For me, Mother’s Day is always associated with breakfast in bed. It also happens that I’ve been talking about building a bathtub tray for what seems like forever. So I did what anyone would do for Mother’s Day: created a tray that pulls double duty. One part breakfast tray, one part bathtub tray!
As lovely as it’d be, breakfast in bed isn’t an everyday thing, so creating a bath tray that lives in the tub but can be easily pulled out for fluffy pancakes under fluffy sheets seemed like a great balance. Design-wise, the lattice strips came into play to keep the tray lightweight, and the legs were based off a breakfast tray I currently own. Shall we begin?
Step 1: Lattice Strips
Dimensions vary from bathtub to bathtub. Decide where you’d like your tray to rest, then measure the inside width of your bathtub. Jot that dimension down, then measure the outside width of the bathtub, from lip to lip. Ours came to 31”, which decided the length of our tray: 31”.
With that in mind, we chose lattice strips that came as close to our measurements as possible without being less than our measurements. If you want to do a painted design like we did, you’ll need an even number of lattice strips. Dunn Lumber carries lattice strips that are 1-1/8” wide, 1-3/8” wide, and 1-5/8” wide. For our tray with a 31" width, we lined up 22 strips of the 1-3/8” lattice—which came to 31-1/2”. That makes our tray just slightly wider than 31”, but that’s OK—if there’s an extra inch or so in there, it’s not the end of the world. The tray will just hang over the edge of the tub.
Cut your lattice strips into 9-1/4” pieces. Buff the ends with a fine sanding sponge (or 220-grit sandpaper) until you’ve removed all the splinters. We'll be doing heavy sanding later.
Step 2: Parting Bead
I decided to use parting bead because, like the lattice strips, it’s lightweight. No one wants to lug around a big hefty tray, right? I know I don’t. Parting bead is a small, rectangular piece of moulding that measures 1/2” by 3/4” and connects all the lattice strips while remaining unseen.
Lay all the lattice strips down side-by-side, then measure the collective length. Even though the lattice strips we chose were supposed to be 1-3/8”, we found that they varied just slightly and added an additional 1/8” to the length we anticipated. Once you’ve measured the actual length of the lattice strips side-by-side, cut two pieces of parting bead to that same length.
Then cut four pieces of parting bead to 9”, and two more to 9-1/4”. Set these aside. They'll make up the legs in step 5.
Step 3: Tray Top
Arranging your lattice strips is a fine art. For my tray, I cut my strips from three different pieces of lattice. Each piece of lumber has its own grain and pattern, and when you use different pieces, those grains and patterns vary. I embraced this difference and went with an intentional "every other" design, but the choice is up to you!
Once you’ve settled on a design, arrange the lattice strips face-down and butted up against a flat vertical surface (we used a board clamped to the table). Then, glue them together. Because the surface you’ll be gluing is only 1/4” thick, you’ll need a very small amount of glue. To keep any glue from leaking through to the (eventual) top of the tray, I put more glue on the bottom half, then ran my finger along the edge to make sure it wasn’t too much. Not only will globs of glue knock your craft, but it’ll also cause the lattice strips to stick to your work surface. That happened to me once, and even though it was only a tiny bit of glue, it held pretty darn securely.
Glue down your parting bead pieces 1-3/4” in from either edge, perpendicular to the lines of the lattice strips. Weigh down with books or some cans of paint to keep everything flat and secure. Let dry for 24 hours.
Step 4: Frame
Next up is the frame, which we’re cutting to fit the tray top because, as I mentioned before, the lattice strips vary.
A quick note before we get started with step 4. Because each piece of 9-1/4” lattice probably wasn’t exactly 9-1/4” long, there may be some slight variation along the edges of your tray top. To make the frame fit snugly, sand down any uneven edges until they’re flush with the other strips.
Once the edges are even, place your tray top over scraps of lattice. There’s nothing special about this—we’re just using the scraps to elevate the tray top so the frame creates a lip around it.
For the actual frame, cut 1x2 pieces of lumber to fit the exact dimensions of the lattice strip tray top. We cut ours at a 45° angle for aesthetic reasons.
I attached the 1x2 framing ends to each of the short ends first, parallel to the lattice strips. I used wood glue, then followed with 1-1/2” nails through the frame and into the parting bead. To keep the wood from splitting, pre-drill nail holes with a 1/16” bit.
After the short ends of the frame are attached, flip the tray over before adding the long ends. This ensures that you don’t wind up with a gap in the seams at the top of each corner. Do a dry fit with the long sides of the frame, and make any cuts as necessary. Then, attach with glue and two 1” nails in each corner, and clamp the sides while the glue dries.
Step 5: Legs
Grab the 9" pieces of parting bead for the legs, and the 9-1/4" pieces as a crossbar.
The trick with the legs of the tray is to make the positioning equal all around. Place each leg about ⅛” from the end of the inside of the tray. To make this consistent with each leg, we used two little stir sticks as a guide. You can also use a plastic spacer. The legs should be tight against the side, and flush with the top. Once you’ve placed the legs, secure them with clamps.
Starting with one leg, drill through the side of the frame and the center of the top of the leg with a 13/64” drill bit. Unclamp and remove the leg, then drill through the hole in the frame with a 15/64” bit. Slide a washer onto a hex screw, then screw the hex screw into the hole. When you reach the other side of the frame, slide another washer on between the frame and the leg. Attach the leg, then secure with a nut. Repeat with the remaining three legs.
When you try to turn the leg on its axis, you may find that the corner runs into the wall of the tray. The easy solution to this problem is to remove the leg and trim off the corners of the top of the leg. You can do this with a miter saw, hand saw, or with a sander.
Attach the crossbar at the bottom of each pair of legs. If the bottom of the legs are pressing against the side of the frame, use a stir stick or an extra washer or two to push it into the center. Secure the crossbar in place with 1” nails and glue. Allow the glue to dry before putting pressure on the crossbar.
Step 6: 3/4" Moulding
At this point in the project, you’ve got a tray ready for breakfast in bed. What makes it a tray fit for the bathtub is this one little piece, which keeps the tray from sliding back and forth.
Using the measurements you took earlier, cut pieces of 3/4” moulding to fit the distance between the inside of your tub. Before you attach it to the tray, test the length of the moulding in the tub to make sure it fits. When the tray is on the tub, mark either end of the 3/4" moulding with a pencil. Then, glue in place and secure with 1-1/2” nails.
Step 7: Stain
Choose a stain you like, then stain the tray according to the directions on the can. If you have an exterior stain lying around your house that is compatible for interior use as well, you can use that. Otherwise, any stain will do—just finish with a water-resistant coat when you're done. For our tray—we used Varathane Wood Stain in the color Dark Walnut.
Step 8: Design
For the design, we taped out a fun Aztec-inspired pattern. The painters tape we were using happened to be the exact same width as the 1-3/8” lattice strips we used for the tray top, which made things easier.
To start, we cut a triangle from cardstock to use as our template—this works like a speed square, but with flexibility. Then, with the cardstock as our guide, we cut the tape at a 45° angle. From the bottom of the diagonal cut we measured down 1" and made a straight cut. This piece makes up the four middle points of the design. As we moved from the center of the tray, we added 1/2” inch to each piece of tape until the space in between got too small for us to continue. That’s one way to do it. You can also make a stencil out of paper or, if you’re brave, freehand it.
Once you’ve got your design, it’s time to paint. I recommend a spray paint with a built-in primer. The first time we did this on one of our trays, we used a brush-on paint. It was hard to paint over the pointed tips of the tape without it peeling back. After I’d put on a few coats of paint and started taking the tape off, it started peeling in a bunch of places, at which point I remembered that I hadn’t put any primer on the wood. The second time I tried, I opted for a spray paint with a built-in primer. I think it was a combination of the primer and not brushing against the tape that made this approach a success.
Step 9: Enjoy!
To make sure your tray will have a long lifetime in your tub, use a water-resistant finish—a spray-on one is probably the easiest. My preferred tough spray-on finish is an exterior spray by Minwax called Helmsman. It’s what we used on our boot tray, and on the doormats we made a few years ago.
I’m really happy with how this turned out—and it was a pain making it, so that’s saying something. There were a lot of details in this one that had to be done just right before it could be considered a success, which meant a lot of trial and error. But that trial and error ending up leading to inspiration for even more projects, and resulted in a beautiful finished breakfast caddy and bathtub tray. In the end, it’s all part of DIY.