Before: cute but scratched and faded vinyl tray covering and white paint job that was probably never sealed—it was flaking and splintering.
The plan: pull off the vinyl, strip the paint (using an eco-friendly...eco-friendlier?...paint stripper), sand the bare wood, stain it, put on a new lining using the decoupage technique (with Mod Podge Hardcoat), and seal it all up.
After: TOTALLY AWESOME, no?
The eco-friendlier paint stripper worked pretty well, and I applied two coats of a dark stain. I knew the decoupage would be tricky, so I did the bottom of the tray first since most of the time it won't be visible. (Naturally, the reverse side turned out great, but there were a couple of tiny tears on the side everyone sees! Fortunately the pattern on the paper is busy enough that you'd never notice unless I pointed it out.)
I measured the paper, adding a fraction of an inch on all sides (to be removed with an exacto knife later), and applied the Mod Podge with a foam brush directly to the paper before positioning it on the wood. Then I smoothed out the air bubbles with an old credit card. Some decoupage tutorials suggest using wrapping paper, but I think that's a bad idea—I used relatively thick, high-quality paper, and still had a couple small problems with the paper tearing (too much glue and too much friction from the credit card). After the paper was in place, I waited for the glue to dry before trimming the edges. Repeated the process on the top surface, then painted on three thin coats of Mod Podge over the whole tray (over a period of a few days).
Here's a close-up of the oh-so-appropriate new paper lining, purchased at a stationery shop in Florence in 2002 (and up to now, gathering dust in a roll under my bed). I'm such a sucker for pretty Italian papers.
This wasn't a cheap DIY project (the materials were about $25, and the paper couldn't have been more than a euro or two), but I can rationalize the expense somewhat because I'm planning to use the paint stripper (the priciest purchase) on another project. And it's quirky yet practical—just my style. Yay!