Sun-dried tomatoes, apples, and other fruits and vegetables are delicious, but they’re not always cheap. A dehydrator can help you save money when you preserve your garden’s bounty.
Solar dehydrators work best in strong sunlight and low humidity. First, harvest ripe, blemish-free fruits and veggies. Wash and peel them, if needed; let them dry; and slice them uniformly. Most foods must be pre-treated to prevent darkening or stop the enzyme action that causes color and flavor changes. For specific instructions, contact your county extension service or visit the online National Center for Home Food Preservation.
Begin by constructing the cross members for the dehydrator. Measure and mark each of the 11 ½” long 2” X 2” at 4 ¼” and use your square to create a line. Join two of the 2” x 2” together using a 17” long 2” x 4” with the 2” screws. Repeat.
Attach the plywood back panel to the bottom of the cross members using 2” screws. If you like, you can paint the “inside” face of the back panel black prior to attaching it. The inside of the dehydrator will be painted entirely black to aid in heating.
Before attaching the side panels, the shelf supports need to be added. The supports are made from the 3/8” balsa dowels and are cut into eight 14” lengths. NOTE: depending on the size and number of shelves you want, adjust as needed. Since the finished dehydrator will rest at an angle, the shelf supports are installed at a 45° angle. Measure across the board 4” and mark, then use the rafter square to draw a 45° guide line. Measure and create three more guides spaced 5” apart. With the guide lines drawn, mark 1” down each line to indicate the placement of the dowel. Secure the dowels with a bead of wood glue and 5/8” nails. Repeat for opposite side panel, remembering to mirror the dimensions.
With the shelf supports in place, connect the side panels to the cross members and back panel by hammering the 1-¼” nails along its edge.
For the shelves we used pre-made adjustable aluminum screens. First, separate each screen by removing one half from the other. This will give you two separate screen shelves. Think ahead about what you’ll be drying; these screens work great as lightweight drying shelves for fruits, but heavier loads like meats may require building a shelf from scratch.
The top and bottom panels require holes to allow air to enter and exit the dehydrator. The bottom panel of the dehydrator will have two more holes than the top; this is to let a greater amount of air be drawn in while controlling how much is allowed out. Starting with the top panel, mark the location for the holes by measuring in 7” from each side, and then up from that point 2” and drill with hole saw. For the bottom panel, allow for two additional holes located at 3 ½” from the edge.
To protect drying foods from animals and insects, before you place the panels on the dehydrator, line them with screen using a staple gun. Attach to bottom and top panels of the dehydrator using 1 ¼” nails. NOTE: depending on your local climate, you may need more or fewer holes. A good rule of thumb is to start with a few. Check results and adjust as needed.
To build the frame for the dehydrator door, miter cut the ends of each of the 1” x 4” to opposing 45° (the angles face away from one another on each board), and check the fit.
Join the frame pieces together using a combination of wood glue and the 1 ¼” nails hammered into the joints. If you have access to a finishing nailer or a frame jig, feel free to use those instead. When working on a frame, repeatedly check to make sure it’s even by using a square or triangle. Once the frame is together, measure from the outside in and draw a 2” thick border. This will help define the placement of the acrylic sheet.
Slowly drill through the acrylic sheet using a bit slightly larger than the screw you plan to secure the sheet with. Once all the holes are drilled (about three per edge), run a bead of silicone along the inner border of the frame. Carefully place the sheet and tighten the screws. Lastly, apply weather-stripping around the perimeter of the acrylic sheet.
The drying chamber and door of the dehydrator are now complete. Now the legs can be attached. Starting on the right side of the dehydrator, measure along back edge 4” (bottom edge in image) and use the square to draw a 45° line back towards the top measure along this line 2 ½” and mark. Next draw another 45° line from the bottom corner, measure along it 6”, and mark. The marks on the angled line note where the top of the leg should be. Attach legs with wood glue and 2” screws. Repeat for left side.
To place the door hinges measure along the side of the dehydrator from both the top and bottom edges exactly 6 1/2″ and mark. The marks will help you evenly place the upper and lower hinge. Trace the outline of the hinge onto the dehydrator, then place and center the door and trace the hinge unto the underside of the door frame. Drive in the hinge screws and check to make sure the door opens easily.
To complete the dehydrator, paint or stain it as desired.
Special thanks to Home Depot Associate Chris Haygood for creating this project.
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