Introduction: The Herb Hive

When I bought my house (first house!) a year or so ago, I partitioned the garden off, and dug some raised beds so that I could grow some veg this year. When I came to buy seeds, I thought I'd get some herb seed too. But if I want to grow herbs, they would be more useful right by the kitchen door, right? So I was in the market for a planter or two for the patio. Probably with multiple tiers. But not just boring with multiple horizontal shelves. I should just build it myself shouldn't I...

I googled around for ideas, came up with a few of my own, and doodled them on some squared paper (about normal for me on the phone at work) until I had something I liked the look of. I like hexagons. They tessellate in a very pleasing offset way, and feel a little less regimented than squares. Thus, the herb hive was conceived.

My planning is always fairly lackluster. This project is no different, and I made a lot of it up on the fly. I also used reclaimed pallet wood exclusively, which means that I had to make some compromises on design which made my life more awkward. Because of the number of repetitive cuts I made for this project, I made myself a tablesaw (well, a mount for my circular saw) first, and then some sleds to make my life even easier.

A note on working with pallet (or any reclaimed) wood; by it's nature it's warped and rough cut. When you use it you can accept that (and sometimes use it as a feature, and show off those imperfections), or you can pick and choose carefully and re-machine and discard where necessary. For this project, I was not as choosy as I could have been. That resulted in some warping of the rows, and some areas which needed a significant amount of filler before I painted it.

I'd suggest you take a glance through this whole Instuctable before starting, rather than following step by step. It's not a small, quick, or simple build, and there are many points where my process is slow, awkward, and flawed.

After all; Proper Prior Planning Prevents (insert rude word here) Poor Performance

I'll also say here that I didn't take that many photos. I've tried to take some extras while putting together some spare cut pieces, but the framing out steps will be a bit sparse.

Step 1: Tools and Materials

I made this planter with what I had to hand, and to fit the space I had. And I'm sure you can tailor it to be taller/wider/shorter/thinner. I'm also sure you could make a better one!

To make this exact planter (with space for 21 pots of 6" diameter), you will need;

  • About 25 feet of usable 3.5" x 3/4" board
  • About 70 feet of usable 2.75" x 3/4" board
  • A way of cutting sharp angles (I used my tablesaw with a jig, because I couldn't work out how to make a mitre saw do what I wanted)
  • A way of cutting details (I used a small bandsaw)
  • A tape measure/ruler
  • Exterior PVA/woodglue
  • Tack nails
  • Screws (I used drywall screws)
  • Clamps (lots of clamps)
  • Pencils
  • Sandpaper (I used an orbital sander, and then a belt sander because it got boring)
  • 21 x 6" pots (1.5 litre pots)
  • A tube of filler
  • Paint/varnish/something to protect the finished object

Step 2: Understanding the Design

I barely understood my own design at this stage. If my wife was involved in this project she would be asking all kinds of questions that I wouldn't have been able to answer, and I'm sure the whole project would have turned out more complete, been easier to build, and looked neater come the finish. However, she wasn't - so I just put it together and dealt with my lack of planning when it occurred.

This Instructable has been written in some vague logical order, but this isn't necessarily easy to visualise. If you are struggling, skip forward to assembly (step 5) and take a look at the finished object.

I built this planter by making 21 modules which screwed together to form the beehive shape. Each module was made out of 5 pieces of wood (one upright, and 4 side pieces). For 6" pots, the sides of the hexes need to be 3.5" (just take this as read for now, I'll explain why in an appendix type step). As the widest wood I had was 3.5", this gave me no margin for any angled cuts on the sides of the uprights. This meant that instead of many 30 degree cuts, I needed to make half as many 60 degree cuts.

The pots I used are about 5" tall, so two panels of my thinner stock are sufficient to cover that (2x2.75" is 5.5"). The uprights need to be at least 11" (twice the height of the sides) because the upright will cover two tiers of pots. The sides needed to be a parallelogram shape with very sharp angles, to hold the uprights 3.5" away from each other (see final photo for a view of the final profile). Happily, the lengths here resulted in the modules tilting by 30 degrees from the wall.

I did some maths (wait until that final step again) and worked out that the overall lengths of these bits would be 6.1" (seems long, I know). I also wasn't sure how I was going to make these angled cuts at this point, so I cut a few 7" x 2.75" pieces to test with (I could always cut some more off). I also made a couple of uprights (11"x3.5").

Step 3: Making Test Cuts and Test Fitting

It took me a little effort and a few tries to build a sled/jig I was happy with to produce the cuts I needed repeatably. The resulting monster is shown in the photos for this step. Its essentially a normal crosscut sled, with an upright screwed to it as close to the blade as I could get away with. To use it, I clamped the work-piece between a sacrificial board and the upright. The sacrificial board is to avoid clamp marks on the work-piece, and to stop it from splintering more than necessary.

This sled worked admirably, and produced me an angled piece which was about half an inch too long (so I cut the rest of my 2.75" stock at 6.5" rather than 7") and had a rather useful (if accidental) geometry. My circular saw didn't reach all of the way through the work-piece, and left a lip at the end of the angled cut. This allowed me to repeatably seat all of the modules. A happy accident indeed. Fitting these bits together showed me that the side pieces also protruded past the front of the uprights, so they would need slicing off.

For each unit, I needed 1 x 11" by 3.5" piece, and 4 x angled pieces. Each angled piece started out at 6.5" by 2.75", then two 30 degree angled cuts were made, and then a final cut to make the front angle flush with the level of the upright (see the final two photos of this step).

Step 4: Cut, Cut, Cut, Cut, Cut... Sand, Sand, Sand, Sand, Sand...

This took an age and a half... easily the longest step in time, but there isn't too much to say here.

I made all of these cuts on my table-saw, with the help of some sleds. This made it quicker and easier than it would otherwise have been to make clean, repeatable, consistent cuts. I only needed to measure once (then cut, and check before doing 80 cuts wrong). You could do these by hand I'm sure (though I don't know how I'd do the angles).

I also made a good stack more 6.5" by 2.75" pieces than I needed, because I got carried away, but they came in useful later. When you make this many cuts (at least 100 slices, plus 160 angled slices) it's easy to become complacent. Be careful, be gentle, be focused. If it's getting dark, stop. If you feel thirsty, stop. If you need the loo, stop. Getting it done 5 minutes quicker is no good if you lose a finger. Power tools are dangerous. But to be fair, so are hand tools.

Once all your cuts are done, clean all those bits of wood up! I knew I was going to paint/varnish mine, so I wanted a good, smooth finish. Again, its easy to skin yourself here. Be patient, take your time, have a cup of tea when you need one.

It's nice to see the change in the material at this point. Projects seems to come together for me at this stage.

Step 5: Assembling the Body of the Hive, and Adding Braces

Each module was glued up separately, with tack nails to hold them until the glue dried. They were clamped as needed at this stage until dry. Each module was screwed to another with one 25mm drywall screw through each 'side' piece (a total of 4 screws per module).

I actually assembled this in stages, assembling half a dozen modules, then putting them together. Then another half dozen modules, adding them to the growing hive. You'll need a few clamps here. While I was assembling the body of the hive, it struck me that I needed some way to give the units a little more strength and something to give them a bit more shape. So I machined some hexagonal braces.

Each brace was made out of a 2.75" by 6.5" length of board, and was cut with two 60 degree angles. I also cut a circle out of the inside to allow my pots to sit in them comfortably. These also gave me a handy place to attach a shelf to hold the pots... These braces are not ideal, because two of the screws to attach them are running in the same direction as the grain. Drilling pilot holes, and going in at an angle here helped.

The shelves I used were just extra 6.5" x 2.75" pieces screwed up into the braces, though I did attach a block at the back of the shelves to stop the pots from being pushed backwards - but I didn't fit them until the next step.

My hive is 4 units wide at the widest, and 6 tall. That means that it has 4 modules on the floor, where the uprights needed to be shorter (5.5" rather than 11"). I just cut a couple of my uprights in half.

Step 6: Framing the Hive

I tried to keep screws and other fixings to the inside rather then the outside of this, because it's a nicer finish that way. However, at this point it was clear to me that the hive was going to be painted. My wife didn't like the mixed wood finish, and it was also clear I was going to need to get the filler out because of warping and differences in thicknesses of the wood I'd used. From here on, I didn't worry too much about where the screws went, as I'd be using filler anyway.

Once the hive body was complete, it was time to make it look finished, and to square the whole thing up. I cut a length of 2.75" board for the top, and one for each side, then screwed into the sides from the inside of the modules. The top piece was screwed down into the sides

This left lots of gaps, top and sides, which I filled one by one.

Gaps between pots on the highest layer were covered with half hexes with 30 degree chamfers to give a good fit against the top of the frame. 30 degree triangles cover the edge of the modules, and 'quarter' hex ledges sit above those triangles (notes on photo 2).

Attaching those took screws all over the place, and gave some more rigidity. I did split the upright of one of the modules while doing this, because it was already warped and bowed before assembly. I put some extra braces on the back, and got the filler out. My method of attaching the frame here was messy and awkward, and exactly the kind of detail you should plan instead of following my example.

I then filled the remaining holes in the sides of each layer with 30 degree angled triangles behind each upright, and short bits of board to cover the backs (notes on photo 4). These were mostly screwed because I was too impatient for glue at this point. There are still many holes on the undersides, which allow for drainage and airflow.

Finally, I screwed the aforementioned shelves in (just a bit of board to hold the pots up). Two screws each, from the underside of the shelf into the angled braces.

You're done! Kinda..

At this point, I got the filler out, and spent a long time filling the cracks that opened during the framing out step. If it's going to live outdoors, you will want to weatherproof it somehow. I painted mine with masonry paint, which gives a wonderful finish on wood, and has good staying power.

Remember to paint inside and outside, to protect the wood properly, and so that it doesn't swell in the rain! When painting, its best to do multiple thin coats, after making sure that the surface is clean. This will give you a nice even drip free finish.

Step 7: Enjoy!

I then attached mine to the wall by screwing some thick batten (more pallet) to the wall, and then screwing the hive top and sides to that batten. You could do this with french cleats, or any fixing method you want!

Touch up any paint you need to now that you've fitted it, and fill those holes with plants! I've got half a dozen basil plants, some (half dead) chives, and some strawberries in there at the moment. The weeds in the patio are doing better than my herbs right now...

If anyone makes something like this, I'd love to see how you got on, and I'd also love to see how you attach the hive to a frame! I made a mess of it, but I'm not sure how I'd do it better!

Step 8: MATHS!!!

As promised, some maths here so that you can work out what sizes you need for different sizes of pots. You'll have to put up with photos of scribbling here, because MS paint is harder than a pen and my phone. Though my phone does struggle to focus without natural light.

A hexagon to hold a 6" pot needs to be 6" at the smallest internal dimension (side to side), and we need to know the length of a side. A hexagon can be thought of as 6 equilateral triangles. If the whole is 6" across, each triangle is 3" high (red pen). If you cut that triangle in half, you have a right angled triangle of 3" on one side (green pen).

Now we need to know the length of the hypotenuse (the slanted edge). Trigonometry can tell you this is 3" divided by sin(60 degrees) (the angle opposite the side we used the length of). This works out as ~3.5" (3.464101615....)

If it's assembled like mine, there also needs to be 3.5" between where the sides cross over each other and where they meet the uprights. This is a little more painful to work out. I dealt with this by lying to myself, and saying that I just needed 3.5" plus the angled sections at each end, and adjusting the cut to what made it work (this also contributed to the warping in my planter). You also need to use trigonometry here. Tan(60) x Wood thickness (0.75" for me) will give you the length of the angled section of the piece (1.299"). Double it, and add it to the width of the hex you worked out above. (3.5+1.3+1.3 = 6.1)

I really hope this step helped someone, because it was really hard to write. And I still don't think I did a good job of it.

Reclaimed Wood Contest 2016

Runner Up in the
Reclaimed Wood Contest 2016