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How to make a simple tray

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White rustic tray with name in wooden letters

Turn a simple tray and dollar store letters into a one-of-a-kind keepsake they’ll treasure forever!

Step-by-step tutorial

If you’re new to woodworking, this tray is a great first project because it’s a simple design. Don’t be surprised if people believe you’ve always worked with wood! Of course, personalizing it by adding someone’s name with wooden letters just upped the gift game, and that’s what I’ll show you, as well as how to make a simple tray!

This tray is 9″ x 13″, but the measurements can be easily changed.

Welcome! I’m Lisa from The Old Tree Cottage. I love designing simple trays that are vintage-inspired, meaning they look like they have been around forever and that they have a history. This tutorial is a good place to get your feet wet if you’ve never done woodworking.

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

  • 6- 13″ long Lath* strips for the bottom
  • 1- 4 ft long 1×2 for the sides and ends

Lath is my go-to wood for the base of my trays. It’s similar to a 1×2 but thinner by 3/8″, resulting in a lighter tray. It’s a little rough, which makes it perfect when making rustic decor. It was also not expensive. I bought mine in bundles of 10, 8 ft lengths at a hardware store. If you can’t find lath, you can use 1x2s, or if you’re able, rip a 2×4 on 1 1/2″ x 3/8″. You can also use lath for my wooden gift tags.

Everything else

Time to make a simple tray!

White rustic keepsake tray
Adding feet is so easy, but looks so fancy!

1. Cut the bottom, sides & end pieces

  1. Bottom: Cut 6 pieces of lath strips 13″ long
  2. Sides: Cut 2 pieces of 1×2, 11 1/2″ long
  3. Ends: 2 pieces of 1×2, 9″ long
  4. Feet: Set the chop saw to a 45-degree angle, place the 1×2 tall side up, on the 3″ mark and cut. (See photo below) Cut four pieces in total.
Cut four pieces of 1×2. One end will have a 45-degree angle.

2. Attach the sides to the ends to make a frame

Pay attention to how you hold the brad nailer! If you hold it on a bit of an angle pointing towards or away from the inside, you risk the nail poking out. If this happens, grab the nail with pliers and hold tightly, tapping the pliers with a hammer until the nail comes out. Fill the hole with wood filler and sand.

  1. Apply glue to one end of the 11 1/2″ side piece.
  2. Attach using 1 1/2″ brad nails.
  3. Repeat steps 1 & 2 for the other side, simultaneously gluing the remaining end pieces.

3. Attach the bottom strips of the tray to the frame

Each board on the base of the tray is glued together side by side, sitting snugly together. When dry, this will give the base of the tray strength.

  1. Before gluing the boards, round the edges slightly by sanding, giving a groove between the boards to give it definition.
  2. Apply an even layer of glue all around the base of the frame.
  3. The first bottom board will have glue on the edge that faces in toward the center of the tray.
  4. As you begin, you may find that the end pieces of the bottom aren’t even with the end of the tray. This means that your frame isn’t square. The simplest way to fix it is first to line up the first bottom board to one end and the side, then nail the end down. Next, push on the opposite corners of the frame until it lines up with the other end of the first bottom board. Once everything is lined up, attach with 1″ brad nails.
  5. Glue the edge of the next board, facing away from the first board. Make sure it fits snugly to the first board.
  6. Repeat step 4 for the rest of the boards, excluding the final outside board. It won’t need glue because the previous piece has glue.
  7. If you have gaps between the boards, fill them with glue and sprinkle a little sawdust. Sand while the glue is wet. If needed, run a nail gently between the boards to put a groove back into the boards.

4. Add the feet (Optional)

  1. Decide where you want to place the feet; slightly out, as in the picture top right, flush with the outside or slightly underneath. The choice is yours.
  2. Apply glue to the longest side of the foot.
  3. Hold in place and attach using 1″ brad nails ONLY along the outside edges. Repeat for the other sides.
  4. While the glue is still wet, check quickly to ensure the tray is sitting flat when you push on the corners. If it rocks a bit, take a small screwdriver and gently wedge it between the foot and the bottom of the tray, separating the two just until the rocking stops. Apply wood filler to the space after you’re done.

4. Sand the Tray

This is where you begin to add some character. Over-sanding some edges more than others helps to give it a worn look or what I like to call a perfectly imperfect look.

  1. Use the orbital sander with 100-grit sandpaper to sand the tray all over.
  2. Sand off any sharp edges on the tray to give it a more worn look.

5. Make a quick homemade stain to age the wood

Apply this stain to the tray and the wooden letters before you glue the letters on.

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. This stain works on any wood, dries quickly and doesn’t have an odour like an actual stain.

  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.

6. Apply the stain as the base coat

  1. Apply the stain and cover all the wood and the (optional) wooden letters.
  2. You may have areas that won’t take the 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.

7. Glue on the wooden letters (optional)

I’m going to give instructions on how I centred my letters, and hopefully, it makes sense, but it could also be clear as mud. If you have an easier way to do this, please share it in the comments!

  1. Place the letters on the side of the tray, approximately where you’d like them to go, and evenly space the letters.
  2. Measure how long the word is. Mine was 6″ long.
  3. Next, subtract tray length minus word length. In my case, it was 13″ (tray length) minus 6″ (word length) = 7″.
  4. Sorry, more math! Divide the answer in step 3 in half. You’ll use this number to mark both ends of the tray. My final number was 7, so half of 7 is 3 1/2.
  5. Using the final number in step 4, mark both ends. I had 3 1/2″, so I marked 3 1/2″ from each end.
  6. Are you still with me? I used the bottom edge of the 1×2 board on the side as a horizontal guide for the letters. Put the letters back on the tray in place without gluing them yet.
  7. Once you’re happy with the placement, mix some 5-minute epoxy.
  8. Carefully lift the first letter, and apply a small amount of epoxy all over using a toothpick.
  9. Next, carefully replace the glued letter and repeat steps 8 & 9 until you’re finished. If you need to adjust your letters, and depending on how long the epoxy has been mixed, you should have a little time. If you adjust them, you will notice glue left on the tray, which isn’t a big deal because it will get painted over.
  10. Allow the letters to dry before adding them to the other side.

8. Spray on a lacquer or stain blocker before painting

Before painting the tray a white or light colour, add two coats of clear lacquer or stain blocker over the dried stain. I typically use a Rust-oleum product in a spray. 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! 

8. Paint the tray

Here’s where you make it your own! I opted to keep mine all white, but this is your project, so you do you. My favourite paint to use is Victorian Lace by Fusion Mineral Paint. It comes with a built-in top coat which is always a plus! However, this will be used by a little girl for her tea tray, so I’ll be adding extra protection to the base of the tray. If you have a favourite paint, stick with it!

  1. I wanted the wooden letters to be distressed, so I rubbed a wax candle around the edges before painting.
  2. Paint the tray in your colour of choice. I sometimes do a contrast colour inside or leave it unpainted, giving it that old wood look. I typically need two coats of paint. Let dry between coats.

9. Distress the tray with sandpaper

Here’s where you see why we rounded the edges of the boards. Without that step, there wououldn’t be the definition between each board.

Folded sandpaper runs along the grooves to distress the tray.
  1. Use 100-150 grit sandpaper and lightly hand sand the outside and top of the tray.
  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.

10. Add the Handles

When I attach my handles to the tray, I don’t like to see the screws on the inside. It’s a personal choice. The potential drawback is that you need bolt cutters to trim the bolt. Not everyone has bolt cutters lying around so I’ll show you both ways.

Option 1: Inset handle onto the end

This is a good option when you have screws that are much longer than you need or if you don’t want to see the screws from the inside of the tray. You will need bolt cutters to trim the screws.

  1. For this next step, attach the screw to the handle. Use bolt cutters to cut the screw 1/2″ long.
  2. Evenly space your handle on the end of the tray, making sure it is also sitting horizontally.
  3.  Mark where your holes will go, hold the handle in place, and lightly tap each side to leave an indent in the wood. Why indent with the handles? Sometimes (finger pointing to me), I accidentally drill the hole slightly off-center. This ensures I’m hitting the hole right where it needs to be.
  4. Using a 1/4″ drill bit, place the painter’s tape 1/2″ from the bottom. This will be your stop ensuring you don’t accidentally drill through.
  5. Holding the drill horizontally, place it on the mark you made with the handle and slowly drill until you hit the painter’s tape. Repeat for the other side.
  6. Repeat steps 1 to 4 for the other end.
  7. Mix the 5-minute epoxy and add some to the holes with a toothpick and some on the screw. You may need to tape it in place or prop it up while the glue sets. If any glue is oozing, wipe it off.

Option 2: The screw from the handle shows on the inside

  1. Evenly space your handle on the end of the tray, making sure it is also sitting horizontally.
  2.  Mark where your holes will go, hold the handle in place, and lightly tap each side to leave an indent in the wood. Why indent with the handles? Sometimes (finger pointing to me), I accidentally drill the hole slightly off-center. This ensures I’m hitting the hole right where it needs to be.
  3. Place a scrap piece of wood inside the tray where you’ll drill the hole. Having the block of wood helps reduce the chance of the wood splintering when you drill through.
  4. Holding the drill horizontally, place it on the mark you made with the handle and slowly drill through. Repeat for the other side.
  5. Repeat steps 1 to 4 for the other end.
  6. Lastly, screw the handles in place.

11. Protect the finish

Lastly, your project needs some protection. If you’ve gone to all the trouble (or should I say fun!) to make the tray look old and worn, it stands that the finish should also look old and worn right?

  1. I typically add two coats of clear protective spray, especially if the tray will get a lot of use. I used Rust-oleum Painter’s Touch in clear satin. Whether you opt for a spray or paint-on, make sure it’s water-based because the oil-based may yellow the white paint.
  2.  Use the heat gun to help dry/age the finish by holding the heat gun close, and moving slowly just until the finish starts to bubble slightly. Once dry, scuff sand to add a bit of wear and take away the newness of the protective coat.  

You’re all finished!

So there you have it. A simple tray turned into a potential heirloom piece! I can see this as a baby’s gift with their name, or in my case for tea parties with my granddaughter. Perhaps you won’t put a name on it at all. That’s the fun part of creating. You make it into your own style. If you’d like some more diy ideas, check out more DIY Projects because, for those of us who love DIYs, there is always the next project!

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