As usual, click any photo to bring up a larger version.
More than thirty years ago, I had the good fortune to attend an elementary school where shop was part of the curriculum. At least it was for us boys. This was the 1970s after all, so the girls were shuffled off to Home Ec, while the grade seven and grade eight boys were sent to Shop class. We were introduced to drafting, a bit of metalworking, and a fair bit of woodworking. (I have no idea what the girls were introduced to... Sorry!)
One of the standard grade seven projects was a serving tray. I still have mine, as shown in the photo at right. It was, and still is I think, a great beginner project. The base is a piece of Mahogany plwood, and the sides are cut from pine. The sides do not come together at the corners, so there were no "difficult" miter joints (remember, seventh grade boys!) or other fancy work. To build this project, we just needed to cut out some simple curves on the scroll saw, sand the result, and then put it together with some glue and nails. Despite the simplicity, the curves are still pleasing to the eye, and the end result is very functional.
In particular, I think the cutouts in the base under the handles was an excellent design choice. I've seen many trays where there really isn't enough room provided around the handles to comfortably hold the tray with your hands.
Of course, the real proof of this project's suitability is the fact that thirty years later I still have it, and it still sees regular use.
My brother attended the same school and the same shop class -- just five years before I did. He built the same tray, and it also lasted thirty plus years. However, he gave his tray to our parents, rather than keep it for himself. Recently they asked me if I could find the time to make them another tray, as it was starting to come apart. (They use their tray a lot; much more than I do.)
Now, I could have just made the same tray once again, and they would have been completely satisfied. But I couldn't resist the temptation to play around with the design.
My first design (above/left) was fairly traditional, and fairly true to the original design. For my next design (above/right), I let my imagination run a bit more wild, and came up with something with practically no connection to the original tray. But after some reflection, I concluded that the more traditional design was something more suited to my parents' tastes.
I did tweak the design a bit more from what is shown here. First, I changed the sides to dip down, to balance out how the ends were curved up over the hand grips. Second, I added some reinforcing (and contrasting) keys across the miters. The base of this tray was made from quarter-inch baltic birch plywood. The sides are cut from half-inch-thick cherry.
Clamping up was a touch hectic. The base sits in a rabbet cut along the inside bottom edge of all the side pieces. I'm trusting to the strength of the glue -- no nails or other metal fasteners were used anywhere in this project.
(And no, I do not have enough clamps...)
As I mentioned, one thing I wanted to try with this project was to cut some "keys" across the miters and glue in some strips of wood. This adds a great deal of strength to the miters, and also adds a lovely design flair.
Cutting the key slots is accomplished using a jig like this. The jig holds the tray (or any other rectangular piece) at a perfect forty-five degree angle. The tablesaw blade is then raised to the desired height and the jig is pushed carefully through the blade. This results in a kerf exactly the width of your Tablesaw blade. Some small pieces of maple were then glued into those slots, and later cut and sanded flush.
The finish was one coat of shellac, followed by several coats of Waterbased flecto varathane. Water resistance was an important goal with the finish, which is why I chose varathane.