw settings are very simple.

    1. With the same dado setup, and using your miter gauge set to 90 degrees, lay a short tray side inside face down with a long edge against the miter gauge.

    2. Run the piece across the blade, nibbling away at the waste until the end meets the fence. This creates a 1/4-in. by 1/2-in. rabbet in the end of the piece.

    3. Spin the piece around and cut a rabbet in the other end.

    4. Repeat this procedure for the other short tray side.

    5. Using the long sides as a template, mark the location of the pins with a sharp pencil or (better yet) a marking knife.

    6. Raise your dado blade to 1/2-in. high. Using the marks you made on these parts as a reference, set your fence so that the dado blade is on one side of one pin and, using your carrier jig, make a cut in each end of each short tray side. Repeat this procedure to define the pins, then nibble away the waste between the pins.

    7. Cut away the waste on the short ends to define what will be the handle portion of the tray ends. I do this work by crosscutting with the miter gauge rather than nibbling it away because this method leaves a better finish. (The end shows on the finished tray.) Raise the dado blade until it is just high enough to remove this waste, and set the fence so that it is just slightly more than 1/2-in. away from the outside of the blade. It's a lot better to cut the shoulder just slightly smaller than exactly right. The slight reveal this creates is hardly noticeable, but it will assure that there is nothing in the way when you glue up the frame.

    8. Make any adjustments necessary to fit the joints together. Remember, the pins are fragile, so don't force them.

    The handle opening is routed with a template and a plunge router fitted with a guide bushing and a straight plunge bit. The size of the template opening is determined by the diameter of the bit-and-bushing combination you use. Remember the smaller the bit and bushing you use, the smaller the radius in the corners of the cutout will be. I used a 1/8-in. bit with a 5/16-in. bushing because I wanted as nearly square a cutout as possible.

    1. Make the template.

    2. Plunge and rout the hole in about three steps, going a little deeper each time. The tray sides are only 1/2-in. thick, but it is still a good idea. This is especially important if you are using a small-diameter bit, since these are fragile.

    1. Cut the bottom so that it fits comfortably in the grooves between the sides. It should be large enough that it doesn't move around but not so large that it interferes with closing the joints. This is a plywood bottom so wood movement will not be a problem.

    2. Finish-sand both sides of the bottom and the insides of the tray sides to 150 grit, and dry-fit all the parts just to make sure everything goes together easily. You don't want to have any surprises during actual glue-up.

    3. Make glue blocks for clamping that put pressure only on the parts of the joints that need it.

    4. Disassemble the tray, and apply glue to all mating surfaces. Leave a small amount of glue in the corners of the grooves for the bottom, so that it will help reinforce the tray corners. Be as neat as possible when applying the glue; the less squeeze-out you have on the inside of the tray the better. It's difficult to do a good job of cleaning glue out of the corners of a finished piece.

    5. Carefully assemble and clamp the piece, making sure that it remains square while clamping.

    When the glue is dry, remove the clamps, finish-sand the outside of the tray to 150 grit, and finish your tray. Don't forget to sand the insides of the handle openings. I finished my tray with satin spray lacquer for durability. If you don't have the ability to spray, then you can certainly use an oil finish. I suggest a polymerized tung oil since it is the most durable of the oil finishes I have used.



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    Robert Groh writes:

    As one commenter said, this serving tray is a bit clunky as shown but with just a bit of work on the design elements (retaining the basic form and process), I think you could have a nice little 'fun' gift.  For example, I would lower the height of the sides a bit and then modify the two ends as follows:

    1.  arch the area over the hand hold and bring the top down to meet the new lower side pieces - the 'square' look is a bit off to me.

    2.  make the hand hold area a slot with curved ends. Plus I would round over all the inside corners on the hand holds - since you are routing it anyways, why not throw in a round over bit.  'Smooth' is the name of the game.

    Like all these projects, we all seem to like to modify them a bit for our purposes.  Fun in any event! 

    comments on serving tray

    Chuck Riccardo writes:

    I wouldn't call this tray elegant by any means.

    It is closer to being boxy and klutzy imho...

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