If you love dining outdoors — but not the hassle of hauling everything outside — this pair of fun wooden totes may be the weekend project for you. One tote carries condiments; the other holds utensils. Together, they make setting an outdoor table a picnic. With only six parts, the condiment carrier is the simpler of the two and makes a great warm-up for the flatware tote. Of course, there are also advantages to building them in parallel. They are similar in construction, which means you could consolidate some operations, such as planing and dado cutting.
Some notes on lumber and preparation
Building the boxes begins with choosing lumber. For the frames and handles, you want a lightweight wood that takes paint well. Among common big-box-store options, pine and poplar fit the bill. Be aware that boards are typically sold in nominal sizes that are larger than their actual dimensions. This is because the nominal sizes reflect the dimensions of the board when it was rough cut, before initial planing. Most retailers sell boards surfaced on all four sides. Therefore, a 1×6 pine board will actually measure ¾” thick x 5-1/2″ wide. Likewise, poplar advertised as 1x or 4/4 will actually measure about 1/4″ thinner.
Lumber is typically kiln dried or air dried at the mill. But it is still not dry enough, straight from the lumber yard, for woodworking. Wood shrinks as it dries, enough to ruin your project if you use it before it has stabilized. It’s good practice to bring your boards inside, stack them with wood strips in between to let them dry evenly, and wait at least several days for the wood to acclimate before use.
The tote features 10-1/2″ wide (tall) handles, which can be cut from 12” nominal (11-1/4″ actual) lumber. A cheaper alternative, which results in strong handles less prone to cupping, is to cut them from a panel glued up from thin strips. To make one, rip lumber into narrow boards of 2″ to 4″. Square the mating edges on a jointer or router table. Glue and clamp with bar or pipe clamps overnight. After the clamps are removed, scrape off any dried glue.
Instructions here assume that your stock that has at least one flat face and one straight, square edge. Traditionally, these initial flattening and squaring operations were done with hand planes. Today, it is more typical to use a jointer. The bottoms of the totes are 3/8” thick plywood. The plans specify Baltic birch, a high quality plywood that many woodworkers keep on hand. You can substitute another type. Just make sure it is billed as “void free.” Home centers often sell suitable 3/8″ thick pieces of plywood as “project panels” in sizes small enough to fit in your back seat.
A free download of measured shop drawings is available here at CondimentToteShopDrawings.
Building the condiment tote
Graphic 1 shows the basic construction of the condiment tote. It is held together with glue and screws, some of which are concealed by wooden plugs. The two long sides (Part A) and two ends (Part B) form a rectangular frame. This assembly is fastened to a plywood bottom (Part C). Then the handle (Part D) — which splits the box into two bins — slides into shallow dadoes in the ends and is fixed to the bottom.
Build the frame
1. On the table saw, rip the lumber for the sides and ends to their finished width of 3-1/4″.
2. Plane your frame stock to 5/8″. This is also a good time to plane the wood for your handle. Your handle will need to fit into a dado, which is a cross-grain slot, in each end. To ensure a good fit, use your router bit or dado blade to make a cut in a piece of scrap. Use this as a gauge block to test the fit as you plane. Take light passes. Stop planing while the stock is still a hair too big to fit into the test block to leave you room for sanding.
3. Crosscut the sides to 13-1/2” and the ends to 5-5/8”. It’s important for the ends to be identical in length. Same goes for the sides. You can ensure this, on the table saw, by using stops on the fence of your miter gauge or crosscut sled.
4. Using a miter gauge with a stop block, cut dadoes 5/8” wide and 3/16” deep down the centre of each end. To avoid grain tear-out on the back side of the cut, you can use a sacrificial fence on your miter gauge, which is simply a straight, flat board that extends past the dado cut.
5. Lightly sand the inside faces of the sides and ends. They will be hard to reach later. Begin with rough sandpaper, 80 or 100 grit, and finish with 150. Avoid rounding over the ends. Wipe or blow off the dust.
6. With an awl, mark for the four screws on each side. The holes are 1/2” from top or bottom edges and 3/8” from each end. Drill counterbores for screw plugs with a 3/8” bit, 5/16” deep. The goal is to have about 3/16” of space for the plug above the screw head. Drill 3/32” pilot holes for the screws through the center of the plug holes.
7. Clamp the frame square and use the holes you’ve drilled in the sides to continue the pilot holes into the ends. Unclamp and apply glue to the mating surfaces. Screw them together with No. 6 x 1-1/4” long screws. Because the screws are close to the ends of the board, it is best to snug them by hand (vs. tightening with a drill driver), to avoid splitting the wood. Wipe off any glue squeeze-out with a damp cloth, and give the glue time to set up.
8. Cut plugs from a scrap of matching wood. Use a 3/8” tapered plug cutter mounted in a drill press. You can pop out the plugs individually with a screwdriver or turn the block on its side and cut them free all at once on a bandsaw. Test the plugs in a 3/8” hole. You should be able to push them in with your thumb. If they require too much force, they can split the wood.
9. Apply glue to the plugs and start them in the holes. Turn the plugs so that the grain direction of the plugs matches the grain direction of the board. Push them in or, if necessary, lightly tap them home with a mallet. Once the glue has dried, use a flush cutting saw or sharp chisel to trim the plugs close to the wood surface. Sand or plane any remaining protrusion.
Cut and attach the bottom
1. Measure the outside of the frame assembly. Cut a piece of plywood to fit these dimensions.
2. Draw lines 5/16” in from each edge on the bottom face. Also draw a line down the centre. Mark for screws, two each along sides and ends, and three down the centre for the handle. (The holes through the bottom into the ends need to be far enough from each corner, say 1-5/8”, to avoid interfering with the lower screws that attach the frame sides to ends). Using a 5/16” or 3/8” countersink bit in a drill press, drill a countersink for each screw that will leave the screw head just a whisker below the surface. Setting the stop on your drill press makes it easy to keep the depth consistent. Follow with a 3/32” pilot hole through the center of each recess.
3. Sand the inside face of the bottom through 150 grit. Wipe or blow off the dust.
4. Clamp — or tape the bottom to the sides with masking tape, just enough to hold it in place — so that all edges are flush. Make witness marks on the bottom and frame so that you will be able to replicate their alignment during assembly. Extend the pilot holes from the bottom about 7/8” into the sides. Remove the bottom.
5. Brush a light, even coat of glue on the underside of the frame and along the edges of the bottom where the surfaces will join. Fasten the bottom in place with No. 6 x 1-1/4” screws. Clamp or place weight on the upside down box. Wipe off any excess glue with a damp rag. Allow to dry. Sand the outside of the box through 100 grit. Touch up the inside, where moisture from the rag and glue raised the grain, with 150 grit sandpaper.
Make and install the handle
1. Crosscut your lumber to finished length — which should match the outside length of your box, on paper 13-1/2” — but leave the board slightly wider than the finished 10-1/2”.
2. Using a pencil, combination square and compass, transfer key dimensions from the shop drawing to the handle panel. Draw a center line from top to bottom. Mark the centres of the two 2” diameter holes, 6” apart and 7-1/2” up from the bottom, that will form the ends of the handle slot. Use a compass to draw the 2” diameter holes. Mark the points where the handle’s top radius will intersect the edges. With your beam compass set to 9”, draw an arc passing through these points. Scribe a 9” radius arc that connects the tops of the 2” handle holes you’ve drawn previously. Draw a straight line tangent with the bottom of the holes to complete the handle slot layout.
3. Mark the notches on the handle stock where the piece will fit into its dadoes and overlap the end walls. Dimensions for these appear in the drawings, but to accommodate any small variances in your project, it’s best to check them against your box. Measure the inside height of your frame, the outside box length from end to end, and the distance between dado bottoms. Draw cut lines for your notch that match these specifications.
4. Cut out the handle notches and top radius using a bandsaw or jig saw. For the curved top, cut just outside your pencil line then sand the rest of the way to the line. A simple sanding block works fine but a bench-top sander, such as a disc sander or spindle sander, makes the work easier.
5. Using a Forstner bit in a drill press, bore 2” diameter holes where you’ve marked for the handle slot. Cut out the remainder of the slot with a scroll saw, jig saw or coping saw. Smooth the transitions between the drill and saw cuts, using a half-round rasp, small sanding drum or sandpaper-wrapped dowel.
6. Sand the handle, including the slot, through 150 grit. Check regularly to make sure you do not remove so much material that you create a sloppy fit between handle and dadoes. Once you’ve achieved a good fit, avoid sanding the edges of the handle further. Wipe or blow off the dust.
7. Dry fit the handle into the frame. Turn the tote on its side and continue the 3/32” pilot holes through the bottom into the handle. Remove the handle.
8. Apply glue to the dadoes and mating surfaces on the handle, including the portions where the handle notches extend over the ends. Also spread a very light coat of glue along the bottom edge of the handle. Slide the handle into place, and seat it against the bottom. Fasten with No. 6 x 1-1/4” screws. Clean off any excess glue with a damp rag.
Sand and finish
1. Round over the tote’s sharp edges and corners with sandpaper. You can fill any tiny gaps or surface imperfections with a filler of glue and sawdust. When dry, sand the box through 150 grit. Remove dust.
2. Finish with two coats of milk paint, following the manufacturer’s directions. For a distressed look, sand lightly with 220 grit sandpaper, leaving a bit of exposed wood on the tote’s edges. Once the paint is cured, seal with several coats of a low-gloss water-based polyurethane.