Flatware Caddy

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This article is from Issue 106 of Woodcraft Magazine.

A small container with big techniques

As the sun returns and spring blooms, my thoughts turn to heading outdoors and sharing meals with friends and family. But carrying all the accouterments of a backyard feast can require a lot of trips in and out of the house and result in a pile of cluttered cutlery. This flatware caddy provides a solution for organizing, transporting, and displaying your dining supplies in a simple design inspired by the curve and overlap of garden leaves.

The basic construction draws inspiration from historic coopered vessels, but I elongated the traditionally circular footprint to create an ellipse. The caddy achieves this elliptic shape by carefully adjusting the coopering angle between each stave. Luckily, that’s not as fussy as it sounds. There are 20 staves but only five bevel angles that repeat around the ellipse. The trick is to bevel long strips of stave stock first, then crosscut them to length, ensuring all your angles match. The compound curve on the top edge of the caddy is made easy by bandsawing the shape onto the staves while they are laid flat and then fairing out the curve after gluing up.

The container’s interior is organized with removable, half-lapped dividers, making clean-up easier in the event of messy condiment spills. And the steam-bent handle, attached with brass barrel screws, swivels out of the way for easy utensil access.

Order of Work

  • Make the staves 
  • Make and fit bottom panel 
  • Assemble and glue-up 
  • Make removable compartments 
  • Steam bend handle 
  • Attach handle


The patterns on page 46 are available on our website at full-size:

  •  bottom panel
  •  caddy wall profile curve
  •  short and long dividers
  •  steam bending form 

 Read a free article on ripping bevels at the table saw.

An elegant, convenient solution for carrying cutlery

An elliptic bottom panel of 1/4" Baltic ply floats inside dadoes sawn into the caddy’s staves. The removable compartment dividers connect with half-lap notches. They are trimmed to a slightly loose fit inside the container to allow easy removal and avoidance of interference with the coopered walls during seasonal changes. The staves and dividers are made from paulownia, but any lightweight wood will do. The handle attaches to the caddy via barrel screws. Walnut is used to provide contrast and an amenable species for steam bending.

Making an ellipse

Mill several long strips of stave stock to 2" wide. You’ll need two strips (A and F) at 15" long, and four strips (B through E) at 36" long, plus extras for table saw set up. Tilt your table saw blade to 17°, and bevel both sides of strip F and one side of strip E. Then set the blade to the next angle in the diagram, and so on. After all six strips of stave stock are beveled, crosscut the strips into individual overlong staves and cut the dado for the bottom panel, as shown.

Bevel the stave stock. Before you rip the second bevel on each strip of stave stock as shown, use your set up stock to dial in the fence to the correct final width. Mark one end of your pieces with their part letters (A-F) and bevel angles.

Cut staves overlong. Return your table saw blade to 90° and crosscut the beveled stave stock to 7" lengths. Mark each piece with its part letter and bevel angles on one end only (critical for the next step). This will result in two staves each of A and F and four staves each of B through E.

Brain-teasing dadoes.
Use two stop blocks clamped to your crosscut sled to set the width of the bottom panel dado. Set the blade height to a 1⁄4" above the sled’s bed. Be sure to place staves bevel side down when cutting. Group the staves in two halves. Saw the dado toward the unmarked end of one half of A through F, then toward the marked end of the other half, as shown.

Dividing the interior

Mill stock for dividers and cut template blanks of the same size from 1/4" ply. Use the Short and Long Divider patterns to make plywood templates. Cut the half-lap joinery at the table saw first. Then bandsaw the profile curves on the dividers as shown. Assemble them outside of the caddy, as they will be too big to drop down into the piece at first. Mark out where trimming is needed and mark the joints for orientation on the divider’s undersides. Then disassemble, and trim them on a shooting board. Once the divider assembly fits easily in the caddy, remove it to clean up all top edges of the container. Remember this is coopered, so the top edge of the caddy wall is all end grain: here a sharp spokeshave is your friend, and uphill is actually downhill. Once you’ve finished the outer top edge, use a spokeshave or file to clean up the curves of the dividers, making sure they fit well in relation to the caddy and each other. Sand and finish top and outside of caddy. Sand and finish dividers.

Cut the joinery first.
At the crosscut sled, raise the table saw blade to the depth of the half lap notch and use two stop blocks to set the width to match the thickness of your divider material, taking multiple passes to nibble away the notch. Flip the piece and cut the second notch.

Add curves. After tracing the curves from your plywood templates onto the dividers, bandsaw them to shape.

Clean up top edges.
Quick-grip clamps are a handy way to secure this irregular object to your work surface while you fair the curve along the top edge.

Fashioning a handle

Print the Steam Bending Form pattern. Cut it from thick stock or stacked plywood. I used 8/4 pine. Fair out any bumps on your form; they’ll show up in your handle. Cut the handle blanks overlong by 6" for clamping. Steam the blanks for 15 minutes. Then remove one and bend it around the form. If it breaks, discard and bend the next blank. Clamp until fully dry, at least 24 hours. Transfer the cut marks from the bending pattern to the handle before removing it from the form. Cut the handle to the marked length. Drill holes in the handle and chamfer the corners with a block plane. Sand and finish the handle, install the barrel screws, drop in the dividers, and start caddying!

Bend the handle. Holding the piece toward its ends, gently coax the steamed stock over the form. Secure in place with one clamp.

Attach handle.
A short flat-head screwdriver on the screw side of the barrel screw and light hand pressure on the barrel side is all you need to tighten these fasteners. Apply a reversible thread locker to keep everything in place.

Small-scale Steam Bending

Steam bending might seem risky. Building a form, making a compression strap, and spending hours steaming thick timber can end in heartbreak when you hear a loud crack as you finish clamping the piece around the form. But starting at a small scale is much more forgiving. And once you get a feel for small bends, it’s easy to scale up.

Once your setup is running (see photo at right), fill the Earlex with water, plug it in, and wait. Keep an eye on your thermometer as the steam starts to flow. When the temperature passes 210°F, load your blanks into the box. The temperature will drop when you open the door, so wait until it reaches 210° again before you start timing. The rule of thumb is one hour per inch of thickness, but I err on the side of extra steam. I steamed the 1⁄8" thick caddy handle for 15 min. It’s possible to oversteam, but the benefit of starting small is that you get to experiment quickly to get a feel for different factors.

Making a steam box.
My system is easy to replicate. You need an Earlex steamer (See Buyers Guide, p. 60), water, a shop-made steam box, and a digital meat thermometer. Screw together a narrow plywood box with a front door that hinges at the top. Elevate the front. Drill a hole in the center of the bottom to attach the fitting that comes with the steamer. Drill another hole at the rear end of the bottom for drainage, one in the top to fit your thermometer, and several along the sides to run dowels across, creating interior shelving.


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