The endcap of time-of-flight (ETOF) detector in BES (Beijing Spectrometer) III is planned to be upgraded by using multi-gap resistive plate chambers (MRPCs) and the designed time resolution of the MRPCs is around 50 ps. Thus a time-zero (T0) detector needs to be built to offer a high quality reference time for the MRPCs beam test. So a T0 detector is built using plastic scintillator tiles (BC420) to couple with four fast phototubes (PMTs, Hamamatsu H6533). The timing properties of the detector is studied by using a cosmic ray test and factors related to the time resolution, such as plastic scintillator size, readout mode and angle effects, are discussed. T0 detector timing resolutions of ~41-62 ps are achieved, which means that the T0 detector can be used in the MRPC beam test.