Construct a Classic Wooden Cart

This perfectly balanced workhorse rolls up and down hills with ease

Overview

If you enjoy gardening but not making multiple trips to collect tools, fertilizer, flats of plants, mulch, a garden hose and a weed bucket, you'll love this simple cart. It's lightweight and easy to maneuver, but it works like a heavyweight. It's solid enough to carry a heavy load of soil and plants and a bunch of gardening tools to boot. It's designed so the weight will balance nicely over the axle, not on your arms. And the large wheels allow you to easily roll loads across bumpy lawns and up and down slopes with minimal effort.

We designed this cart to look just as good 20 years from now. It's made from white ash, a tough hardwood traditionally used for garden tool handles, boats and furniture. For extra strength and longevity, we assembled it with half-lap joints, screws and exterior glue.

In this article, we'll walk you through the cart assembly step by step. As you'll see, several joints require accurate detail work and patience. However, we'll show you how to build a router jig to simplify the notching process. The rest is straightforward: You simply cut, glue and screw the pieces together.

You'll need a miter saw, a circular saw, a drill and a router for this project. We recommend a table saw as well, although you can build the cart without one. Once you have all the materials on hand, allow two to three full days to assemble the cart.

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Gather the materials

Look for ash at any hardwood supplier. However, other species—white oak, elm, Douglas fir, or even pine or cedar— work well too if you can't find ash. No matter which you choose, stick with knot-free wood for the best results. Ash and other hardwoods usually come in random widths, so we ripped it all to size before we started. (See Cutting List and Figure B in Additional Information below.) But don't worry if you don't have a table saw; most suppliers will cut the wood for you for a small charge. Or they'll refer you to someone who can. (Some mail order suppliers will also cut specified sizes for you.) We list exact sizes in the Materials List, but unless you buy the wood already ripped and planed to size (S4S), add about 30 percent extra to account for waste.

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Cut the lap joints

Cutting accurate half-lap joints is the trickiest part of this project. Figure A and Photo 1 illustrate the jig we devised to make precise cuts with a router. But if you own or have access to a table saw with a dado blade, you can get equally good results much faster. If you have a steady hand, you can also cut the laps with a circular saw and sharp chisel. But don't expect the half-laps to be quite as tight. Whichever method you use, cut a pair of test pieces first to check the accuracy of the jig and the depth of the half-laps.

Setting up a half-lap router jig
Assemble the jig by first screwing down two lengths of 2x2 (1-1/2 in. x 1-1/2 in.) at a right angle (90 degrees) to each other in one corner of the worktable (Photo 1). This forms a squaring template, which you'll also use later for assembling the cart sides (Photo 4). These pieces should be at least 2 ft. long and 1-1/2 in. thick, the same thickness as the ash handles and legs. Make the router guide portion of the jig from 2x2s and 1x3s (Figure A). Keep all pieces at right angles to each other. The router base glides against the two parallel 1x3s. Screw one into position and temporarily clamp the other while you test joint widths. The temporary piece will be screwed down in two positions, one for a 2-1/2-in. lap and the other for a 1-1/2-in. lap. The 2x2 fence screwed to the table secures the handle and leg and also provides an entry point for the router bit. Test and tinker with the setup until you get accurate cuts.

To cut the half-lap joints with the router jig, you place the ash tight against the squaring template, then lock it into place with the 2x2 fence screwed to the worktable. Make the 1-1/2 in. wide x 3/4-in. half-lap cutouts in the handles (A) and bases (B) first (Figure C), sliding the router guide to the proper position and screwing it into place. Clamp the workpiece down—the router will push it out of position otherwise.

We used a sharp, carbide-tipped 1/2- in.-straight bit in our router, but smaller diameter straight bits will also work. In any case, make the cutouts in two passes (3/8 in. deep, then 3/4 in.), and take your time. If you try to remove too much material too quickly, the router may kick back.

Once you find the exact 3/4-in. depth on your test piece, use this piece to set the depth of the router for subsequent cuts (unless your router has a depth stop).

After the 2x3 pieces are done, reset the guide and cut the 2-1/2 in. wide x 3/4-in. half-laps on the front and rear legs (C and D) as shown in Figure C.

Figure B: Wooden Cart Exploded Diagram

Assemble the framework, then add the slats and wheels.

Figure B is also available in pdf format in Additional Information below.

Figure B: Wooden Cart Exploded Diagram Figure B: Wooden cart exploded diagram
Figure C: Half-Lap Joints

Use these templates as a guide for cutting the half-lap joints.

Figure C: Half-Lap Joints Figure C: Half-lap joints
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Shape the handles and construct the frame

To make comfortable hand grips, trim and round the end of each handle (Photos 2 and 3). After you round over the edges, clean up any saw kerfs and burn marks and soften any sharp edges with sandpaper.

Dry-fit all the side parts first to make sure everything fits properly, and use your jig to keep the framework square as you assemble it (Photo 4). Resist the temptation to drive screws without predrilling. The ash will split. Use a No. 7 size countersink bit for the No. 7 screws. Make the final few turns with a screwdriver if necessary to avoid driving them in too far. If you do accidentally split the wood, squirt glue into the crack, back the screw out until the crack closes up, and clamp it tightly shut. When the glue dries, redrill the hole with a slightly larger bit so the screw won't force the wood apart.

Attach the bottom ledges (G) with glue and 2-in. screws, lining the ledge up with the bottom of the base (Photo 5). Be sure to leave a 13/16-in.gap between the ledge and the leg (C) to accommodate the rear cross brace (E). Cut out a 3/4-in. x 1-1/2-in. notch at each end of the rear cross brace (E) to fit around the bases (B) so its top edge is flush with the top of the bottom ledges. Then set the two cart sides upright on the table and screw on the cross supports (H; see Photo 6) and the rear cross brace (Photo 7). Clamp the temporary supports on the top to help keep the whole assembly stable and square. You don't have to stop to let the glue dry; the screws will hold the joints rigid while you continue working.

We positioned the bottom slats (J) that form the bed of the cart lengthwise and fastened them from underneath so that big loads could slide in and out smoothly. Space them evenly across the bottom cross supports, using 7/16-in. spacers (Photo 7). The spacing won't be exact; adjust it slightly for the last two slats to make up differences.

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Bracing strengthens the cart

The diagonal braces (F) help keep the cart square and rigid. Cut the braces to length and glue and screw them to the frame and legs (Photo 8). Bevel the front edges slightly to soften them. And round over the bottom edges of the legs with the sander to eliminate sharp corners that might catch and splinter.

Mount the side rails (K) before cutting the front rail (L) to length to make sure it spaces the side rails perfectly flush with the outer edge of the front legs (Photo 9). Predrill the screw hole through the back leg accurately so that it catches the center of the side rail. Fasten it with a 2-1/2-in. screw (Photo 9). Fasten the front rail to each front leg with a single screw. Then screw the side rails to the front rail. Predrill with a larger (No. 9) countersink bit so the fragile end grain won't split. Use glue and 1-1/4-in. screws. Hand-tighten the screws to avoid overdriving them.

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Install the hinged top

Attach the two ledges (M) with glue and five 2-in. screws each, then attach the three fixed slats (Photo 10). Assemble the hinged top against the square jig on the worktable, again driving the screws in from underneath to keep them hidden (Photo 11). Let the glue set for an hour before installing this top, to keep it perfectly square. Then fasten it to the top slat with hinges (Photo 12). Leave clearance on both sides so it won't rub against the handles when you open it.

Finally, screw the top rail (R) across the tops of the front legs. Predrill to avoid hitting the screws that hold the half-lap joint together.

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Install the axle and wheels

To mount the wheels, turn the cart upside down on the worktable and mount the axle supports (S; see Photo 13). If you have access to a drill press, you could first drill 9/16-in. holes in each axle support for the threaded rod axle. If you have to use a hand drill, it's easier to line up the hole with the axle supports in place (Photo 13). Use a 9/16-in. bit to give yourself a little wiggle room when you insert the 1/2-in. threaded rod axle.

Now is the best time to apply an exterior finish. Brush on a couple of coats of an exterior penetrating oil. You'll want to renew the finish after a few years.

Push the axle through the holes; ream out the holes a bit with your drill if the fit is too tight. To figure the exact axle length, first mount one complete wheel assembly, then mount the other with the exception of the final locknut (Photo 14). Then cut the axle to fit (Photo 15). Dab a little varnish on the cut end of the axle to prevent rusting, then put the wheel on. The wheels should spin freely; if not, back off the locknut a quarter turn.

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