Design & DIY

How to build a portable table tray

Make your outdoor entertaining a little easier with this folding serving-tray table inspired by the experts of professional entertainment: caterers. Just like the equipment used by these hospitality professionals, this project includes both a stand and a removable tray. This project is tailored to those who want to mill their own lumber in simple ways. The tray and table are made with two cedar 5/4 x 6″ x 10′ deck boards. Cedar lends itself well to milling in the home workshop because it’s so soft. The 1″ thickness of 5/4 stock also offers more options than standard 3/4″ lumber. Even a small tablesaw is up to the job. Select straight boards with few knots and an even grain pattern, then allow the wood to sit indoors for a couple of weeks so the moisture content stabilizes.

 Tools and Materials:

Tools and materials


Starting out

Begin by cutting your wood to length for the tray frame. You’ll need one piece 32″ long, and two more at 15 1/8″. Joint and plane these pieces to a final thickness of 7/8″, then move to the tablesaw. First, rip off any of the factory-rounded edges that may be left on the boards, then rip the 32″-long piece into two strips (2 1/2″ wide each) for the front and back parts. Trim the shorter pieces to 4″ wide for the handle ends. Mark the centre on one short piece of wood, and lay out the desired shape of your handle on the board with a pencil. Cut with a bandsaw, staying on the waste side of the line. Sand to final shape.

Use this piece to lay out the cuts for the handle on the other workpiece, and cut it using the same technique. Once you have both handles cut, stack the boards together to make sure they’re symmetrical. Sand more if you need to true up any surfaces. It is important that the ends of the handle ends taper down to match the 2 1/2″ width of the front and back pieces.

With the two handle end pieces sandwiched together, mark the location for the holes that make up the ends of the cutout in the handle. Use your drillpress, spinning a 1 1/4″-diameter Forstner bit, to bore through both pieces. Then scribe a line from the bottom and top edges of the holes to mark the handle cutout; remove the waste using either a jigsaw or scrollsaw.

To complete the front and back of the tray, you’ll need to create 1/4″-wide x 1/2″-deep dado grooves to support the slats. A table-mounted router or a plunge router equipped with an edge guide works well. Be sure to stop the dados about 3/4″ from each end for the corner joinery.

To mill the slats, cut four pieces of decking to 16 1/16″ long, rip off one rounded edge, then rip two strips to 2 1/2″ wide. Move over your fence to 3/8″, then resaw the strips on edge using multiple passes. Once you have all 11 slats cut, plane them down to about 1/4″ thick. Just be careful. As you approach this final thickness, check the slats for a snug fit into the grooves in the tray. A snug fit is the important thing, not the specific thickness dimension.

Tray assembly

Gather all the pieces you need to install the slats. Lay one of the side pieces, groove side up, on your workbench and mark the centre. Next, put the central slat into place. From here, proceed to work outward, adding additional slats 1/4″ apart. A 1/4″-thick spacer keeps the gaps consistent. Check to make sure that the final slats and the inside edges of the handle pieces maintain the same spacing, and trim or re-adjust as required. Once you’ve dry-fit all of the pieces and are satisfied with the spacing, glue the slats into place.

Working slowly, place the front piece over the slats, then check for square. When you’re satisfied with the fit, attach the handle ends with a thin layer of glue and #8 x 1 1/2″ deck screws driven into predrilled and countersunk holes. Cut tapered plugs to fill in the holes, and give the whole tray a thorough sanding with 150-grit sandpaper, rounding all sharp edges slightly.

Building the folding stand

Take your other piece of 5⁄4 decking and cut it into four pieces, each measuring 30″ long. Leave the original factory edges, then plane all pieces to a final thickness of 7/8″. With the tablesaw fence set at 11⁄4″ from the blade, rip one edge off each of the boards and set these strips aside for later use. The four wider pieces are for the curved legs, and you’ll get best results if you cut them all at the same time. Stack them as a group (keep the sawn edges flush), then temporarily tack them together using a light coat of spray adhesive.

Use a 1″-wide ruler or piece of wood to draw a grid of 1″ squares on one face of the group, then mark the leg curves using the grid diagram in the plans as a reference before cutting everything on a bandsaw. Keep to 1/32″ on the waste side of your lines, then sand to final shape.

With all four pieces still together, mark the location for the pivot holes and drill them as a group using a 1/8″-diameter bit. Use a little paint thinner to help separate the four legs after cutting/sanding and to remove the glue. Then drill the 3/4″-diameter x 3/8″-deep countersunk pockets on the outside faces. It’s essential that you drill these pockets on the correct face, so think before you make a move. Once the countersunk pockets are done, follow by drilling straight through the 1/8″ pilot holes with a 1/4″-diameter bit for the shanks of the bolts. Finish-sand using 150-grit sandpaper, slightly rounding over the sharp edges. Using 1/4″x 1 1/2″ brass machine screws, nylon lock nuts and brass washers as laid out in the plans, bring together the parts to make two X-shaped supports.

The stretchers connect the legs, and you should make them now from the 1 1/4″ x 30″ offcuts you saved earlier. Use a block plane to clean up the two rough edges and apply a 3/16″ chamfer to all corners. Cross cut two pieces to 261⁄2″ long, and the other two to 28 1/4″ long. Check the orientation of the leg assemblies to make sure they’re mirror images of each other (so they’ll fold), then attach the top stretchers using waterproof glue and #8 x 1 1/2″-long deck screws in countersunk holes. Keep the top edges of the top stretchers approximately 1⁄16″ below the top ends of the legs. Repeat this process for the bottom stretchers, but position them approximately 31/2″ from the bottom ends. Fill the holes with tapered plugs and sand flush.

Applying a finish is not essential, but it will prevent weathering. I used my favourite outdoor finish on this project, a 50/50 mix of turpentine and boiled linseed oil, applied in three heavy coats in as many days. Apply the liquid, allow to sit for 20 minutes and wipe off the excess, then allow to dry for 24 hours between coats. When the finish wears, apply more coats. With your completed stand ready, all you need is a few guests and a great meal to serve in style.

To download a detailed illustration of the plan, click here. 

Get your DIY fix with Cottage Life’s Brojects