Saturday, October 17, 2015

The Joys of a Simple Tray

Warning, long post with way too many images!

For me a big part of camping is living outdoors, something I think all of us, including me, don't do near enough of anymore, walling ourselves up with our central heat & air-conditioning and gadgets and WIFI and cable-TV packages instead. (I recently saw a house on some acreage in Hawaii that was basically an open-air pavilion with an enclosed bedroom tucked up into dormers in the roof. What a great way to live!! A roof overhead but not walled off from the world yet with a nice sheltered place to hole up and sleep!)

Anyway, when I'm out and about in the van I like to spend as much time as possible living outside it. Reading, writing, drawing, cooking, eating, stargazing, (We don't do near enough stargazing anymore!) etc. but in all the years I've been doing this I've always had to make multiple trips  in order to carry all my crap back and forth. I would stack my 'stuff', book, drink, plate, silverware, all the crap of comfortable and well-fed living, on a corner of the counter, then climb down from the van, reach back up and grab what I could carry in my two hands, go set it down, and come back for more. (Often leaving my unattended snack to be sampled by the local fauna.)

Well I finally pushed through my natural laziness (Hey! It's an evolutionary thing, not my fault!! Look it up!) and got out into the shop to do something about that. Clearly what I needed was a tray! With a simple tray I could cut my back-and-forth trips; and pilfered snacks; down considerably. I mean, after all, trays have been in use for - well - I'm sure that it didn't take long for some nomadic hunter to come up with the idea of using a large leaf to convey Mastodon steaks from carcass to fire to mouth, and I've seen images of Hettite and Egyptian Kings having their fruits and exotic nuts brought to them on trays pounded out of precious metals, and I know from Upstairs Downstairs that Victorians took their tea in the garden on lacquered trays with hand-painted floral motifs. So why was I still living in ignorance??

Sure, I could have gone to Walmart and picked up a $3 plastic tray which would serve the same function, but where's the fun in that??! Instead I followed my usual inclination and made a big production out of a simple tray.

First I had to figure out where this tray would live in the van when it wasn't tray'ing. When you live small this is always the first consideration. Once I found a spot, that gave me a pretty good idea of the size I would be working with.

To make sure that size would be sufficient for the tray's most important function, dinner, I taped off the dimensions I came up with on my bench then populated the area with dinner stuff. I had already decided I didn't want just a shoe-box-lid kind of tray with squared off vertical sides, (After all, why make things easy on myself!) so I did some adjusting to account for angled sides and ultimately came up with a tray bottom of approximately 10" X 17" 

The winning sketch!!
I made a couple rough, really rough, sketches of what I envisioned, selected one, and from here I was pretty much winging it.

I had some Teak to make the tray sides from, but my slab is only 2" high. That's not enough realestate for the arching tray ends with their finger slots unless I have really tiny fingers, which I don't.. In order to get reasonably sized finger slots I was going to have to turn my slab, of which there was less of since building the jewelry box, on end to cut my tray sides out of it.

But first, after doing some measuring across my knuckles to make sure it would be enough, I shortened the slab down to 3.5" so that I could re-saw it on the table saw in a single pass. I'm sure I'll find something to use that off-cut for sometime in the future.

The next step was to re-saw the Teak into the thickness of the tray sides, about 3/8th of an inch.

Since I was foolish enough to saddle myself with slanted tray sides, I then went to the scrap pile, found a thick piece of pine that was pretty straight, and cut a couple of 20 degree wedges out of it, in a single pass since the exact angle wasn't as important as making sure both wedges had the same angle.

With my miter gauge set to 45 degrees, the 20 degree wedge held against that, and the future tray side held firmly against the wedge, I cut a compound miter on one end.

I then had to reverse my miter gauge as well as the wedge, using the other half of the wedge to keep things stable, in order to make the cut on the other end of the piece.

The most important thing at this point was to ensure that the pair of tray ends as well as both the tray sides were cut to exactly the same length so that when assembled things would be square.

After giving the bottom edge of each piece a 20 degree angle and cutting a rabit that would eventually take the tray bottom, I free-handed the final shape. In this photo I've drawn the curved top of one of the tray ends as well as the finger slot. Then I used double sided tape to attach the other end piece to it before cutting the curve for both in a single pass on the bandsaw.

Then, with the two ends still taped together, it was over to the drill press to form the ends of the finger slots,

And back to the bench to connect the dots and finish cutting the finger slots.

I did the same procedure with the tray sides, sketching the curve freehand into one, taping them together and cutting the curve on the bandsaw.

At this point I had all four parts that would form the sides of the tray roughed out.

This was a good point to refine the finger slots. I used a rasp and sandpaper to blend the cuts and round the edges over so they would feel good on my sensitive fingers.

Clamping compound miters might seem complicated and intimidating, but in smaller sizes like this it's really quite simple as long as you keep track of where each piece goes. Just turn them face down, carefully butt adjoining ends, tape tightly across them,

then fold the whole thing together and tape the final joint.

Acetone to clean the oily wood for a good grip, a little glue, and some light assistance from the band clamp, and the assembly is ready to go. If cut carefully the miters are self aligning but measuring from corner to corner across both diagonals of the assembly ensures that it has come out square.

With the sides assembled I could start refining the top edges. Starting with rasps then working down through the sandpaper grits, I shaped the top edges so that they flowed into each other at the corners and the edge was rounded off nicely.

I smoothed them out down to 220 grit paper but was careful not to remove all the irregularities (If you look close here you can see a 'bump' in about the middle third of the curve of the side. I was going for refined but didn't want to completely eliminate the hand-made aspect.

With the sides assembled I was then able to cut and fit the 1/4" birch ply that would form the bottom of the tray.

At this point all I had to do was glue the bottom into place and I would be done, but nooo! That would be too easy!

The place I had selected to store the tray was on the wall at the end of the kitchen counter, so rather than have just a plain wood bottom looking out at me I wanted something with more interest.

After quite a bit of farting around I decided I wanted the image of an old truck, abandoned out in the woods, sort of appearing out of the fog, all done in pyrography, which is a fancy word for woodburning.

I messed around with drawings until I came up with one I liked, then I did that one over several times to refine it down a bit and make sure I understood it. Because of the steps I knew were coming next, I made sure to do my drawing in a mirror image of how I wanted the finished product to come out.

Because I haven't done much woodburning, I took a scrap left over from cutting the bottom to size and did some experimenting. And boy did I need the practice!! Those blacks are jarringly black, the 'shadows' messy and distracting, and along the way I managed to burn random divots right into the wood surface.

Once I had a drawing I could live with I transferred it onto a piece of tracing paper then taped the tracing paper face down to the tray bottom. (This flipped the image so the truck will appear to be headed out into the van instead of back into the backsplash.)

With the penciled side of the tracing paper down against the wood I was able to lightly burnish the lines

 and transfer the image to the wood.  (I've pushed the contrast of this photo so the image will show up. In reality at this point it's pretty faint.

Then I began to carefully burn the image with a cheap little 30 watt burner, making sure to start at the 'front' of the image and work back, since woodburning is essentially a transparent media just like watercolor.

One of my biggest challenges at this point is knowing when to stop. I have a tendency to continue to 'refine' artwork until all the life has been worked right out of it. I've learned that if I think an image is complete then I've already gone too far. So I worked on this slowly, over the course of a week. Doing a little then putting burner down and walking away.

I've still got the urge to go back in and do some more on this, but experience has taught me that's rarely a good idea and less is almost always better than too much.

With a lacquer finish on the sides and a good clear-coat on the bottom (Clear-coat doesn't stick well to Teak but lacquer doesn't hold up well to sweating highball glasses.) it was finally time to assemble the thing!

After sitting in the clamps overnight it was all over except for the finishing touches.

Which consisted of sticking on some Command Strips. Four pieces in the corners will act as feet when the tray is in use and will also mate with matching pieces on the wall for secure storage. The trick here is to not use too much Command Strip (You don't want to rip the wall down when trying to remove the tray!) and to lightly stick the wall half of each strip-pair to the tray half before gently pressing the tray into place against the wall.

That way the wall pieces will end up right where they are supposed to be, but you can still gently detach the tray in order to press the wall pieces firmly in place so they bond well and stay put for the long haul.

And there you have it! A tray that stores out of the way and looks good (If I'm allowed to say so.)

yet can be quickly removed and used for the purpose it was born to.
(Now all I need is dinner to fill those dishes with!)


  1. I want one! And Kristen'll want one too!

    Wait'll I tell her!


    1. Thanks. Still using it today and no, I don't take commissions so y'all will have to find your own trays!