Turning Serving Trays
Words and photos: Richard Raffan
Trays are useful to have about and not just for the convenience of carrying half a dozen glasses or plates. I have always had a number in use at any time, loaded and ready to go with various sets of jars and other stuff for different meals. In a quaintly old fashioned way I have one for business cards, whilst another is ever ready with a decanter and a couple of glasses. Some trays live in the refrigerator, others in the pantry, another on a side table. It’s difficult to have too many trays and they make a great turning exercise.
The working surface needs to be flat so glasses or bottles can stand firmly and there should be a rim to prevent things sliding off. I like to have a definite angle where the rim meets the flat surface so the working surface is well defined. If the working surface simply curves up to the rim, that is where glasses and bottles always seem to end up wobbling and falling about. If you opt for a working surface curving to the rim, consider defining the flat area with a groove or two. For stability the base needs to be as wide as working area.
Trays are used for offering and presenting , and smaller trays can be handed around, so they need to be light, convenient to pick up and easy to hold with one hand. Comfort is an issue: you don’t want any hard or sharp edges which cut into fingers. A bead on the inner lip of a rim can provide a useful anchor point for a thumb as it hooks over. A wide rim can offer better leverage to support the weight, especially on a smaller tray.
The base needs to be at least 10mm (3/8-in) thick for stiffness, as does the rim so it doesn’t break under the canter-levered stresses of single handed lifting.
Turning the Tray
You’ll need a seasoned blank at least 250mm (10-in) diameter and 25mm to 35mm (1-in to 1 3/8-in) thick, cut round on a bandsaw. Ideally this should be quarter sawn for stability, so that if it dries further the tray will go oval (but stay flat) rather than twist or bow.
The main tools used here are a 13mm (1/2-in) shallow gouge with a fingernail grind, and a 25mm (1-in) square-end scraper and you’ll need a skewed rebate scraper for the chuck recess or a small skew chisel to use as a skewed scraper.
The tray is turned in two stages. First grip it by what will be the top so you can turn and finish the outside including a recess in the base for remounting. Then the job is remounted over a chuck for hollowing and completion.
Turning the Outside
Mount the blank on a faceplate or centre-screw chuck. Begin by truing the blank so you know exactly the dimensions available. This blank is barely warped so I true the side first using a shallow gouge (photo 1). Work in from either face to avoid the edge splintering, have the bevel rubbing the wood and the tool rolled over about 45°. The gouge is a 1/2-in half-round, but any fingernail-ground gouge of this size would be suitable.
Next, true the base and make it flat. Making the base concave comes later—at this point you don’t want to reduce the overall dimensions any more than is absolutely necessary to get it true. Begin by squeezing the edge into the wood until the tic-tic sound becomes smooth, (photo 2).
Then roll the gouge 180° so the bevel rubs for a shear cut from the rim to centre (photo 3).
Begin to shape the profile using the gouge for a series of sweeping shear cuts (photo 4). For this cut the tool moves only a short way along the rest as you push the handle towards the lathe bed.
After that you’ll get a cleaner final cut by having the bevel rub and the tool near horizontal and pointing in the direction you’re cutting (photo 5). For very tight curves you need a steep bevel, so if you don’t have a suitable gouge, rather than regrinding, smooth the surface using a round-nose scraper.
The best surface comes from shear scraping when a round-nose scraper is used on its side as in photo 6. Be sure to use the lower portion of the curve to avoid catches.
Only when the profile is finished and you have the diameter established, do you dish the base slightly so the tray will rest on the rim. Another shear cut with the gouge should do the job, or a slightly curved scraper. When that surface is turned, you then make a dovetailed recess into which to expand the chuck so you can grip the tray for hollowing. The wider this recess is, the more support you’ll have for the blank. The recess need not be deeper than 3mm (1/8-in). Many turners will think this too little, but the chuck will grip well provided there is band of at least 20mm (3/4-in) around the recess. If the recess is any deeper it begins to impinge on the design as it demands a thicker base.
Check the recess is flat so the chuck jaws seat into the dovetail properly (photo 7). This straight-edge is easily homemade from a scrap of 6mm MDF, each of the four sides trued on a belt or disc sander.
When the turning is done, sand and finish the outside. I prefer soft cloth-backed abrasives working through 100 150, 240, 320. Your grits might be slightly different depending on the manufacturer. I like an adaptable and useable finish so I wipe boiled linseed oil into the grain with the lathe off, then start the lathe and hold a lump of beeswax against the spinning wood building up a thin layer which is then polished into the wood using a soft cloth. When the outside is polished, reverse the job onto the expanding chuck jaws for completion.
Completing the Tray
The bottom of a tray needs to be thin as well as flat; as you turn the flat surface there is little to prevent it flexing except the rim and this is what makes the project more taxing than your average bowl or bread board. If you are holding the tray using standard chuck jaws gripping on a comparatively small diameter, the slightest pressure of the tool against the wood produces a hollow sound as the wood deflects and spiral chatter marks usually result. As with all turning, the idea is to wait for the wood to come to the tool, not push the tool into the wood. All a turner needs to do is take the tool on a steady path so that when the wood comes past, the edge takes a nice shaving.
A neat trick will help you turn a flat surface with few hassles. If you drill a series of depth holes across the half turned tray, (photo 8). All you have to do is turn to the bottom of the drilled holes. It’s easy to see how far you have to go, and even when the surface is almost where you want it, you’ll be able to feel the remnants of the holes as the wood spins. Set the drill press stop so the gap between the drill and drill table is a fraction more than the required thickness of the base. On this small tray the bottom is be 10mm (3/8-in) thick. Aim to get the bottom pretty well completed before finally shaping the rim, because the bulk of the rim will provide some stiffening support for the bottom as it becomes thinner.
Rough hollowing is best done using a gouge (photo 9). However it’s not easy to obtain a truly flat surface using a gouge, mostly because it’s difficult to keep the handle at exactly the same angle as you move the tool along the rest; any lack of steadiness as the cut proceeds gives you an undulating surface which is difficult to sand flat.
Scrapers get you a flat surface faster, so when I’m within 2mm (1/16-in) of eliminating the drilled holes I’ll transfer to a square-end scraper and level the bottom in a series of cuts using no more than 10mm (3/8-in) of the left corner (photo 10). (The drilled holes are highlighted with pencil just for this article.) My square-end scrapers are all in fact very slightly skewed to the right, and then slightly curved so that on a flat surface it is difficult to get the whole edge in contact with the wood at one time. Don’t use a straight-edge scraper because too much of the edge will be in contact with the wood at one time, making heavy catches inevitable.
When you use a square-end scraper the blade is at 90° to the surface you’re cutting, and it’s very easy to put too much pressure against the wood. This is not a problem when making the initial step cuts, but to smooth the steps you’ll need to sweep the tool smoothly sideways across the rest, barely brushing the surface of the wood.
You can’t beat your sense of touch when assessing a curve for undulations, but you’ll need a straight-edge to see what’s happening on a flat surface. If you press a heavy steel rule against a nearly flat surface while it’s spinning, any high spots will be slightly burnished making them easy to see. Then you skim away each burnish to achieve a flat surface.
When the bottom is flat most of the way to the sides, finish the rim, then detail the corner where it meets the flat. On the rim, use a shallow gouge which can cut right into a corner (unlike a deep fluted bowl gouge) (photo 11). Don’t be tempted to try a scraper on the rim because the job is too flexible. Any scraper pressure against a thin rim will lead inevitably to a heavy catch.
Sanding The Flat
A flat surface can easily be spoiled by careless sanding which allows a lump to develop across the centre. Prevent this by using a sanding block as you work through the coarser abrasives. I don’t bother with a block for 240 grit and finer.
I have made several trays with commercial sealers which supposedly would last for decades. They looked fine for a few years, then the sealer began to wear away and chip. I have several trays which were oiled with peanut oil and bees-waxed. These have been washed frequently and wiped with a damp cloth, removing the excess of spillage. They look considerably better than the trays which were ‘properly finished’ with sealer. Those trays have now been refurbished, in readiness for what I hope might be a couple of centuries use.
Richard Raffan is a woodturner and author based in Canberra, see www.richardraffan.com