Shaker Oval Nesting Trays

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This article is from Issue 19 of Woodcraft Magazine.

For variety, make all four sizes

Simplicity is the keynote of this Shaker-inspired project. The tray’s base serves as the bending jig, and a cool water bath for the surrounding band eliminates the heat and danger of steam bending. You don’t need even a drop of glue because you’ll pin the band to the base with toothpicks.

The trays look great nested inside each other for compact storage, but the Shakers never built anything that was strictly decorative. These trays are tough enough that you’ll enjoy using them everyday for years on end. Now let’s build one.

“Making Shaker trays is like eating peanuts—finishing one makes you want another. Our easy-to-enlarge patterns serve up three sizes, and a simple ellipse jig generates the largest tray. Then, after finishing your first set, you’ll find you have plenty of leftover tacks—a good excuse to start in on a new batch.”

–Scott Phillips

Start with the tray base

1. To make any or all of the three smaller trays found in the Cut List (page 41), enlarge the desired base half patterns on page 76 on a photocopier set at 200%, making a set of two half patterns for each base. Then align and tape together the individual sheets. A copier that handles 11 x 17" paper will minimize piecing. Cut out the desired full-sized complete pattern or patterns. You’ll also want to make a copy of the finger pattern for each tray band and set it aside. 

For the largest tray size you’ll need to make the Ellipse Marking Jig (Fig. 1) to shape the base. Tape a 16 x 24" sheet of lightweight posterboard to a piece of scrap plywood. Draw a horizontal line 20¼" long, and mark points 3" in from the ends of the line. Partially drive a finishing nail at each of these pivot points. Tie a loop in a length of string that won’t stretch—nylon mason’s line is ideal. Put the string over the nails, and adjust the length of the loop so that your pencil or fine-tip marker just reaches the end of the horizontal 20¼" line. Holding the marker vertically and with even tension on the loop, draw the outline as shown. Cut out the shape with scissors, and you have a reusable pattern.

2. Cut an oversized blank for the tray base from 6mm (¼") Baltic birch plywood, avoiding any football-shaped veneer patches. Adhere the pattern to the top of the plywood by wiping a glue stick on the back of the paper pattern. (You don’t need to smear glue over the entire pattern; one swipe on each side of the outline is plenty.) When placing the pattern, make sure that its long dimension follows the grain direction of the plywood.

3. Next, using a ½" blade with 4 TPI (teeth per inch), bandsaw the base. As shown in Photo A, cut 1/16" to the waste side of the line. Next, for a seamless fit with the band, tilt your disc-sander table to 2° up from horizontal and bevel the perimeter of the base. Sand to the line as shown in Photo B and refer to the base edge detail (Fig. 2) to confirm this setting. Make certain that the finished perimeter is smooth, with no lumps or valleys.

Bandsaw the base to shape cutting just outside the line.

Sand the base to the line with the disc sander table angled at 2° to create a slightly beveled edge. 

Adjust your bandsaw’s fence 3/16" from the blade and rip the needed number of band strips from the 11/8"-thick cherry stock.

Next, make the band

1. Cut a length of 6/4 straight-grained, defect-free cherry stock to the longest band length you intend to make (see the Cut List), plus 6". (Doing this allows for snipe waste when face-planing the band strips later.) Now plane the cherry board to 11/8" thick. Note: When selecting your stock, go with fast-growth cherry (with 6 to 10 annual rings per inch); it bends with fewer failures than slow-growth wood. 

2. Next, joint the edge of the cherry board and bandsaw the needed number of band strips on your bandsaw to 3/16" thick as shown in Photo C. After cutting each band strip, joint the board’s sawn edge so that it’s smooth and straight again for the next band strip cut.

3. Now face-plane the band strips to 1/8" thick. See the tip on page 40 to eliminate planer snipe. Cut the bands to the needed lengths for the trays you’re making, referring to the Cut List.

Start with a new blade in a utility knife, and bevel-cut the finger at one end of the band following the pattern’s cutline.

Start from 3" out from the inside square end and sand a taper using a stationary belt or other sander. 

Form the oval band by first wrapping it around the base, marking, and then clamping the ends together while working on a flat surface.

Using a block of wood in a vise as a backer and a tack hammer, tap in the tacks to fasten the band ends together. 

Soak and shape the bands

1. Soak bands in room-temperature water for at least eight hours to make them flexible enough to bend smoothly. You can flex the bands to fit in a plastic storage container or bathtub. Here’s another tip: Get a length of roof guttering at a home center, and use silicone or gutter sealant to attach a cap to each end. This makes an inexpensive and watertight soaking tray that’s easy to store between projects.

2. Next, take a band out of the water and flex it in both directions to determine which way bends more easily. When you’ve identified the inner face of the easier bend, put the band’s inner face down on a piece of scrap plywood clamped to your workbench.

3. Glue-stick the finger pattern you copied earlier to the outside right-hand end of a band. Then, with a sharp utility knife, shape the “finger” as shown in Photo D. Tilt the blade at 10° from vertical to give the finger a uniform bevel along the edges and end.

4. Using a belt sander as shown in Photo E, taper the inside face at the opposite “square” end of the band to make a smooth transition between that end and the edge of the base. Begin the taper 3" in from the end as shown in Fig. 3. When shaping the taper with your belt sander, make sure to hold the band vertically so the sanding remains even across its width.

Join the band

1. Bend a band snugly around the perimeter of the base and make a pencil mark at the end of the finger. Remove the band from the base and, using the mark, clamp the band ends together with a face clamp. Lay the band’s edge on your workbench or other level surface as shown in Photo F to ensure that it sits flat all around and that the edges are flush. Adjust the clamp, if necessary, and double-check that the pencil mark aligns with the end of the finger.

2. Referencing the full-sized Finger Pattern as a tack-location guide, clamp a scrap 2 x 4" into your bench vise and tap in the copper tacks as shown in Photo G. The ends of the 5/16" tacks will go through the bands. Next, clinch the tacks’ extra length down by applying a light sideways hammer tap to achieve a firm grip. Because copper is not very strong, the tips either just bend off or bury themselves into the wood. Either way, for all intents and purposes, they just vanish. You might also try using an iron pipe as an anvil. As you hammer the tacks in, they will clinch themselves. 

3. Put the base face up on your workbench, and hold the band with the finger pointed to the right and centered in the length of the bottom as shown in Fig. 4. Gently press downward to seat the band onto the tapered base. If the fit is too tight, take the bottom back to the disk sander to slightly reduce its size. Make only a tiny adjustment, and test the fit again.

4. You don’t need glue to hold a band and base together if you’ve taken the time to get a tight fit. Instead, drill a 5/64" hole through the band and into the base and tap in a round toothpick as shown in Fig. 5. Repeat every four inches around the perimeter of the tray and trim away the excess length of the toothpicks with a sharp utility knife. After a light sanding, the toothpick holes virtually disappear.

Finishing Options

Let the tray dry at least one week in a well-ventilated location out of direct sunlight. If you like the contrast between the light base and dark band, finish the tray with two coats of wipe-on polyurethane. Or, if you want to make the base look like cherry, apply a stain or tinted garnet shellac. To make the shellac, dissolve 3 oz (by weight) of garnet shellac with 16 fluid oz of denatured alcohol. Wiping two coats of this shellac onto the bottom will give it a pleasing cherry tone. After the shellac dries, apply two coats of wipe-on polyurethane for durability. 

Finally, add self-adhesive felt dots to the bottom of each tray so that they don’t scratch each other when stacked. (See the above-mentioned items in the Buying Guide.)


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