Rustic planter boxes are deceptively simple

My book-in-progress, “Build Stuff With Wood,” is all about projects that any beginner can build … but don’t look like they were built by a beginner. It’s actually possible to build beautiful pieces of all kinds with just a few simple tools and techniques. This versatile planter box is just one example.

Aside from the rough-sawn cedar boards, sold as fence slats at your local home center, the charm of these boxes is all about the overlapping corner joints. Like all of my favorite ideas in the book (and on this blog), it’s deceptively simple. You cut half of the boards extra long, round their corners, and then attach them in an alternating overlap that looks like old-world craftsmanship but is so much simpler.

Another thing I love is how versatile these planter boxes are. You can make them short and stand-alone, or a bit taller with a seat suspended in between. And you can finish the project in a day–quicker if you have a power saw of some kind, or slow but steady with a handsaw.

If you build the boxes three boards tall, they stand alone beautifully. Here I paired them with another project from the book, but you’ll have to wait for that one!
If you build them taller and add a simple cleat to each box, you can suspend thick deck boards between them to make a seat, creating a complete backyard oasis!
Once you know your the size of the big plastic pot that goes inside, you can start cutting the boards to length. I used a miter saw with a work stop screwed on (an awesome way to make lots of duplicate parts). Remember that these boards are two different lengths, though.
Rounding the corners of the longer, overlapping boards is easy, using a small block and some 80-grit sandpaper.
Here’s how it all goes together. I cut some pressure-treated posts a little longer than the combined width of the side boards (so there would be small legs at the bottom). The shorter boards go right to the edges, while the larger ones overhang a bit.
Once you have two opposite sides done, you can stand them up and fit in the boards that connect them, screwing those on one at a time.
Be sure to even out the overhang of the extra-long boards.
To add the built-in seat, you just need to screw on another piece of the post material, and then screw the seat boards down on top of the cleats. I used 1-1/2-in. thick cedar boards for the seat, so they wouldn’t sag under my beer-guzzling friends.




Work safer and design better with foamboard

My favorite tricks are the elegantly simple ones. This one involves rigid-foam insulation, the humblest of building materials, sold to go into thin wall and floor spaces and resist moisture. It comes in a few different forms, some white with a silver backing, some pink and some blue, so just grab what works for you. It’s dirt cheap. Here are two reasons I can’t live without this stuff.

One of the trickiest building tasks is cutting a big board or piece of plywood with a circular saw. You actually need four sawhorses to support the piece because when you sever the last bit, one big piece becomes two, and if both aren’t supported, the last little bit breaks and splinters and damages the wood. The unsupported piece can also drop and jam the spinning saw blade. Bad times.

But rigid-foam insulation panels completely solve the problem. I just sit those big boards and panels on a big piece of this Styrofoam-type stuff, either on the floor or on a tabletop. The foamboard supports the whole workpiece and even has some friction to stop it from sliding around. And you can cut right into it, so it keeps your blade from hitting the floor or table.

There’s another fun fact about rigid foam that makes it even more useful. It comes in both 3/4-in.- and 1-1/2-in.thick sizes, so it’s great for making prototypes too. It cuts easily with any tool in the shop, and the different sizes let you mock up tabletop shapes, legs, even whole projects.

You can draw all day, even use CAD or SketchUp, but there is nothing like seeing how something looks in reality to know if the design is truly dialed in.

I used 3/4-in. foamboard to mock up some different shapes for my coffee tables made with plumbing hardware.
I use cheap pine boards for prototypes too sometimes, but I also tried a few of these cutting board designs in foam.
The rigid-foam insulations comes in huge pieces, big enough to support anything I cut in my workshop, though I always cut it in half to make it easier to store.

Pleasure vs. satisfaction

I’m all for pleasure. Eating, drinking, playing, relaxing. Popcorn and a movie. But satisfaction is something else entirely. Pleasure comes and goes, there for the moment and then largely forgotten. But satisfaction stays with you. That’s because it comes from true accomplishment, from a job well done. That’s why I love building things.

I enjoy the zen of a project, the way you get lost in the problem-solving and the rhythm of the step-by-step. But what I really love is the satisfaction that comes at the end, when you look at what you’ve accomplished. A room transformed, a deck built, a piece of furniture made, whatever it is.

And that satisfaction never really fades. Because that newly painted room, or new patio, or outdoor bench becomes part of your life. If you do a halfway decent job, the project stays with you for a very long time, decades even, reminding you that you did this.

Learning new skills brings satisfaction, too. Once you know how to really sharpen a chisel, or lay tile, or use clip pedals on your bike, it stays with you. There is something about accomplishing something in the physical world, with real materials, that hits us all down in our DNA.

My friends who paint pictures, or restore cars, or knit socks (greatest gift in the world: hand-knit socks)–they feel the same way. They are addicted to the feeling. They could tell you something about every object they’ve built or created.

You can rehab a camper van and make memories driving it down the coast, or build a treehouse and watch your kids play in it. I could go on. Real is real.

I feel bad for my friends who don’t build stuff. Some like to veg out with video games. I get it. Turn off your mind and rack up points. It’s fun to talk shit with my friends while we kill bad guys. But when we power off the Playstation, we feel nothing. Maybe a stomach ache from all the Doritos we just scarfed.

When I leave my workshop, coated with sawdust, the first thing I do is get one of my family members to see how far I’ve gotten on my latest project. That’s satisfaction, Holmes, and it’s free.

I say dive in and build something. You’ll see.

I felt tired but happy when I finally finished this big patio. The dog and cat were pretty impressed.
I grab a cup of coffee, put on some music in my garage, and let the project happen. This one is from my blog on making projects from plumbing hardware.
The best part about building stuff is how the results become part of your life. Maybe that’s why the satisfaction lasts, too.
Building teaches you to stay present also, doing each step as best you can.
Then suddenly you are done, and the bragging begins! This is from my blog on working with natural-edged wood slabs.


Simple polyurethane finish is tough and pretty

A lot of folks build nice wood projects only to struggle when applying a finish. The trouble is that the instructions on the back of the can are pretty sketchy. Here’s what they don’t tell you, and don’t worry, it’s no big deal. Follow these steps and you’ll leave the wood glowing and the surface buttery to the touch.

First a bit of context. Basically there are two types of finishes: thin oil finishes that make the wood pretty but don’t build up much protection, and film finishes like polyurethane and shellac that also beautify the wood but also build up a protective layer. Choose a film finish for any project that will see some wear and tear, like the coffee table in this blog.

Polyurethane is the easiest film finish to use. First of all, choose the quick-drying, oil-based kind. The only reason to use water-based poly is if you want the wood to end up whiter looking (water-based dries very clear, but isn’t as durable; oil-based is tougher but has a slight yellowing effect, which is nice on most woods.) Secondly, choose the satin type. It won’t end up shiny and sticky looking like gloss poly does.

After that, the main keys to success with any finish are all about sanding–before you apply it, and between coats. Get that right, and watch for drips along the way, and you’ll be amazed at how good your new project looks. Here’s the path to happiness.

A good finish is all about wood preparation. Sand up through the grits, from about 120 or 150, depending on how rough or bumpy the wood is, to 220 grit. Use a sanding block under the paper or a random-orbit sander like this one. It doesn’t matter which. Just be systematic and thorough.
A piece of flexible rubber mat makes a good backer for sanding these curved edges.
Satin polyurethane has a flattening material in it that makes it less glossy, but this stuff will settle to the bottom of the can. Stir well before starting, and occasionally as you go.
Disposable foam brushes work well for polyurethane. Elevate a panel like this and don’t try to do the bottom until the top and edges are done and dry. Dip the brush, unload it in a central area, and then spread the finish out with smooth strokes.
To avoid drips, make sure there isn’t too much finish in the brush when you get to the edge, and fly off the edge lightly.
Edges are next. To avoid drips below, you probably don’t even have to dip the foam brush again before doing these edges. If you do, dip it lightly.
Just to be sure there aren’t any drips hanging below, I wipe the underside of the edges with a clean paper towel. Now let the panel or project dry before flipping it and doing the surface or surfaces you couldn’t get to. Same process for those, even if that means finishing the edges twice.
Sand between coats! This is a critical step that a lot of people pass by. The first coat will raise some wood whiskers and be pretty rough, so hit it lightly with 220-grit paper and a sanding block just until it feels smooth. Then wipe, blow, or vacuum away the dust. That’s critical too.
Next coat is just like the first coat.
You’ve got just one more coat to go for most projects. Before this one, fold up the 220-grit sandpaper and hold it in your hands as you make a light pass over the project. This way you’ll be sure to get into little valleys that a sanding block might miss. Then get rid of the dust, apply that last coat, and enjoy!

Erector building kit: Gone but not forgotten

In the introduction of my upcoming book, “Build Stuff With Wood,” which drops in fall 2017, I look back fondly on my childhood in the 1970s and 80s, and the childhoods of the generations before mine, before big flat screens and little smart screens took over the world.

Before video games, when there were just four channels of bad TV, we were pretty bored, I’ll admit, but we did something valuable with all that downtime. We built stuff. Tons of it. Bikes (from other cannibalized bikes), model cars, model planes, model rockets (which actually blasted off into the sky), forts (both ground and tree), and more.

I had Lincoln Logs, and Tinkertoys, and Legos, and the generation before mine had these awesome building kits called “Erector.” OK, you definitely can’t call a kids’ toy “Erector” these days, but it was a different time! There were guys called Dick. Seriously.

Hoping to locate an Erector set to photograph for my book, I hit craigslist and found one that looked promising. I made contact and headed out. An old guy met me at the door and said, “This was my dad’s, and I think all the parts are still there.” He was right. The set looked to be in awesome shape. The box said it was designed to create a radar scope, but there were tons of parts in there, and a full book of project plans. So I went for it.

I dug through the plan book. It was tattered but amazing. There were tons of projects. All sorts of old-time vehicles, machines, and mechanical gizmos with working pulleys, cranks, etc. I decided to actually build something. A picture of a box full of parts would have been pretty lame anyway.

So I spent a night putting together a railroad bridge I found in the book. I had every part I needed, but wasn’t easy so sort out every detail in that drawing in the book, and the work was tedious! With Erector, everything goes together with tiny screws and nuts. (There’s a joke there, I know).

But the tougher the job, the more proud you are in the end. It was awesome building something the way a kid must have done 60 years ago. I tried to put my perfect bridge on a shelf in our house, but my wife said, Hell no. So it’s on a shelf in my shop, where I can still force my friends to check it out.