Introduction: Plywood (or MDF) Sleigh to Display Christmas Gifts

Inspired by a desktop ornamental sleigh made out of MDF for sale at Hobby Craft, my friend Emma commissioned me to build a larger version to sit next to her Christmas tree and display gifts.

It needed to be large enough that a child could sit in it (even though she had no plans for a child to sit in it), yet able to be dismantled for flat pack storage outside the festive period.

Having built it twice (one for her using plywood, and again for this Instructable using MDF), despite it being a deceptively simple design, I encountered, and solved, a number of problems along the way, which I'm now happy to share with you.



  • Jigsaw + blades
  • Router
  • Flush trim/pattern router bits of varying sizes (Amazon UK)
  • Table saw / track saw / circular saw (something which will make straight cuts in plywood panels)
  • Drill + drill bits
  • 2x saw horse (optional)


  • 1x 9mm (3/8") MDF panel, measuring 1220x606mm (4x2') (Wickes)
  • 3x 12mm (1/2") plywood (or MDF) panels, measuring 1220x606mm (4x2') (Wickes / Wickes
  • 12-14x Corner Braces with screws (Amazon UK)
  • Paint, etc.. (to decorate)

Step 1: Creating the Template for the Side Panels

Before we start, we need to decide what the sleigh should look like. I've set-up a Pinterest board with some ideas, but you're free to be as creative as you like, although I'd advice against being too detailed or having too many tight corners. This is the sort of project which contain elegance in its simplicity, which you'll be thankful of when it comes to cutting it out.

Because we want both sides to be identical, we're going to draw the design onto the MDF panel, cut it out using a jigsaw, and using it as template for a router to cut the design into the final side panels. I found it easiest to use the flat edge along one side of the panel as the base of the sleigh blades, as this will allow for less cutting, will provide a useful reference point for aligning the template, and gives a convenient point for clamping the template to the plywood panels.

Once you're happy with the design, balance the MDF panel between the saw horses, and carefully cut the design out using your jigsaw. By using one of the panel's edges as the base of the design, you've given yourself a convenient place to start cutting from, but you can also use a drill to provide a starting point if needed anywhere else on the board (such as between the body of the sleigh, and the blades).

Arguably you could skip the MDF template bit by drawing the design directly onto one of the 12mm plywood panels, cutting it out using the jigsaw, then using that as the trim router template for the other plywood panel, but due to the differences between how jigsaws and trim routers cut, they won't necessarily look identical, and may require manual touching up with a chisel or a file.

You could also simply trace the first cut plywood panel onto the second, then use the jigsaw to cut that out as well, but I'm not sure I'm accurate enough with a jigsaw to get it perfect on the second run, and I knew I wanted to make more than one sleigh, which is why I went the MDF template route.

Step 2: Using the Template

Now you have the template, it's time to place it on the first plywood/MDF panel, ready to be cut out. Because we don't want the template to slip while cutting, it's important to make sure it's firmly attached. I had planned on using some double-sided carpet tape, or super glue with masking tape, to hold the pieces together, but ultimately took the simpler approach of using a couple of clamps along the straight edge, which proved more than efficient.

Using a router can be extremely dangerous, so it's important that you're careful, and methodical in your approach. To this end, I'm not going to teach you how to do this bit, instead I'm going to direct you to the following tutorials:

The key to success is not biting off more than you can chew. Because I used a trim router with a pattern bit, I decided to take multiple passes around the template, using the smallest bit first, and slowly adjusting the depth little by little for each additional pass, until I had cut all the way through.

Alternately, you could cut the bulk away from the plywood panel using the jigsaw (being careful not to get too close to the template), then tidying it up using the router.

It's also important you run the router around the template in the correct direction, else you might lose control, potentially ruining your template and/or panel, or doing yourself an injury. Be sure to refer to the manufacturer's instructions for your particular router.

Once you've cut the first side panel, it's time to repeat the process for the second, again, being slow and methodical as you do so, until you've got the two side panels ready for the next step.

Step 3: Cutting the Base

Now you've finished with the scary part, the rest of the build should be a doddle - but we're not done with cutting just yet, as we still need three small panels to construct the base of the sleigh, and hold everything together.

I can't give you exact measurements for these panels, as they're going to depend on your design, but I call tell you that regardless of their length, the width for each will be the same, so start by standing the two side panels at various widths apart from one another until it looks right to you, take the measurement (for me it was 500mm), and cut the width of the third plywood panel to this size.

I used a table saw for this, but you could use a track saw, circular saw, or even a jigsaw if you're really accurate.

To work out the length of each piece, lay one of the side panels on its side, and have a think about the orientation and position of the three base pieces.

You'll likely want a board to act as the floor of the sleigh (which is likely to be the longest), one to act as a back rest (slightly shorter) and one as a foot rest (shorter still), but your design might lend itself to a different configuration.

If it helps, you can draw these on the side panel to get an idea of where they're going to sit, then measure the results and cut the base panel accordingly.

Step 4: Decoration

It's at this point in the process that I did the majority of the painting, although you could save it until after you've assembled it. Start with a primer and undercoat layer, then get busy doing your thing, being as creative as you like.

For mine, I found some metallic spray paint which I used for the blades, and a red tester pot from when we decorated our dining room.

Use masking tape and some old packing paper to mark the boundary between the blades and the body of the sleigh, and follow the instructions on the can to apply the paint. Once the paint dries, remove the masking tape, reapply on the other side of the boundary, then repeat for the body colour.

Don't forget you'll need to do this on both sides of each side panel, and along the edges.

Step 5: Assembly

Now that we have all the pieces it's time to assemble them. Lay the two side panels on top of each other and place the brackets in the appropriate positions to support the base pieces, before marking the location of the holes using a pencil. I used a spare 2x4 as a guide, and as something to rest the base panels against while positioning things.

With the side panels still on top of each other, use a tiny drill (2mm or so) to drill holes though all locations marked, being sure to penetrate through both panels. This will ensure the brackets are in exactly the same location on both sides, allowing for a straight base piece.

Now comes the fun task of screwing everything together. Lay opposite sides of the side panels down and screw in all the brackets using the holes we made earlier. Now take the central base piece, place it in position next to the brackets of one of the side panels and use a couple of clamps to hold it in place while you screw them in (you may benefit from some drilled holes here as well, you help guide the screw in).

Repeat this process on the other side, and you should have the start of a structure which can hold itself together. repeat this process for the rest of the base panels, using clamps to hold things in place while you screw them in, and before you know it, you'll have a free standing sleigh.

Now all you need are lots of presents to pop into it.

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