Dovetailed Serving Tray

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This article is from Issue 108 of Woodcraft Magazine

A minimalist server that delivers big

The inspiration for making this serving tray came from our living room ottoman. In a house with two rambunctious children, the leather ottoman works better in front of our couch than a coffee table. It offers good storage for games, a comfy surface for weary feet, and soft corners to absorb the inevitable collision. But that soft top makes it less than ideal as a serving surface. Hence the need for a tray. 

Made from just four pieces of wood, the design is quite simple with a spare aesthetic that pleases my minimalistic sensibilities. The serving panels are joined to the full-width handles with sliding dovetails. The handles extend below the panels to also serve as feet, giving the tray a wide, stable stance. The tray’s low profile makes it easy to store (usually right inside the ottoman) while its outward curves provide plenty of serving surface. The majority of the build happens at the router table where a handful of bits (see Buyers Guide, p. 60) make both shaping the handles and cutting the joinery straightforward operations. I made my tray entirely from quartersawn sycamore, bookmatching the panels for symmetry. Feel free, however, to substitute any hardwood to suit your tastes and even consider selecting contrasting species for a two-tone look.

Simple style in a tasteful tray

The serving portion of the tray is made of a pair of bookmatched panels connected to the handles with sliding dovetails. The gap between the panel pieces mitigates seasonal movement and adds visual interest to the tray. The handles also act as feet, spanning the width of the tray to give plenty of stability. The large coves routed along their lower edges provide good purchase for lifting as well as visually lightening the pieces. The convex curves along the tray’s edges add serving space along with a certain aesthetic flair. 

Order of Work

  • Form handles
  • Resaw and dovetail panels
  • Assemble

Make the handles

Mill two handle blanks, leaving each piece a few inches overlong and an inch overwide for safety on the router table—the coves you’ll be cutting are big ones. Rout the coves, then rip the handles to their final width at the table saw with the coves face-up and towards the fence. Finish-sand the handles’ inside face before cutting the dovetail slot—sanding this face after cutting the dovetail can loosen the fit. Rout the dovetail slot in two steps. First chuck a 1/4" diameter straight bit in your router table to remove the bulk of the waste in a few successively deeper passes. Then rout the actual dovetail slot in a single pass with a 1/2", 14˚ dovetail bit. Be sure to leave the dovetail bit set up at this height until you cut the mating tongues in the panels. Then come back and round the upper corner of the handles with a 1/2"-radius roundover bit.

Cove the handles. With such a large bit in play, leave the blank oversized when routing the cove profile to provide added stability. Rout the cove in several passes.

Rout the dovetail slot. After removing most of the waste material with a straight bit, make the final pass with a dovetail bit. Position a feather board to ensure the piece stays tight against the fence.

Resawing panels

Resawing a thick panel to make the two leaves of the panel allows them to be bookmatched, creating a symmetrical grain pattern. Resawing can be done either with a single-point fence (shown) or with a tall auxiliary fence securely attached to your standard fence. Either way, tune your bandsaw to minimize blade drift (see OnlineEXTRAs) for a straight cut. Also equip your saw with as wide a blade as possible—1⁄2" minimum—that has only 3 or 4 teeth per inch (TPI). Wider blades have greater beam-strength which translates into less twisting and deflecting under pressure from the material. A blade with fewer TPI means the gullets between the teeth can be bigger which in turn helps carry away accumulated sawdust more effectively. And while you’re at it, look for a blade with a positive hook angle. These cut more aggressively so less force is required. Ultimately, the goal is to make a straight, clean cut to minimize the planing needed afterward. This creates the most exact bookmatch.

See to the saw. Proper setup and blade selection is key to a good resaw operation. Take the time to install the right blade, then set your guide bearings and fence to minimize drift.

Dovetail the panels

Mill the panels from thick stock, resawing it to create a bookmatched pair. Also mill a piece of scrap to the same thickness as the finished panels for set up. Leave the dovetail bit’s height the same as it was for routing the slots, but reposition the router table’s fence so the bit is mostly buried behind the front surface. Hold your prepared scrap on end and cut one face, then rotate it and cut the second face. Tweak the fence position until the resulting dovetail tongue is a good fit in the handle slots. Then cut the good panels.

Dovetailed ends. Adjust the fence to achieve a snug but not too-tight fit in the slot. After dialing in the cut on scrap, rout both faces of both ends of both panels with the same setup.

Assemble and finish

Brush glue into the slots halfway across both handles and install the first panel. Then grip that panel in a vice and apply glue to the remaining slots leaving a dry space in the center. Slide in the second panel. After the assembly is dry, lay out the side curves with a fairing stick. Cut the curves at the bandsaw before sanding and finishing the tray. Since food contact is a possibility, I chose a food-safe, hard wax oil (see Buyers Guide, pg. 60). Then serve up some tasty snacks!

Slide from the side. After assembling the first panel, use shaped cauls to help apply clamp pressure across the joint. Rest 1⁄4" spacers on the panel to ensure an even gap as you slide the second panel home. Try to avoid getting glue in the slot at the gap.

Cut the curves. Lay out the curves on both the panel and handles. Then attach an auxiliary table to your bandsaw if necessary to create a stable platform for the tray’s feet when cutting the curves.


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