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The Rustic Tray

It seems as though every house needs at least one of these rustic wooden trays. Simple and easy to put together, they add a wonderful statement to any coffee table, side table or even kitchen counter... plus it makes for a great personalized gift, by adding a meaningful saying or quote to it. The tray is not only decorative, but functional too. Breakfasts in bed anyone? Pre-dinner snacks on the deck? Cocktails with friends? Having hosted this workshop a number of times, the feedback every time has been...

" I made this tray for my

[ mom | sister | friend | daughter | neighbor ]

but loved it so much, I kept it.

I need to make another one".

So let's create another one. Together.

Request a DIY Art Kit or source the following materials for creating your own tray from scratch:

  • 4 pieces of 4 inch wood x 22 inches long

  • 2 pieces of 2 inch wood x 10.5 inches long

  • 2 handles

  • wood glue

  • 1 inch nails

  • tools

  • stencil- see the Three & Me selection here

  • acrylic or chalk paint for the base

  • chalk paint for the stencil


If your tray is pre-constructed for you by request, skip forward to the paint segment of this craft.

You can get any wood, but I'd recommend starting out with a soft wood, like pine. It is easy to work with, because it is soft, which makes hammering, drilling and sanding so much simpler. It is inexpensive, has beautiful knots and markings and stains really well. I have tried this project with deconstructed pallet wood, but although you can get them for free, the work involved in taking the pallets apart is not worth it to me, plus they are messy, supply many splinters for soft fingers and could contain bugs... I don't like that thought!

If you don't have a saw, you can ask your local hardware store if they'll cut it for you and most will do it for free.

Sand the cut edges and if you want a more rounded look, sand the long edges too. If you want a more distressed finish, sand the smooth surfaces to get scratch marks, which will show up beautifully when you paint.

Orientate your wood so that you have the knots and markings in the most pleasing positions. I love the knots and markings, so I usually place them in prominent places for my creations. Balance out the wood's perfect imperfections on your tray... you'll be looking at it for a long time and you'll want to love it!

Apply wood glue to the long edges. Only a scraping of glue is necessary. Too much glue will ooze onto the surface and affect your paint job. If you did apply too much, wipe off the excess with a wet wipe as soon as you can.

Glue the cross pieces and position the tray upside down... this part always seems counter-productive, but there is method in my madness.

Wood glue takes about 15 minutes to adhere properly. In that time you can still adjust your tray, but too much adjusting and fiddling will disrupt the adhesion process and the glue won't stick as well. Therefore you don't want to be flipping the wet tray over to hammer in the nails, because the wet glue won't be stable yet and your tray will fall apart. So position all the pieces upside down, so that the glue can dry while you hammer in the nails, without having to flip it over. The nails go in the base, so that you don't see them from the top.

1 inch nails at 17 gauge are the best fit. Use as many nails as necessary. If your wood is perfectly straight you can get away with just one in the center of each piece. Two would be better and if your wood is a bit warped, add even more. Alternatively... you may find you're having so much fun releasing stress by hammering in nails, you'll want to fill in the entire edge.

Hammering in the nails can be interesting. Be sure to hit the nails from directly above, otherwise they can bend. If you strike them at an angle, wrenching them out of your wet-glue-construction will affect the adhesion. Should you bend a nail, stop hammering at it ... it'll never be straight again and needs to come out! I have seen so many people trying to save the nail ... it can't be saved... move on to a new one.

Once the nails are in, your glue should have had time to settle and you can flip your tray over into the correct orientation. Does the inversion make sense now? I hope so.


Stain your wood. You can use any wood stain or water-based paint. I have tried both and prefer using acrylics or chalk paints. Paint can be made to look like a stain, if you apply it with a wet sponge brush. In my opinion, there are many advantages to using paints over stains. There are no overwhelming fumes. It's easy to clean. It dries super-fast. You can mix different colors to achieve a variety of effects. It's cheaper. You don't wreck the brush. For a more intense look, use less water or add more layers of paint.

This tray was painted with a mixture of burnt umber and Tuscan teal acrylics at one of my workshops. The effect is stunning!

For a solidly colored tray, apply undiluted paint, in one or more coats.

The paint or stain absorbs differently in knots and striations and causes such a pretty, varied effect. The sandpaper scratch marks also show up at this point.

Allow the paint to dry fully before stenciling. This is super important. The wood has to be as bone dry as possible, otherwise the stenciling will go pear shaped! Too much moisture will draw paint from the stenciling into the wood in places you don't want it to be. If you're in a rush, use a hair dryer.


There are many different types of stencils. Although the basic technique is the same for all, there are a few nuanced differences. In this post I will cover re-usable mylar stencils, but if you have a one-time use vinyl stencil please see this post for video instructions or this post for stenciling wood.

Make sure your tray is 100% bone dry before stenciling.

Position your stencil, knowing that the uneven rustic joins will not be a smooth canvas for you. So you'll have to be extra careful in these areas.

Attach your stencil with masking tape to prevent it from moving while you paint.

Use a stencil brush for the best effect. I like to use chalk paint, because it is thick and luxuriously opaque.

Choose a contrasting color, to make your stencil pop! Such as white on a brown background or black on a white background. You'll have more color options on a white background.

Apply your paint very sparingly to the brush and then dab off the excess two or three times onto a paper plate before applying it. An overloaded brush will cause your stencil to run and you can't undo that. Less is more. Rather go over it twice, than add too much on the first pass. Trust me on the less is more...

Sponge daubers work too, but be careful to use a very gentle pressure, to not squeeze excessive paint into the stencil.

Let the stencil dry to the touch before removing it. As soon as the paint job is completed, take off the stencil. Drying too long, can cause dry paint to lift with the stencil and affect your look. Remove the stencil in a smooth move, like whipping off a band-aid. Faltering can smudge your design.

For this tray, I used only one layer of paint on the stencil and the lettering has such a beautiful contrast on the wood!


Attach your handles. This is easily done with just a screw driver. Should you hit a knot and the screw doesn't go all the way in, drill a small hole with a power tool. This has happened a few times... but power tools come to the rescue and are so fun to use!

The final tray with handles. I distressed my handles with a bit of left over white paint on the stencil brush, so that they matched my rustic tray better.

If you are intending to use this tray as more than decor, I'd advise sealing it with a finishing varnish to protect the lettering and wood from spills. There are shiny to satin to matte finishes to match your decor style. Shiny varnishes will be easier to keep clean.

Here are a few examples of trays we've created...

So you've created a tray!!!

Now all that remains is to enjoy!

And of course repeat for all your friends who want one too.

Please share photos of how your tray turned out with me! If you have questions, please do not hesitate to contact me here.



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