Introduction: Modern Inbox (Stackable Paper Trays)

About: Hi, I'm Doug Neiner! I'm a web developer by day with a passion for making things in the physical world. Most of what I make is primarily out of wood, but I'll also use paper, cloth or metal depending on the pr…

When you want to be organized, trays for your desk become essential to collect items that need your attention. That being said, the last thing you want to look at all day are ugly paper trays. This build is all about style with a combination of Sapele, Maple and brass accents.

This project started as an idea for a charging station, and took on a life of its own as I started designing, then modeling it out in Fusion 360. What I ended up with after modeling, were these paper trays!

You'll find more than enough information below to make a set of your own, but if you like printable plans and would like the exact patterns, I have detailed plans available through my website:

Note: This is not a minimal tools build – I use many of the tools in my shop as part of this project. That is not to say you need these all of these tools to make this, but if you have fewer tools you'll want to be creative in finding alternate ways of accomplishing the same thing.

Step 1: Materials and Parts

This build uses hardwood for the outsides, and plywood with hardwood veneer for the tray bottom. Because of this, you really don't need that much wood to build one.

  • 1/4" Dark Hardwood (I used Sapele which is similar to Mahogany)
  • 3/8" Dark Hardwood (For front rail)
  • 1/4" Light Hardwood (I used Hard Maple)
  • 1/4" Plywood with matching veneer to the Light Hardwood
  • 1/4" Brass Rod
  • 3/16" Brass Rod

A note about cost: This doesn't have to be an expensive build! The maple scrap I picked up for $2.00 and the Sapele scrap for under $12 if I remember correctly. I bought the plywood at Menards and had to buy a full 4x8 sheet. If you live near a supplier you should be able to get a 1/4 sheet.


You can design your trays to match your style. I went quite decorative on this build, but you could go with solid outer sides, or make different height trays, etc. Since the angles can get tricky, I recommend sketching out the design first to make sure you understand how they will end up stacking when you are finished.


Overall dimensions will be based on however large you want your trays to be. The inside dimension of my trays were 8.75 front to back by 11.5 side to side. Size your sides and rails to accommodate what you want to hold in the trays. As I built them, my trays are quite shallow – though they do have a nice slim profile on the desk.

For each tray you'll need (Measurements for the size tray I built are also included below):

  • Dark Wood
    • 2 – Decorative sides – 1 1/2" × 9 1/4"
    • 1 – Back Rail – 1/4" × 1/2" × 12 1/2"
    • 1 – Front Rail – 1/2" × 3/8" × 12 1/2"
  • Light Wood
    • 2 – Inner Sides – 2" × 9 1/4"
    • 1 – Inner Back – 1 3/8" × 11 1/2"
    • 1 – Tray Bottom – 11 3/4" × 8 1/2"
  • Brass Accents
    • 4 – 1/4" Brass Rod for Pins (7/8" long)
    • 2 – 3/16" Brass Rod for Risers (3/4" long, but don't cut them ahead of time)

Step 2: Prepare the Pieces

Tray Bottom

All measurements are influenced by the bottom of the tray, so figure out how much room you want in the bottom of your trays and base your measurements off that. They will be inset 1/8" into the sides and back, and gain roughly 3/8" from the front rail. So a finished bottom of 8 3/4" × 11 1/2" would require a piece of plywood 8 1/2" × 11 3/4".

Sides, Front, and Back

If you can, start with 1/4 stock for all but the front rail. However, if you don't have that on hand, you can resaw thicker stock to roughly 1/4" thick – the project will still work if they end up a little thinner or thicker than 1/4". Keep the front and back rails longer than you need as it they can be trimmed up later.

If you are making two trays at once, you can save time by using masking tape to keep all four outer sides and inner sides together. After wrapping with masking tape, apply a template to the top – or just sketch on the general shape you are looking for.

Step 3: Cut Out the Decorative Sides

I used Olson PGT Blades to cut out the interior cuts on the decorative sides – all four sides at once. Drill holes through the parts, then thread the scroll saw blade through the hole. The scroll saw I have is nothing fancy, but it got the job done! I finished up cutting the outside of the parts on the bandsaw. I should have just finished on the scroll saw as the finish on the scroll saw cuts were much smoother than the bandsaw cuts.

A sanding drum in my drill press helped clean up the bandsaw marks on the inside curves. I used a belt sander to sand to the line of my templates.

Step 4: Drill the Holes for the Brass Pins

This is a simple step! Drill two 1/8" holes through all four pieces before separating them.

Step 5: Cut Out the Inner Sides

The inner sides I cut using the bandsaw. Be sure to use the actual front and back rails to sneak up on a tight fit for the notches. If the fit isn't perfect, don't worry too much about it as most of the seams will be hidden when the outer decorative sides are glued on.

I used a combination of sanding tools as well as a card scraper and files to refine the shape on the inner sides.

Step 6: Build a Jig and Cut Grooves

The back and the two inner sides need a 1/8" deep groove cut in them to accept the bottom. The top of the groove ends at 3/8" from the bottom of the tray (To match the height of the front rail). Since the sides have a foot protruding from each one, I made a simple jig for my crosscut sled.

It had a straight reference edge 90º from the side that went up against the front of the sled. I then cut two areas away from the front and back, and screwed on toggle clamps I had in the shop. This allowed me to cut a straight grove along the bottom without the feet getting in the way. I use the same jig to add a correctly spaced groove to the back as well.

Be sure to cut the groove in the sides and back without moving the jig so they all align correctly during final glue up.

Step 7: Cut the Tray Bottoms

I cut the plywood down to rough size, then applied blue painters tape before cross cutting the pieces to final length. The grooves I cut in the sides were a single kerf width of my thin kerf blade, so I needed to form a rabbet that would leave enough material for a snug fit in the grooves. I made the same depth rabbit along all four sides using the same jig from the previous step, only I moved the jig to align with the kerf of the tablesaw sled.

Step 8: Start the Glue Up

After shaping a bullnose roundover on the back rail using a hand plane, some files, and sand paper – I glued the back rail to the back. To remove glue squeeze out, I ran a straw along the edge. You might want to wait for it to barely set up before doing this to avoid some yellow residue.

Step 9: Prepare for Stacking

Use two carpenter squares to find the correct location for both the hole for the pins as well as the notch for the pins to fit into on the top. Once the squares are aligned and the side is in place, draw a straight line from square to square. You could add pins to all four pieces to allow for either tray being the top tray, but I chose to only add pins to the bottom tray. After you mark a vertical line, transfer the line to the other pieces.

Drill a 3/16" hole (if your sides are thinner, you might need to go with a smaller hole) part way into the sides. Using the carpenter square setup, you can insert a drill bit into the drilled hole, and determine how tall your pin would need to be to keep the second tray level. Write this length down for use in making the pins later.

Using a round file, create a notch in the bottom of the sides using the line you marked earlier for the location.

Step 10: Glue Inner Assembly Together

Give the pieces a good sanding, then glue up the inner sides, tray bottom, and back assembly from earlier. Be sure the parts are fully seated together, and the sides are slid the whole way to the back before clamping.

Step 11: Add the Front Rail

Add a small rabbet to the front rail that will fit under the front rabbet on the tray bottom.

Hole the rail up to the tray, and mark where you need to remove part of the rabbet so the rail will fit into the cut sides. (Note, I made a mistake so my rabbet left only a little material. If all goes to plan, you will have more material on the rabbet than I did in these photos!)

One it fits, glue the front rails to the trays.

Step 12: Glue on the Sides

After the front rails dry, cut and sand them flush.

Do any final shaping to the decorative sides before gluing on – I found a Dremel with small sanding drum helpful here.

I was worried about squeeze out, so I used wood glue along the bottom of the sides, and CA glue for part of the top. Be careful not to put glue on areas that don't actually touch the inner sides! The benefit of using the wood glue and CA glue, is that the sides set up much faster and let you keep working.

Step 13: Prepare the Brass Pins

Cut 1/8" brass rod into 7/8" lengths, and use two pieces of sandpaper sandwiched around the pins to scuff them up. Cutting the pieces into a container keeps them from shooting all over the shop!

Step 14: Install the Pins

The decorative sides already have the holes cut in them for the pins, so use a 1/8" drill bit to extend the holes to a total depth of 3/4". I used blue tape to mark the desired depth.

Using a little CA glue on the pins, drive them in with a hammer. When the sound changes, you know you've driven them far enough.

Sand them flush. I used a combination of several sanders to get them flush without damaging the decorative sides.

Step 15: Make the Risers

I started with 3/16" rod, but since I drilled smaller holes into the pieces, I started by reducing the diameter of the rod to fit the hole. After that, with the pin chucked into the drill press, I found using progressive grits of sandpaper and steel wool gave a nice finish. I also tried some Brasso on cloth before using actual polishing compound on buffing wheels (also chucked into my drill press) for the final finish.

Cut them to the length you determined earlier, and use a little CA glue to add them to the trays.

Step 16: Apply the Finish

I used Natural color Danish Oil to really bring out the grain and color of the Sapele, but use whichever finish you prefer. If you do use oil, I found pouring oil into the hard to reach areas, and then moving the piece all around helped get into tight corners.

Step 17: Stage Final Photos

Don't forget one of the most important steps: taking finished photos of your work!

I've really enjoyed having these trays on my desk, and I've done an OK job of keeping them empty (Though they aren't empty as I write this!)

This project was a fun build, and it let me practice several different skills without spending a lot of money on large amounts of fancy wood.

If I were to build them again, I'd probably make the brass risers slightly taller, and the groove in the tops slightly deeper to keep the top tray from sliding off.