John Butterworth makes an attractive planter – a bit fiddly (his own words) but well worth the effort. Plus it will last a few seasons due to using good quality wood and preservative.
Here’s a little project that will cost very little in materials, and it’s ideal for those long, winter days, but I have to come clean right at the start – it does take a fair amount of time, as some of it is a bit fiddly. However, Content Editor Ruth asked me to make a planter, and here it is in all its glory, so you can decide right away whether it’s worth your while spending time on making one like it. My wife thinks it’s lovely, so that’s a bonus.
In my ignorance I thought a planter was just a tub to hold compost, and that you planted directly into it, but the books I consulted put me right – it’s actually a form of decorative stand to hold pots or plastic troughs. I wanted to design this one to give the additional option of holding a couple of growbags, too – one above the other to get more depth of compost – so I sized it accordingly, at about 93cm × 42cm, and 40cm deep.
Effectively, it is a box with two ends and two sides, with laths to make a bottom for the pots to stand on. The frame is filled in with plywood sheet, and the pattern is screwed and glued to the plywood to make it look a bit fancier.
There was a lovely ‘Arts and Crafts’ planter in an American textbook, but it was a work of craftsmanship requiring a fully equipped woodworking shop and a higher level of skill than I’ve got, so I just pinched the pattern design and made the planter in a ‘most people could do this’ sort of way. The Americans say stuff like, ‘run the wood through your planer/thicknesser’, assuming we’ve all got one of those old things, but sadly, we haven’t.
WHAT YOU’LL NEED
What we have got is Aldi and Lidl, who sell rather good, often German-made, tools with three-year guarantees, for very little money. For this project, I bought a ‘plunge saw’ from Lidl for about £50, a new type of tool to me but a seriously handy one, as you’ll see. The timber frame for the planter needs slots cutting in it for the plywood to sit in, which can be done with a router (lots of people have these), a table saw (less common) – or this dinky plunge saw.
The other tools are a mallet and various chisels, a very sharp handsaw (a tenon saw is best, but not essential) to make the mortise and tenon joints, an electric drill (again, not essential), waterproof glue, and some wood preserver. I always use a compound mitre saw on my woodworking projects (sometimes called a ‘chop saw’) for speed and accuracy, and I used it for this, but you can get by with a handsaw and a lot of patience. For marking out joints, a mortise gauge is useful, and a try-square and ruler are essential, but they are all inexpensive.
The timber is just softwood: four lengths of 6cm × 5cm, about 60cm long for the legs; two lengths of 4.5cm × 6cm, 42cm long for the tops and bottoms of the end panels; two lengths of 4.5cm × 6cm, 93cm long for the side panel top and bottom; 9mm external plywood cut to size to fit inside the panels; and strips of 2cm × 2cm for the ‘Arts and Crafts’ patterns. For the bottom (for plant pots and growbags to sit on), I used bits of slater’s lath, as they’re pretreated so should last a bit longer. These are just cut to fit the assembled planter – about 20 lengths approximately 36cm long in my example, with two lengths about 85cm long for them to sit on.
MORTISE AND TENON JOINTS
I try to use ‘lap joints’ on most of the Home Farmer projects, as they’re the easiest to do and are fairly strong – simply cut half the wood away from each piece and overlap them to make a joint – but I couldn’t figure out how to fit two pieces into a leg at 90 degrees using lap joints, so it had to be the slightly harder to make mortise and tenon joints on that occasion.
A ‘tenon’ is made by cutting the end of a piece of wood into a sort of rectangular peg, and the ‘mortise’ is a rectangular slot in another piece of wood for the tenon to fit in. Working right at the top of the legs, the joints would show, so I made them as ‘hidden’ mortise and tenons, which just means I cut a bit off the tenon and made the mortise (the rectangular hole) a bit smaller. You’ll see what I mean later on.
I started off by cutting the 6cm × 5cm timber to 60cm long – dead easy on the chop saw, but more laborious with a handsaw. I wanted the planter to be about 40cm deep, so the top and bottom frame pieces would have to be 40cm apart, leaving 20cm-long legs below. That way you won’t have to bend too much to tend the plants that will be in the planter!
THE END PANELS
To avoid a wordy description, here’s what we’re aiming to make. As you can see, it’s just two of the legs, with two crosspieces and a panel of plywood. To attach the crosspieces to the legs, I cut tenons on the crosspieces, and mortises in the legs, as follows.
First, I marked out the tenons – these need to be 1cm shorter than the thickness of the leg, as you’ll see – marking the bits to cut away with little ‘x’s, then I used the saw to make cuts as shown. You can see what ‘normal’ tenons look like in the other photo. To make ‘hidden tenons’ all you do is cut a bit more wood off the tenon! The one in the photo is being used to mark where the mortise needs to be cut. As you can see, if I didn’t cut the ‘shoulders’ off the tenon, it would show at the top of the leg – I’d then have to cut a slot, rather than a hole, to accommodate it. That wouldn’t be a disaster, but there would be more cut wood for water to get into at the top of the legs, and the joints would quickly rot.
Simply repeat this tenon for each of the end panels. But how do you cut the holes to make mortises? The quickest way is to drill out most of the wood using a flat drill, then use a chisel to take out the rest, as shown. This is easier if the chisel is the same size as the slot, e.g. the drill is 16mm, so use a 16mm chisel, and make the tenon 16mm to fit!
Now, these are to be ‘hidden’ joints, so we don’t want the tenon to show at all. Simple – just don’t chisel the mortise right through the wood: stop about 1cm short. It’s not really any more difficult – just keep measuring with a ruler as you excavate the mortise to make sure it’s not too deep. Once you’ve made one, the others are just the same, so you’ll get quicker. If in doubt, start with a few pieces of scrap wood and try your hand at making joints – you’ll soon get the hang of it.
That’s the top rails jointed – the lower rails are just the same. Make the tenons the same way, and mark out and cut the mortises at about 40cm from the top. It’s almost the same method for the sides, but curses… once they’re assembled, the tenons we’ve already made for the ends block up part of the slot!
So, just make the tenons for the side rails a bit shorter, as shown, then the two tenons don’t overlap. I’m sure there are more complex, stronger ways of putting two joints at 90 degrees to one another, but we’re seeking simplicity here, and this works!
Now, there are sixteen mortise and tenon joints to make, which takes quite a while, especially using a handsaw. If you have a compound mitre saw, you can make the tenons much faster by using one tenon as a pattern and setting the saw up to cut to the right depth, as shown; if you do it by hand, remember that patience is supposed to be a virtue.
Loosely assemble the finished frame parts to make sure it’s all square.
CUTTING SLOTS FOR THE PLYWOOD PANELS
First, why bother? It could just be nailed on the inside with the edges showing, which is simpler – but this happens (see photo)! This was sold as ‘external’ plywood, which made me think it could be used outdoors. It lasted maybe one winter before it started to delaminate, and it’s a sad reflection on the sort of rubbish that is sold to us these days as stores try to undercut each other.
This is where the ‘plunge saw’ comes in. Here’s the saw compared to a standard circular saw so you can see how small it is, and here it is in the picture, cutting the slots. There’s an adjustable guide, which I set to the right width using a scrap piece, in the foreground. The depth is set with the little red marker above the blade – about 10mm deep will do, and about 10mm wide, so the 9mm ply can sit inside the finished slot. Run the saw up and down to mark out the maximum width, then set it slightly less than 10mm and cut another slot, then another, until most of the wood is cut out of the slot. There’ll still be a bit left, so clean up the slot with a chisel.
Here are the finished frame pieces showing the finished slots and joints.
Loosely assemble an end panel, then measure how big the ply panel needs to be to fit in the slots, and cut it out of the sheet using that lovely little plunge saw. If you’ve ever tried to cut out ply with a jigsaw, you’ll think this is a marvel.
Here’s how – mark the size, then clamp a straight piece of wood onto your sheet to act as a guide, as shown. It cuts a dead straight line – hallelujah!
Now glue the mortise and tenon joints and the edges of the ply panel, and assemble the two end pieces, sliding the panel into the slots as shown. Once the glue has set, the sides are made in just the same way – loosely assembled and then measured to see how big the ply panel needs to be, then glued and tapped together as shown, allowing 24 hours for the glue to set.
This is simply bits of wood cut to fit inside the panels to make a pleasing pattern! I used 2cm-square timber, cut the angles on the mitre saw, and glued and screwed each piece on as shown. If you do want to copy it, start with a cross, then make a little spacer 5cm long to keep all the other parts parallel, as shown.
The pots and growbags, or whatever, will need something to stand on, so I screwed two 85cm lengths of slater’s lath about 30cm from the top, and cut a load of short pieces about 36cm long to go across to form a removable base. Finally, I gave the planter a couple of coats of ‘shed preserver’, standing the feet in bowls of preserver overnight to allow it to soak in properly. These final pictures show my idea of a ‘pleasing pattern’, but of course feel free to improve upon it!
The wood for the frame cost me very little, as I cut it down from offcuts – say £15 if you bought it from a timber merchant. The plunge saw was £50 from Lidl, and has already paid for itself in lots of different jobs. As I say in the text, there are several ways to machine-cut slots, but I don’t think it would be practical to do it manually with a chisel. The ply sheet was cut from an 8ft × 4ft sheet (from Wickes); I used less than £10 worth. The slater’s lath for the base cost about £3, and I used ‘Gorilla’ waterproof wood glue, (about £1 worth!) and Wickes shed preserver costing about £5, with the job soaking up about 1 litre.