When I started noticing recently how popular succulents have become, I thought of an interesting piece of wood — a piece of black walnut left over from a slab table project — that has been sitting around my shop for several years. Follow along to see how I transformed it into a succulent planter. You can use this technique on virtually any kind of wood to make your own planter.
How to make a succulent planter
Step 1: Start with a hand plane
This piece of walnut was an awkward shape and size — too short to be cut safely on a table saw and too wide to fit on my 6” jointer. It also had a live edge, which means the bark was still on. I love live edge wood, made popular in furniture by George Nakashima in the 1950s and 60s, because it retains the beauty it started with as a tree. In this particular piece, you can see the transition from bark to sapwood to heartwood.
Though the wood was relatively flat to begin with, I flattened it further with a hand plane, then put it through my planer to make it parallel. The look I was going for was the juxtaposition of raw, organic wood with refined shaping. I liked the rough, curved bark on one side and a planed, smooth edge on the other.
Step 2: Define a cavity
I made a hollowed out rectangle to house the succulent plant. I started by sketching directly on the wood and using masking tape to define the edges. The opening doesn’t have to be any particular size, so I didn’t fret too much about the dimensions. I used a marking gauge and a marking knife to define the edges. Next, I used a sharp chisel in the knife lines to define them further.
Using a marking gauge to define one edge. The others are defined with a marking knife.
Step 3: Hollow it out
The next task was similar to hollowing out a mortise. I used Forstner bits on the drill press to remove the bulk of the wood. I used a mortise chisel to chop the sides. For the bottom of the mortise, I used a chisel turned bevel down. With a few taps of the mallet, a bevel-down chisel removes wood without cutting deeper. I used paring chisels to remove the last shavings on the sides of the mortise.
Drill holes at each end to start removing material.
Use a Forstner bit in a drill press to remove the bulk of the wood.
Clean out the rest of the material with a mortise chisel.
Step 4: Treat the wood
Walnut is fairly resistant to water, but it would start to rot if left in contact with wet soil for a long period of time. To seal the wood, I “painted” it with multiple coats of waterproof glue. I took time to let it soak in, especially on the end grain, and then painted on more until a thick coating formed. Ultimately I put on three coats of glue. Another way to prevent damage to the wood is to use a container of metal (especially stainless steel), plastic or glass with a mortise sized to fit.
With the mortise cleaned up, use waterproof glue to seal the wood.
Step 5: Finish it all around
I gave all surfaces a good sanding to 220 grit, raised the grain with water and then sanded it again at 220. I broke all the edges with a sanding block to keep them consistent. For finish, I used several coats of a mixture of ⅔ wipe-on polyurethane and ⅓ mineral spirits, avoiding the cavity for the plant. I finished the bark as well, dabbing on the finish to let it soak in. I installed rubber feet on the bottom with stainless steel screws so the planter would be raised a bit.
6. Get creative
With the glue dry and the entire planter finished, it was time to plant. Succulents, at least to me, are great plants because they are so easy to take care of. They don’t require much water and will grow in the tiniest of openings. Try this technique out yourself on pretty much any kind of wood.