Introduction: Terrarium Table

About: Made in Canada, I grew up crafting, making, and baking. Out of this love for designing and creating, I pursued a degree in product design from Parsons School of Design in NYC. Since then I've done work for Mar…

I've been wanting to make a piece of indoor 'garden' furniture for ages. Not only do plants help improve indoor air quality (see NASA study), they also are huge mood enhancers for me. So I finally got down to it and built a terrarium coffee table! It was a lot of work for my beginner self, but totally worth the math and effort.

Before getting started, I set some perimeters for myself: 1. I must use at least one recycled/upcycled item and, 2. The finished product has to be fun and cheeky. Plants on their own have so much personality (and I planned on adding in some little figures to add even MORE personality), so I wanted the table to be a very simple/minimal design.

The re-use item I chose was a simple wood and glass cabinet door from a really great used building supply store here in San Francisco called Builders Resources. As a result of my designing around this found item, it would be impossible for you to recreate this table exactly as shown, but what I will do in this Instructable is guide you through making your own version, no matter what the dimensions of the door you find are.

Print out the attached Supplies List and let's get started!

Step 1: Cabinet Door Hunting

When picking out your used glass cabinet door, try and find one that is made of solid wood with only a clear finish.*

*NOTE: Most paint used in older homes contains lead and it's not worth the health risk no matter how cool the piece is. If you think you've found a painted piece that might be from after 1978 (the year lead paint was banned), it's worth it to buy a lead paint test kit online or from your local hardware store and ask if you can check it first.

Also, you're looking for a door that's roughly the following dimensions:

40-46" x 18-24" x 3/4-1" thick

Step 2: Prepping Your Cabinet Door

Remove all the hardware and anything that's been added to the surface.

Step 3: Nips & Tucks

I wanted clean edges on the door, so I used a table saw to 'shave' them down a bit. This was purely an aesthetic choice and isn't necessarily necessary.

Step 4: Sanding Off the Old Finish

To get down to raw wood, clamp the door gently to a work bench and put a strip of wide painters tape along the edge of the glass.

Then sand off the finish either by hand or using a power sanding tool.*

*I used Black & Decker's 4-in-1 SmartSelect Multi Sander. It's interchangeable bases and finger attachment, allowed me to quickly remove the finish from almost the entire surface of the door. I only needed to do a tiny bit of hand sanding on the inside corners. Boom!

Step 5: Flip It and Reverse It

Turn the door over and place it on a soft surface of some kind (felt, fabric, or rubber mat) to protect the newly raw wood of the front side. Then tape the edge of the backside of the glass.

Repeat the sanding process.

I wanted to soften the edges slightly, so I put the door gently in a (lined) vice and hand sanded the edges with some 180 grit sand paper.

To get to the inset areas left behind by the removal of the door's hardware, I wrapped a bit of sand paper around the end of a small dowel.

Step 6: Measure This Measure That

When I trimmed down the edges of my door, I tried to end up with whole inch measurements, just to keep things easy. I succeeded in making my door 39" x 18 1/2". Yay!

Once you have the final measurements of your door, you can then figure out the dimensions of the rest of your table and how much material you'll need.*

Now that the door has been sanded down to raw wood, it will make it easier to identify what species of wood it's made of, and therefore let you know what kind of wood to buy to make the rest of your table.

If you aren't familiar with the different kinds of wood, take the door with you to your local lumber store and they should be able to help you figure it out. Mine ended up being cherry, so that's what I bought.

I cut my own wood to size from a larger board, but it was pretty time consuming, so I suggest buying it already pre-cut. And to match the dimensions of the door wood, I chose to use 1" x 2" wood, which is actually 3/4" x 1 1/2".

*A standard coffee table is 17-18" high. Mine ended up being 18 3/4".

*Please see the attached PDFs for diagrams that will help you figure out the dimensions of your table and the amount of wood you'll need.

Step 7: Cutting Slots in the Top Frame

Now that you have your material and dimensions, it's time to make the Top Frame. And we start with making the slots.

The slots in the Top Frame are for the top edge of the glass to fit up into. I recommend using 3/16" glass, so you'll want to cut 5/16" wide slots to give you a little fit wiggle room.

Adjust your table saw blade so that it is sticking up 1/4".

Set the fence to 3/4".

Use a push stick to carefully push all four lengths of wood over the blade.

Move the fence just under 1/8" to the right, and run all four pieces through again in the same orientation as the first pass.

Continue running them through with small nudges of the fence to the right until your slots are 5/16" wide.

Step 8: Cutting the Top Frame Pieces

Set your chop saw to cut at a 45 degree angle.

Cut a test piece to make sure your saw is properly calibrated to 45 degrees. Check this using a square tool. (like pictured)

You are going to be cutting the pieces so that the slot will be closest to the inside of the frame, leaving the 3/4" on the outside. (see attached PDF)

Then cut the two long pieces (mine were 39") and two short pieces (mine were 18 1/2") with 45 degree cuts on both ends of each.

Step 9: Laying Out & Gluing Up

Lay out the top frame pieces so that all the slots are either facing up or down and are forming a rectangle.

Use a square tool to make sure your corners are, well, square. : )

Put some scrap paper under all four corners and glue the corners together.

Clamping them with corner clamps is ideal, but if you don't have corner clamps, use painter's tape to snug them up.

Step 10: Cutting Your Uprights & Bottom Frame Pieces

Reset your chop saw to 0 degrees. (= 90 degree cuts)

Do a test cut and check to make sure the saw's 90 degrees is true.


- (10x) 8 1/2" pieces
- (2x) long side Bottom Frame pieces (39" for me)
- (2x) short side Bottom Frame pieces (18 1/2" for me)

Holding up two pieces of the 8 1/2" Uprights together, like those pictured in the last image above, use your pencil to mark the bottom front surfaces and to write 'cut' on the two inside faces. Repeat this with the remaining 4 sets of two.

Step 11: Measuring the Joint Notches

Using a ruler or a square, draw a line 1 1/2" up from the end on the marked side.

Then measure and draw a line 3/8" (halfway) in from the edge on the side so that it matches up with the front line.

Fill in the area on the side that is closest to the front mark with squiggles, so that you will know which part is getting cut off.

Do this to the ten 8 1/2" upright pieces ON ONE END ONLY and then to both ends of the four pieces for the Bottom Frame*.

*Make sure the notches on the four Bottom Frame pieces will be cut out of the same face/side of each board.

Step 12: Band Saw Notches

On a bandsaw, cut just to the inside of the lines.

Step 13: Cleaning Up the Joint Notches

Using a hand held router*, put in a short 90 degree bit.

Adjust the bit so that it's sticking up from the router surface exactly 3/8".

Then measure the distance from the outside edge of the bit to the outside edge of the round router surface.

This info will be used to set up the jig (the next step) for cleaning up the notches.

*I used Black & Decker's MATRIX drill/driver with the router attachment.

Step 14: Getting Jiggy With It

Now we're going to make a jig that will help accurately and smoothly clean up the notches.

Clamp two pieces of wood to your work surface at a 90 degree angle.

Add the distance from the router bit edge to the edge of the round router surface that you measured in the last step (in my case 1 5/8") to how long your notch will be (1 1/2" for me). This equalled 3 1/8" for my project.

Measure and draw a line this distance up from the top edge of the bottom piece of wood.

Lay down a piece of practice wood in the corner of your two pieces, and then lay a scrap piece of wood on top at a 90 degree angle, so that it lines up with the line you just drew.

Clamp that top cross piece in place.

Now pre-drill and then screw in a block that will help you line up your top clamp piece of wood.

Step 15: Notchy Notchy

Use one of the 8 1/2" upright pieces first to practice the notch clean up.

Clamp it into place in your jig; in the corner, under the top clamp wood piece.

Gently clean up the notch by moving the router back and forth, up and down until you've removed all the material you can, and are left with a clean and crisp notch.

NOTE: Running the round router surface along the bottom edge of the wood clamp piece (that's lining up with the line you drew), should take the bit to exactly 1 1/2" on each piece. Yay jigs!!

Repeat this on only one end of all the 8" Upright pieces and on both ends of the four Bottom Frame pieces.

Step 16: Making the Bottom Frame

Now that you've made notches on both ends of all four Bottom Frame pieces, it's time to miter cut the ends.

You want to cut them so that the notches are on the inside corners of the frame and you aren't removing any of the overall length.

Once cut, repeat the gluing steps you used for the Top Frame.

Step 17: Making Your Corner Upright Pieces

Now it's time to make your corner Upright pieces.

Adjust your table saw blade to 45 degrees.

What you're trying to achieve are four corner pieces made up of two Upright pieces each. (see second image above)

Line up the fence so that the miter cut will line up exactly with the edge of the piece - meaning your piece should still be 1 1/2" wide on the non mitered side. This is another reason I had you make two extra Upright pieces, just in case it takes a cut or two to get the fence in just the right place! : )

I had you mark the edges to be cut in step 10, so using a push stick, put the pieces one at a time through the table saw, matching them up with a partner piece as you go. (like the second image above)

Step 18: Stuck Like Glue

Now that you've made all those good looking miter cuts, it's time to glue the corner Uprights together.

Hold one set so that the notch ledges line up and use a wide piece of painters tape to tape them together.

Open the pieces up (the tape will act like a hinge) and put wood glue on both inside surfaces.

Press the pieces back together, remove excess glue with a stick or piece of cardboard, and use more painters tape to clamp the pieces together.

Repeat for the remaining three corner Uprights and leave to dry. (approx. 2 hours)

Step 19: Satisfaction

Once the Bottom Frame has dried, remove the clamps, flip it over and clean up any glue overflow with a utility knife.

Flip it back over and slide the corner Uprights into place. (This can be done while the uprights are drying if you've taped them tight enough.)

Step back and enjoy your handiwork!

Step 20: Gettin' Holey

To connect the Top Frame to the corner Uprights we'll be using 1 1/2" wood dowel pins.

Find the center point of the Upright ends by marking in 3/8" from both outside edges.

Make a pilot hole for the drill bit using a center punch and a hammer.

The easiest way to drill into the end of a long piece is to turn a small vice side ways and clamp it snugly. (But not too snug as to mar the wood surface)

Using a 9/32" drill bit, drill a 1 1/4" deep hole into the Upright ends, so that once hammered in place, only 1/4" of the dowel pins stick up.

NOTE: A quick and easy way to mark your drill bit depth is by using masking tape!

Step 21: Knock Down Those Pins!

Once you've drilled your holes, place the corner Uprights back into the Bottom Frame.

Then carefully hammer a dowel pin into each Upright.

Step 22: Cutting Your Plywood Bottom to Size

Measure the inside length and width of your Bottom Frame and cut a piece of 3/4" A/B high grade plywood to fit.

Place the Frame on a large piece of scrap paper. Glue the edges of the plywood, press it in place all the way down to the work surface, and clamp to dry.

Once dry (1-2 hours OR best left overnight if there's any bowing in the Bottom Frame wood), flip it over and sand away any dried glue overflow.

Step 23: Drilling for Hold

Now you're going to drill the next set of holes (in the Top Frame) that will line up with the top of the dowel pins in the corner Uprights.

On the underside (the slotted side) of the Top Frame, measure in 3/8" from both sides of each corner to find your drilling points. Use the center punch and hammer to make pilot holes.

Mark the drill bit to drill down 5/16".

Drill a hole in each corner of the Frame using a 9/32" drill bit.

Once done, return the corner Uprights into their places in the corners of the Bottom Frame. If the Uprights do not securely press fit into the Frame, add some wood glue and then press fit the Top Frame, with a bit of hand hammering help, into place atop the Uprights. (like pictured)

If glue was added, allow to dry. (Min. 1 hour)

Use a palm sander and 180 grit sand paper to soften the edges of the whole frame.

Step 24: Getting a Foot Hold

Flip the whole frame over and attach the table leg mounting plates.

Start with the corner hole so adjustments can be made in the alignment easily before screwing in the remaining hardware.

Step 25: Cutting the Dowel Risers

In order to allow for a bit of air flow in the terrarium, we're going to add dowel risers in all four corners - that the door table top will sit on.

Cut four 1 1/2" lengths of 1/2" wood dowel.

Clean up and soften the edges on a piece of sand paper.

Step 26: Dowel Riser Holes: Part I

Gently remove the Top Frame from the corner Uprights.

Measure in 3/4" on both sides of each corner on the top side (non-slot side).

Make pilots holes with the center punch.

Use a 1/2" forstner bit to drill down 3/8" into each corner.

Step 27: Dowel Riser Holes: Part II

Repeat the same process on the underside of the Door Table Top.

Glue the dowels into the holes on the Table Top.

Step 28: Ordering Your Glass

You will need to have 5 pieces of 3/16" glass cut to size: the bottom, two long sides, and two short sides.

Base your measurements on the inside lengths of the whole frame once it's put back together (no need to add the Table Top) keeping in mind that there may be slight differences in the measurements of both the long side pieces.

For instance, the inside bottom width on one end may be slightly more or less than the other due to the nature of wood and hand building. So be sure to measure both ends of the space the glass will be going and chose the smallest measurement.

Here is how to measure correctly for all 5 pieces:

The floor - this piece will be the same size as the plywood bottom minus 1/8" on both the length and width (for wiggle room).

The long sides - For length, measure from the inside of a left Upright to the inside of a 'same side' right one and then subtract 1/8". For height, measure from the Ply Bottom to the top of the Upright. When it's glued into place, it will sit on the floor piece which will will raise it 3/16" above the Upright, for fitting into the Top Frame slot. (See the 3rd image in step 30) Do this for each long side as they may vary slightly.

The short sides - For length, measure from the inside of one end Upright to the inside of a 'same side' opposite one and then subtract 1/2". For height, measure from the Ply Bottom to the top of the Upright. When it's glued into place, it will sit on the floor piece which will will raise it 3/16" above the Upright, for fitting into the Top Frame slot. Do this for each long side as they may vary slightly. (NOTE: this height will be the same as for the long side pieces)

For reference, here were my dimensions:

The floor: 37 3/8" x 17"
The long sides: (2x) 37 3/8" x 7 11/16"
A short side: (1x) 16 5/8" x 7 11/16"
A short side: (1x) 16 1/2" x 7 11/16"

Then get a couple of quotes from local suppliers for 3/16" standard window glass with UNFINISHED edges in the dimensions you have calculated. It usually takes 3-4 days to cut.

Once you have your glass and are ready to install is, make sure you have, and use, some sturdy utility gloves as the edges will be unfinished and VERY sharp! Please be careful when handling.

Step 29: Gluing in Your Glass

Wearing your safety gloves, glue the glass floor in place with clear silicone. The silicone pattern doesn't matter as it will be covered with dirt.

Then tape two pieces of scrap paper to the underside of each long side pieces (like pictured) and lay them down on the floor piece, up against the long edges. The paper will act as handles when it comes time to lift them up into their vertical positions.

Spread silicone on the edges of the glass pieces that will come in contact with wood, being careful to keep it close to the edges.

Lift the long side pieces into place and hold them for a couple of minutes.

Repeat this process with the short side pieces.

Step 30: Do the Shimmy

If you're not getting great contact on any of the lower silicone areas, feel free to shim it (like pictured) until the silicone sets.

While the silicone is setting, put wood glue on the tops of the corner Uprights and silicone along the top edge of all four side glass panels.

Put the Top Frame back in place and let it dry/set for a few hours.

Step 31: Making Peg Legs!

While the frame is drying is a good time to customize the table legs.

I bought four 12" Waddell round taper table legs with a plan to cut off the metal end bits and make them a bit cleaner looking. And guess what? It worked!!

NOTE: If you'd rather not go this extra little mile, they make 8" versions of these legs with the metal ends.

Pick a drill bit that's just smaller than the leg's threaded rod.

Drill a hole in the center of a small, and squared, block of wood.

Measure and mark 8" from the wood block down the leg.

Shim up the leg to make it level (like 5th image above) and carefully using a chop saw, cut off the end at your pencil mark.

Using a belt sander or by hand, soften the cut edge.

Repeat for the remaining three legs and check to make sure they are all the same height. If not, use the sander to make 'em even steven.

Step 32: Finish Testing

Use scrap pieces of wood to test finishes.

Pick your fave!

Step 33: The Finish(ing) Line

I wanted to keep the wood as light, but safely sealed, as possible, so I chose Wood-Kote's Clear and Clean Matte Transparent finish.

Once the frame has set and dried, it's time to apply the finish.

NOTE: I decided to save time and not tape up the inside edges of the glass. In hindsight, this was a bad idea. The time it took to clean up the glass afterwards, even though I was super careful applying the finish, was longer than taping would have been. So I recommend taking the time to tape. (Ah, I love alliteration.)

Apply the finish in the suggested method of your finish of choice.

I would suggest three coats with a light sanding using 320 sand paper in between coats.

And for the legs, to make finishing easier, I drilled 4 holes in a longer board. Worked like a charm.

Let dry.

Step 34: Choosing Your Plants

While my final coat of the finish was drying, I headed off to see my favorite local plant expert, Baylor Chapman at her store Lila B.

I wanted to make sure I was making the best plant choices for the home I had designed for them. Baylor and I decided to go the ferny/jungle route, but succulents would also have been a solid choice.

First I taped out the dimensions of the inside of the Terrarium Table on her work table. Then we picked and placed plants until we were happy with how it looked. When you do this, make sure to take a picture of the layout so you can recreate it at home.

I also bought potting soil, charcoal, and small decorative colored rocks.

Unless you yourself are an expert, your local nursery is the best place to go for quality advice and plants.

Step 35: Screw It!

Now we're almost ready to plant!

Set down a drop cloth or tarp in the area you plan on planting the table.

Screw in the legs and set the table upright on the drop cloth.

Use a razor blade to remove any excess finish or silicone that made it's way onto the glass.

Clean the glass with window cleaner.

Step 36: Set the Stage

Place everything you'll need around you:

  • the table
  • the plants
  • a print out of the plant layout
  • potting soil
  • charcoal
  • two colors of decorative rocks (I used a peachy one and a grey)
  • optional: figurines for even more terrarium fun
  • small watering can

Step 37: Laying the Ground(work)

Put a thin, but solid layer of charcoal on the entire glass floor.

Then add 2-3 inches of potting soil.

Use your hands to smooth it out and create some little hills and valleys for a dynamic landscape. (especially along the edges of the glass)

Step 38: Displaying the Sediment

Put a thin line/layer of the peach colored stones around the edge of the glass. It doesn't have to go in very far as it will get covered up with soil.

Then add 1-2 more inches of soil.

Step 39: Creating a World

Following your print out layout, plant the plants!

Gently remove each plant from it's small plastic pot and loosen and lessen the soil around it's roots before planting.

Once in place, add a small amount of soil around the base of the plant and press down gently.

Step 40: Adding More Fun

I wanted my table to really be a brave new little world, so I added dinos and other bits to create some diorama style scenes. This is not necessary, but it is quite awesome.

Step 41: Bask in the Glow

Take a moment to enjoy the view(s).

Step 42: Cool, Clear, Water

When you're done high fiving yourself, give your new land some water and put the Table Top on.

NOTE: The space between the table body and the top is wide enough to get the nozzle of a spritzer in so you can mist your new friends mid watering without having to take the top off.

Step 43: Done and Done.

Make sure to pick a spot to put your new Terrarium Table that has filtered light, and not direct sun.

Now, sit back and enjoy the fruits of your awesome labor.

NOTE: Water your table approx. once a week.

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