Growing up in a household with a lot of artistic talent but very little money, I always found joy watching my mom repurpose items that came to us through friends, thrift stores and other sources. We didn’t buy new very often, but my mom had a knack for taking something found and making it wonderful.
Occasionally, I get the bug to repurpose something simply for the joy of seeing it have a new life. When I found an old, dingy wooden tray at the local thrift store I had to have it. Wood is the ultimate find, as it can be restored beautifully from pretty much any condition—you just have to see the gem behind the grime.
Here’s how I transformed the thrift-store tray to give it new life as an art piece in my kitchen. For your project, you can start with any solid wood tray, either repurposed or bought new at your local craft store.
The first thing I do with any wood item whether it’s new or old is give it a wipe down with a degreasing product, like tri-sodium phosphate cleaner, followed by a wipe with a clean, damp cloth. This initial step helps remove any oils that the wood has picked up over time, keeping your item from holding the stain or paint you apply. Older items may need a good scrubbing with a light bristle brush, old toothbrush or steel wool (I recommend 000 grade), as well. Always follow up with a rinse of clean water, and allow your item to dry thoroughly before moving on.
When painting a wood piece, it’s not necessary to remove the old stain, give it a good sanding to achieve a smooth finish. I use a mouse sander because I like it’s ability to reach into corners, but hand-sanding works fine, too.
Start with a coarser sandpaper (60 to 80 grit) if you need to remove some of the finish. Any chips or flakes will show up under your new paint so be sure to get to an even surface. Next, use 120 grit sandpaper to remove any marks from the previous sanding, then finish with 220 grit sandpaper for a smooth surface that will hold paint.
Once you’ve completed the sanding, use a tack cloth to remove the dust.
You’re now ready to paint your base color. I chose Krylon’s Blue Ocean Breeze for my base coat because it’s a paint and primer in one. If you choose a brand that does not state it’s a primer, use a separate primer for your first coat to block out any stains or leftover oils that will bleed through. Primer also will seal the wood so that you use less paint.
The key to even coverage is applying multiple light coats of paint. Refer to the paint’s manufacturer’s instructs do for guidelines on how frequently you can recoat. To cover the dark stain on the tray I found, I painted five coats, but you can determine how many layers your item needs.
I added a design to my tray using a paper stencil. If you decide to go this route, apply a couple layers of clear coat (I used Krylon’s Low-Odor Clear Matte) overtop of your base layer first to help your stencil lay flat and last longer. Once your base coat and clear coat have dried completely (24 hours at least) you are ready to start decorating.
Before you paint your design, lay out your stencil. You might choose to stencil the whole bottom of the tray, just a portion of it, or add small accents. Get creative; it’s your art piece! As you lay out your stencil, cut off any areas that don’t land where you want them. Use green painter’s tape (about three to four pieces) to hold the stencil in place without disrupting the design.
Choose your contrast paint. I had some leftover latex paint from painting my bedroom trim and decided to put it to use. Use a stencil brush, sponge brush or foam roller to apply your color in light coats. You want your brush or roller to be fairly dry so it doesn’t bleed under the stencil.
If you are covering the complete base of your tray, move your stencil, taking care to line up the design. Be aware of overlap when applying the paint or you will end up with a darker streak down the middle where the stencils met.
Right now your tray is probably looking pretty nice and you might be tempted to leave it as is, but the difference between “nice” and “wow” is in the handwork. Take a thin bristle brush and outline every edge of your design in a highlighting color (I chose silver). You can try using a paint pen, but I prefer using a brush. Don’t worry about making your lines perfect—the key is to achieve a hand-painted look that takes away all those clean, boring edges.
Once you have finished the painting of the inside of your tray you can move on to the outside if you choose. I used painter’s tape to make a line all the way around the tray, then applied white latex paint with my foam roller to cover the bottom half of the tray. I prefer the roller, as it doesn’t leave brush marks.
I then removed the painter’s tape and placed another layer of tape a few millimeters above the white line, filling in this area with the silver paint. I chose not to hand-paint both sides of the line, as I find trying to get one continuous line a bit daunting. When this is done you can remove the painter’s tape, and let the paint dry.
Tip: Even though I let my paint dry longer then the prescribed 24 hours, I still had a couple of spots where tiny flecks of my blue paint came off with the tape. When trying to touch up spray paint, use a piece of plastic wrap on a plate and spray the paint onto the plastic. Then use a cotton swab to dip in the paint and touch up the missing paint. Don’t use your brush unless you have mineral spirits to clean it with. Spray paint is not water-soluble.
Once the painting is done, you may chose to add a clear coat, especially if you plan to use the tray, as it makes washing easier. I find that five to six layers of clear coat provides excellent durability.
At this point, you might be ready to use your finished piece or you can continue adding embellishments. I chose to line my tray with white rope from a fabric store. (I wouldn’t suggest using this if using your tray for food, as it will be impossible to clean.)
Apply the rope with a glue gun, being sure to work in 3- to 4-inch increments, stretching and flattening your rope as you go. Be sure to press the rope tightly into the corners. Once the rope is glued in place, then cut it off exactly where needed. Don’t try to measure the rope before you glue and hope to come out with an accurate measurement—it can stretch and shrink as you glue.
Your final step is to embellish the rope joint. This is where you can get creative with old jewelry, beads or ribbons. I chose a mixture of beads and handmade fabric roses for the top of my tray. I used wire cutters to cut pearl-ended straight pins down to size and then placed my beads on the ends. I then placed a dab of glue and stuck the pin into that spot. This assures your design will stay in place once dry.
If you plan to hang your tray use triangular picture-hanging hooks carefully nailed into the edge of the tray. Take care not to place them too far, or they’ll go straight through your freshly painted tray bottom.
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