Boxed In: Part 1

Our patio will be awesome this year. There – we said it. We will step our game up like never before and disallow the hail storms, late starts, or basement floods (God forbid) of yore to slow us down. Our ambitious goal for the year involves a complete makeover, including the construction of custom flower boxes to more than double our planting space. Like most of our projects, this one started with a trip to Home Depot, but this time Jack tagged along.

Our first trip involved some hands-on research in the lumber department. We quickly ruled out pressure-treated wood because it can’t easily be painted. We ruled out Cedar because it comes in weird sizes and is crazy expensive if you want high-grade.

This left us a little stumped and somewhat downtrodden, but after some googling I stumbled upon this tutorial, and we finally set out to build some simple, affordable planter boxes out of good-old-fashioned plywood. The great thing about this design is that it’s inherently simple and can be built to fit any area with a little adjustment. It can also be embellished and trimmed to any degree you see fit.

We were shooting for approximately 10 linear feet of 9″ by 9″ boxes, so we began by having a HD associate rip our plywood into 9″ strips on the horizontal. We then had the 9″ x 8′ strips cut to 4′ and 2′ lengths, but admittedly, we wish we hadn’t. The cuts weren’t perfectly square on the ends, and a few were more than 1/4″ off in length. This isn’t a huge deal, since all of the seams will be trimmed, but I’m confident that I could have done a more precise job at home.

Supplies needed:
4′ x 8′ plywood, cut to 9″ strips
45′ door & window corner trim (to trim finished boxes)
8 – 6″ L brackets
galvanized 1 5/8″ screws
finishing nails
paintable caulk (with appropriate gun)
Zinsser Bullseye 1-2-3 primer
exterior semi-gloss paint
2 mil plastic drop cloth (for lining)

Tools used:
miter saw
drill(s) with spade bit, screwdriver bit, and countersink bit
electric sander
tape measure & square
paint brushes

All of these tools and products are pretty straight-forward. Our goal was to spend under $100 on materials, but it ended up a little over budget and came in right around $120. (Keep in mind, we purchased everything, down to the last nail for this one. We just so happened to be out of supplies that we normally have on hand, except for the primer.) We actually found this to be quite a nice price point, as many of the 48″ solid wood boxes we found online were upwards of $100 each. We ended up with two 48″ boxes and one 24″ box for nearly the same price.

As with any of our projects, if you’re not comfortable safely operating any of these tools, please enlist the help of someone who is. We certainly don’t want anyone getting hurt in the name of patio flowers.

Enough about materials. On to the fun part! As I mentioned, the design is really nothing more than a plywood box. All of the cuts for the box can be simple chops of your plywood strips. Just remember to measure twice and cut once, since we always try to plan things so that we waste as little material as possible.

Again, we weren’t out for perfection on this one, as the boxes will sit outside our deck’s railings and will be mostly out of view. We were however concerned with a sturdy final product that looked good, and could be safely supported to hang 20′ off the ground. We jumped right in and started measuring and cutting our desired lengths.

Our small box, which is designed to grow a few tasty herbs, measures out to around 9″ x 9″ x 24″. Here’s how the dry fit looked. Again, incredibly simple.

We again put our entire line-up of Milwaukee drills to the test, with one drilling pilot holes, one countersinking (or chamfering if you prefer) and one driving screws. This is certainly a job that can be easily accomplished with one drill, but we had 3 on hand, so it was easiest to have one bit on each drill for speedy construction.

Remember to assert a bit of pressure when joining the end pieces to the bottoms and sides. This will ensure a tight fit. Oh, and remember to hide your face.

Here’s how the 24″ box came together. Once we had our cuts made, it was assembled in just a few minutes. Total time for this simple box, start to finish was around 20 to 30 minutes.

…And just for scale, here’s how the 3 boxes turned out. Admittedly, they’re a little larger than we initially envisioned. We think 7″ to 8″ would be more than adequate width x height, but again, the most important thing here is scale. Like I said, we’re going big this year.

Here’s the approximate screw pattern we ended up using. Again, not pretty, but the ends will be trimmed, caulked and painted when it’s all said and done. If you end up with any unsightly gaps in your corner junctions, don’t worry too much. We’ll be caulking everything later to keep it all as water-tight as possible.

A quick sand (with our new Ryobi sander that I convinced Kim was absolutely necessary for this project, mind you!) to remove splinters and ready things for primer is a good idea at this point.

Next we moved on to the corner trim. Careful measuring and 45 degree cuts on the ends will ensure a nice, tight fit. Remember, the trim will serve to spruce things up and hide the unsightly, open ends of the plywood, so take your time on this step. We used simple finish nails (and a nail set tool where necessary) to attach the trim to the plywood.

After trimming the tops and bottoms with this pattern, I cut end pieces with 90 degree ends to hide the vertical plywood ends. You get the idea:

We then used a 1/2″ spade bit to cut drainage holes approximately every 6″ in the bottom of the boxes. (A standard drill bit would work out just fine.) This will let excess water drop swiftly out the bottoms, and keep the wood from rotting.

All in all this project has been pretty painless so far. It’s taken a bit more time than we estimated, but the weather was gorgeous this weekend, so it was a perfect excuse to spend a couple of afternoons out on the deck. I would say I’ve invested around 4 or 5  construction hours so far, with Kim helping out when I needed another set of hands.

All we’ve got left to do is caulk, prime and paint, then line everything with plastic and we should be pretty good to hang the boxes and start planting. Part 2 of this here tutorial will be coming as soon as we can get those ducks in a row.

Has anyone else tackled custom planters from wood or any other material?

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  • Michael - Innkeeper5.15.12 - 8:44 AM

    I have always wanted to make my own planters boxes, but never have. Your’s look fantastic!

    I can’t wait to see them finished an full of flowers.ReplyCancel

  • Jimmy5.15.12 - 9:14 AM

    I like the simple design. Should look really nice back there. Any idea what you plan on planting? I’m a sucker for herb gardens myself.

    My wife and I have started work on a few upright planters for our courtyard in WV.
    Made them out of scrap wood from previous projects.ReplyCancel

  • Kim5.15.12 - 9:24 AM

    Michael – you know I am itching to get flowers in there!

    And Jimmy, your box looks awesome! Our smaller one will be for herbs, and the large ones will be for any flowers that accept partial light/shade. We have a covered patio, and we’re surrounded by buildings, so we don’t get a ton of light. Because of this, ferny-type plants and impatiens are always our best bet.

    We often wish we could get more creative with our flower choices for low-light, so we’re open to suggestions!ReplyCancel

  • Michelle5.15.12 - 3:47 PM

    Your boxes are fantastic! I also have an almost fully shaded window box so I know how hard it is to find pretty plants for shady spots. Hostas do well in the shade and there are a bunch of mini varieties that would be perfect for a container garden. If you can find it, oxalis is another shade/part shade plant that does well in containers. This year I found a really pretty purple one ( As for flowers, fuchsias, impatiens, and begonias all do well in the shade. Good luck! I can’t wait to see your finished garden. :-)ReplyCancel

  • Caitlin @ Desert Domicile5.15.12 - 6:24 PM

    They’re looking great so far! I can’t wait to see the finished product! By the way, what kind of saw do you guys have? I’ve been looking into buying a table saw/miter saw/circular saw but I have no idea what the difference is between them and just want something semi-simple that I can cut a few 2 x 4’s and 2 x 6’s with :)ReplyCancel

  • Scott5.15.12 - 7:10 PM

    Hi Caitlin! If you’re just looking for simple chop cuts on 2×4’s and 2×6’s, with the occasional 45 degree cut, something simple like this Ryobi model
    would likely suit you perfectly. I found our Craftsman, which has very similar features, for around $40 on Craigslist and it was nearly new. Basically, you’re looking for a 10 inch blade and a decent motor. If you’re ever unsure, just check reviews on amazon! Good luck in your search. Yay, power tools!ReplyCancel

  • Dave5.15.12 - 7:37 PM

    It is quite painless when you have the right tools! Nice job! Milwaukee tools, there is nothing even close!
    I did a project over the weekend using a Milwuakee 12 volt multi-tool, 18 volt drill, 18 volt driver, 18 volt reciprocating saw and 18 volt circular saw. I did not swear one time!ReplyCancel

  • Kylie5.16.12 - 9:44 AM

    I never cease to be totally amazed at the handiness of you two. How do you do it?! If I were in Chicago, I would try to convince you to let me hire you to remake my entire apartment. And that is all I have to say about that.ReplyCancel

  • Alexis5.16.12 - 12:01 PM

    So cool! I love custom projects. Are you painting, staining, or just sealing?ReplyCancel

    • Kim5.16.12 - 2:37 PM

      Thank you for the plant and flower tips, Michelle!

      Kylie, you wouldn’t need to convince us, ha!

      Alexis, we’ll be priming and painting them – looking forward to seeing the results ourselves!ReplyCancel

  • Your planters look great. One suggestion coming from experience though. We made plywood window boxes four years ago, drilled holes in the bottom, primed, and painted. Well they started to deteriorate. They’re not falling apart, but before we moved, Ben stapled heavy plastic inside to help protect the wood more. Just something to think about which might lengthen your use. :) I’m excited to see your deck plans. It looked so cute last year.ReplyCancel

    • Kim5.17.12 - 4:58 PM

      Thanks, Amanda – and good call! We actually bought some heavy plastic to line the insides to make sure they last a little longer. Here’s hoping they work out how we have in mind!ReplyCancel

  • KIRSTEN NIEMAN5.18.12 - 1:50 AM

    You guys are so handy! Love the boxes…excited for this project:)!ReplyCancel

  • Sarah Jane5.21.12 - 8:53 PM

    I have shade/part shade as well.
    I am trying these annuals this year: lobelia (it has little blue flowers, seems awesome so far!), impatiens, vinca, caladiums and snapdragons.
    My mom planted coleus, but I didn’t have room for it. Good luck!! Thanks for this post too, I’ll be trying to build a raised veggie bed this year, your flower boxes will give me some good ideas!ReplyCancel

  • Brian8.21.17 - 1:57 PM

    This is great. Thank you for posting! I’ll be building some of these this weekend by using your guide. I noticed that you have 6″ L-Brackets listed on the supplies list, but couldn’t find where they were used. Can you please clarify that? Thanks, BrianReplyCancel

    • Kim8.21.17 - 2:10 PM

      You can find them at any hardware store! We got ours at Home Depot. Happy building!ReplyCancel


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