Party Trays

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This article is from Issue 97 of Woodcraft Magazine.

Make some chips before serving some chips

Whether you’re preparing a treat for your next potluck dinner or dishing up salsa and chips to eat in front of the game, you’ll find these two party trays are up to the challenge. They also make great gifts and are a good way to show off your woodworking skills. The removable dish, called a ramekin, is available at most department stores for a couple of bucks. Or splurge and find a local potter to make you a set. Either way, adding that ceramic element frees you to serve nearly any food without fear of damaging your tray.

The key to making both of these designs is to start with a template that includes inner “rings.” In teaching how to make these trays, I’ve found most students have trouble guiding a router across a wide-open area—essentially free-handing the tool. The rings provide guidance for every cut and make the job much easier. You’ll also need a plunge router and a 3/4" tray bit with a top guide bearing. You can make your tray from nearly any wood—those shown here are made of 6/4 sapele.

Order of Work

  • Make the templates
  • Rout the interior
  • Rout the exterior
  • Sand and finish

Lay out the templates

Regardless of which tray you make, the steps are the same. Make two templates for each tray from 1/2" MDF or plywood. The first or “inner” template gets the cutouts for the recesses in the tray. Keep it rectangular for maximum router support. Cut the second, or “outer” template, to match the outside shape of the tray. Draw centerlines on it to help with alignment.

CNC Router

If you have a CNC router, there is no need to make templates. Simply download the files from our website and program your machine to make the appropriate cuts.

Bandsaw the templates

Cut two template blanks to the size specified in the drawing on page 24. Lay out the interior cutouts on one blank, and cut out these shapes at the band saw. Follow the designated access lines through the outer portion of the interior template as shown. Clean up the saw marks at the spindle sander, then, cut the inner rings on the band saw as shown. With a little luck when making the double tray, you’ll only need a single set of rings to make both end recesses and another set for the circular cutouts because the openings are identical. In the real world, it may not work out that way. If so, simply make a set of rings for each opening. Attach a fence to the template as shown. To make the outer template, draw center lines on the second blank and lay out the shape before cutting it out at the bandsaw.

Mind if I cut in? With a fresh 1⁄4" blade, I was able to navigate the openings in the inner template in one smooth cut, leaving the inside “scrap” to make into the inner rings. If you have trouble with the tight radii you can always trace the openings and cut replacement “scrap” pieces.
Follow the line. Lay out the first inner ring with a line sketched in about 5⁄8" in from the perimeter. Cut along the line to make the first ring. Then repeat, making a series of concentric rings, until you end up with a gap approximately 1" wide in the center. Don’t worry if your cuts wobble—the only ones that matter are the outermost cuts that define the openings.

Add a fence. Screw a length of 3⁄4" × 11⁄2" stock to the underside of the inner template to serve as a fence. Position the fence as indicated on the diagram on page 24. Test the rings’ fit in the openings. Wrap 3-4 layers of masking tape around each to take up some of the slop from the saw kerfs. 

Inside outward. Rout the recesses from the center outward. Move the router clockwise around the opening, making each cut in several 1⁄4"-deep passes (often two steps on most router’s depth control turret). When you reach full depth, retract the bit completely, remove the innermost ring, and repeat the process.

Ring around the recesses

Cut the tray blank to size from 5/4 or 6/4 stock and draw two centerlines across the width and length of the top surface. Clamp the blank to the template’s fence centering it end-to-end. Equip a plunge router with a 3/4"-diameter bowl bit and an auxiliary base plate wide enough to span the opening. Set maximum cutting depth to 3/8" less than the thickness of the blank. Beginning with all the rings in place, rout away the recesses starting from the inside and working your way out. This will make a lot of chips. Vacuum out the recess after each pass. Be sure to retract the bit before lifting the router to avoid damage to your template.

Trace the tray shape. Align the centerlines on the outer template with the centerlines on the tray blank and trace around the template.

Shape and profile

Align the template and tray blank, and trace the outside shape as shown. Bandsaw the blank to just outside the line and sand to clean up the saw marks and fair the curves. At the router table, profile the upper outside edges as shown. Then round over the inside edges with a 1/4" bit. Along the bottom, shape the long edges (or, in the case of the single tray, all but the handle end) with a 5/8" roundover bit. Finally, rout the handles as shown.

Start upside down. With the tray inverted, shape the outside ends with a 1⁄2" roundover bit, feeding the piece from right to left. Follow up along the edges.
Finish right-side-up. For the handle ends, switch to a 3⁄4" cove bit. Cut these large coves in several shallow passes.

Time for recess. Make sure you eliminate all the router marks with coarse sandpaper before working your way through the grits. Use a light touch to avoid damaging the foam pad.

Sanding at the drill press

You can make short work of cleaning up the tray with a couple of drill press-mounted sanding accessories including a foam-backed sanding pad and a sanding mop. The pad makes use of wavy edge abrasive discs, which help keep the edges of the paper from digging in. Once you have everything sanded, apply a finish. I finished these trays with several coats of tung oil.

Mopping up. While you can sand the flat surfaces conventionally, a sanding mop will do a nice job on the roundovers without altering their shape. 


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