Cart your cutlery with this stacked tray

Outdoor entertaining is easy with this clever cutlery holder

By Gary Walchuk


Photo by Roger Yip

Summer is the season to spend as much time outdoors as possible. Why not leave the dining-room table empty and enjoy some meals under the sun on a backyard patio or deck? When preparing for such a meal, frequent trips from the kitchen can be an inconvenient task. To make dining alfresco easier, I built this double-decker tray from solid cherry and 1/4″-thick Baltic birch plywood. Details such as the finger joints and a removable divider in the lower tray spice up this project. When the weather turns chilly, you could even use it for an indoor dinner party.


Prepare your stock

Begin by planing your material to the thicknesses listed-mainly down to 5/8", with some 3/8"-thick stock for the lower tray dividers. Those of you without a planer can work around the dimensions of the stock you have on hand; you'll just need to adjust the rest of the measurements accordingly.

The finger joints (also known as box joints) in the tray's corners can be completed with hand tools, but you can achieve perfect results in a short time with a dado blade mounted in a tablesaw and a simple jig. The jig slides in the mitre gauge slot on top of the tablesaw. Before you try out your jig on this project, prepare test cuts on scrap wood to make sure you'll get a perfect fit. There are a few tips to help you succeed.

Building the handle

To begin, mount your dado blade to cut 1/4"-wide notches in the ends of the tray sides and ends. The spacing be-tween these notches determines the width of the fingers, and that's where a jig helps. You'll end up with an easy-fitting corner joint. Make sure the fingers don't fit together too tightly at this point because when you apply glue to the fingers the wood will swell, which can make assembly an unnecessary struggle.

The height of the dado blade determines the notch depth and the length of the fingers, and that's important to know for best joint fit. Raise the blade a bit higher than necessary to get fingers that are about 1/64" longer than the thickness of the stock. Once the joints are assembled, plane or sand off the excess wood for a perfect fit.

Notching the handle

Start by cutting the upper and lower tray ends and sides to the exact sizes listed. Use the jig to cut the joints in the sides. Note that the edges of all four of the side parts begin and end with a finger as opposed to a notch. Check the plans for reference.

Using the plans, make a full-size half- template for the lower tray ends. You can also download a printable version from the project plans above. Use this template to mark the top corner cutouts and handle cutouts on the lower tray ends. Use a scrollsaw to cut these shapes easily.

Now you can cut the mating finger joints into both tray ends beginning with the bottom edges-note here that the joints on these pieces begin and end with notches to mate with fingers on the sides. Again, use the plans for reference. Dry-fit both trays without glue to make sure everything fits together easily.

Next, rout a groove along the inside faces of the upper and lower tray ends and sides to accommodate the tray bottoms. In this case, I used 6-mm-thick Baltic birch plywood nestled into a 6- mm-wide x 1/4"-deep groove located 1/4" up from the bottom edges. Start and stop your routing about 3/8" from the end of each piece so you don't remove any wood from the joints' outer surfaces. Sand all parts with 180- and 220-grit paper, then dry-fit them together again with the tray bottoms in place.

At this point, apply glue and assemble the lower tray. Take your time clamping up the assembly as you check for square corners as you work, and clean up any glue squeeze-out right away.

Get a handle on it

Cut the upper tray handle to rough size, then use a scrollsaw to shape it following a shortened version of the template used for the lower tray ends. See the plans for details.

Cut 5/8"-wide x 1/4"-deep dados across the inside centre of the upper tray ends to accommodate the upper tray handle.

Glue and clamp the upper tray sides and ends with the bottom in place, checking that everything is square. Apply glue to the dados in the tray ends and slide the upper tray handle into place until it touches the tray bottom. Clamp everything until the glue dries (about 20 minutes), then flip the project over and secure the bottom to the bottom edge of the handle with three evenly spaced 1" brass screws.

The cleats provide some clearance between the upper and lower tray. To prepare these small strips safely, start by ripping oversize pieces of wood to size before planing them to 3/8" x 5/8". Be sure to line up the cleats with the inside bottom edges of the sides of the upper tray. The cleats should be 1/8" proud of the tray's bottom edges.

As I mentioned before, you need to plane or sand the finger joints of both trays until the ends are flush with the surrounding surfaces. Make any size adjustments necessary so the upper tray nests nicely into the lower one.

Divide and conquer

The cutlery divider fits into the lower tray so you can easily remove it for cleaning. Cut the divider parts to the sizes listed, then prepare 3/8"-wide by 1/8"-deep dados across inside surfaces of the divider ends. Lay out the dados with 21/2" spaces between each divider. To mark the two middle dividers, locate the centre of the divider end and make a mark 11/4" to each side. After you complete your dados, dry-fit the assembly, then glue and clamp it together.

Finishing up

Give your cutlery tray a quality finish by using 180- then 220-grit paper to relieve sharp edges. Remove the sawdust with a vacuum and a tack cloth, then apply a finish. I used a few coats of clear Danish oil, but if you are wary of nut allergies, you may want to use 100 per cent pure mineral oil, since your cutlery will come in contact with the wood.

When the finish is dry, add brass clasps to secure the trays together. These are located 3" from the corners of the lower tray, with one pair on each side.

On the next sunny day, fill up your tote and have an outdoor feast.

Tools & Materials

Part Material Size (T x W x L*) Qty.

Lower tray

Ends cherry 5/8" x 5" x 12" 2
Sides cherry 5/8" x 2 3/4" x 16" 2
Bottom Baltic birch plywood 6 mm x 11 3/16" x 15 3/16" 1
Divider ends cherry 3/8" x 2" x 14 11/16" 2
Tray dividers cherry 3/8" x 2" x 10 3/16" 4

Upper tray

Ends cherry 5/8" x 2 1/4" x 12" 2
Sides cherry 5/8" x 2 1/4" x 14 11/16" 2
Bottom Baltic birch plywood 6 mm x 11 3/16" x 13 13/16" 1
Handle cherry 5/8" x 4" x 13 7/8" 1
Cleats cherry 3/8" x 5/8" x 13 3/8" 2
Brass clasps Lee Valley #00D82.31 4

* Length indicates grain direction

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Cart your cutlery with this stacked tray

Illustration by Len Churchill


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Lora Kee

Jan. 31, 2012

5:17 pm

Sorry for the oversight, the dimensions are there now.

Jan. 31, 2012

8:57 am

no dimensions are included for the upper tray parts

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