Secret Life of Antiques : Tole Trays

We love Toleware Trays for their beautiful florals in stunning colors, they are really too beautiful not to display.  In this post I’m sharing a brief history of tole trays and what to look for when buying one for your collection.



From the French Tole Pente du Lac, tole painting refers to applying paint and lacquer to tin, it began as a way to prevent common household objects from rusting.




Tole refers to decorated tin and iron wares from 1700-1900; but most people also use the term to refer to various painted metalware from the late 19th to mid 20th Century.



The trays we most often associate with tole trace back to Welshman John Hanbury who had a metalware business in the late 1600’s, he made tin trays that were very much wanted and sought after. Eventually, he shipped them to the US, and the style was copied by colonial tinsmiths, including Paul Revere. These antique trays had rolled over edges and soldered corners, and were very light.





The old Italian trays are made of wood, and beautifully handpainted and gilded by the artisans of Florence, like the tray below. Newer trays, are, unfortunately, made of plastic these days, so be sure to check when buying one of these lovelies!





American Toleware features fruits, florals and symbols. Mostly these pieces were painted by amateur artists using the “one stroke” technique with the paintbrush loaded with several colors at once.


In the 1950’s and 1960’s, American companies like Plymouth, Nashco, and Fine Arts Studio produced trays that were hand painted in assembly line manner. These “studio trays” were beautiful, and painted by accomplished artists. They were, and still are, very popular.







Lots of trays were made, and in varying shapes and quality.




Tray prices can range from 35.00 to thousands, depending on age, condition, subject matter and how well painted the tray is. Collectors look for unusual colors, some collect only Roses, only black trays, or only trays with a reticulated edge, like the one shown above, for instance.




We generally purchase trays that speak to our hearts, with florals that mimic what we grow in our own garden, such as roses, hydrangeas, and violets or pansies.

VioletPinkRoseTray3 VioletPinkRoseTrayfgh3

Collectors look for pieces that don’t have damage on the painted bouquets, these will always be more collectible and worth more than trays where part of the hand painted embellishment is peeling or chipped.



Some collectors prefer the soft, shabby colors and only collect those trays.


Other collectors prefer bold color, such as this old jardiniere with the beautiful red and gold painting.



The items made mid-century range from trays, to trash cans, tissue boxes, to planters. Pretty much anything made of metal was a good candidate for tole painting.



Tole trays come in so many glorious colors! It’s hard to just pick one color to love.







If you have a collection of Tole Trays, you probably display them everywhere, on your walls, in the bookcases, and on tables. I love the Tole Tray Tables, we have several in stock right now that are perfect to showcase the tray, and the best spot to hold your book, a cup of tea and a little rose bouquet.



Of all the tole tables, this tilt~top one is one of my current favorites. Made of wood, the top “tray” portion has a gesso layer, and a breathtaking hand painted design.




No matter what kind of tole you love, or collect, there are still some gorgeous examples available, although the trays and pieces without damage are slightly dwindling down and getting hard to find. Look for a piece that steals your heart, is well painted, if you are really lucky it will have a signature {although most don’t} and display it with love!

*Buy a tray with no or almost no damage to the floral painting.

*Buy a tray that is well painted. If you look at enough trays, you will come to recognize those that were done by an accomplished artist, and those that are just “so~so”.

* Buy a tray that is not too bent. A little wear and bending is to be expected, especially for the older pieces, but the tray should not wobble.

* Buy a tray from a dealer you trust. There are plenty of accomplished artists who are painting beautiful trays today. 

* Buy the best trays you can afford. Buy quality, these are the pieces that will only appreciate in value!

If you want to romance your Home and Garden with antique and vintage treasures to make you smile each time you come home, visit our shop FrenchGardenHouse.

37 thoughts on “Secret Life of Antiques : Tole Trays”

  1. Love your site & anything Toleware… I’m wondering if you can help answer a question, which I believe I already have the answer to. I have a set of what I believe are appetizer trays – about 4 to 8 of each color (black, red, gold & sage green). I would love to use them for their intended purpose but am pretty certain they would have been made with lead based paint. Wouldn’t you agree? If that is the case I’m afraid I would be remiss in doing so. Ideas?

    1. Hi. I think you are right not to want to put food directly on the trays. It’s difficult to know exactly, but you wouldn’t want to take the chance. Is there perhaps a way to have a small piece of glass
      cut for each tray that you could glue or affix on there so the food would only touch the glass?

  2. Lorrie M.

    Have a lovely tray that unfortunately got ‘scrubbed’ and part of the floral part is smeared almost to bare metal. What type of paint would be used to touch this up?

  3. Lorrie, ouch! I am so sorry….that is so unfortunate. Most tole trays were painted with oil paint, if you want to touch it up, I would suggest that. Good luck!

  4. My father, Joe Bernstein, owned Plymouth Tole with his brother, Dave. I have great memories of the artists, especially Mike, whose name was Michael Angelo, giving me art lessons at the rotating round tables. They would usually have 2 colors, for example, green and white on the brush at one time and it was all about blending the colors. I have never thought to put food directly on the trays. I use them to bring in cups of tea or pies and dessert dishes. “Blue Bloods” has a black tole tray behind the stove like I do. Most of our trays are on table tops all over the house. Thank you for saving the tags that were attached to the trays!
    The raw material was large flat sheet metal that went into presses, one of which was 2 stories high. Out came the trays. Then the trays were sprayed with lacquer paint and then finally were hand painted.
    You can buy a can of clear spray lacquer paint which today would not have lead in it and coat the whole tray to preserve it. The secret to spray painting is a fast very light coat with no drips and repeat 2 or 3 times. -Sandy

  5. Sandy, what wonderful hints, and what wonderful memories you have! Thank you for sharing this with us.

  6. Angela

    Can you help me find someone who is able to restore my beautiful tray that was a wedding gift for my in laws in 1960? The tray is black with a floral motif measures 24″ x 18″. On the back it’s stamped with the logo Art Gift Products PHILA 48 PA Hand Decorated Gifts & Toleware. It was placed on a flat top stove and the heat from the burner started to ruin the design. Fortunately we were able to remove the tray before the whole design was ruined.

    1. Angela, I’m so sorry to hear about your tray. Unfortunately, I don’t really know anyone who can “fix” your tray. I suggest you take your tray to a local antique shop and ask them for a referral. Good luck!

  7. Felisa Mestre

    I love mine!!! Any recommendations on hanging them? I have two of them.


    1. Felisa, I suggest you buy large wire hangers, they are the kind that are just like plate hangers, but large, to hang trays. This will protect the trays, while making it easy to hang on a nail by the little “hook” that is in the back of these. You should be able to find them somewhere online, or perhaps a framershop will sell these.

  8. Gayle Montgomery

    I have several trays I collected in pretty good shape but a few have some tiny rust spots here and there and missing paint scuffs. Should I lightly sand those rust spots and touch up paint before spraying with clear lacquer? Thanks!!

    1. Gayle, that all depends on the trays, and on you. If the trays are true antiques, then sanding and repainting them may take quite a bit from their value. If they are lovely vintage trays, and you really hate the rust spots, then you could repaint. I never do, nor do I varnish antique trays, but this is a completely personal choice.

  9. Have you ever seen or heard of a painted tray or tole tray that has a seam down the center. It is just a fold over very well done seem, not sodered. It was definitely done before painted, very intentionally. Thank you for your time.

    1. Earl, some of the older early trays could have had a seam down the middle. I have never seen one, but the early trays were completely hand made, and it wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility that an enterprising maker used two sheets of small tin to make a tray.

      1. Thanks Lidy,
        Is there a way that I could post a picture so that you or someone could help me identify it?

  10. Marissa

    Hi, my husband was sent two black tole trays that were from his grandparents. I thought I’d just clean them up by using mild soap and water but one of them clouded up. I’m sure this was a mistake on my part but have you ever seen that happen? Should I just take them somewhere be cleaned and restored? Thank you

    1. Hi Marissa, without seeing the tray in person it’s hard to tell. It could be that the water seeped under the protective layer some trays have of varnish, and that’s why it clouded up. Yes, if you love them, then it would be a good idea to have them cleaned and restored, so that you can enjoy their beauty.

  11. Almida Smith

    Help! I bought an antique wood tole tray that I love. Unfortunately it was knocked off the stand and chipped the wood and paint. Can you point me to a repair person? Or suggest how to repair?

    1. Almida, I’m so sorry! I suggest you contact a local antique store for advice, they may know a repair person in your area.

  12. Barbara A

    Late comment, hope you see it! I have a metal tray painted by my grandfather. He was a pinstriper for Peerless and painted and lettered many household items, like grandma’s canister set. The tray’s paint is in poor shape but the important part is still nice – a monogram. I want to know what clear coat I can apply to the entire tray to keep it “as is.” There’s no concern here about a loss of monetary value. BTW, fascinating post! These are such beautiful items.

    1. Barbara, I would recommend a clear, matte spray varnish, the kind you can get at any hardware shop. It will “set” the paint in place. Two or three light coats are always going to be better than one thick heavy coat. Just be sure it’s not a windy day if you do it outdoors (I recommend!) so that little things don’t blow on your tray and stick.

  13. N Dorman

    Do you of anyone who restores. I have one that was in a cabin with Cole heat. It’s needs some cleaning.

    1. I really don’t know of anyone who restores toleware at the moment. I suggest you might contact some local antique shops in your area and ask if they know of anyone? Usually local is the way to go.

  14. S Cooper

    Do you know the manufacturer of toleware trays signed by the painter “Maxey.” Most of the designs seem to have a Pennsylvania Dutch Amish folk art theme. Thanks.

  15. Suzanne Ruff

    My favorite tray is chipped to the bare metal base in one spot. We had huge temperature fluctuations after Hurricane Florence and that’s when we noticed cracks in the paint. Any suggestions or recommendations will be appreciated.

    1. Suzanne, I’m so sorry! If they tray is very costly, or of great family or personal worth, I suggest you take it to a professional restorer. Your local antique store may be helpful in finding someone. Otherwise, you can try to very gently and carefully match the color and paint the little spot yourself. Or…if it’s not too bad, just look at it as part of your tray’s history.

  16. Jacki Chretien

    I found a green round floral Tole tray in the original box with the tag on it. It was a relative who recently passed away.I’m wondering if I could find the value or where to seek it.
    I’m sure someone would appreciate it more than myself.

  17. Susan snizek

    Love your daughter got this from her husband’s aunts estate..she says it’s worth nothing I disagree how can I send picture

    1. Susan, thank you so much. I’m sure it worth something, at least it was to her husband’s aunt! I’m so sorry but we don’t offer appraisals of any kind. There are antique appraisers online who will let you know about values for a minimal fee, though, you can google them.

  18. Betty Bebian

    I have a Plymouth tole tray with box but I can’t find it on line.

    It’s avacado, octagon shape with a pitcher 3 green apples and 4 cloves of garlic 2 small cups.
    Any info would be appreciated

    1. Betty, how great to have the box too! I’m sorry but I’m not an expert on American tole trays.

  19. Hester

    Hi, I bought a tray that seems old, but it is hard to tell. Would it be possible that I send you a picture so you can look at it please?

    1. Hester, I’m so sorry, but we can’t do that, it is to difficult to tell from a photo. If you really need to know, you could most likely get a local antique dealer to let you know, perhaps for a small fee.

  20. Candi Haskins

    I have a tray that has a wedding invitation on the front and the reception invite on the back. Painted on and around the invites. Have you scene this before?

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