Frustrated with store-bought wheelbarrows that rust and rot in Oregon’s wet coastal climate, I decided to build a wheelbarrow from exterior-grade plywood, which I've dubbed a “plybarrow.”
I chose to make my wheelbarrow out of plywood for several reasons. First, when I looked at other DIY wheelbarrow designs, I noticed that most were assembled from many different materials, often with complicated joinery. I wanted to avoid this, so I found one material (plywood) that could provide the majority of the design, and I kept the joinery simple, using 90-degree butt joints for every connection except one.
Second, I already had the plywood. I used a partial sheet of T1-11 exterior siding — the same material that’s on the outside of my house. (Because the plywood was manufactured for a house, there’s a horizontal groove on the side of my plybarrow.) Except for a new wheel and waterproof wood glue, all the materials I used for this project were either repurposed or left over from other projects.
Finally, plywood is strong in all directions, even when it's relatively thin. The plywood I used is 5/8 inch thick, and my plybarrow is plenty sturdy.
Tools & Materials
- Tape measure
- Carpenter square
- Circular saw, jigsaw, or table saw
- Straight-edged guide for saw cuts
- Hand file, sanding block, or power sander, for easing rough edges
- Power drill driver with bits for drilling pilot holes, countersinking, and driving screws
- Long clamps or duct tape
- 4-by-8-foot sheet of exterior-grade plywood, at least 5/8 inch thick
- 1-1/2-inch #6 stainless steel flathead wood screws, for sides
- 1-1/4-inch #6 stainless steel flathead wood screws, for legs
- 5/8-inch #8 stainless steel pan-head screws, for axle and leg braces
- 16 inches of 1/2-inch aluminum, EMT, or copper tubing, for leg braces
- 15-1/2-inch wheel with tire and matching axle
- 1/2-inch EMT straps, for axle (2)
- Waterproof wood glue
- Exterior-grade paint and primer
- Small brush for applying wood glue
- 2- or 3-inch paintbrush
- Small metal or rubber bumpers, for leg ends and leading edge of cargo bay bottom
Illustration by Pete Chasar
Plybarrow Features and Considerations
Structural design. My plybarrow design consists of six basic plywood parts: a cargo bay bottom, two side panels, a cargo bay front panel, and two legs. The front panel also serves as a cross brace for the wheelbarrow’s cargo bay, and the leading edge of the bottom serves as a pivot point for tilting it forward to dump its contents. For handles, I simply tapered the side panels at the ends to create the right size and shape for holding and lifting. To brace and stabilize the legs, I used brackets made from leftover 1/2-inch aluminum tubing. You can also use electrical metallic tubing (EMT), rigid copper tubing, or even triangular blocks cut from plywood scraps.
Another handy feature of this design is that you don’t need a full sheet of plywood. In fact, as shown in the cutting diagram (above), you can build a plybarrow using only a portion of a 4-by-8-foot sheet of 5/8-inch exterior-grade plywood. You can create a much larger wheelbarrow if you use 3/4-inch exterior-grade plywood, but you’ll likely need an entire 4-by-8-foot sheet.
Water resistance. To make all the joints strong and watertight, I fastened them with both screws and waterproof wood glue. (Make sure you use waterproof glue, and not water-resistant glue.) The screws, which are stainless steel to prevent corrosion, serve as clamps while the glue is curing. (Don’t remove the screws after the glue has cured, though.) You can also use brass or galvanized screws.
Even though I used exterior-grade plywood, I still needed to seal it against water penetration, which can delaminate plywood, especially on sawed edges. I used the same waterproof glue I had used on the joints, brushing it generously onto all cut edges after initial assembly. For an overall finish, I used exterior acrylic latex paint that was left over from the trim on my house.
Wheel and axle. This design uses a 15-1/2-inch wheel mounted on an axle, which I recycled from an old, rotted-out wheelbarrow. I would've used the old wheel and tire too, but the tire no longer held air, so I purchased a new wheel and tire. If you use a different-sized wheel, the mounting position, and possibly the wheel opening, will need to be adjusted.
Size and strength. My plybarrow is sized and built for simple everyday chores, such as hauling mulch, topsoil, and leaves. It’s not made for heavy-duty commercial use. Still, increasing the dimensions of its basic parts, as well as using thicker plywood, would allow for a bigger, sturdier design. Also, you don’t have to use the same thickness of plywood for each piece. For example, using thicker plywood for just the cargo bay bottom would make the entire design stronger, and enable you to more easily position the screws that fasten the side panels.
Illustration by Pete Chasar
1. Cut Plywood
Following the cutting diagram above, cut the two side panels, the two legs, the cargo bay bottom, and the cargo bay front panel from the plywood using a power saw and guide. (Make sure you bevel-cut the bottom of the front panel at a 30-degree angle.) Sand and shape the parts as needed.
2. Prepare Side Panels
Drill and countersink six pilot holes in each side panel, 3/8 inch from the bottom edge and 6 inches on center.
Lay the cargo bay bottom flat, near the edge of your work surface. With the left side panel in a vertical position, set it back 4 inches from bottom panel’s leading left edge, and then fasten it temporarily with a single 1-1/2-inch screw or a long clamp. Using the pilot holes in the side panel as a guide, drill 3/8-inch-deep pilot holes in the edge of the cargo bay bottom so they align with the holes in the side panel. Repeat with the right-side panel.
3. Prepare Cargo Bay Front
With the side panels temporarily in place, position the bottom edge of the front panel 30 inches from the rear edge of the cargo bay bottom, tilting the top edge of the front panel forward so it aligns with the top corners of both side panels. Temporarily clamp or tape the front panel in place.
To indicate screw locations on the side panels, draw pencil lines where each side of the front panel butts with the inside surfaces of the side panels.
Remove the front panel, and drill four pilot holes 3 inches on center through each side panel, using the pencil lines as guides. Countersink the pilot holes on each side panel’s outside surface.
Reposition the front panel, and temporarily clamp or tape it in place. Then, using the holes drilled in the side panels as guides, drill 3/8-inch-deep pilot holes from each side into the front panel.
4. Assemble Cargo Bay
Remove any temporary clamps, tape, or screws, and then remove the side panels and the front panel. Generously brush waterproof glue along the left edge of the cargo bay bottom and along the lower 5/8 inch of the left panel, where the screw holes are located. Before the glue sets, place the left panel against the left edge of the cargo bay bottom so the screw holes align, and, working from the center out, begin inserting and driving 1-1/2-inch screws. Repeat on the right side.
Brush glue onto the bottom edge and side edges of the front panel, and onto the joined inside surfaces of the left panel, right panel, and bottom of the cargo bay. Insert the front panel between the sides so the screw holes align, and then insert and drive 1-1/2-inch screws. (You won’t need screws for the panel’s bottom edge.)
Brush glue on all exposed cut edges to seal the plywood. Let the glue cure overnight.
5. Attach Legs, Braces, and Wheel
Once the glue is cured, turn the cargo bay upside down. Position a leg on one exterior side of the cargo bay, and then drill and countersink five pilot holes for 1-1/4-inch screws. Screw on the leg, and repeat on the other side. (Using screws without glue will allow you to remove the legs for travel and storage.)
Make leg braces by cutting two 8-inch pieces of 1/2-inch aluminum, EMT, or copper tubing. Squeeze the ends of each brace flat, and then bend each end at a 45-degree angle. Drill a screw hole in each flattened end. Attach a leg brace diagonally between each leg and the bottom of the cargo bay using 5/8-inch pan-head screws.
Temporarily position the wheel and axle on the underside of the cargo bay, making sure the wheel doesn’t rub against the wheel opening or the front panel. Mark the position for the EMT straps, and then drill pilot holes. Use 5/8-inch pan-head screws to attach the wheel and axle via the EMT straps.
6. Add Paint and Bumpers
Prime and paint the entire plybarrow. (You can do this step before attaching the axle and wheel, if you prefer.)
Once the paint is dry, screw or glue bumpers to the leg ends and the leading edge of the cargo bay.
Though waterproof glue and exterior paint will provide protection against water penetration, the plybarrow will last longer and need less maintenance if you store it in a garage or shed when not in use, or lean it up against a wall under a roof overhang, which is what I do.