Project Plans: Serving Cart

Entertaining guests? Build a modern incarnation of a classic serving cart.

Whether you’re serving appetizers, cocktails, coffee or tea, this easy-to-build cart offers great utility and an elegant presentation. Its four cool-looking casters swivel (making the cart nimble) and lock to hold it firmly in park. Sized to easily maneuver through doorways and be tucked against a wall, the cart can even fill in as a part-time kitchen island.

To save on labor, I incorporated baskets rather than drawers into the upper tier. The baskets add visual interest, and they are accessible from either side. The cart also features two adjustable (or removable) shelves and two bottom shelves, all of which are lipped so items won't slide off when the cart rolls.

Rift-sawn red oak and quarter-sawn red oak plywood combine to give the cart character with very straight grain. The handle is a piece of black plumbing pipe held in place by two oak flanges.

Building the cart is pretty easy; you’ll need moderate woodworking skills and the tools and ability to cut wood pieces accurately and square. Expect to spend about 20 hours on construction and finishing and about $385 for materials (see shopping list and sources in PDF below).

Construction notes
This project requires a table saw, a planer, a jointer, a band saw or jigsaw, a stationary belt or disc sander, a biscuit jointer, an orbital sander and a router with a 1/4-in.-radius roundover bit. You’ll also need a dowel hole-drilling jig, four 1/4-in.-dia. dowel centers, a shelf-pin drilling jig, a 13/16-in.-dia. spade bit, eight 24-in.-long bar clamps and five 48-in.-long pipe clamps.

The cart is assembled with a variety of fasteners. I used biscuits wherever possible, dowels for concealed joints where biscuits won't fit, and screws where they are not visible (except for those that secure the flanges). You’ll mark and drill the dowel holes in the legs for the lower side-rail joints after assembling the sides (here's the slippery slope of changing part names. In this case what I call the sides now become the ends. Someone needs to very carefully review the text to see that all the changes are made. I will do my best in this review.) and basket section. Use dowel centers to mark those holes (photo 7, below) because with all of the variables involved it’s nearly impossible to predict exactly where those holes should be.

You’ll need to keep in mind a few critical dimensions. First, the height of the assembled center section must equal the length of the legs (J1 + I1 + J3 + I2 = F; see cutting list in the PDF below). Also, the assembled width and length of the cart body (the basket section with the legs attached) must equal the size of the bottom with its edgings (B with H1 and H2) attached. Double-check the dimensions as you fabricate the pieces.

Make the parts
Cut the plywood pieces (A through E) oversize. Glue together the pieces that will make the tall upright (C2; photo 1), and the short uprights (C3); then cut all of the plywood pieces to their finished sizes.

Glue together pieces of 3/4-in.-thick plywood to make the uprights (C2 and C3). Apply clamping pressure in the center of the assembly first; then set clamps around the outside.

Cut the solid-wood pieces F through J4 to size. Make the width of the upper stiles (I1) match the combined thickness of the short uprights (C3). Make the thickness of the end rails (J2 and J4) equal to the thickness of the plywood end panels (D). Drill the dowel holes in the ends of the upper stiles (I1), the ends and edges of the lower side rails (J3) and the edges of the upper side rails (J1; photo 2). Drill the shelf-pin-support holes in the legs (F) and tall upright (C2; photo 3). Cut the offset No. 10 biscuit grooves that join the upper side rails (J1) and legs (F; photo 4).

Use a 3/4-in.-spread double-hole dowel jig as a guide when drilling the holes in the rails and stiles. Placing two narrow workpieces side-by-side gives the jig more bearing surface.

Drill the shelf-pin holes in the legs (F) and tall upright (C2). Use a shelf-pin drilling jig to guide the drill. Add a spacer when drilling the holes in the legs. (They’re 5/8 in. from the edge.)

The biscuit grooves in the upper side rails (J1) are offset with the legs. Use a spacer to define the offset and cut the grooves in the rails; then cut the leg grooves without using the spacer.

Cut a 3/8 x 2-1/2 x 12-in. piece of oak for making the flanges (P). Lay out four 2-in.-dia. circles on the board. (The two extras will be used as sacrificial risers later.) Drill the 13/16-in.-dia. holes in the flanges for the handlebar pipe. Make sure the pipe fits in the holes; use a round file to enlarge the holes if necessary. Drill the screw holes in the flanges.

Rough-cut the shapes of the flanges and risers. Join the flanges and risers with double-stick tape; then sand the round shapes smooth using a stationary sander. Adhere the risers to a scrap piece of medium-density fiberboard (MDF) and rout the flanges’ roundover edges (photo 5,). Shape the handlebar ends of the top side edgings (G1).

Use double-stick tape to adhere the flanges (P) to sacrificial risers and to adhere the risers to a scrap piece of MDF; this raises the flanges so you can rout the roundover edges.

I bought a clean section of pipe and had it cut to 17-7/16 in. at the store (but you could use a hacksaw to cut it yourself). I cleaned the pipe with mineral spirits and then painted it with black spray enamel. Painted copper pipe would work too, but you’d need to adjust the size of the holes in the flanges (P) to fit the pipe.

Assemble the components
Glue the end rails (J2 and J4) to the end panels (D). Cut the No. 20 biscuit grooves that join the end assemblies (D, J2 and J4) to the legs (F). The end panels are flush with the insides of the legs. Glue the upper stiles (I1) to the short uprights (C3). Cut the No. 0 biscuit grooves that join the lower stiles (I2) and lower side rails (J3). Finish-sand the tall upright (C2). Glue the lower stiles (I2) to the tall upright (C2). Glue the lower side rails (J3) to the divider (C1). Drill the screw holes in the divider to attach the short uprights (C3).

Glue and clamp the top end edgings (G2) to the top (A). Rout the top and bottom roundover edges of the top end edging piece on the end where the handlebar goes. Screw the flanges to the insides of the top side edgings (G1); then remove the flanges. (It's easier to align them now than it would be later.) Glue and clamp the top side edgings (G1) to the top (A). Rout the rest of the top’s roundover edges.

Glue the bottom end edgings (H2) to the bottom (B); then add the bottom side edgings (H1). Make and attach the caster plates (O). Drill the screw holes in the bottom to attach the legs and tall upright. Rout the roundover bottom edges and corners of the assembled bottom.

Assemble the cart
Finish-sand the faces of the legs that join with the end assemblies the outsides of the end assemblies, the top of the divider, the faces of the short uprights and the assembled bottom. Be very careful not to distort any areas where pieces join. Glue and clamp the legs to the end assemblies. Round over the corners of the legs. Finish-sand the insides of the end assemblies and legs.

Check the fit of the dowel pins in their drilled holes. If the fit is tight, they will split the ends of the narrow rails and stiles when they are inserted. My dowel pins were so swollen that I had to use a 17/64-in. drill bit to enlarge all of my dowels holes so the dowel pins would fit. In this case a loose (but not sloppy) fit is best. Adjust all of the dowel holes except those in the ends of the lower side rails (J3). You’ll adjust those holes after marking the dowel holes in the legs.

Glue, clamp and screw the short uprights to the divider. Glue and clamp the upper side rails (J1) to the stiles of the short uprights (photo 6). Mark and drill the dowel holes in the legs (photo 7). Glue and clamp one end to the assembled basket section (photo 8); then add the other end. Glue and clamp the tall upright in place. Screw and glue the bottom to the legs and tall upright. I aligned and clamped the bottom to the legs and tall upright without glue; then I drilled pilot holes and drove the screws. To make the assembly easier, I unscrewed the bottom, applied the glue and then reattached the bottom.

Assemble the basket section of the cart. Use an accurate square to confirm that the ends of the upper side rails (J1) align in the same plane as the ends of the lower side rails (J3).

Use dowel centers to mark the holes where the lower side rails (J3) join the legs (F). Insert the dowel centers in the holes in the lower side rails, align the parts and press down to mark the legs.

Glue and clamp the assembled basket section to one end assembly. Also apply a light bead of glue across the end of the divider (C1). Add one last clamp in the center to pull the parts together.

Trim the shelves (E) slightly so they can be tilted into position between the legs and tall upright. Set the shelves in place and mark where the edgings will mount on the shelves; then make and attach the shelf edgings (K1 and K2) to the shelves. Make and attach the lips (L1 and L2) and the cleats (N).

Finish-sand all of the unsanded surfaces and ease all exposed sharp edges. To seal the wood, use a foam brush to apply a clear water-base finish. Remember, many thin coats are better than a few thick ones. Because a water-base finish applied with a foam brush tends to pool in the intersections between parts, I used a synthetic paintbrush to feather out the finish in those spots.

Drill 9/64-in. pilot holes to attach the casters before fastening them to the caster plates. Be cautious when inserting the outside corner caster screws to avoid splitting the wood. Make and attach the basket guides (M). Attach the top by driving three No. 8 x 1-1/4-in. flathead screws through each cleat (N). Slip the flanges over the ends of the handlebar pipe, slide it in place and drive the screws. Now you and your cart are ready to roll!

Bonus Video: