This article appeared in the Fall 2022 issue of This Old House Magazine. Click here to learn how to subscribe.
When looking for ideas for new woodworking projects, Tom is often inspired by construction details he spots on everyday objects from the past. In this case, he drew up a plan for a serving tray that relies on the same sturdy joinery found on wood boxes from a century or more ago.
Tom likes the box joint because it triples the surface area—and holding power—of a plain butt joint, but it’s much simpler than its fancier sibling, the dovetail. “It’s kind of cool because it doesn’t hide anything—it shows off the entire joint,” Kevin says, checking out the old milk crate that was Tom’s inspiration. Tom made this serving tray from 1/2-inch-thick walnut, but you could use any wood you like.
Before building the tray, you’ll need to make a table-saw sled and a custom jig to help space out the identical cuts that make the box joints fit snugly together. You’ll also need a template for the handled sides. Once the tray is complete, you’ll want to sand the joints flush and ease the edges along the sides. After that, there are lots of finish options to protect the wood; Tom used mineral oil, but any food-safe wax or oil will work. Many food-safe oil finishes include beeswax, which gives the oil more body, extends the time between applications, and adds a nice floral aroma to the finish.
For a more durable, long-lasting finish, you could use a drying oil, such as tung oil, as long as it doesn’t contain any harmful additives and is labeled nontoxic.
How It’s Made
- Base: 1x8 pine or MDF, 20 inches long
- Fence: 1x4 pine, 20 inches long
- Guide rails: 3/4x3/8 pine, 12 inches long (2)
- Blade guard: scrap of 2x3 or 2x4, 4 inches long
- Fence: 1x4 pine, 18 inches long
- Square Pins: 3/8x3/8 pine, 4 inches long (2)
- 3/4-inch-thick plywood, cut and sanded to match the template or to the handle design of your choosing
- Short sides: 1/2x3 3/8 walnut, 14 3/4 inches long (2)
- Long sides: 1/2x2 1/4 walnut, 18 3/4 inches long (2)
- Floor pieces: 1/2x1 31/32 walnut, 18 1/8 inches long (7)
- 1×8 pine, 72 inches long
- 1/2×8 walnut, 72 inches long
- 3/4×4 plywood, 14 inches long
- 2×4 scrap, 4 inches long
- CA glue (a.k.a. superglue)
- Wood glue
- Four 2-inch No. 8 wood screws
- 120- and 220-grit sandpaper and sanding blocks
- Mineral oil or another food-safe oil
- Double-stick tape
The first task is to make a table-saw sled, a sliding crosscutting jig that’s guided by the miter slots, and a box-joint jig attached to the sled that allows you to make precise joinery on the saw.
Build the sled
Place the guide rails in the table saw’s miter slots, and apply a few drops of superglue to their tops. While holding the sled base tightly against the table-saw fence, lower the base into the glue and apply pressure until the glue sets. Drive a few short pin nails into each rail from below to reinforce the glue joint. Clamp and screw the sled fence to the sled base so the fence is 5 inches from and parallel to the sled’s front edge.
Prepare the dado blade
Glue a sacrificial 2×4 block to the center of the back of the fence to act as a blade guard. Adjust the dado-set width to 3/8 inch and install it in the table saw. Raise the blades to 1¼ inches, lock the table-saw fence 10 inches from the blade, and make a pass through the sled. Lay a scrap of the 1/2-inch tray material flat on the sled, and raise the dado set about 1⁄16 inch higher than the scrap.
Build the box-joint jig
Clamp the jig fence against the sled fence, and make another pass to make a notch in the center of the jig fence. Unclamp the fence, then take one of the square pins and superglue it into that notch so it protrudes out toward the front of the sled. Use the other square pin as a spacer between the pin in the jig and the dado blades, then reclamp the jig fence to the sled. This glued pin will be the guide to evenly space the box-joint notches.
Steps for Building a Walnut Serving Tray
Step 1: Cut the box joints on the short sides
Mark one long edge of each side to indicate the tray bottom. Hold the marked edge of one short side against the pin on the jig, and cut the first notch. Place the new notch over the peg, cut another notch, and continue the process until you have four notches at either end of both short sides.
Step 2: Cut the corresponding box joints
Place one short side’s first notch over the jig pin so the piece’s marked edge is to the right of the dado blade. Now bring the marked edge of a long side against the shorter piece so that the blade will cut a notch into the bottom edge. Remove the short side, and repeat the process until you have cut three notches in the long side. Repeat the process for both ends of the two long sides.
Step 3: Cut grooves to support the tray bottom
Replace the dado set with a standard blade, raise the blade height to 3/8 inch, and then set the saw fence 7⁄16 inch from the blade. With the bottom edge against the fence and the inside facedown, cut a kerf in each short side. Now adjust the fence away from the blade about 1⁄16 inch, and make another pass through each of the short sides.
Step 4: Cut out the handles
Use doublestick tape to fasten the plywood template (see Tip) to the short sides, then use a Forstner or spade bit to drill out the rounded ends of the handle holes. Use a jigsaw to roughcut the handle holes, and a jigsaw or band saw to cut the outer contoured edge above the handle.
Step 5: Rout the cutouts
With the template still taped to the short sides, use a router and a top-bearing flush trim bit to clean up the handle holes and curved upper edges.
Step 6: Rabbet the bottom pieces
Set the table saw blade 3/8 inch high and the fence 3⁄16 inch from the blade. Using the miter gauge, make several passes on each end of the seven bottom pieces to cut a 1/8-by-3⁄16-inch tongue
Step 7: Assemble the tray
Add wood glue to the box joints’ mating surfaces on one end of the short sides and both ends of one long side. With the bottom grooves facing inward, slide the box joints together. Now slide the bottom pieces into the grooves with their rabbeted sides facing down.
Step 8: Add the final side
Dry-fit the second long side before adding wood glue. If the last floor piece is too wide, rip it a little narrower. When everything fits, apply wood glue to the remaining box joints and slide the final long side into position. Loosely place four bar clamps around the corners of the tray, check the tray for square, and tighten the clamps. Wipe any excess glue off with a damp rag, and allow to dry