Backyard Serving Cart

I love to grill, so I'm always looking for ways to improve my outdoor cooking experience. Installing a fancy built-in outdoor kitchen is tempting, but when I consider my actual needs and limited deck space, it doesn't make much sense. What I could use is a larger work surface to supplement my grill's two built-in side tables as well as a serving surface to complement my outdoor dining table.

My solution was to design an outdoor serving cart similar to a kitchen island. The cart features a countertop for food preparation and enclosed storage for grilling utensils, and it's on wheels so when I'm finished cooking, I can roll the feast across the deck to the table.

The difference between this cart and a typical kitchen island is that it is built with exterior-rated materials. The fasteners and hardware are all corrosion-resistant. I used cedar for the framing and the drawer front, but you could substitute any exterior-grade lumber. The panels and drawer box are exterior-grade plywood. Any exterior-grade plywood with a relatively smooth and paintable surface will work, but my first choice would be medium-density-overlay (MDO) plywood, an exterior grade that features a resin-treated overlay. The surface is smooth yet has just enough "tooth" to accept paint finishes well, which is why MDO is commonly used to make exterior signs.

Because my local lumberyard doesn't stock MDO, I used a similar product: high-density-overlay (HDO) plywood. It features a heavier resin overlay and a glossier finish, which requires light sanding with medium-grit sandpaper for paint and glue adhesion. If neither of these products is available, you can substitute exterior-grade AC plywood.

The design and construction techniques are simple. I avoided adding a lot of custom features that might limit the cart's versatility. The main tools you'll need are a table saw, a miter saw and a drill/driver.

Cut the parts
One of my goals when I was designing this cart was to cut all of the plywood pieces from a single 4x8 sheet. It took a few attempts, but I was finally able to devise a cutting plan that worked (see "Plywood Cutting Diagram," in PDF below). Cut the plywood parts using a table saw or circular saw and straightedge guide.

Cut the solid-wood parts using a miter saw and table saw or circular saw. At this stage, cut the top frame and door frame parts to rough lengths, but wait until after cutting the dadoes to miter-cut the ends to the finished lengths.

All of the pieces that feature dadoes are cut at the same time, using either a router table or a table saw (see "Cutting Dadoes," below).

Dadoes can be cut with either a router table (above, photo 1) or a table saw (below, photo 2). Cutting them with a router requires making multiple passes, raising the bit slightly with each pass. A table saw and dado set will cut the dadoes in a single pass. Whichever tool you choose, set the fence 1/4 in. from the bit or blade. First cut the 1/2-in.-deep dadoes in the corner posts, door frames and top frames. Then cut the 3/4-in.-deep dadoes in the bottom rails.

If you choose to use a table saw, you can cut the dado in a single pass by installing a 1/2-in.-wide stacked-blade dado set. Or you can cut each dado by making several passes with a single blade, moving the fence over 1/8 in. after each pass. Because these cuts do not go all the way through the top of the workpiece, you must remove any splitter and blade-guard accessory that is mounted behind the blade.

If you prefer to cut the dadoes using a router table, install a 1/2-in.-dia. straight-cut router bit and make three passes, raising the bit approximately one-third of the cutting depth with each pass.

Finish first
I chose to apply a natural finish to the cedar parts and paint the panels. You can apply the finish before or after assembly — both methods have advantages and disadvantages. In this case I chose to apply the finish first because it eliminated masking off parts later and the chance of overlapping paint on the cedar trim. The disadvantage is that I had to be careful to keep the finish off of the gluing surfaces.

I painted only the cabinet panels and left the drawer unfinished. Before applying the paint, I lightly sanded the HDO surfaces with 100-grit sandpaper. Then I masked off a 3/8-in.-wide strip along each panel edge that would be glued. Next, I applied one coat of exterior primer and two coats of exterior latex paint to each panel. I also applied a few coats of clear exterior finish to the cedar parts (photo 3), being careful to keep the finish from getting on any surfaces that would be glued.

Apply the finishes to the parts before assembling them. After masking off a 3/8-in.-wide strip along each panel edge that will be glued, prime and paint the exterior of the panels. Apply exterior sealer to the cedar parts.

Assemble the cabinet
Start by gluing the corner posts to the side panels. I used exterior-rated yellow wood glue to secure the panels in the dadoes. Then I attached the top and bottom side rails to the side panels with glue and fastened the top side rails to the corner posts with exterior screws driven into pocket holes. Follow the same sequence to attach the back panel and back rails to the two back corner posts.

Next, position the top edge of the door-stop rail 8-1/2-in. down from the top of the front corner posts and fasten it to the back of the posts with 1-5/8-in. screws. Fasten the bottom to the sides and back by driving 1-5/8-in. exterior screws into the corner posts and bottom rails. Then fasten the casters to the bottom by driving 1/4-in.-dia. x 2-in.-long lag screws through the outside caster holes that are located over the bottom panel and wood framing members and 1/4-in.-dia. x 1-in. carriage bolts through the inside caster holes that are located over only the bottom panel.

Assemble the drawers and doors
There are several ways to construct and mount drawers. I used the same HDO plywood that I made the cabinet panels from, so I chose to use a rabbet-and-dado joint. This joint is easy to make with either a router table or a table saw that is set up to make 1/4-in.-wide cuts (see "Making the Drawer," below).

Making the drawer

Use a router table and 1/4-in.-dia. straight bit (a table saw would also work well) to cut the dadoes in the drawer sides and the rabbets in the drawer front and back.

Then install a 1/2-in.-dia. straight bit to cut the dadoes that accept the bottom in the sides, front and back.

Assemble the drawer parts with glue, making sure the box is square after it is clamped.

Assemble the drawer and then mount it in the cabinet with stainless steel drawer slides (see SOURCES in PDF below). Center the drawer face between the front posts and 3/8 in. down from the top of the front posts. Attach the drawer face to the drawer box front with 1-in. exterior screws.

The drawer pull was intended for use on a typical 3/4-in.-thick door. To attach the drawer pull, replace the screws that are included with No. 8 x 32 x 1-1/2-in.-long stainless steel machine screws.

The doors are HDO panels that are secured in a cedar frame. The panels are secured in the dadoes that are cut into the mitered frame pieces (similar to a picture frame). Attach the frame pieces to the panel with exterior glue.

I used stainless steel piano hinges to hang the doors. The shortest stainless steel hinge I could find was 36 in. long, so I cut it in half with a hacksaw to create two 18-in. hinges. I fastened the hinges to the doors and cabinet with the screws that were provided with the hinge (photo 7).

After the cabinet is assembled and the drawer is installed, build the doors and hang them on the front posts with stainless steel hinges. Drive two screws into the door and post to test the door operation before driving the remaining screws to secure the hinge.

Like the drawer pull, the door pulls are intended to be installed in typical 3/4-in.-thick cabinet doors. Rather than replace the screws included with the pulls, I drilled a 1/2-in.-dia. x 3/4-in.-deep recess hole in the back of the door for each screw.

Assemble the side bin with 2-in. finish nails. Attach the bin and bin spacer to the cart with 1-5/8-in. screws.

Make the tile top
The width of the top frame pieces depends on the thickness of the tile that you are using. I listed the width of these parts in the cutting list as 1-1/4 in. to accommodate tiles as thick as 1/2 in. I used 3/8-in.-thick tile, which required that I trim 1/8 in. along the top edge of each piece. Apply glue inside the dadoes and attach the top frame pieces to the top panel. Drive 1-5/8-in. exterior screws through the top panel to attach it to the sides and back.

Tile is typically installed on a bed of thinset mortar over a cement or fiber backer board, and grout is used to fill the spaces between each tile. Because I was using only two large tiles on a small surface, I attached the tiles directly to the top panel with construction adhesive and filled the gaps between the tiles and the frame pieces with a tan silicone sealant (photo 8).

Attach the tiles to the top panels with construction adhesive. Fill the gaps around the tiles with silicone sealant. Smooth the silicone and remove the masking tape before the silicone dries.

This cart should last several years before it needs any refinishing or maintenance beyond basic cleaning, but it will last even longer if it is stored in a location that offers protection from the elements (especially if it's not going to be used for an extended period). Once grilling season is over, you could even give this workhorse a temporary home in your kitchen. Who knows? It might come in so handy you'll find yourself building another one next spring.