Project Plans: Three-Tier Toy Box

Build a space-saving storage unit to keep kids organized (and entertained).

Here’s a weekend woodworking project that puts the “fun” in functional. This three-tier toy box isn’t just a pleasure to build; it’s also enjoyable for kids to use.

This kid-friendly storage unit has three tilt-and-lock toy boxes that provide more than 8,300 cu. in. of storage space. Each box has a chalkboard surface for creative doodling.

The structure consists of two vertical uprights that support three toy boxes. The front of each box has a chalkboard surface that encourages children to write, color and doodle. The boxes can be tilted and locked at the most comfortable angle for drawing and for reaching a toy, book or game. I can’t help but hope that if kids find this toy box appealing, they might be more likely to put away all the stuff that typically gets scattered about the room. (Hey, a parent can dream, right?)

Design details
The vertical uprights and horizontal bases are cut from 5/4x6 pine, which actually measures 1-1/16 in. thick x 5-1/2 in. wide. You could cut these four parts from 3/4-in. stock, but I prefer the beefier 5/4-in. boards. Each upright is secured to a base by a half-lap joint, glue and screws.

I cut curved profiles into both ends and the bottom edge of each horizontal base. You can copy these details by using the pattern (see illustration in the PDF below) to produce a full-scale half-template. I also routed a 1/4-in.-radius cove on the uprights and bases. This detail isn’t necessary, but it does add visual interest.

The three toy boxes are constructed from birch plywood: 3/4-in. for the front, rear and ends of each box and 1/2-in. for the bottom. The box fronts are primed, coated with chalkboard paint and then trimmed with 1-3/8-in.-wide doorstop molding. All other exterior surfaces are finished with one coat of white pickling stain and one coat of satin polyurethane varnish. The interiors are varnished but not stained.

I suspended the boxes between the uprights by using threaded-stud knobs that pass through the uprights and into tee nuts inserted into the ends of the boxes. Tightening the knobs locks the toy boxes at the desired angle.

The cost to build the toy box runs between $150 and $175. You should be able to find everything you need (see shopping list in the PDF) at a local lumberyard or home center except for the threaded knobs, which I purchased online from McMaster-Carr.

Cutting the uprights
Start by crosscutting the two uprights (A) and bases (B) to length from 5/4x6-in. pine boards (see cutting list in the PDF). You can stack two boards and gang-cut two pieces simultaneously. Then rip the uprights to 4 in. wide on a table saw. Sand or plane the edges smooth.

Use a pencil compass to draw a 4-in.-radius arc across the top end of each upright (photo 1, below). Cut the rounded ends with a jigsaw and hand-sand the curved cuts smooth with a 100-grit sanding block.

Scribe a 4-in. radius on the uprights with a pencil compass. Be sure the top of the arc extends to the end of the upright.

Next, lay each upright on a flat surface, measure up from the bottom end and mark lines at 12 in., 28 in. and 44 in. Draw intersecting lines 2 in. from the edge to center the marks on the uprights. Use a 3/8-in.-dia. spade bit to bore a hole through the uprights at each knob location (photo 2).

Drill three 3/8-in.-dia. knob holes through each upright. Place a scrap-wood block beneath to prevent the back from splintering.

Milling half-lap joints
The next step is to cut a half-lap joint into the bottom end of each upright. I milled the 1/2-in.-deep x 4-1/2-in.-long joints by utilizing the depth-stop setting on my sliding-compound miter saw. You could also cut them with a router or table saw fitted with a dado blade.

If you’re using a miter saw, first adjust the depth-stop setting to limit the saw’s depth-of-cut to 1/2 in. and make a test cut in a scrap board. Measure up 4-1/2 in. from the bottom end of the uprights and draw a square line across the parts to represent the shoulders of the joints.

Set one upright on the miter saw table and make a series of closely spaced cuts across the piece (photo 3). Make the last cut precisely on the shoulder line. Repeat for the other upright; then use a hammer to break away the waste (photo 4). Scrape the face of the joints smooth with a sharp chisel (photo 5).

Adjust the saw’s depth-of-cut to 1/2 in.; then make a series of closely spaced cuts to form half-lap joints in the uprights.

Use a hammer to break away the waste from the half-lap joint. Be careful not to strike the shoulder cut on the joint.

Scrape the face of the joint smooth with a sharp chisel. Hold the bevel edge down to keep the chisel from gouging the board.

Shaping the bases
Make a full-scale half-template of the pattern. Lay the template on one of the 26-in.-long pine bases and trace around it (photo 6). Flip over the template and mark its outline on the opposite end of the base. Use this same two-step procedure to draw the template shape on the second base. Cut each base to shape with a jigsaw; then sand the edges smooth by hand — or better yet, with an oscillating spindle sander.

Hold the half-template against the base and trace around its outline. Then flip over the template and mark the other end.

Next, use a router equipped with a 1/4-in.-radius cove bit to cut a decorative profile in the edges of the uprights (photo 7) and bases. Note that the cove is only routed into the outside surfaces of the parts. Use a quarter-sheet orbital finishing sander and 120-grit sandpaper to smooth the surfaces, edges and corners of the uprights and bases. Then fasten the uprights to the bases with glue and 1-1/4-in. drywall screws.

Add a decorative detail to the project by routing a 1/4-in.-radius cove in the outer edges of the uprights and bases.

Making the boxes
Begin by ripping 3/4-in.-thick birch plywood into 7-1/2-in.-wide planks on the table saw. Then crosscut the strips to length on the miter saw following the dimensions on the cutting list for parts C1, C2 and C3. Cut the three box bottoms (C4) from 1/2-in.-thick birch plywood.

Next, create a shallow recess for installing the tee nuts in each of the six box ends (C3) by first drilling a 1/4-in.-deep x 1-in.-dia. counterbore hole. Center the holes 9 in. from the end and 3 in. from the top edge. I used a drill-guide attachment to ensure each counterbore was precisely 1/4 in. deep, but you can drill them freehand as well.

Now drill a 7/16-in.-dia. hole through the center of each counterbore to accommodate the threaded shaft of the tee nuts (photo 8). Use a hammer to tap a 3/8-16 tee nut into each counterbore (photo 9). If necessary, use a nail set to drive the tee nuts all the way in.

Bore a 7/16-in.-dia. hole through the center of each counterbore to accommodate the threaded shaft of the tee nut.

Use a hammer to tap the tee nuts into the holes bored in the toy-box ends. Be sure each tee nut is fully seated in the hole.

Once the tee nuts are installed, you can assemble the toy boxes. I used a pneumatic brad nailer and 1-1/4-in.-long brads to fasten together the boxes, but you can also hand-nail them with 1-1/2-in. (4d) finishing nails.

Begin by gluing and nailing a box end to a box front. Then attach the rear of the box, followed by the opposite box end. The two ends should overlap the front and rear of the box. Use a framing square to ensure the box is square; then attach the bottom using glue and 1-5/8-in.-long trim-head screws (photo 10). Repeat to assemble the remaining boxes. Sand the boxes smooth -- inside and out -- using a quarter-sheet orbital finishing sander and 120-grit sandpaper.

Fasten the plywood bottom to each toy box with carpenter’s glue and 1-5/8-in.-long trim-head screws.

Finishing the project
Apply primer to the front of each toy box and allow it to dry at least one hour (or longer if instructed on the label); then sand very lightly with 220-grit sandpaper. Remove the sanding dust with a damp cloth and apply one coat of chalkboard paint to the box front. Let the paint dry overnight.

Meanwhile, use a foam brush to apply white pickling stain to the doorstop molding (D1 and D2). Allow the stain to penetrate for 10 minutes; then wipe off the excess with a dry cloth. Once the stain is dry to the touch, cut the molding at 45-degree angles to create an attractive picture frame around the chalkboard surfaces. Secure the pieces of trim with glue and 3/4-in.-long pins (photo 11). You could also hand-nail it with 3/4-in. brads.

Miter-cut doorstop molding to create a decorative trim around the chalkboard surfaces. Secure the trim with glue and 3/4-in.-long pins.

Apply white pickling stain to the exterior of each toy box and to the uprights and bases. Let the stain penetrate for 10 minutes; then wipe off the excess. Allow the stain to dry overnight; then coat all surfaces (except the chalkboard box fronts) with satin polyurethane varnish. Be sure to coat the unstained toy-box interiors as well. Let the varnish dry overnight; then lightly sand with 220-grit sandpaper.

Attaching the toy boxes to the uprights is a two-person job. Start by using double-sided tape to adhere a 1-1/4-in.-dia. steel washer to each end of the toy boxes. Be sure to center the washers over the tee nut holes.

Next, have one person hold the bottom toy box in position as you thread a knob through the upright and into the tee nut. Stand the opposite upright in place and screw in the second knob. Repeat for the middle toy box and then the upper toy box (photo 12).

Pass the threaded knobs through the holes in the uprights and into the tee nuts installed inside the box ends.

When filling the toy boxes, be sure to put heavier items such as books in the bottom box and place lighter toys such as stuffed animals in the top box. The three-tier structure is extremely stable, but if you’re concerned that it could topple over, fasten the bases to the floor with steel angle brackets.