Canadian Woodworking

Cherry Serving Tray

Author: Paul Ross
Published: February March 2009

A serving tray is a great way to embellish any dining room table. Try different woods for dramatically different results.


Turning a tray is an excellent means of enhancing your outboard turning skills, as all the turning is done on the left side of the headstock. The big advantage of this form of turning is that you can keep your body behind the gouge at all times.

When turning inboard (the right side of the headstock) and performing a shaping cut on the bottom, you have to pull the gouge toward you, because the lathe bed is in the way. Another advantage of outboard turning is that it usually accommodates a much larger stock diameter. Of course, not every lathe has outboard capacity. You can still turn a serving tray, but the diameter will be limited by the capacity of the swing over the lathe bed.

For this project I used an 18″ diameter piece of black cherry. The thickness started at two inches; however a one inch piece could also be used. A two inch block of wood is not only heavy, but spins at a very high velocity. Mount the piece on a screw chuck making sure that the flat surface of the wood is tight against the jaws of the chuck. You’ll want to position your body behind the gouge and push toward the headstock. Keep your arms close to your body; this will give you much better control of the gouge. Use the gouge to true up the outside, making the piece almost 90% round.

The next cut is a facing cut made across the face (flat surface) of the piece with a bowl gouge. If you’re right handed, push the gouge with your right hand with the flute facing the direction of the cut. At this point, cut the spigot that will hold the piece onto the chuck when you flip it onto the other side. While for most of my turning I mount the work piece onto a spigot, for this tray I’ve chosen to expand into a recess. There are two reasons for this. First, I do not have a lot of thickness of wood to sacrifice for a spigot (particularly if you are using 1″ thick stock). Second, because the piece is flat, there is a lot of mass to absorb the force of the jaws pushing out. Use a ¼” parting tool to cut the step into the recess. Next, using a scraper, remove the excess wood in the middle and clean it up by lightly scraping.

When shaping the bottom of the tray you can once again push with your body behind the gouge. When the shaping is finished, you still need to smooth the surface before sanding. This is done by scraping the surface with a scraper. I use a large tool for this as the size of the tool absorbs some vibration. Once again I can get my body behind the tool for support, although you don’t need a lot of strength. You want to be firm yet gentle at the same time, letting the scraper do most of the work.

At this point you can add a decorative bead on the top of the tray before removing the piece from the screw chuck. First precut the top rim and then form the bead. Follow this by power sanding the bottom. Remember that you must have proper dust extraction when power sanding; it creates a lot of fine dust. Power sanding with a power drill equipped with a Velcro pad and abrasive sanding disc is a very efficient method of sanding. The drill revolves in one direction with the piece of wood revolving in the other direction. Once the sanding is completed to your satisfaction, flip the piece onto the chuck and expand it into the recess. Use a bowl gouge to make an entry cut to establish the edge of the tray.

Using the large round nose scraper again, refine the top surface of the tray. When you are cutting the recess for the chuck, make a little design in the recess and finish the recess completely. This small design will take your eye away from the purpose of the recess, making it look like part of the tray. Otherwise, just turn the recess slightly concave and still add in a little design.

I finished this piece with three coats of salad bowl finish, because it is food safe as well as very durable. The piece will look beautiful on any table as a serving tray or a fruit platter.

Position body behind gouge and push towards headstock

Use gouge to refine surface 

¼" parting tool cuts step into the recess 

Scraper cleans up the recess

Gouge shapes tray bottom

Scraper finishes tray bottom

Cut the top rim

Power sand tray bottom

Spindle gouge makes entry cut on tray edge

Scraper finishes tray top

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