How to Build a 3-Tiered Chinese Picnic Box
At one time a gift for a newly married couple, the tiered picnic box is a rather unusual item and not a project for which you will easily find instructions today. This instructable includes an introduction, suggested materials, pictures and step-by-step instructions for building such a box with its three stacked trays useful for camping, picnics, art and craft supplies, tackle, collections or storing any small items you may want to organize and sometimes transport. Although the overall dimensions are flexible, I chose to construct a picnic box that would be large enough for a day or overnight car trip, yet small and light enough for one person to comfortably carry. You could choose to make yours smaller or with fewer trays depending on your desired use for the box.
I really admire the combination of skilled woodworking, unique craftsmanship, functionality and artistic reinvention. The perfect combination of art and woodcraft. For this project I was inspired by the vintage style and intricate workmanship of Chinese wedding baskets and the similarly constructed tiered picnic boxes. Although I could find pictures of these once popular baskets, many were antiques, museum pieces and auction house items … all without any detail on their construction let alone directions for building one. After several hours of searching the internet for specifications, I decided to build my own. Based on what I had seen and employing the techniques that I had used in the construction of other small boxes I came up with a design.
I decided to build a 3-tiered stack, with an independent base and with an inverted box as a lid. Including the base and the lid this would provide me with 3 tiers and up to 5 trays. Each tray would be held inside the one below it with a hidden lip or peg. The top tray would be secured with a small pin that would go through the handle and into the lid keeping all the trays in place. Without ever seeing the construction details of one of these boxes, I had to imagine this idea to connect and secure the trays before proceeding with the build.
Rough dimensions were 14” L x 12” W x 16” H
To view sample vintage tiered boxes, click this google search link and the choose images.
Step 1: Collect Materials and Tools
- I used available lumber from the local Home Depot. No planer, so no planing required.
- 1 pkg ¼” cedar or pine T&G wainscoting
- 8 feet of 1 X 2 clear pine ripped to ¼” x 5/8" strips
- 3/16” good both sides plywood (1 sheet, 2’ X 4’)
- 2 pieces of hobby oak (4’ X 1.5” X ¼”)
- 18" Round stock, approx. 1” diameter ( perhaps a dowel, copper pipe, a cane, straight branch)
- good quality carpenters glue
- gloss paint (Black, Cherry Red)
- gloss spray lacquer
- 2 pkg of Brass cabinet corner brackets
- Table saw
- Mitre saw
- Drill and bits
- Sand paper, palm sander
- Pin Nailer and ½” pins
- Misc. clamps
- Small philips screw driver
- Carpenters square
- A third hand
Step 2: Build a Third Hand
Critical to building this box is making sure that each tray is identical. The length and width need to be exact so that the trays will align neatly on top of each other. The panels (sides) were cut on a mitre saw using the built in stops on the saw to ensure the lengths were the same. Secondly each tray needs perfect 90 degree corners. A simple work bench jig, a third hand, allows you to pin or tack each board while the jig helps hold the boards square in the corners. I built this jig sized specifically for this project. The wood for the jig is not included in the material list.
Step 3: Construct the Trays and Lid
1. Begin by trimming the tongue and groove from four lengths of the wainscot panels, ending up with 4 eight foot lengths, each 3 “ wide.
2. Using the stop on the mitre saw, cut the 3” panels into the side boards for the boxes. Each box will need two boards 13.5” long and two that are 11” long.
3. Using your 3rd hand and a small clamp to secure one of the boards, glue and pin nail the 4 boards together to form a rectangular box frame. It will be wobbly and require a 2nd clamp. If the boards were cut correctly to length and are tight to the 2 sides of the jig, the box will be exactly square in all 4 corners.
4. Before it dries, measure, cut, glue and pin 4 narrow strips of ½” by 1/4” pine around the inside edge of the frame. The 2 surfaces should be flush. The bottom of the box will now be ½’ thick and, when flipped over, this will act as a cleat or ledge for the plywood bottom of the box.
5. Cut a piece of thin veneer ply equal to the inside dimensions of the box, 13” X 11” , drop it into the box, glue and pin nail. Cut and attach strips to the inside of the box at the top of each side, ensuring that they too are flush. See the pictures for a finished box, which I will now refer to as a tray. It should be remarkably strong given the number of gluing surfaces used.
6. Repeat steps 3 to 5 to build 2 additional trays and the lid. The lid is simply a fourth tray turned upside down. You may vary the height of the trays but the length and width dimensions must all be identical, otherwise they won’t stack and lock into each other.
Step 4: Build the Base
The base, to which the handles will be attached, is built essentially the same way as a tray with the bottom plywood board sitting on cleats which run around the perimeter. I chose to add a curve detail to two of the opposite sides which would later receive the handle.
Step 5: Design and Build the Handle
The handle has 2 side pieces and rod at the top. I wanted to make sure that the side pieces were securely attached to the base. Each side piece was constructed from three 1/4" boards, 1.5" wide and laminated together using glue. The boards were positioned over the sides of the base before glue up, creating a notch and a large gluing surface for attachment. Two short pieces of dowel were also added near the base of the handle, pinning it to the base of the box.
The tops of the side pieces were rounded over and a brass rod (from a trashed fireplace set) was inserted into 2 holes that were drilled to receive the handle. Alternatively I could have used a piece of dowel.
Step 6: Apply the Finish
The trays were finished earlier in the project, before the handles and base were completed and before adding the decorative trim pieces.
All of the wood was treated with a clear sealer before receiving 2 coats of gloss exterior latex (cherry red). A spray lacquer top coat was added when the project was complete to further enhance the gloss effect I was looking for.
Step 7: Attach the Decorative Braces and Moldings
The decorative molding was cut using a mitre saw, painted glossy black and applied using glue and pin nails. The long pin attaching the lid to the top tray slides through an arm of the handle. It is a popup rod from a trashed sink faucet. Finally the brass corner brackets, brass handle and 6 brass tacks were added to give the finished box a bit of flash. The lid can easily slide in under the handle without having to remove the handle.
The picnic box is now ready to go!