A slatted canopy offers protection from the sun, a two-tier countertop allows space for dining as well as food prep or bartending, and two large cabinets provide plenty of weather-safe storage.
This project has a lot of parts but isn't difficult to build, as long as you accurately cut the parts and follow the steps to fasten them together. We built the island out of mahogany lumber and matching marine-grade plywood. (If you aren't going to leave it outdoors year-round, you may be able to use a lower grade of exterior plywood.) We dressed the countertop with natural stone tiles and finished the wood with cherry stain and three coats of exterior polyurethane to provide lasting beauty.
Cut the panels
Make sure to cut the panels so that the grain will run horizontally around the buffet. Start by cutting all the panel parts (PA through PG in the cutting list within the PDF below) to width; this will become the height of the panels. Keep the narrower panels grouped together, and do not cut them to length or miter the ends until after you have milled the grooves.
Cut a 1/4-in.-deep groove (1/8 to 1/4 in. wide) parallel to the grain 5-1/4 in. O.C. from the bottom edge. We used a table saw, setting the saw blade for a 1/4-in.- deep cut and ripping the first groove in each piece before moving the fence out to cut the next groove. (You can use a router and a straightedge to achieve the same results.) Cut a groove on the bottom of the top panels (PF and PG) to line up with grooves on the side-panel back caps (PD).
After you've milled the grooves, you can cut the panels to length. Although it seems counterintuitive, I find it easier to cut all of the side-panel miters first and then size the frames to the inside miters. Using a sharp, fine-tooth saw blade, cut the miters on a table saw or use a straightedge guide and a circular saw with the baseplate set at 45 degrees.
Build the frames
Cut the frame parts to size and assemble them (see illustration within the PDF) using exterior-rated wood glue and 1-1/2-in.-long narrow-crown staples. We used 3/4-in. AC exterior plywood for all of the frame parts that would not be visible or exposed to the elements.
To make the side frames, first build the three subassemblies: Parts C, G, H, J and K make up the short side assemblies; parts D, E, F, I and L make up the tall side assemblies; and parts M, N, O and Y make up the post-pocket assemblies. Attach the post-pocket stops (Y) 6 in. below the top and on one side of the inside of the assembly. The stops support the canopy posts yet allow any moisture that enters the post pockets to drain out the bottom.
Staple and glue the three subassemblies together (photo 1) adding the middle bottom plate (B) first and then the bottom plate (A). The three bottom plates provide a solid base for attaching the wheels.
Glue and clamp the subassemblies to each other and nail all the frame parts together. Be sure to follow the sequence of assembly.
After you lay out the inside dimensions of the post pockets, drill a 1/2-in. starter hole; then use a jigsaw to cut out the post holes on the tops of the side frames (photo 2). Be sure to drill a couple of 1/2-in. drainage holes in the bottom plate centered on the post pockets. Build the back-frame assembly (P, Q and R) and the bottom-frame assembly (S and T).
Mark the 1-1/2 x 4-3/4-in. posthole openings on the back top plate (L), following the dimensions shown here. Bore a clearance hole within the layout lines and use a jigsaw to cut along the lines; remove the waste to open up the top of the post pockets.
To construct the cabinet boxes, use simple butt joints, fastening them with 1-1/2-in. staples and glue. Now you are ready to put the island together.
Assemble the island
Line up the panels flush with the top of the frames. Secure panels PB, PC, PD and PE to the side-assembly frames with exterior-rated glue and 1-1/2- in. brads (photo 3). In the same way, attach the back panel (PA) to the backassembly frames. Then install the back assembly between the side assemblies, followed by the bottom frame (photo 4). Set the cabinet case on the bottom frame between the side assemblies (photo 5) and attach it with 1-5/8-in. screws. Attach the front and side top panels (PF and PG; photo 6).
Keep the miter joints tight and the grooves aligned while attaching panels together.
Flush-up the bottom plates of the frames and screw them all together. Use glue and 1-5/8-in. deck screws to connect the assemblies.
Slide the cabinet case into position and secure it by screwing into the side frames.
Make any adjustments needed on the top panels to get a good fit. Secure them to the frame with wood glue and finish nails.
Next, add trim to the cabinet case. We used pocket screws to build the cabinet face frame (photo 7) and then attached it to the cabinet with 1-1/2-in. brads. Then, using a brad nailer, we attached the cabinet door top stops (FFF) to the inside of the top face frame and fastened the cabinet door bottom stops (FFG) to the front edge of the cabinet case.
The face frame goes together quickly using hidden pocket screws. If you do not have a pocket-hole jig, you can assemble the frames with wood dowels and glue.
We routed a 1/8-in. roundover on all of the door edges and installed the doors with concealed inset hinges. Adding 1/4-in. spacers between the cabinet and the hinges allowed us to use frameless cabinet hinges (photo 8).
Installing 1/4-in. spacers behind the hinges allowed us to use frameless hinges, which are less bulky and obtrusive than face-frame hinges.
Rout a 1/8-in. roundover on the face of the bottom edge trim (BF, BG, BH, BI and BJ) before cutting the pieces to length. Using a brad nailer, attach the filler strips and edge trim along the bottom to complete the base.
Turn the base on its back and attach the wheels. The base is heavy and requires heavy-duty casters. We used 4-in.-dia. locking swivel casters and secured them with 2-in.-long x 1/4-in.-dia. lag screws.
Add the countertops
Next we built the countertops from AC plywood topped with 6x6 onyx tiles and trimmed with prefinished 3/4 x 2-in. mahogany. The lower-countertop base (CTA) consists of one layer of plywood plus 3-in.-wide strips of plywood as build-up framing (CTC and CTD; see illustration). Before installing the lower countertop, we assembled, tiled, grouted and trimmed it; then we fastened it from inside the cabinet using 1-5/8-in. screws.
The upper-countertop base (CTB) is made of two layers of plywood and is fastened to the cabinet in two steps. First, mark and cut the 1-1/2-in. x 4-3/4-in. post-pocket notches in both upper-countertop base pieces.
Measure, cut and dry-fit tiles on one of the CTB pieces. Then apply mastic and set the tile (photo 9). After the tile sets up (24 hours), attach the trim (CTE and CTF) to the 3/4-in. plywood edge with wood glue and brads, aligning the top of the trim so it's flush with the tile surface. Now you can grout the tile.
When setting the tiles, make sure they do not overhang any of the edges or the openings for the post pockets.
Next, trim about 1/8 in. off of the four outer edges of the other CTB piece and attach this one to the cabinet, driving 1-5/8-in. screws through the plywood and into the cabinet framing (photo 10). Slip the tiled countertop over the sub-base and secure it from below.
Position the nontiled, trimmed upper-countertop sub-base (CTB) piece on the cabinet, being sure to line up the post holes; then fasten it to the framing.
Build the canopy
A slatted canopy completes the serving island. The arched beams (UD) are secured to the posts (UE) by a mortise-and-tenon joint and locked in place with connector bolts. This joinery allows the posts to be easily removed for storage or transport.
Measure and mark the arched beams, and cut the mortises before cutting the arches. I like to make mortises first and then cut the tenons to fit. Center the mortises on the bottom of the beam, making them 1/2 in. wide x 4 in. long x 3 in. deep. We used a drill press to rough out the mortises (photo 11) and then finished shaping them with a chisel (photo 12).
A tall fence clamped to the drillpress table keeps the mortise in line, and a 1/2-in. brad-point wood bit makes quick work of roughing out the mortises.
Smooth out the mortises using a sharp chisel and a heavy mallet.
Next, clamp the posts together and secure an edge guide to both. Using a router equipped with a 3/4-in. straight bit, cut several shallow passes (photo 13) until the tenons fit into the mortises.
Remove the tenon waste using a router and several shallow passes. Use a guide to get a straight shoulder edge.
To shape the arches, we used a jigsaw, followed by a sander to clean the cuts. We rounded the long edges of the slats using a router and a 1/8-in. roundover bit. You may find it easier to prefinish all the canopy parts before assembly. Starting at the outer ends of the arches, secure the slats using a dab of wood glue and a single screw centered on each slat connection (photo 14).
We used spacer blocks to establish the 3-in. slat overhangs and the 2-1/2-in. spaces between the slats.
Set the canopy upside down and insert the post tenons into the mortises (photo 15). Bore two holes and insert the connector bolts, drawing them tight. Enlist a friend to help position the canopy assembly and insert the posts into the post pockets. Finally, attach the post trim pieces (UF and UG) to the post (photo 16). Once you have applied the exterior finish to the exposed wood, you and your serving island are ready to roll.
The post tenons should fit snugly into the mortises in the arch beams.
Adding trim to the bottom of the post hides the cut tile edges and helps to keep water and debris out of the post pocket.
About the author: Handyman Club member Vern Grassel is a custom furniture builder, cabinetmaker and woodworking designer in Elk River, Minnesota.