Pickups are a wonderful tool for the farmer, homesteader, homeowner, or anyone else who needs a people-moving vehicle that can also handle transporting goods and materials. The bed is a huge open cargo space that will handle just about anything you want to throw its way.
If there’s a downside to a pickup’s cargo-carrying attributes, it’s trying to reach the smaller things put into the bed. There’s some mysterious force that always places the item we need just out of reach when we get to our destination, so we have to drop the tailgate and hop into the bed to get it. I don’t know about you, but doing that gets old after a while, especially if you drive a pickup that has any type of lift on it.
A practical solution to such a dilemma is installing a cargo tray that slides out so you can load and unload what you need without having to climb into the bed or do the belly balance leaning over the bedside. There are commercially available cargo slides built from aluminum and stainless materials. They are fancy, well-designed, and most cost more than I’d spend on gas in six months.
I’m of the mindset that building something yourself that works just as good as something store-bought, and saving hundreds of dollars along the way, is a much better alternative. My friend Ron, a homesteader who is a talented woodworker, is of the same mindset. So we came up with a simple sliding cargo tray based on nothing more than the drawers you find in your kitchen or shop.
The only difference is this tray, which measures roughly 36 inches by 44 inches by 4 inches, is custom-made from 3/4-inch plywood to fit in the bed of a full-size pickup (or SUV). The total cost of materials is about $125, and less if you already have a half-sheet of plywood and some angle iron lying around. What’s nice about making your own sliding cargo tray like we did is it can be made to whatever size you want to fit a pickup, SUV, or even the cargo area of an RV, using whatever quality of tray material and slides you want.
We kept this one simple and cheap except for the most important part: the slide mechanisms that support all the weight when the tray is slid out over the tailgate. Most full-extension slide mechanisms found at DIY centers are 18 inches to 24 inches, but they don’t have a high load rating or the length needed for pickup applications, so you may have to look toward stores that specialize in cabinet making, or shop online like I did.
I used full-extension 36-inch Hettich drawer slides ($90 per) that can support loads up to 500 pounds. That length places the back of the tray about midway of the wheel wells of a pickup when the tray is closed, with the front of the tray extending just beyond the tailgate when the tray is slid fully open. This makes loading and unloading very easy, and the tray sits just inside the tailgate when both are closed. A cargo tray of this size, coupled with strong slides, can easily support a dozen sheets of plywood placed on top, which makes loading and unloading them a breeze.
If you are going to make your own tray for a pickup, measure the distance from about the middle of the wheel well to the closed tailgate, and choose a slide mechanism of that length. If you are making a slide tray for an SUV, measure two inches from the rear seat to the closed liftgate/tailgate and select slides accordingly.
I also opted for using two 3-foot lengths of 3-by-3-by-3/16-inch 6063 T52 aluminum angle for the mounting base. You could use heavier .0125-inch, or 1⁄8-inch steel angle. Whatever metal you use for the mounting bases, make sure it has both the side-to-side strength to hold the tray with its heaviest load, and lies perfectly flat when you bolt it to the floor of the vehicle.
Let the (Saw) Dust Fly
I could have built the cargo tray in my garage using my own simple hand tools, but when you have a buddy like Ron, who has a fully equipped woodshop and the expertise in such craft, it was a no-brainer where this project was going to be done. We started with a half-sheet of AC-grade 3⁄ 4-inch plywood to make the floor and sides. If you want a slicker finish, you could use cabinet-grade material.
Ron likes to use rabbet joints for drawers, and this cargo tray is just a drawer on steroids. The overall finished size of this tray will be 36-by-44-inches. To accommodate the rabbet joints, the measurements of the floor piece is 43-1⁄4 inches by 35-1⁄4 inches; the front and back pieces are 4 inches by 44 inches; and the sides are 4 inches by 34-1⁄2 inches. This leaves very little scrap out of a half-sheet of plywood when the sawdust settles.
After Ron makes those cuts, he adjusts the blade height to 3⁄ 8-inch and moves the fence in for a 3⁄8-inch cut. This is the quick and easy way to make a rabbet cut along the top edges of bottom piece and the bottom inside edges of the sides, front, and back, instead of taking the time to set up a dado blade.
One advantage to using rabbet joints instead of butt joints when assembling a tray like this is that the former provides about 30 percent greater joining strength because there’s more surface area for the glue to adhere to when the floor and sides are glued and screwed together. A rabbet joint also provides greater lateral support as each piece is pushing against a step ledge. Thus, a rabbet joint is better than a butt joint when building an open drawer.
An optional feature I like on sliding cargo trays such as this is having tie-down anchor points. You can use a hole saw to cut holes in the sides to feed tie-down strap hooks through. Or, you can install tie-down anchors in the floor. I prefer the latter. I also like having the cleats recessed so the floor remains smooth until something needs to be secured.
An Easy Assembly
The assembly process of the tray itself is easy. Place the bottom on a flat surface and have any clamps and fasteners you are going to use at the ready. We used Titebond III glue and 1-1⁄2 inch No. 8 countersunk wood screws to secure the pieces together. You’ll need to pre-drill the holes with a countersink drill bit that’s slightly smaller in diameter than the screws you are using to keep the plywood from splitting. We applied a thin bead of glue along each of the side piece’s joints, aligned them to the bottom, and used six screws evenly spaced along the edge. Then the front and rear pieces are screwed and glued into place.
Make sure the plywood bottom is flush with the bottoms of the sides, and the sides are square with the bottom. It’s critical the floor is flush and flat. If it’s not, it could rub against the angle bracket when it comes time for final assembly and installation. Applying a finish to the cargo slider is totally up to you. I sprayed this one’s interior and exterior with a coat of Rust-Oleum black bed liner, with a second coat of silver paint over the outer sides. Then I put down a non-skid mat to cover the floor.
Installing the slides is almost as easy as assembling the wood tray. The key here is to make sure the slides are positioned so the bottom of the tray clears the angle mounts and also clears the tailgate when installed. We positioned our slides so the bottom sits 1⁄4-inch above the aluminum angle we used for the mounting brackets. Use whatever size fasteners your slides call for to attach it to the mounts, then to the sides of the tray itself. In our case, we drilled out the holes in the mounting bracket so we could use No. 10-3⁄4-inch countersunk machine bolts (with nuts and lock washers) to attach each slide to the aluminum angle bracket, and No. 8 countersunk pan head screws to attach the slide rails to the sides.
The heavy-duty slides I used glide on ball bearings, so the cargo tray moves easily. Not wanting the tray to move during transit, or if I’m parked on an incline with the tailgate down, I added one little thing to my cargo slides: a cotterless hitch pin. I drilled a 5⁄16-inch hole through the slide assembly about 8 inches from the front of the tray, and inserted the pin to lock the unit in place. A quick pull of the pin releases the slide mechanism.
Mounting the cargo slide tray to the vehicle can be done any number of ways, depending on your needs and the vehicle. The down-and-dirty approach is to drill holes in each leg that accommodate self-tapping metal screws to secure the aluminum mounting brackets to the floor. I prefer using three 3⁄8-inch bolts per leg, backed with fender washers and lock nuts, to secure the cargo slider to the bed of a pickup or floor of an SUV.
Regardless of what mounting method you use, always crawl underneath your vehicle before drilling any holes to make sure there are no wires, fuel or brake lines, or gas tank that can get punctured or damaged. I learned that lesson when I was a kid and drilled a nice hole in my pickup’s gas tank while installing a bed-mounted spare tire carrier.
Once your slide-out cargo tray is in place, slide it out and take a moment to enjoy the fruits of your labor. You no longer have to get into the bed to retrieve something that has slid or rolled to the front or just out of reach from the sides. Now what you need easily slides to you.
Shopping List (Estimated cost: $100-$150)
• (2) 36-inch heavy duty Hettich drawer slides
• (1) 4-by-4 3⁄4-inch AC-grade plywood
• (2) 3-by-3-by-36-by-3⁄16-inch
• 6063-T52 aluminum angle
• (24) 8-by-11⁄2-inch wood screws (for tray build)
• (8) #10 3⁄4-inch countersunk pan head screws (slide to tray)
• (8) #10 3⁄4-inch countersunk machine bolts (slide to angle base)
• (6) 3⁄8-by-1-inch countersunk machine bolts, nuts, lock washers, fender washers (angle base to bed)
• (1) 5⁄16-by-11⁄2-inch cotterless hitch pin
• 15 ounces Rust-Oleum black bed liner (optional)
• (4) Recessed mounted “D”-rings (optional)
• (16) #12 3⁄4-inch countersunk pan head screws (D-rings to tray/optional)
• Wood glue
• Measuring tools
• Saw (reciprocating or table)
Fifty years ago, Bruce W. Smith sold Grit newspapers as a teenager in southwestern Oregon. Today he writes automotive and ATV-related articles for a number of national publications, and is a recognized automotive journalist specializing in pickups.