Plant Feet: Handmade Planter Boxes

For the second Square Maker's Market event, along with making a typographical installation, I wanted to design and sell planter boxes. I love imagining my plants as little friends, so I thought it would be fun to give them feet. I searched and searched for pre-made planters that fit my vision of long spindly legs, that I could also paint on. Nothing I found came close to what I had in mind, so I took a trip to my friend Jake's woodshop in Bolinas, CA. We made 20 custom boxes in 4 sizes that were later painted, and all sold to the lucky folks at the event that day.


Materials & tools: 

- 3/8" quarter sheets of plywood
- Nail gun
- 5/8 Brad Nails
- Table saw
- Power sander
- Goggles
- Dust mask
- Sturdy gloves
- Molotow paint pen
- White primer
- Paint brush
- Tiny little succulent plants
- 2" pots
- Large-ish terrarium rocks
- Imagination


Step 1: Designing & Imagining

I knew I wanted my feet to be long and silly, but that I also wanted a few different sizes of planters. After sitting with my plants for a while and imagining what kind of legs they each might have, I sketched out a few variations of sizes that each planter could be. Note: when your professional woodworker friend asks you for a "sketch" of your "designs", he's actually asking for dimensions— not a bunch of silly legs in squares.

It's important to figure out the exact sizes you want, so that you know how much wood to buy, and what size pieces you need to cut. I landed on 4 different size boxes: tall & skinny (3x1), short & wide (1x3), tall & wide (3x4), and short & skinny (1x1). I based the designs on a 3" square unit, and measured the inner dimensions based on the 3/8" thick plywood.


Step 2: Acquire & cut wood

While Home Depot is my usual for wood shopping, I wanted something local and a little nicer, so I went to MacBeath in SF. They are super helpful and have an awesome selection of woods and finishes. I got a large panel of 3/8" birch natural hardwood plywood, which only comes in 4'x8' sheets. They cut it into quarter sheets for me so I could fit it into the car.

Figure out how many pieces of wood and at what sizes you'll need for each box. Measure and cut the wood down to these dimensions. Cut a few more pieces than you need, in case you make any mistakes along the way. I didn't want there to be any noticeable wood edges on the front and back faces of the box, so the side faces had to sit in between the front & back faces, and the bottom face had to fit snugly between all four sides. (See photo above)


Step 3: Nailing & Sanding

After cutting the wood and making sure all the pieces fit together, use your nail gun to (carefully!) nail each corner into the box. Make sure the gun is 90° to the box, or the nail will shoot through the side.

Once you've built all of the boxes, it's time to sand. At this point, I had to leave the woodshop and continue this project at my apartment. I wouldn't recommend power sanding in an apartment. Garages, outdoors, or well-ventilated large spaces are much better for this. But in dire situations, a bathtub will also do. Safety first: line your bathtub with a tarp or garbage bag (for easy cleaning & so you don't clog your drain), use safety goggles, a dust mask, and sturdy gloves. (Fortunately, if you've ever been to Burning Man, dust is no big deal, and these things tend to just be lying around.)

Be sure to sand each side and corner so that there are no more sharp edges, stray wood pieces, or visible blemishes. Your wood should be smooth to the touch, without any splinters.


Step 4: Choose a primer & a paint

The natural wood finish was a nice feel, but I wanted the boxes to be white with black paint. Using some of the leftover wood scraps, I tested a couple different types of finishes, paints, stains, mediums, and varnishes. I found that I liked the airy feel of a straight bonding primer best. 

Next, I tested a handful of paints, brushes, and pens for the leg designs. I wanted a rich, dark, matte black color with a consistent stroke to contrast with the white. I also wanted to easily be able to draw legs on 20 boxes without having to dip a paintbrush every inch or so. The Molotow paint pen was the perfect candidate for this. It uses acrylic ink, so it's technically still "painted", but has a nice pen applicator, and was the darkest non-shiniest ink by far.


Step 5: Painting & Planting

It was important to match the plants with the leg designs. To pick out plants, I went to a large flower market in SF and spent some time with each various plant (Crassula, Hawarthia, and Jade were my main picks). I chose plants that inspired a leggy feel, were sturdy enough to withstand potentially first-time plant owners, but small enough to fit in the boxes. Some plants came in bigger pots, but could be broken down and re-potted to a smaller container. Make sure to have enough 2" containers for each planter.

When painting, I had a few leg styles to build off of. I paired each plant with its appropriate planter, and made sure that the legs for that planter played with the plant it housed. This means noting the leaf type, if it appears "hairy", leggy, squat, dressed up, or full of feathers. Painting legs on 20 planters is not easy. Especially when some planters have 4 different leg types on them. It's much easier if you have the designs planned out ahead of time so you can mix and match as you go.

Fill the bottoms of the tall and wide planters with large, black terrarium rocks. You can get these at most garden or hardware stores. Make sure they're big enough so that it's not a disaster if they all fall out. The main purpose is for elevating the plant to the top of the planter, and to keep the water from soaking through the bottom of the wood too much. You could skip the 2" pot and fill the planter with dirt, but that makes the inside of the wood dirty, and it's hard to water & repot without messing up the outer face of the planter.

I highly encourage you to name each of the plants and make up stories about their lives.