Laser Cut Plywood Serving Tray

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About: I am a recent graduate from the University of Washington with a Bachelor of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering currently looking to take the next step in my engineering career. From internship experien...

This was a project that I originally did as a Christmas present, and the result ended up turning out really well. For the project, I went about figuring out how to design a food tray using flat laser cuttable materials, and took advantage of the laser cutter's ability to engrave surfaces to add a unique feature to this particular food tray. My favorite part about this project is the future opportunity to personalize the engraving used on the surface of the tray to other themes.

Tools:

  • Laser Cutter (at least 40-50W, you'll need to be able to cut through 1/4 in plywood)
  • Clamps (if you need to clamp the tray together while the glue is drying)

Materials:

  • 1/4 inch plywood (actual thickness 0.203 inches) - Make sure to get plywood without formaldehyde glue
  • Wood stain
  • Polycrylic finish
  • Glue (I used super glue and wood glue)
  • Disposable brush

The total material cost for the project for me was <$10. I've found the cheapest way to get 1/4 inch plywood is in 4x8 foot sheets (I get mine at Lowe's for ~$27 a sheet), then cut the sheets down to size. For the wood stain, finish, and glue, you only need a relatively small amount of each, and it doesn't add up to too much.

Step 1: Food Tray Design

To get the general size of the food tray, I looked up dimensions on Amazon (length/width/height), and found them to be relatively standard. Based off of that, I built a mock up of the food tray in a CAD program (Inventor) with rough dimensions of 16 in long x 11 in wide x 2 inches tall. From there I imported the surfaces into Inkscape where I added the food art engravings to the surface. The handles I laser cut a couple iterations of until I found one that fit my hand comfortably (and should fit most others as well).

The food elements that I used for this project are much beyond my own ability to draw! The art I used was from user Bimbimkha at freepik. Big thanks to Bimbimkha for providing their artwork free, as it really helped bring this project together.

Files are included in this step. The native file is SVG (from Inkscape), and I exported it as a DXF as well.

Step 2: Laser Cutting

With the final design down, I cut the plywood sheets to a size that would fit in my laser cutter, then laser cut the pieces. By far the longest part of this process should be the engraving.

For the laser cutter, you will likely need one at least as powerful as 40-50 Watts to cut through 1/4 inch plywood. Mine is a 50W laser cutter, and I had to set the laser cutter to move pretty slow to cut through the plywood.

One recommendation that I have is cutting the base out first, and then engraving it. I recommend this because of the two of these that I have made, one of the bases ended up being slightly warped after cutting. By cutting the base out first, you can check to make sure that it isn't warped before engraving it. I didn't do this, ended up with a warped piece in the second one that I made, then tried gluing it together in the hopes that it would flatten it out, and while it did help, it didn't flatten it entirely.

Step 3: Stain

I used a safety knife to finish cutting any portions of the plywood that didn't quite cut all the way through, then sanded down the sides to remove any wood splinters left over and prepare the surface for staining.

I then stained both sides of the tray. I like darker stains, but a lighter stain might work better for the engraved design, as it would help keep the contrast between the darker engraved and lighter non-engraved surface.

Technically, you are supposed to glue before you apply a wood finish (as the stain can interfere with the glue adhering to the surface). But I've found it hard to clean up laser cut pieces after gluing (lots of sharp corners that it can be hard to sand the glue out of) to ensure the glue doesn't interfere with the absorption of the stain. So that is why I generally stain first (you may want to choose a different order).

Step 4: Gluing the Tray Together

To glue the trays together, I used a combination of wood glue and quick drying (~15 seconds) super glue. The wood glue was for long term adhesion (to fill in any gaps in the joints), and the super glue was for initial fitting of the tray together so that the wood glue could dry in place.

For this process, I started with the long sides, putting the wood glue on the joints first, then adding the super glue and pushing the pieces together, using a flat surface (in my case two small boxes wrapped in wax paper to stop the boxes from sticking to the super glue) to make sure that the sides dry at a 90 degree angle. With the long sides glued in place, I did the same process with the handles. After all of the sides were glued together, I added a couple clamps to make sure that the contact was solid while the wood glue dries.

Step 5: Adding the Wood Finish

With the tray completely assembled, the last step I did was adding a polycrylic finish, a good interior wood finish that is safe for "incidental" food contact. I did one coat over the entire tray, and two coats on the engraved surface.

And that's it! A pretty simple project to do once you have the design down. Hope you enjoyed this Instructable.

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    3 Discussions

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    Maker Design Lab

    16 days ago

    This is a great project! You could try to fill the engraving with a different paint to get more contrast but I have to say I really like the subtle effect. The only thing I might change is to sand down the protruding parts of the finger joints on the short side of the tray.

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    FisherckPenolopy Bulnick

    Reply 17 days ago

    Glad you enjoyed it! It's become one of my favorite personal projects because of how simple the design ended up being, plus it's easy to customize the engraved surface. I'll definitely be using this in the future as a gift idea.