Build a Great Grill Cart

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This article is from Issue 83 of Woodcraft Magazine.

grill cart

Enjoy better barbecues with a mobile helper that’s easy to build.

Well-documented research tells us that July 4 and Memorial Day are the most popular days for an outdoor barbecue. But at my house, grilling has become the most popular way to make dinner all year round. We were overdue for a grill cart that could provide a serving tray top, storage space below, and a ready supply of paper towels. This little assistant was just the ticket. Initially, I planned to incorporate galvanized steel panels in the design for a rugged industrial appearance. But the right sheet metal was difficult to find and even more difficult to cut. Instead, I reached my galvanized goal by coating MDO (medium-density overlay) plywood panels with faux metal finish from a spray can.

The wood frame for the cart is made from red cedar, a species that stands up to weather and is a pleasure to work. Several coats of marine spar varnish improve its durability. The grill cart’s top is cast concrete, formed using a simple mold I made after reading up on concrete countertops (see p. 42). If concrete isn’t to your liking, you can get a countertop fabricator to make you a top from stone or solid surface material.

Solid wood frames, plywood panels, a pair of wheels, and a concrete top

The cart is designed to be strong, durable, and easy to build. As an alternative to red cedar, you could use cypress or pressure-treated 5/4 pine decking boards. Just make sure to select stock that’s clear, straight, and dry. If you use 5/4 × 6" boards like I did, you can minimize waste by ripping legs, rails, and web frame parts to a finished width of 2-1/2". The door frame, drawer false front, and back rails are made from 3/4"-thick stock; all other cedar parts are 1" thick.

Order of Work

  • Make the web frames.
  • Cut plywood sides and back to finished size, prefinish these parts, and drill shelf support holes in sides.
  • Fasten sides and back to web frames.
  • Make leg and side assemblies, including dowel supports.
  • Final-sand the assemblies and finish them with clear exterior finish.
  • Fasten the leg and side assemblies to the sides.
  • Install the wheels and glides.
  • Make and install the door.
  • Make and install the drawer box and drawer false front.
  • Make and install the countertop (p. 42).

Web frames first, then sides & back, legs, and wheels

After making the web frames, cut the plywood sides and back to size, and prefinish them. I coated the interior faces of the sides and back with grey milk paint, and applied two coats of Rust-Oleum Silver Hammered aerosol finish to exterior faces. After drilling shelf support holes, you can screw the plywood sides and back to the web frames. Then use pocket screw joinery to make the leg and side assemblies. Follow the pattern on the facing page to make 4 dowel supports,then attach them to the leg and side assemblies with screws and glue. This gets you set to install the wheels and glides.

grill cart

Pairs of pocket screws. Each joint in the three web frames goes together with two pocket screws. A bench-mounted, fast-action clamp makes quick work of holding the jig in place and keeping joining frame members aligned as you assemble your frames. Use the same pocket joinery technique to build the leg and side assemblies.

Do the hole job early. It’s smart to drill shelf pin holes in the sides before assembling the case. My shop-made jig places 1/4"-dia. holes 1-1/4" from the side’s edges. Holes are spaced on 1" centers.

Create the case around the frames. Fasten the sides to the top and bottom web frames first, then clamp 5-1/2"-long spacer blocks in place as shown to exactly position the middle web frame. Secure each connection with three 1-1/2" exterior screws.

Keys to Success

  • Use the right screws: 1-1/2" blue exterior pocket screws for all pocket joinery, 2", 1-1/2", and 1-1/4" outdoor screws for other connections.
  • Prefinish the plywood parts, leg assembly, side assembly, and back rails before assembling the case.
  • Adjust for a level top. Because caster height can vary, it may be necessary to adjust the thickness of the plywood pad in order to keep the cart’s top level.

grill cart

Project photos: Paul Anthony

Leg and side assemblies go on next. Before beginning this assembly step, make sure to attach the dowel supports and apply two coats of exterior varnish to the cedar. Place the case upside-down on a flat surface, then clamp the cedar frames to the case. Since these assemblies are sized to extend 3/4" beyond the plywood edges, I clamp 3/4"-thick spacer blocks to each assembly for easy and accurate alignment. Drive four 1-1/4" screws through the plywood from inside the case to attach each leg or stile. 

Fasten wheels through a pair of pads. Glue 1/2"-thick plywood pads into the bottom corners of the web frame, then install wheels with 1-1/2" washer-head screws. Tap a two-prong poly glide into the bottom of each leg. The glides protect the wood from abrasion and moisture damage.

Download the full-sized pattern.

The door gets stronger joints and an inset panel

The cart’s cabinet is complete, except for the door and drawer. While pocket screws are fine for assembling the web frames and the leg and side assemblies, the door requires stronger joinery. I used loose tenons that fit snugly in mortises milled with my plunge router and a simple mortising jig (see photos below). Tenons can be cut from exterior plywood; use exterior glue when assembling the door frame. When the glue dries, rout a rabbet for the plywood panel that will be held in place with panel clips. Square the edges of the rabbet with a chisel, and prefinish the door frame and panel before you install the door. 

Plunge-routed mortises. This mortise-routing setup calls for a 1/2" O.D. template bushing and a 1/4" spiral flute upcut bit. The top of my jig has a 1/2 × 1-3/4" slot to guide the bushing, with a centerline marked across the slot. The jig’s fence is positioned to locate the mortise in the center of the door’s 3/4"-thick stiles and rails. Get set to rout by clamping the fence to the workpiece with the jig’s centerline aligned over a centerline drawn on the workpiece. 

grill cart

Twice-rout to avoid tear-out. With the rabbeting bit adjusted to cut a 1/2 × 1/2" rabbet, make a climb cut by moving the router in the “wrong” direction (counter-clockwise, left photo above). Keep a firm hold on the tool, and don’t cut the full width of the rabbet. This preliminary cut helps avoid the splintering that can occur if you make a standard, full-depth cut in a tear-out-prone wood like cedar. Follow your climb cut with a full-depth cut, moving the router clockwise.

grill cart

Easy installation. Install the door’s plywood panel with panel clips, then install the door with a pair of no-mortise hinges. Screw the hinges to the door first, then to the left front leg. Complete your door by installing a handle and magnetic catch.

A plywood drawer box gets a cedar front

Size the drawer box to accommodate the two 1/2"-thick drawer slides. It can be built from the same exterior plywood used to make the door and case panels. Screw your slide hardware to the case sides so that the front of the drawer box will sit flush with the front edges of the plywood sides when the drawer is closed. Once the drawer box is complete and installed, you can make and attach the cedar false front. Make sure to prefinish the false front on all sides and edges before attaching it to the drawer box.

grill cart

Stick first, then screw. Cover the front of the drawer box with double-stick tape after drilling four 3/16"-dia. holes in the front of the drawer box–one near each corner. Position the false front, using 1/16"-thick spacers as shown to ensure equal margins around the edges. Secure the false front by driving washer-head screws through the four holes from inside the box. Install your dowel rods, then take a break before tackling the concrete top.

Now for the concrete top: Create a simple form, then fill it

No wonder concrete countertops are popular. A few bucks buys you a 40-lb. bag of high-strength concrete, more than enough to make a small countertop like this one. While professional fabricators customize concrete countertops with pigments and diamond grinding techniques, I just wanted a basic version for my grill cart. The only embellishment I added was a cove along the countertop’s bottom edges.

While you can use a concrete mix designed specifically for countertops (see Buyer’s Guide, p. 68), a standard “high-strength” concrete mix will also work fine. Make sure to protect your skin with heavy rubber gloves. Add just enough water to make a thick mix that will hold together when you form a ball of concrete in your hand. Pack the mud fully into the form, especially along bottom corners where voids are most likely to occur. If they do, you can fill them in with a patching mortar mix after removing the form. 

Standard sandpaper will work for smoothing your top; it just wears out quickly. For best results, use a concrete rub brick, available where masonry supplies are sold. Wait several days for your concrete to cure, then apply a couple of coats of masonry sealer. Attaching the top is easy: Just set it in a bed of construction adhesive.

Order of Work

  • Make the form, cut the wire mesh to size and mix the concrete.
  • Pack the form halfway full with concrete.
  • Press the wire mesh into the concrete, then fill the form.
  • Screed the top flat, and trowel the surface smooth.
  • When the concrete has hardened, use an edging tool to round over the top corners of the casting.
  • Remove the form after 24 hours.
  • Smooth edges and surfaces, then let the concrete cure for another day before applying sealer.
grill cart

Make the form from MCP. Melamine-coated particleboard provides a slick surface for the form. Fasten form sides to the MCP base with pocket screws. Then use double-stick tape to fasten four pieces of PVC shoe molding (mitered at the corners) to the inside corners of the mold. Spritz the form interior with WD-40 as additional protection against sticking.

Pack in the mud. For a strong casting, keep your mix stiff, rather than runny. Pack it into the corners of the form with a broad drywall knife or mason’s trowel.

Place the wire mesh. When the form is halfway full, press a rectangle of welded wire mesh into the concrete, then pack in more concrete until the form is slightly more than full.

Screed it level. Work a wood straightedge back and forth across the form’s top edges to remove excess concrete.

Work on the top surface. After screeding, use a broad drywall knife or concrete float to flatten and smooth the top surface. Then let the concrete harden up.
Ease the edge. Wait until the concrete has started to harden, then use an edging tool to create smooth, rounded edges where the mud meets the sides of the form.

Fire up the grill!
Treating your countertop with a concrete sealer will make it more stain resistant. Secure it to the cart with construction adhesive, and enjoy your new grilling assistant


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