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It seems like spring is finally here, and if you’re anything like me, you’re a little behind on planting your garden. In my case, a garden is just a basil plant that I’ve named Pretzel. Sadly, Pretzel’s current home is the black plastic planter he came in. Well, I decided to fix that by making a simple planter, and I thought I would explain how I did that.  

Your first step is looking in your scrap wood bin to see what all you have. Since the Innovation Hub has a communal woodshop, our scrap bin is fairly large and always overflowing with different sizes and types of wood. For this project, I picked out a couple of pieces of birch plywood, some oak strips and some veneer. Your box does not have to be as fancy as that—I might have gone a little overboard with the extras. But in times like these, it’s nice to have some nice stuff around to look at—plus Pretzel needs a nice house to live in.   

The next step is looking at your scrap pieces and figuring out what size the box needs to be. Below is the cut list for the box I was able to make. Remember, your box does not have to be this exact size. If you’re building this out of scrap, you might have to make it a little smaller or you might be able to make it slightly larger. It’s up to you and what you have on hand.  

Cut list for a simple planter

  • 2 pieces of ½-inch thick plywood cut 5 inches tall by 10 inches long
  • 2 pieces of ½-inch thick plywood cut 5 inches tall by 7 inches long
  • 1 piece of ½-inch thick plywood cut to 10-by-6 inches

If making a fancier planter add these pieces as well

  • 2 pieces of 1-by-1-inch pieces of oak 12½ inches long
  • 2 pieces of 1-by-1-inch pieces of oak 8½ inches long
  • 2 pieces of oak cut into an “L” shape 11½ inches long
  • 2 pieces of oak cut into an “L” shape 7½ inches long
  • Enough veneer to cover the plywood sides

I used the table saw to cut the pieces of birch plywood. Since I had a limited supply of plywood, I started by cutting off a 10-inch piece and then trimming that piece to 6 inches, making my 10-by-6 bottom piece. I then trimmed the rest of the wood to 5 inches tall on the table saw. Taking the sled on the table saw, I then took the long 5-inch-tall piece and cut it into two pieces that were 10 inches long and two that were 7 inches long. I then took all of the pieces and dry fit them all together to make sure it all fit together fairly snuggly. It’s very important to always dry fit all your pieces to make sure they fit together. For my planter I put the shorter 7-inch pieces on the outside of the longer pieces, making the inside measurements of the box 10×6. If they don’t, it’s better to find out now, when you only have to replace a single piece, rather than at the end when the final piece doesn’t fit, and you end up taking everything apart, cleaning it up and then replacing that part. After you’ve fit everything together, take the bottom piece and drill a couple of holes in it for water drainage.  

Now that you have the pieces dry fit together and the drainage holes drilled in the bottom piece, you can assemble the box. For my box, I used glue and finish nails to put it all together. You plan on watering your plant, right? You don’t want the glue to stop holding after a couple months, do you? Of course you don’t, so use Titebond 3 or another waterproof glue. If all you want to build is a very simple box then there you go. Let the box dry and finish your planter box as a final step (see the last couple of paragraphs). If you want to make it a little fancier, then continue reading.  

Now that your basic box is finished, let’s add some flair to your box. I started by laying my veneer out and tracing all four sides out with a pencil, making sure that all pieces have the grain running the same direction. Then I took a utility knife and cut just on the outside of the lines, making sure to write what side it correlates with on each piece. Now that you have all the pieces of veneer cut out, you are ready to glue them on. The way that I glue veneer on is by putting a thin layer of glue over both the entire piece of veneer and the piece it’s being glued onto. I will then give both pieces a few minutes to let the glue start to dry before putting them together. The tricky part of putting veneer on something like this is you need even pressure on the entire piece. To do this, I normally put the veneer piece onto a table that is level and put some heavy pieces of metal on top of the box. This will put fairly even pressure across the entire piece. If you have a large enough piece of metal or heavy object that will cover the entire other piece, you can put the veneer on both sides and glue them at the same time. You want to give this around an hour to dry before you do anything else. The longer you let it dry, the better it will glue to the box. After an hour or longer, take your utility knife and trim any of the veneer that’s not flush with the edges of the box. Then you can do the same step with the other two sides of the box.  

While your veneer is drying, start working on your other decoration pieces. I started by taking the 1-by-1-inch piece and cutting 45-degree miters on one side. Then measure from the inside angle to 7 inches and make sure that the inside angle starts at that line. It can be difficult to measure cuts like this since there is no place to grip the end of your tape measure. There are two easy ways to make this measurement. The first is to build a picture-frame jig for the table saw. 


The other, simpler way is to cut a piece of scrap wood to the correct length. Then you can put the top of the scrap piece level with the inside angle and make a mark where the inside angle should start. Do this with all four rails. You’re basically making a picture frame where your planter is the picture. You should try to get the angles as close as possible, but if you have a small gap it’s OK, you can either add a little wood filler or just leave as is, if you prefer. By now, all four sides of your box should be dry and trimmed up.  

Now your planter is starting to look pretty good. You should add the little frame pieces that you cut while the veneer was drying next. Since you have a hard surface to glue to, you don’t have to worry about just gluing the end grain, you can glue the rails directly to the veneer. I added my frame to the bottom of the planter to give it a slightly larger frame at the bottom than the top. I used glue and finishing nails to attach the frame.  

Now cut the top pieces. I called these “L” pieces in the cut list because of their shape. I had to make these pieces from an existing piece of oak that was 1 inch thick.  I started by raising the blade on the table saw to just around ½ inch tall. I then ran the oak board over the saw just a little over ½ inch from the edge of the wood.  I went ½ inch in from the edge of the board because the thickness of my plywood was a ½ inch. If you used a thicker or thinner plywood, you might need to change the distance. After I had my inside cut made, I ran the piece over the table saw several more times, slowly bringing the fence farther away from the blade with every pass. This opens up the first cut.

When you have opened up the cut all the way to the edge, test it on your box. Make sure that the piece covers the entire piece of plywood and drops over the edge of the veneer. Now you can mark, on the piece, how far out to the side you want the piece to be. I made my piece about ¾ of an inch overall. This gives it about a ¼ inch overhang over the edge of the box. Now you want to cut miter joints to have them wrap along the whole top of the box. I made several pieces that were exactly the same because I assumed it was going to be a little difficult to get these angles correct, and I’m glad I did. I messed up several times on this piece. The difficulty in these cuts is that the inside of the angle actually starts in the middle of the piece. It took a few tries, but I was able to get it right, and I was happy with how tight my joints ended up. Once again, I used glue and finish nails to attach these pieces.  

The final step is to finish your planter. I used an eco-safe poly on the inside of the box. It is important to make sure that whatever finish you use on the inside of your box is non-toxic. Over time, the finish will start to break down and get into your soil. This is not good for either your plant or your food, if you’re growing something that you will also eat. Since the inside of your box is mostly going to be hidden under dirt, it’s not super important what it looks like. What is important is that you get an even coating over the entire piece. For the outside of the box, I used a special home-mixed finish that I use on most of my projects. I take spar urethane and paint thinner and mix them together in equal parts. The paint thinner will thin down the spar urethane, allowing it to soak into the wood better and dry faster. You will have to add several coats of this finish to the outside of the planter before you have built up enough to be protective. If you made the simple planter box, you can seal the inside in the same fashion. If you would like, though, on the outside you can break out the paints or markers and draw something. This also gives you a great chance to get your kids involved, if you’re a parent. Let them paint on the box and then go over it with a clear spar urethane. I prefer to use spar urethane on projects that are going to be outside, since it does a better job protecting against both rain and UV rays.  

Now you can put your plant in your planter. Make sure you give it plenty of sunlight and water, and hopefully soon, you will have a flourishing plant. I can’t wait to have some homemade pesto from my little basil plant.  

Adam Kittrell

Adam Kittrell

Adam Kittrell is the Wood and Metal Shop Foreman at the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub. He has been working in and around shops since middle school and has only cut his fingers on a saw once. His shop teachers would be proud.