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How to Make a Rustic Wooden Tray

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How to make a rustic wooden tray

36″ Long Rustic Tray

Step-by-step tutorial, including how to make wooden handles!

There is nothing nicer (said I) than a handcrafted, all-wood tray that’s simple to build but looks like you have some mad woodworking skills! My friend, if you want to learn how to make a rustic wooden tray, you’ve come to the right place! This is a 36″ long tray, but you can easily adjust the size if you need to.

I’ll also show you how simple it is to make custom wooden handles, as well as show you how I make the painted finish look genuinely old.

Welcome! I’m Lisa from The Old Tree Cottage. My passion is making rustic decor out of used wood whenever possible. Wooden trays and boxes are some of my favourite things to make.

Supplies

This post may contain affiliate links, which means I may receive a small commission at no cost to you if you make a purchase through a link.

Wood

  • 5- 8ft Lath* strips (bottom and sides, handles)
  • 1- 2ft 2×2’s (for the end pieces)

*Lath comes in bundles of 10 in different lengths. It measures 3/8″ thick by 1 1/2″ wide, making it a lighter alternative than a 1×2 board.

I like this brad nailer powered by a compressor to assemble the tray. You can get this type of brad nailer that doesn’t need a compressor.

Are you ready to make a rustic wooden tray?

1. Cutting the bottom, sides & end pieces

  1. Bottom: Cut 7 pieces of lath strips 36″ long
  2. Sides: Cut 2 pieces of lath strips 34 1/4″ long
  3. Ends: 2- 2×2 pieces 10 1/2″ long

2. Attaching the bottom boards to the end pieces

Each board on the base of the tray fits snugly with the other. The glue between the bottom boards will strengthen the rustic wooden tray when dried.

Tip: When applying glue, a slight oozing of glue is good. Too much glue is messy, causing the boards to slide around. This makes it hard to stay in place when you nail it. Too little, and it won’t have a proper bond.

  1. Apply glue to the bottom of both 2×2 end pieces for the tray. Set aside until you do the next step.
  2. Take the first 36″ long lath strip and attach it to each 2×2 end piece with a brad nailer, ensuring the lath sits flush to the end and side of the 2×2.
  3. Apply a bead of glue down one side of the second board.
  4. Place it snugly up to the first board, with the glued edge facing the first board.
  5. Repeat steps 3 & 4 for the rest of the bottom boards.

3. Adding the Side Pieces to the Rustic Wooden Tray

Drill a pilot hole in the end to attach to the side.
  1. Take your side piece and add glue on both ends and the bottom edge. 
  2. Put it into position, making sure it’s sitting flat on the base.
  3. *Using your brad nailer with 1″ brad nails, attach it every few inches from the underside of the tray.
  4. In place of adding screws, use 2″ brad nails top and bottom to attach the side to the end. If it doesn’t seem strong enough, go to steps 5-8.
  5. On all four corners of the end pieces, drill a small pilot hole about 1/4″ from the edge and center from top to bottom. 
  6. Screw in one 2 1/2″ screw per corner end piece, slightly below the wood.
  7. Add wood filler to the screw hole, leaving a little mound above the wood. This ensures you only need one application of wood filler.
  8. Once the wood filler is dry, hand-sand it.

*Pay attention to how you hold the brad nailer! If you hold it on a bit of an angle, the nails will poke out the side! If this happens, grab the nail with pliers and hold tight. Then take a hammer and lightly tap the pliers until the nail comes out. Fill the hole with wood filler and sand when dry.

5. Sand the Tray

  1. Use the orbital sander with 100-grit sandpaper to sand the tray all over. The goal is to make it “perfectly imperfect.”
  2. Sand off any sharp edges on the tray to give it a more worn look.

6. Make Custom Wood Handles

Download the handle pattern.

3 wooden handle samples; vintage gray, vintage wood, vintage white
L: Black Water, Whitewash, M: Black Water, R: Raw Wood, Whitewash

I won’t lie. The handles will take more work than buying some drawer pulls, but the result is worth it! Once you see how easy they are to make and how custom they look, it will be a game changer!

Supplies

  • 2- 11″ (ish) long leftover lath strips or, for a chunkier handle, 1×2 boards.
  • Jigsaw or bandsaw
  • Wood glue
  • 4 Roofing nails (big heads)
  • 100 grit sandpaper

Tracing and cutting out the handles for the rustic wooden tray

Tip: To reduce the number of cuts you must make, place the end of the handle pattern on the edge and end of the wood, then trace the pattern.

Using a jigsaw or bandsaw, start by cutting the inside curve and then the outside curve. Repeat for the second handle.

Sanding the handles

  1. The goal is to make the handles look old and worn, not made in a factory! Sand each handle so it is smooth to the touch, but don’t worry about it being perfect because you want it to have that authentic worn look.
  2. Next, take 100 grit sandpaper and hand sand it all over, making sure to dull the edges. In particular, the underside should feel smooth to the touch.
  3. The final step is to mark each handle 1/2″ from both ends and drill a hole through with a drill bit that will allow your roofing nails to go through.

Attaching the handles to the tray

Why use roofing nails? Because I think the big heads make it look old!

  1. Evenly space your handle on the 2×2 end of the tray and mark it.
  2.  Apply glue to the flat underside of the first handle. The handle moves around like a slip-and-slide if you use too much glue.
  3.  Place the handle on the marks making sure to hold it in place.
  4. Place the nail in the hole and lightly tap until it grabs the wood but don’t hammer it all the way in yet. Repeat for the other side.
  5.  After you’ve checked to ensure the handles are still in the right place, hammer them in.

7. Aging the wood

Add more (or less) paint, depending on your desired colour.

Creating a believable old finish begins with aging the wood before you paint. The easiest way to do this is rather simple! Apply a black water stain before you paint. It can get messy, so protect your workspace if needed. What I mean is I’m messy when I do this. You, however, might not be!

  1. Mix 1 cup of water with 2 tsp of black paint. Any paint will work.
  2. Mix thoroughly. The stain will look grayish brown when dried.
  3. If you want a darker base colour add more black paint.

Apply the stain as the base coat

  1. Apply the stain making sure to cover all the wood.
  2. You may have areas that won’t take the black water stain because of dried glue on the wood. If we were leaving it a stained look, we’d have to fix it, but we’re painting over it, so don’t worry!
  3. If you’re not opposed to putting the tray in your oven (on the lowest setting), it’s a great way to dry it quickly. Don’t ever crank up the heat because it could cause the wood to warp or crack. Hmm… I wonder how I learned that lesson?!

8. Time to paint your rustic wooden tray!

Here’s where the magic begins.

Before painting the tray a white or light colour, add two coats of clear lacquer or stain blocker over the dried stain. This stops potential bleed-through of the wood when working with white or light colour. After all of your hard work, you don’t want it ruined down the road from the wood bleeding through! 

Supplies

  • Your choice of white paint
  • Spray can of a clear stain blocker like Zinsser Lacquer
  • Second colour for the inside of the tray (optional)
  • Heat gun (optional)
  • 150 grit sandpaper for hand sanding
  • Protection for your work surface
  • Paper towel or rag to wipe the paint

9. Age the finish with a heat gun

You have the option to let the painted tray dry and then sand the edges here and there or not at all! That’s a personal preference, and since this is your project, your choice! My goal, however, is to show you how to make this bad boy look a little older and worn.

  1.  Move the heat gun side to side in one area until you see bubbles.
  2.  If you stay in one spot too long, it will burn. If this happens, paint over it.
  3.  You don’t need every area to bubble, but if you have a big patch that isn’t, it just means you need to add more paint and repeat step #1.

I like to wait for the paint to cool down before moving on to these next steps.

10. Distress the tray with sandpaper

  1. Use 100-150 grit sandpaper and hand sand the wood in the direction of the grain. 
  2.  Sand the outside edges and the top corners, just enough to show the base coat (stain).
  3.  Moving to the base of the tray, fold the sandpaper in half so it has a sharp edge.
  4.  In order to get some wear showing on the base of the tray, slide the sandpaper along the grooves from one end to the other. Instead of trying to get a solid line of the undercoat showing through, keep it more organic for a natural look.

Once in a while, I find the distressing looks “off.” Typically it occurs because I distressed the finish too much. If this happens to you, the easiest way to fix it is by applying a whitewash (watered-down white paint) over the tray. After all, we want to make it look old and worn, which softens the look.

11. Add a clearcoat to protect the finish

Lastly, your project needs some protection.

  1. Plot twist! Likewise, the clear finish needs to look worn too!
  2. I typically add two coats of clear coat. Whether you opt for a spray or paint-on, make sure it’s water-based because the oil-based may yellow the white paint.
  3.  I mostly use the heat gun to help age the finish. Once dry, scuff sand to make the finish look older.
  4.  Then again, another option I sometimes use is beeswax instead of the clear coat. As long as you are using a product you know and are happy with, then certainly stick with it! If you have a specific finish you particularly love, let me know in the comments.

You’re all finished!

Thanks for stopping by and trying out one of my favourite DIYs. Although, who am I kidding? I get rather excited whenever I come up with a new tray pattern! Will you be making more trays, or is one enough? If you’re like me and love making trays, check out more of my DIY tray designs for your next project because, for those of us who love DIYs, there is always the next project!

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