One of the most popular things in my office is a tiny Zen garden that sits on the edge of my desk. My children cannot leave it alone. Very few visitors can avoid interacting with it on some level. Some comment on it. Some rake the sand around while they talk to me. Some people move it out of the way so that they can sit important books and papers in its place.
I try not to, but I secretly judge character by observing these choices.
This year I decided to use up some of the odd bits of wood in my shop by trying my hand at making some to give away as Christmas presents.
The form is simple. A mitred frame approximately 3/4″ high with a captured bottom. The thickness of the frame is somewhere in the neighborhood of 1/4″ to 3/8″. Really, none of those measurements matter. What matters is that the box is tall enough to hold sand and thick enough to make good joints on the corners.
I began by creating long strips of walnut about 3/8″ thick and 1″ wide. Take care here to make sure the stock is evenly proportioned in every possible way and then plow a groove the length of the stock. My groove is 3/16″ (matched to the thin plywood I was using for the bottom) and positioned about 1/8″ in from what will be the bottom.
After that, it’s really just a matter of cutting the sides and ends to length. I have no idea what those lengths are, I just made them in proportion to one another. A good place to start is roughly 2:1 or 3:1 so if your ends are 3″ long, you might make the sides 9″ or if your ends are 4″ you might make the sides 8″. Put away the tape measure and trust your eye.
I used my miter box to cut the frame but you could certainly do this a number of ways. You can opt for tiny dovetails or proud finger joints if you want a challenge, but the main thing is keeping the groove for the bottom hidden. After sawing and shooting all the miters I trimmed the bottoms to fit and glued them up. Plowing the groove at the start means that the bottom will serve to line everything up pretty well and only minor trimming and smoothing will be needed after the glue sets.
I made the rake with dowels and a drill press. It’s worth your while to make some kind of jig here to keep everything lined up. mine was just a 1/4 thick piece of wood with a little groove plowed in it to keep the head aligned while I drilled the holes. You can probably invent something better. The positions for the tines and handle can be easily marked with pair of dividers. Again, no need to measure.
A nice coat of wax is all the finish it really needs. Fill it with sand and river rocks (I suggest no more than three from experience) and give it to someone who needs a little perspective.