Canadian Woodworking

Make a bonsai plant stand

Author: Steve Der-Garabedian
Photos: Steve Der-Garabedian
Illustration: Len Churchill
Published: August September 2022

Whether it’s a bonsai plant or another cherished object, making a tasteful display stand for it will showcase the object nicely. This project merges eye-catching veneer and straight-grained solid wood with a timeless design.

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bonsai stand illo
Bonsai stand front view
Bonsai stand side view
bonsai stand materials list

I was tired of my bonsai plant sitting on a windowsill. The plant makes me happy and I thought it should be in view more than when I was just staring out the window. In its sim­plest form the stand I made is a tall side table that you could use to show off any cherished item.

This project took a few detours on its way from sketch to mockup to finished piece. I’m happy with the final product, but usually by the time I make a mockup the design is set. Some changes, like for the legs, came about as I stood back and looked at the stand during a dry fitting. Other modifications, like using the side aprons as run­ners for the drawer, were more of a practical solution. I’ll explain more as we start building.

Make a Model
A to-scale model will go a long way in helping you figure out design details like proportion and thickness. Der-Garabedian changed the leg design after making this model.

bonsai stand

Frame It
Cut an opening the same size as the finished surface of veneer, then adjust the position of the frame until you get the visual you want.

bonsai stand

A Good Vacuuming
There are many ways to press veneer onto a substrate. Der-Garabedian used a vacuum press made by Roarockit.

bonsai stand

Tape Prevents Chipping
A layer of tape will help keep the wood fibres in place while you rout the rabbets on the edge of the top.

bonsai stand

Early Finishing
Der-Garabedian applies a finish to the parts that make up the top before assembling them, as it’s hard to get into the nooks and crannies once it’s glued up.

bonsai stand

Splines for Strength
Adding splines will create a stronger joint. It’s common to use contrasting wood for the spline material, but Der-Garabedian wanted a cleaner, simpler look on this table, so he chose the same material.

bonsai stand

Keep It Flush
Since the parts are already finished, Der-Garabedian ensures the miter joints are flush, as he won’t be able to sand or plane them flush after assembly.

bonsai stand

Continuous Match
The front apron and drawer front form an almost invisible seam once they’re complete, as they were all cut from the exact same section of wood.

bonsai stand

Dry Assemble and Rout
With the drawer dry assembled, Der-Garabedian runs the grooves for the drawer bottom on his router table. Two passes give him the correct width to accept the bottom.

bonsai stand

Simple Dowelling Jig
Der-Garabedian uses a simple shop-made jig to assist with drilling the dowel holes that secure the parts that make up the front apron.

bonsai stand

Multipurpose Joint
In this situation, dowels offer both strength and location while assembling the aprons.

bonsai stand

Ease the Edges
The sharp edges of the legs can be eased with a few passes of a hand plane.

bonsai stand

No Splintering
To reduce the chance of the ends of the legs splintering from moving the finished table across the floor, Der-Garabedian adds a chamfer to the bottom edges of the legs.

bonsai stand

A Sprinkle of Magic Dust
Though it looks like Der-Garabedian is casting a magic spell on this drawer front, he’s in fact sprinkling a small amount of sand on the glue surface so it doesn’t shift when he applies clamping pressure.

bonsai stand

Pull Options
While there are many approaches to pulls, Der-Garabedian chose a simple, elongated shop-made pull.

bonsai stand

Fit the Drawer
When the glue is dry, test fit the drawer in the cavity and make any necessary adjustments. Notice the stop block applied to the inside of the rear apron. This is to stop the travel of the drawer so the drawer front sits flush with the front apron.

bonsai stand

Attach the Top
Although it’s not a typical approach, using a figure eight connector to secure the top to the table works well in this situation. A small piece of material had to be cut to make up the difference in height.

bonsai stand

It starts at the top

I’m a huge proponent of veneering. While this project doesn’t require the top to be veneered, it’s a fun way of using some beauti­ful veneer to elevate it to true display stand status. This royal ebony veneer had been sitting on a shelf for about two years and this project seemed just right for it. To make sure the grain would look good at the size I needed, I made up a cardboard window to visually extract the piece for the top. This takes very little time and makes our work stand out, as compared to mass-produced items.

My veneer was too narrow and a bit brittle so before jointing and gluing, I softened the veneer with a commercial solution. You can make your own batch of softener by mixing 50% water with 25% glycerin and 25% denatured alcohol. After wiping on the solution, place the veneer between sheets of clean newsprint and change the newsprint sheets every three or four hours until it’s soft enough to work. After softening you’ll have about 48 hours to press the veneer onto the core.

Some core work

Baltic birch is a great core material that’s strong and easy to apply veneer to. Cut a 1/2″ thick piece 12″ × 9-1/4″. Cut it so the ply­wood’s grain runs perpendicular to the grain of the veneer. In this case, the grain should run parallel with the narrow dimension. The top’s design calls for the panel to stand proud of its frame. In order to give us a clean line we’ll edge the core now and then veneer over top of it. I thought black limba had a complementary colour tone to the royal ebony so I milled up a piece that was 50″ × 1″ × 5/8″. Normally, I would just use butt joints for the frame, but since this will be partly exposed, a mitered frame gives a cleaner look.

Cut the miters and get it ready to be glued to the core. There is one trick that comes in handy when creating mitered frames. If you happen to cut a piece too short you can “stretch” the piece by planing the inside edge of the part. Next, I placed a piece of wax paper on my bench as well as a small pair of veneers. This props up the plywood so the edging is equally proud on the top and bottom faces. Finally, apply the edg­ing to the Baltic birch core. Once the glue has fully cured use a jack plane and some sandpaper to flush the edging.

One of the rules of veneering is to veneer both sides to prevent the top from cupping and warping. I had some mahogany veneer and used it on the bot­tom face. Most of the time I use backer veneer that costs less than $1 per square foot on the face that will never be seen. At this time, I also jointed and joined the two pieces of veneer that would become the top face. After jointing, this is easily done by first applying masking tape to the glue side, then veneer tape to the show side. You can easily buy veneer that is wide enough and might not need to be softened.

A hard press

Veneering doesn’t have to be an expensive proposition. I used my trusty Roarockit Thin Air Press kit to veneer the top. It comes with everything you need, minus the melamine platen, for under $80. There are other meth­ods to press veneers including clamps and cambered cauls, making your own iron-on veneer, and hammer veneering.

Cut the veneers a bit oversized using a sharp knife. Prepare two pieces of 1/8″ thick hardboard slightly larger than the core. Soften the edges and corners so as not to puncture your vacuum bag and apply packing tape to one face of the cauls. This ensures the cauls don’t become part of the top if glue bleeds through the veneer. A layer of wax paper will go a long way to ensuring the caul doesn’t get adhered to the workpiece. At this time, remove any mask­ing tape on the glue side of the veneer.

Most PVA glues will work, how­ever, those made for veneering, such as Titebond’s Cold Press for Veneer, work a bit better. Apply adhesive to one side of the core and place the veneer on top. Add one of the cauls you prepared, taped side down, and then flip it over. Add more glue, the remaining veneer and caul. Slip the sand­wich into the bag, seal it and pump out the air. Let this sit for five to six hours and then remove it from the bag. Don’t lay the panel flat on your bench but rather prop it up so there is air movement around both faces. Let it fully cure overnight.

Some cleanup

Use the teeth on the side of a file to clean up any of the veneer that overhangs the edging. We can now trim the panel on the table saw removing 1/4″ from all sides. We’ll also clean up the veneered surfaces at this point using 150x or 180x on a random orbit sander. Remember, we only have so much veneer to work with so be dili­gent with how much you sand. Trouble spots can be hit with hand sanding.

Next, create a rabbet on the edge that’s 1/2″ deep by 1/4″ thick. Part of this rabbet will fit into a 1/4″ groove in the frame for the tabletop. To help eliminate the risk of tear-out, use strips of blue masking tape along the edge of the top. I also put a couple of strips in the middle to stop the face veneer getting scratched as I slide it along the router table. Firmly push down the blue tape with a round-faced hammer. Take small incremental cuts until you reach the desired profile.

To frame the top, I chose some wenge. I felt it complemented the colours of the veneer. I milled up a piece that was 56″ × 1″ × 1/2″. Since we want the panel to stand slightly proud of the frame, cut a groove in the frame pieces 3/8″ deep and 1/4″ wide. This groove starts 1/8″ from the top face of the frame. Check the actual fit of the piece using the rabbeted top and adjust as necessary. Cut the miters on the frame pieces and test fit everything. In the end we want the rabbet to protrude into the groove about 1/4″ and leave 3/16″ to 1/4″ of reveal around the top.

Initial finish

Since there is going to be a 1/4″ reveal between the frame and top, it’s a good idea to apply the finish to all the parts before assembly. While I don’t plan on watering my plant while on the stand, I thought it prudent to use a durable finish. I taped off the miters and applied two coats of Osmo TopOil.

Once the finish has cured it’s time to glue up the top. While we are going to reinforce the mitered corners, I also wanted to add some insurance by way of treating the end grain to glue-size. I used a 50/50 mix of water and white glue. I put some on the miters and let it dry. For the actual glue-up I used regular-strength white glue and a band clamp to hold it all together. One of my frame pieces had a slight warp so in addition to the band clamp I used a three-way edge clamp and cauls to bring the corner together nice and flush. A C-clamp would work well here, too.

While this piece is not going to see a lot of traffic, I thought it was a good idea to strengthen the miters for the top with splines. You can use a commercial jig for this, but it took very little time to make a plywood version. There are times when I will use a contrasting colour for mitre splines, but in this case, I didn’t want to add any new colours or visual distractions. Glue them in and trim them flush when cured.

Drawer comes next

I chose to add a slim drawer to the stand to hold my scissors and training wire for the plant. I opted for a single tail dove­tailed drawer, however there is more than one way to complete this, including rab­beted and pinned as well as drawer-lock router bits.
For the drawer bottom I decided to use some beautiful kingwood veneer. I used the same process as above, however I veneered over 1/8″ Baltic birch. There’s no need for edging on this panel because it gets buried into the groove that we will create next. Press a panel slightly larger than what’s needed; in this case approxi­mately 10-1/2″ × 8-1/2″.

I’ve found one of the easiest ways of putting in a drawer bottom is to use a box slotting bit. Dry assemble the drawer and run the bit along the inside of the drawer. This bit from Lee Valley Tools comes in two different diameters and thicknesses. The sets come with a pair of bearings allowing you to cut different depth slots. Before cutting the slot, sand the panel for the bottom, bringing it closer to its final thickness. Creep up on the final size by using a scrap piece of wood to test that the panel fits the groove nicely. Use the bearing in the set that makes a 3/16″ deep groove. Since the router bit leaves rounded corners, I used a wheel gauge (a washer also works) to pencil in, then cut and file, the corners of the panel. Glue and clamp as you would for any other drawer. The drawer will need to be hand planed near the end to ensure a good fit in its opening.

Aprons and legs

Be careful milling up the pieces for the aprons and legs, as they all come from one slightly larger piece of wood. The front apron needs to be at least 1/4″ wider and longer than the listed final size. The rea­son being is we are going to make two rip and two crosscuts to remove the piece that will become our false drawer front. The drawer face is 8″ wide by 1-5/8″ deep. After cutting it out, carefully glue the remaining pieces to re-form the front apron. Cut the remaining aprons to their listed sizes. The approach of cutting the drawer front from a panel, and having the top, bottom and side sections come from that same panel, works best if you start with a simple, straight-grained workpiece. This ensures the grain is almost invisible in the final piece.

For the joinery on the front and rear aprons to legs, I chose Festool Dominos, however, you could use different strate­gies here including mortise and tenons, dowel joints or biscuits. Pick the method you’re comfortable with and have the tools for. The aprons that join the front and rear also act as drawer runners. I chose dowel joinery for this pair as it needed to fit in between the previously installed Dominos. Take a look at the article on dowel joinery in the Feb/Mar 2014 issue to make your own shop-made solution. To complete the apron-to-leg joinery I used a pair of 6mm × 40mm Dominos. To join the side aprons to the front and back I used 1/8″ and 1/4″ diameter dowels, both 1″ long. Make the holes for the dowels slightly deeper than 1/2″ in corresponding pieces.

Dry fit the aprons to each other and mark the location of the bottom of the drawer opening on the side apron/runners. Cut full length 3/8″ deep grooves to accept the 1/4″ thick Baltic birch drawer support.

Detour explained

We can now move our attention to the legs. As I mentioned ear­lier, this project didn’t take a straight route from A to Z. As you can see from the mock-up, I had intended for shaped and tapered legs. It’s easier to complete the joinery on the legs when they’re still square. After mortising the top of the legs for the Dominos and completing a dry fit, I stood back and looked at the semi-finished piece. I realized I preferred the straight square legs compared to the shaped version in the mock-up. I also chose to move the legs in and under the top. I considered a floating top, but felt at certain angles you might be able to see inside the table and drawer. Luckily with this project it didn’t require making new pieces, just slimming them down until they were visually appealing. Some of the joinery needed to be re-cut, but I tend to leave equipment set up as long as I can so that part was easy.

I like to put a small 1/8″ chamfer on the bottoms of the legs so that they don’t crack or split when the table is moved. At this point, knock off the sharp edges along their length.

Sticking it together

Glue up the aprons, remembering to slide in the Baltic birch drawer support before adding the back and the clamps. While this is curing, re-saw the piece that came out of the apron for the drawer to get a piece that’s 1/8″ thick. Glue this onto the front of the drawer, being careful to centre it. To make sure it doesn’t shift when clamping, I added a bit of sand after applying the glue. You don’t need lots, just a few grains here and there. Using additional clamps to ensure it stays put is also an option.

After a few hours you can remove the clamps and test fit the drawer into its opening. To stop the drawer from sliding in all the way, add a small piece to the back apron. Start this off thicker than what’s needed and keep planing it until the front of the drawer is flush with the outside of the front apron. Glue the stop into place.

I toyed with a few different drawer pulls, but finally settled on a thin, tapered wenge version. I glued the pull to the drawer with a 1/8″ micro dowel mortised into both the pull and the drawer.

Final assembly

Glue the legs to the apron assembly. Clean up any squeeze-out and touch up any scratches with fine sandpaper. Apply the finish of your choice to the drawer and main assembly. The frame on the top will more than likely need to be re-treated.

To attach the top to the bottom carcass, I used figure eight con­nectors mortised with a 11/16″ Forstner bit on top of the legs. Use #5 × 5/8″ flat head wood screws to secure them. These connectors aren’t quite meant to be used in this fashion, however, they still worked perfectly fine. I cut up 1/2″ diameter dowels to take up the space between the connector and the bottom of the top. Be careful when driving the screws into the top. If you’ve modified the size, take care to use the right length of screw.

Although this project wasn’t a beeline from A to Z, most proj­ects take detours of one kind or another. Some are due to design changes and others because of operator error. It’s all part of the process when making one-off pieces. I don’t mind detours in woodworking. Unlike driving, they can lead to pleasing results.

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