A Quick and Custom Dark, Rustic Tray for Our Ottoman

My wife and I recently bought an ottoman for the family room of our vacation place. Wifey is a fan of leather storage ottomans (so we know for sure what the best leather conditioner is) with trays on top for setting drinks, remotes, magazines, etc. Our new ottoman is not square, it’s rectangular, so she offered to (gasp) spend Saturday in the shop with me as I put together a quick, custom tray. The tray is built from pine that it leftover from other projects, so the material cost is low. In fact, the only thing we purchased were handles for the ends of the tray.


Dark, Rustic and Restored

The first step was to test out the finishing recipe. I don’t stain wood very much – I prefer letting the natural color show through and get richer over time. I had a pint of General Finishes Java Gel Stain that has been on the shelf for, well – too long, so I tested it on scrap pine to ensure it would still develop the color we were looking for and cure correctly. The pine was sanded, sealed with a spit coat of shellac, lightly sanded, and finished again. I made the spit coat by cutting Bullseye SealCoat with 50/50 with Denatured alcohol.


Wood Selection and Preparation

Digging through the lumber rack, I found some pine boards that would be more than appropriate for the tray. The bottom came from a nice wide piece that has been on the rack for years. It’s got some great detail but also some twist. I flattened this board by removing the guard from the jointer and getting one half of one face flat. Then I flattened the other half of the face with a handplane. When the two halves of the face matched and the board would lay flat on my bench, I used the planer to bring the two sides parallel and smooth.



The boards for the sides were extras from a recent project, and were glued and screwed to some cleats. I unscrewed the cleats and pounded the joints apart, then used my block plane to remove the dried glue. Then I cut the pieces into rough lengths, cutting away knots as much as possible.


Then I face jointed and edge jointed these boards on the jointer. Note my walking boot, yes I was woodworking post-surgery with an ankle boot on – but no painkillers were involved. You can see the disassembled table for the spray booth tucked behind the jointer.


After jointing, the pieces were ripped to width.


Joinery, Maker’s Mark, and Pre-Sanding

The bottom will be let into the sides via a groove, so I chucked up my Eagle America 3/8” Spiral Upcut 1/2” shank router bit and recessed the two sides and two ends.


Then it was time to Miter the sides and ends at matching lengths. I set the the blade with a Wixey Angle gauge to 45.0, and ensured my miter gauge was square.


After all pieces were mitered and dry fit, it was time for the Maker’s Mark. Use a cheap torch to heat the brass.


And burn it into the underside of the pine bottom.


Then, all pieces were hand sanded and sealed with spit coats of Shellac. Doing this before assembly is really going to make things easier later.

Assembly and Splined Miters

A band clamp will make assembly go smooth and ensure tight joints. I don’t have fancy store-bought corner blocks for my band clamp, so I made some from scrap and covered them with tape so that glue would not adhere. I also put blue tape on the inside face of the boards where the miter joint will come together. This will keep squeeze out off the inside joints, and I hate cleaning glue from inside corners or even sanding them.


After the glue dried, I reinforced the miters with splines. This tray will get tossed around and miter joints are beautiful but not the strongest. So I quickly threw together a jig with some scrap ply and staples to cut splines in the corners. I used my rip blade for this cut because it has a flat top grind.


A thin strip of white oak was ripped, sanded to fit, crosscut into eight small pieces, and glued into the kerfs.


After the splines dried, I trimmed them with a small Japanese flush cut saw, trimmed them flush with a block plane, and sanded all outside faces. Then all outside faces were sealed with a spit coat of shellac.


Applying Gel Stain

As I said before, I’m not a big fan of adding color to wood. if I want dark furniture, I’d rather use dark wood. However as a woodworker it’s important for me to learn a wide variety of finishing techniques. I applied the Gel Stain, which is really a tinted gel polyurethane according to the directions. I actually found that applying the stain and then wiping it away with the same (stain infused) cloth instead of a clean cloth worked better for the look I was hoping for. A clean cloth wiped away too much stain.


When the stain was dry, I lightly sanded it with 400 grit and applied 2 coats of spray lacquer.

Finished Product

And here’s the (darn near) complete project. The handles need to be installed, and this tray is ready to go. Wifey approves! She even blogged about it – check it out here. You can’t tell from the pictures but this is super  smooth to the touch.



So get out there and use up your scrap and build something for your spouse. Try out a new finishing technique (on scrap first), and a new joinery method. I don’t think I’ll use Gel Stain again, but I will use mitered splines – after I build a better spline jig that I can also use for dovetailed mitered keys. Mitered Splines look good (although you can’t tell when they are covered in gel stain), and they are strong. I’m excited to use them in a project with complementary woods and a nice finish.

2 thoughts on “A Quick and Custom Dark, Rustic Tray for Our Ottoman

  1. Matt Post author

    Hey Jeff,

    I haven’t used it on drawers, but I think something cool could be done with drawer fronts and splines. Contrasting wood, and even having the blad tilted could look really cool

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