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How to Make Wooden Filing Tray Storage Units

Arthur strives to balance aesthetics, functionality, and quality with costs when planning DIY projects in the home and garden.

Wooden filing tray storage units

Wooden filing tray storage units

About This Project

After I’d renovated our home office last year, my wife showed me images of wooden filing trays on the internet and asked me to make some similar ones to replace our old, tatty plastic filing trays as a finishing touch to our home office makeover.

In total, we had over a dozen file trays of different designs and colours, and a cream-coloured one with three tiers was becoming rather ropey. But the four stubby green ones are perfect for my needs, so I shall not be replacing them, and the small black leatherette filing tray is too nice to replace.

So the filing trays to be replaced are the trays on the side desk and those by the printer.

Planning & Design Stage

Preparation can’t be rushed. Take your time to design and plan your project, so that you know what materials and tools you need, and get everything ready before you start.

For this project, my wife showed me an image from the internet of a wooden filing tray as a representation of what she had in mind. Using that image as a guide, the steps I took to design the filing trays were:

  • Decide on material to use: In this case, I decided to use 12 mm (1/2 inch) plywood for the main structure, and 4 mm (1/6 inch) plywood for the backs.
  • Decide on construction method: For example, the type of joint, which for this project would be simple butt joints, secured with wood glue and screws.
  • Decide the general shape: Which, for this project, would be a simple squared boxed pigeonhole with slanting fronts for the top trays.
  • Decide on the dimensions: Which I decided for these trays would be the same as the green stubby trays that I was keeping.
  • Sketch your design on paper: Write in the dimensions and any other notes that you may find useful during construction.
  • Decide on the finish: Paint, varnish, wood stain, etc. For this project, I opted to wood dye and polish with beeswax.

The Dimensions

The dimension I chose for these trays, for each tray was the same as the stubby green trays I use:

  • Width = 10 inches
  • Depth = 12 inches
  • Height = 5 inches (top shelf 2 ½ inches for triple height trays by the printer, and ½ inch for the filing tray for the side desk).

Why We Opted for the Shorter Tray Length

The trays, which were being replaced, had the same width and height, but were 15 inches long; 3 inches longer than my stubby green trays.

A4 paper (the British standard size paper) is 8 ¼ x 11 ¾ inches. The trays we were replacing are designed to take folders as well as paper; whereas the green stubby trays that I’m keeping are only long enough for paper e.g. folders jut out. However, we will mostly be using the trays for paper rather than folders, and from experience, when paperwork is stacked high in the traditional plastic filing trays, because the trays are longer, it can be difficult to see and find what you are looking for if it’s not on the top; whereas, with my stubby green trays, being that much shorter, it is easier to thumb through the pile and find what you want.

As size is a crucial issue, and once the wood is cut you can’t lengthen it again, I consulted with my wife before making a final choice to cut the length to 12 inches rather than 15 inches. My wife concurred with my opinion so the wooden filing trays are all made 12 inches long.

The short stubby green filing trays that we're keeping and which I based my measurements on from designing the new wood filing trays

The short stubby green filing trays that we're keeping and which I based my measurements on from designing the new wood filing trays

Step-by-Step Guide to Making Wooden Filing Trays

Here are the steps I took:

Step 1: Cutting the Wood to Size

From one sheet of 4’ x 8’ 12 mm plywood, I cut all the pieces that make the two filing tray units for our home office:

  • 5 x 12” x 21”: bases and shelves for the two units
  • 3 x 12” x 14”: sides and divider for the three-tier unit by printer
  • 2 x 12” x 6 ½ inches: the two sides for the filing tray unit on side desk
  • 1 x 12” x 5”: middle divider for the filing tray unit on side desk

Step 2: Sanding & Smoothing

After cutting the bases and shelves for the filing tray units, as they were all the same size, I placed them together in a wooden vice and used the belt sander on each edge in turn (turning the pieces around in the vice) to ensure that all five pieces were all identical.

I then repeated the same process for the 3 sides and dividers, and then for the 2 sides for the smaller tray unit.

I then quickly rounded off all the edges with an orbital sander.

Step 3: Bevelled Edge

As part of my design, the leading edges of the top open tray would be bevelled; to do this, I:

  • Measured and marked 2 ½ inches in each direction from the top front corner.
  • Cut along the marked line with a saw.
  • Smoothed and rounded the bevelled edge with an orbital sander.
A bevelled edge cut for the top of the main filing tray unit

A bevelled edge cut for the top of the main filing tray unit

Step 4: Cross Halving Joints

To fit the shelving and divider together on the main filing tray unit, I opted to use cross halving joints, as follows:

  • Measure and mark the centre of the two shelves.
  • Mark out the width of the wood at the centre point.
  • Mark a line 6 inches (halfway) in from the rear edge.
  • Drill a 12 mm hole in the centre, so that the outside edge of the hole is at the hallway point (6 inches).
  • Carefully cut on the inside of the pencil lines with a jig saw, to cut out the slot.
  • Check for fit e.g. if it’s too narrow it can be widened; but if it’s too loose it can’t be made tighter.
  • Repeat the same process for the divider, cutting two slots (one for each shelf) with a 5 inch gap between each slot.
  • Double check your measurements before cutting e.g. easy to measure from the wrong points and end up with a 4 ½ inch gap rather than the desired 5 inch gap.
  • Also, check for fit before final assembly.

Step 5: Assembling the Main Filing Tray Unit

With all the pieces cut and prepared, the unit was assembled as follows:

  1. With the cross housing joints cut, the two shelves and divider were glued and slotted together.
  2. Apply glue to the appropriate edges for the sides and base, and then
  3. Using the 5 inch divider from the smaller filling tray unit as a spacer, clamp the two sides and the base together, and screw to secure.
  4. Turn the box unit over, re-clamp as appropriate, ensure for squareness, and finish screwing to secure.

Step 6: Assembly of the Smaller Filing Tray Unit

Using the centre divider as a spacer, glue the edges of the box, clamp-up and screw to secure.

Step 7: Final Sanding

With both units assembled, they might be a bit rough around the edges, so before fitting the backs:

  • Use a belt sander to give a perfectly even finish to both the front and back on the box units.
  • Use an orbital sander to smooth off and round the corners and edges.

Step 8: Fitting the Backs

The next step is to make and fit the backs. You could use the same wood for the back as for making the unit; but optionally 4 mm plywood or hardboard is perfectly adequate.

The steps for fitting the backs were as follows:

  • Lay each unit over a sheet of 4 mm plywood, and mark out the outside edges with a pencil.
  • Cut the plywood to size.
  • Glue and screw to the backs, or fix using panel pins.

I prefer to use glue and screws for added strength and stability; but panel pins work just as well.

Step 9: Cleaning, Staining & Polishing

The last phase is to clean, stain and wax the units. You could use wood stain, varnish, paint, or wood dye to colour and protect the wood. My preference is wood dye because it’s easy to apply and dries quickly. I also always use beeswax polish as that gives long lasting protection; whereas furniture polish containing silicon only lasts a short period, as the surface loses its sheen when the oil dries, and the oil attracts dust anyway.

So I made the finishing touches to the units as follows:

  1. Used a cloth to wipe the units over with white spirit; and left for ½ hour to dry.
  2. Used a cloth to wipe the wood dye into the wood grain of the units; and left for ½ hour to dry.
  3. Used a yellow duster to rub the coloured beeswax into the wood grain; and left for 15 minutes to soak in before buffing to a shine.

Swapping in the New Wooden Filing Units

All that was left was to remove the old plastic filing trays, transfer all the paperwork from old to new, and put the new filing tray units in place on the desks in our home office.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Arthur Russ