Canadian Woodworking

Inlaid Flower Box

Author: Rob Brown
Photos: Rob Brown
Published: October November 2011

When the weather turns cold, you can still add some colour and life to your home with this pint-sized flower box.


Even though the flowers in our gardens have left us for another year, it’s nice to be able to bring some inside and enjoy them. You could plant some in a regular pot but that would be too simple, wouldn’t it? I made this little flower box so I could drop a pot right into it. This gave me the best of both worlds; a simple way to display flowers inside and a wooden project that I had made. When I water the flowers, I remove the plastic pot from the wooden box and let any extra water drain from the soil before dropping the flowers back into the box.

A small project like this is also a great way to try your hand at a new technique; in this case, solid wood inlay. The inlay techniques I used are quite simple and can be extrapolated for use on other larger projects like table tops, cabinet doors, drawer fronts and, well, pretty much anything really.

The box itself is really straightforward, and very similar to one Jim Sinclair made in the Dec/Jan 2011 issue of Canadian Woodworking & Home Improvement Magazine. His article covers matching grain and many other points related to box-making. I opted for mitred corners because of their simple look with a lack of visible end grain, but other methods of joinery (dovetails, box joints, etc.) would work just fine. If you wanted a challenge, try a five-sided box; or one with curved sides, though that would make the inlay a lot more difficult to complete. You could even make a box that would hold three or four pots.

Large Pieces are Easier to Work With
 Rather than cut each piece to size as soon as possible, you should leave them together as one piece for as long as you can. Machining large pieces is easier and safer.

Tape Works Wonders
 Use masking tape not only to protect the inside of the box from squeeze-out, but also to clamp the box together during glue-up.

Easy Layout
 With a pencil and a few plugs, you can get a good idea of what the final design will look like.

Free Hand or Guided?
 Although the trim router above is set up to be used free-hand, you can also use a router equipped with a template guide and run the router against a pattern, below.

The Groove
 You want to end up with a groove about ⅛" deep. Once you have a mating piece to fit inside the groove, coat the groove with glue, making sure it is deep inside all the corners.

Drill for Plugs
The simplest way to add some petals to the flower is to drill five ⅜" holes for the bubinga plugs and one ¼" hole for the walnut plug. Apply glue, insert the plugs then let them dry thoroughly.

Two Different Finishes
 I apply a spar varnish to the interior of the box to protect against water from the pot. Though I could apply the same finish to the exterior, I like a shellac finish for its ease of application and smooth feel after it has been waxed and buffed.

Same Technique, Different Piece of Furniture
 Once you’ve had a chance to complete the flower box, you can use the technique to adorn larger surfaces. The stem inlay on these tabletops was made with a series of templates, which I shifted slightly each time after I made a pass with the router. The berries were added afterwards. Many different organic shapes and patterns can be used.

Simple Inlay
 By flushing the surface and adding a finish to the inlay, it comes alive.

No Surprises

The finished size of the box is 6 ½” sq. and 5 ½” high, but as long as a plastic pot can fit inside it with a little room to spare, everything is good. Be sure to have the pot before you start working on this project. As is the case when working with hardware, you don’t want any surprises down the road. I dressed the plank to ⅝” thick, jointed one edge and ripped it to 5 ½”. Before breaking the four sides apart, I machined the groove for the bottom so it would accept the ¼” plywood panel. This was because it is difficult and dangerous to work with small pieces in some circumstances. I then cut all my mitres on the end of the four side panels see “The Myth of the Left Tilt Saw”, Feb/Mar 2011 for more information on cutting mitres on a table saw). After trimming the bottom panel slightly under-sized and sanding the inside faces of the side panels, I was ready to assemble everything.  With the four side panels face down and in the correct order, I applied masking tape across three of the mitre joints. I then flipped the group of parts over and added eight more pieces of masking tape adjacent to the mitred joints on the inside surfaces of the side panels so any glue squeeze-out would end up on the tape and be easy to remove. I spread a light layer of glue on all the mitred surfaces, inserted the bottom panel and wrapped the four side panels together. A number of pieces of masking tape across the fourth joint held everything together until the glue dried.

After a couple of hours, I removed the inner masking tape and most of the glue squeeze-out. It’s easier to do this before the glue dries hard. The last bits of glue can be removed with a sharp chisel. When completely dry, I removed the rest of the masking tape and started to layout the inlay design. With light maple for the box I wanted to add some rich contrast; bubinga and walnut was perfect. After cutting some ⅜” bubinga plugs and one ¼” walnut plug on my drill press, I set to work deciding where to place them. People often refer to the center of a surface or plain as the “dead” center because it is the least interesting. For this reason, I wanted to place the flower off to one side. By laying the plugs on the surface and sketching the stem, I was able to get a good idea of how everything would look. After erasing lines and shifting plugs many times, I was happy with what I had.

Now came the time when things have the potential to get ruined, fast, if you’re not careful. Even though I’ve used this sort of technique a number of times, I grabbed a piece of scrap wood and made a few test cuts just to remind me of what the router wants to do as it’s machining the groove freehand. I don’t want to lose control of the tool, even slightly, because that would lead to wayward grooves in the finished surface. Even though the bit I used was only ⅛” wide, you have to be sure to keep the router on track. It’s not really a huge safety risk, because the small bit will not grab the wood with much torque; it will just guide the router off track if you don’t pay attention. Why do I risk it and do this freehand? Because it allows me to quickly and easily create a groove with gentle, flowing curves. If you want more dependable results, or a straight line, you can cut a template to run the routers’ base plate or throat collar against. In fact, I would strongly recommend this option if you are at all worried about doing this operation freehand.

Start with the Stem

I generally run the groove before drilling for the plugs, as the groove may veer slightly from the line I intended to follow. It’s easy to reposition the plugs to account for any movement after the fact. I install a sharp ⅛” diameter straight bit in my trim router and set it to cut just over ⅛” deep. With my lines clearly marked on the work piece (and after a few test cuts in scrap material), I cut the groove. While machining the groove, I keep a keen eye on the location of the bit, relative to the line I drew. At the end of the groove, I keep the trim router stationary and carefully turn it off, allowing it to come to a stop before I budge. If I move the router even a bit, the end of the groove will be wider than the rest of the groove.

I power-plane a strip of wood as thin as possible, but it’s still not quite thin enough to fit in the ⅛”-wide groove. Even if I put an additional lower surface in my planer so I could plane a piece of wood to ⅛” in thickness, I wouldn’t feel comfortable shoving a piece of wood that thin through the machine; I’m quite sure the spinning blades would shred it. Once it is as close as possible to the final width, I fine-tune it with my hand plane. It should fit into the groove with minimal pressure. In terms of height, the inlayed piece should barely protrude above the surface when glued in place. With a sanding block, I round the end of the inlay so it fits in the groove perfectly. Things get more finicky when the piece fits into a groove that is stopped at either end. A bit more time and care will give you decent results though. You could machine the groove 1/32″ deep and inlay veneer, but that gives you much less leeway when sanding and levelling the surface; it’s easy to sand through veneer.

Place an even layer of glue in the groove and work it into all the corners with a small piece of veneer or narrow sliver of wood. Press the inlay strip into the groove, making sure it seats properly in all areas. I wipe up most of the extra glue squeeze-out now, but I don’t go crazy. Some of that glue will actually dry in any small cavities and help level the surface.

Add the Flower Petals

I like to temporarily put the plugs in place and, when happy with their location, trace them onto the surface. I then mark the center of each of the petals so I can line up the plug cutter more accurately. I usually have to adjust the collar of the plug cutter on the drill bit so the bit is only barely protruding from the collar. This is so I don’t drill through the other side of the workpiece. Although you can use a hand-held drill for this step, a drill press is much better, as it always drills perpendicular to the surface and you can count on the depth adjustment to keep the holes from coming through the other side. With everything set, I slowly drill the holes. If the holes are fairly close together and you try to drill a bit too fast, you risk blowing out the material between neighbouring holes. Sometimes I drill and install a few of the plugs and, when they’re dry, I drill the rest of the holes.

For the visual effect, I used a smaller plug for the center of the flower. Coat the inside of each hole with a bit of glue and put a light layer on the sides of the plug before inserting each plug and tapping it home with a small hammer. A fine point to remember when doing this step is to orient the grain of each plug so there is some balance. I ran the grain of each plug in towards the center of the flower. When everything is completely dry, flush the inlayed wood, run a round-over bit over all the corners and sand the exterior of the box.

Add a Finish

The inside of the box will likely come in contact with some water. To protect the wood, I applied three coats of spar varnish to the interior. If you wanted some extra protection, you could line the box with some light plastic. The outside was all about show so I wiped on a number of coats of shellac. Shellac doesn’t stand up well to water, but it shouldn’t see much anyway. A few rubber or felt feet on the underside of the box are a nice touch. Now all that’s left is to decide what flowers or plants to fill it with.

Rob Brown - [email protected]

Rob is a studio furniture maker and the editor at Canadian Woodworking & Home Improvement. Instagram at @RobBrownTeaches

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