You’ll be amazed at how you can transform builder-grade wood into a board that has a lot of texture and colour variation. In this tutorial, I’ll show you how to turn cheap wood into a beautiful tray with character. Whether you love simple woodworking projects for home decor or if you’re just getting your feet wet working with wood, this is a fast and easy project. Because I’m writing this tutorial close to Christmas, I’ve included some sayings to transfer onto the wood if you want to add something extra.
Supplies for the cheap wood to a beautiful tray
- 1 x 8 Board (where I live, it comes in 12-foot lengths)
- Mitre saw to cut the wood
- 80, 100 & 150-grit sandpaper & orbital sander
- Wire brush attachment for a drill
- Drill and 1/4″ drill bit to add the handles
- A countersink drill bit or drill bit large enough for the head of the screw of the handle to fit into.
- Handles for the tray (I upcycled old ones found at the thrift store)
- Instant coffee
- 1 cup measuring cup
- Spray bottle with water
- Brush to paint on coffee
- Paper towels
- Clearcoat spray, inkjet printer, wax paper (if adding a saying)
- Shellac (is a food-safe finish once dried)
1. Cut the 1×8 board to size & add texture
It’s up to you how long to cut the board. If you’re unsure, I would suggest anywhere from 18-36″. To go from cheap wood to a beautiful tray, these first steps are a great stress buster! Also, a heads up, we won’t be sanding this until near the end of the project. Sounds odd, I know, but stick with me!
- Bang the heck out of the ends, sides and corners with a hammer. You want some dings close together and some just random.
- The next step is to take an exacto knife and whittle away pieces on the sides, keeping it random-looking.
- A wire brush on a drill takes away the soft wood between the wood grain. Hold the wire brush on an angle when doing this part, and hold on tight because the drill may want to bounce around. I like to step on the wood on the floor to hold it in place while I do this. It’s low-tech, but it works!
2. Staining wood with instant coffee
I used a very similar technique in my make a charcuterie board with cheap wood tutorial, but this time, I tried something a little different and wow! I love the results!
- Mix one heaping tsp of instant coffee with 1 cup of hot water.
- Paint onto the wood.
- Sprinkle instant coffee granules over the wood, adding more down the center where the wood may have gotten used if it was actually old!
- Spray with water until the granules start to dissolve.
- Take a paper towel and rub from one end to the other in the direction of the wood grain.
- Let the wood dry, or use a heat gun to hurry this step up.
3. Sanding the board
The reason I waited until after staining to sand and why I opted to (mostly) hand-sand was out of curiosity: what would the wood look like if I did this? I was so happy with the results that I forgot to take pictures of the sanding stages. (oops!) For reference, the photo below is what it looked like when all was said and done and sealed with Shellac. We’re getting closer to the transformation of cheap wood into a beautiful tray.
- Using an orbital sander, start on the sides as well as the ends of the wood, using 80-grit sandpaper, and follow the length of the board and round over the edges. Sometimes, I’ll sand a little more on parts of the edges to get even more of a worn look. The key is to keep it all organic looking.
- Now, we’re going to switch to hand-sanding using 100-grit sandpaper, always following the grain. What will happen is the darker colour will stay in the grooves, and you’ll expose the base coat on the wood. I used more pressure while hand-sanding the top outer edges, giving it a worn look with less stain. Remember to hand sand the edges and ends, giving the edges a rounded look.
- Switch to 150-grit sandpaper and lightly sand in the direction of the grain.
- I like to finish off with crumpled-up newspaper (or plain paper) and buff it until it feels nice and smooth.
- If you don’t want to add a Christmas saying to the tray, go to step 5 below.
4. Adding a Christmas saying to your tray (or not!)
Obviously, this part is optional, but if you’d like to add a Christmas saying, I have a free download with some sayings to choose from. I like to use the wax paper transfer method because it’s quick and easy. In case you’re wondering about the two different colours in the photos below, they are two different trays. I just forgot to take photos- again!
- Lightly spray glue a piece of computer paper, then smooth a piece of wax paper over it. Some people prefer to use double-sided tape around the outside edges to attach the wax paper.
- Trim the wax paper to fit the paper.
- When printing the sayings, there are three things to remember: the wax paper is what gets printed on. Set the printing to landscape; don’t touch the ink, or it will smudge.
- Cut out the wording you want to use, leaving some space around it in order to be able to grab it without touching the ink.
- Pull the wax paper away from the paper.
- Very lightly place the wax paper ink side down where you want it, then carefully add some tape to help hold it in place.
- Slowly rub using a spoon or thumbnail, adding pressure to help transfer the ink. I tend to use my thumb and forefinger of my opposite hand, holding a small section tight as I rub to transfer the ink. I repeat this as I move along down the wording. This reduces the risk of the wax paper slipping.
- Next is to use a light coating of clear matte spray to protect the ink from running. In step 5, we’ll be adding shellac to finish it off. If you were to brush on a clearcoat before sealing the ink with a spray, the ink would run.
5. Protecting the wood
Whether you opt to add a saying or not, the wood needs to be protected. I chose to brush on Shellac because it’s food-safe once dry. This way, if I wanted, I could use it as a charcuterie board. If you added a saying, add at least three coats to protect it. (Shellac dries quickly.)
- Brush on two to three coats of Shellac, allowing it to dry in between coats.
- Once the last coat is dry, take 100-grit sandpaper and hand-sand, following the grain of the wood. The reason for this is to give the wood a bit more of a worn look. If you don’t want that, skip this step.
- The last thing to do before adding the handles is to crumple up some newspaper (or any paper) and “polish” the tray. The fibre in the paper helps to smooth out any roughness without sanding through the finish.
6. Adding handles to the tray
For this project, I combined two different sets of upcycled handles. Normally, I would take outdated handles and make them vintage-looking, but this time, I was happy with how they looked. I have a tutorial on how to do it. It’s quick and easy to do.
- Mark the center on the end of your tray and place the handle on the center, then mark the hole (or holes) for the screws. How far from the edge is up to you.
- Starting on the top of the tray, drill right through the wood on the mark(s) you made for the handle. The drill bit you use should be just big enough to slide the screw in. My drill bit was 1/4″.
- Flip the tray over and use a countersink drill bit so that the screw won’t be sticking out. I didn’t have one on hand, so I used a half-inch drill bit and drilled directly over the existing hole, going down just far enough that the screw head wasn’t sticking out.
- The last thing is to attach the handles.
There you have it; you’ve gone from cheap wood to a beautiful tray!
Thanks for stopping by! If you’d like some more simple DIY projects for a quaint cottage feel, check out these tutorials.