Introduction: XYZen Garden

About: I'm an inventor / maker / designer based in Portland, OR. My background is in residential architecture, film set design, animatronics, media arts, exhibit design, and electronics. I use digital design and fabr…

In our hectic modern lives, there's no escape from constant connectivity and goal pursuit. The X-Y-Zen Garden demands concentration, giving you no choice but to focus on the here and now.

It consists of a wooden base, a custom wooden pulley system, brass tubing, and some brass hardware that all come together to make a manual machine that works like a classic Etch-A-Sketch using sand as the drawing medium.

This project was made mostly with hand tools, but I used a laser cutter to make the pulleys and some of the fussier parts because it's easier, but you could make this entire project in any basic wood shop. It took about 24 hours of total work to complete.

Step 1: Concept

When I was a kid, I asked my dad what he wanted for Christmas when he was little. He told me he wanted an Etch-A-Sketch, but he never got one because they didn't have any money. So for Christmas last year, I decided to make him one, sort of. My dad's also a martial artist and is generally fascinated by Japanese culture, so I knew he would like it.

This instructable details the build for draft 2 of this design (the one I made for my dad is on his desk in Louisiana).

The concept of a zen garden where a simple mechanism is the mediator between the person and the sand drawing fascinates me for a number of reasons. Zen priests use the act of raking sand (or gravel) as a form of meditation through concentration, connecting them to nature through creating an abstract representation of it (waves and currents around rocks).

Anyone who's ever used an Etch-A-Sketch knows that it takes a lot of concentration, even a "flow" state to make a picture, and the mechanical translation from human movement to lines and curves on the screen brings technology into the equation. Like that protagonist in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, I believe that an authentic experience of the world must include an intimate understanding and appreciation of technology.

Step 2: Tools + Materials


  • Saws: Flush Saw, Chop Saw, Table Saw, Band Saw, Pipe Saw
  • Drills: Hand Drill, Drill Press
    • Standard wood bits, Forstner bits, Countersink bits
  • Sanding: Belt Sanders, Palm Sanders, Sanding Block
  • Clamps: Spring Clamps, Bar Clamps, Parallel Clamp
    • Vice, Dowel Vice
  • Glue: Wood Glue, Contact Cement, 60 second epoxy


Step 3: Research

To get started, I had to figure out how the pulleys on an Etch-A-Sketch worked. On the Etch-A-Sketch Wikipedia article, I found a great diagram explaining how the gantry system works with pulleys on the inside of the toy (picture 1 in this step). For simplicity's sake, the toy is designed so that the pulleys for the X and Y axis are placed separately. This is fine for the toy since all the pulleys are hidden, but since exposing the mechanics is an important part of the concept, I wanted to come up with a cleaner design.

Through sketching, I figured I could use a single shaft and stack multiple pulleys on it (picture 2 in this step). In doing so, I could separate the X and Y gantries and allow the cables to pass over each other.

The other feature I borrowed from the original Etch-A-Sketch was the separation of the driver pulleys from the gantry pulleys. I could have saved myself some work and just added a crank to the first pulley in the system, but I wanted to keep the cranks out of the way of the drawing area (picture 3 in this step).

Step 4: Design

To get started, I had to figure out how the pulleys on an Etch-A-Sketch worked. On the Etch-A-Sketch Wikipedia article, I found a great diagram explaining how the gantry system works with pulleys on the inside of the toy. For simplicity's sake, the toy is designed so that the pulleys for the X and Y axis are placed separately. This is fine for the toy since all the pulleys are hidden, but since exposing the mechanics is an important part of the concept, I wanted to come up with a cleaner design.

The .f3d file in this step is the Fusion 360 model. It's free for students and hobbyists, and there's a ton of educational support on it. If you want to learn to 3D model the kind of work I do, I think this is the best choice on the market. Click the links below to sign up:



You're welcome to download it tool around with it as you wish, but remember this instructable has a share-alike license. If you make one and try to sell it I'm coming after you!

Step 5: Shop Drawings and Fabrication


I used a laser cutter for most of the delicate curved parts (pulleys and caps), but you could do this entire project with hand tools and a little patience.

To fabricate the pulleys without a laser cutter, I would suggest using hole saws of varying diameters to cut out the parts, then assembling them the same way I'll show in this instructable.

For the rest of the project, I did almost everything using a table saw, chop saw, a drill press, and a japanese flush saw. There is no real economy to cutting and drilling all these fussy, 1" thick pieces of wood with any kind of CNC. You're much better off doing it by hand.

The templates attached here have everything you need to cut out the parts yourself. If you're unclear on this process, check out my Digital Fabrication by Hand instructable.

I've also attached a CAD file that can be used for CNC cutting.

WARNING: Attribution Non-commercial Share Alike (by-nc-sa)


Step 6: Make the Trolleys and the Stylus

The trolleys are the wooden pieces that move along the gantry rails. They're driven by the turning cable on the pulleys, and they need to have one open tunnel for the cable to pass through and one fixed point attached to the cable. Each gantry has a different trolley on each side in order to achieve this movement.

In the Y axis for example, the fixed points are to the left on both trolleys, meaning these parts have to be constructed differently. This is why on the shop drawings there are two different types- one has the thumb screw closer to the hole on the end (trolley 1), the other has the fixed point further from the hole (trolley 2).

The Stylus has to have fee movement in both axes in order for it to be able to draw smooth curves. You'll notice that the lower hole on the stylus is bigger, this is because my tolerances were too tight for my workmanship and I had to drill out a larger hole.

The pipe holes on the trolleys and stylus have brass inserts I made by hammering the 1/2" brass tubing into the hole, cutting it off, then countersinking the edge of the brass. This made for less friction, and it's a nice detail if you look closely.

The ridge cut around the perimeter of the trolleys is a way to control the tension on the cable. It keeps the cable centered on the hole and the thumb screw, preventing slipping and settling as the piece gets used. I made this groove by cutting a quick, shallow, straight line on each face, then going over it with a square file at a 45º angle, giving me a nice groove.

The hole centered on the groove gets the threaded brass insert. This was a real pain to screw into the hard wood, and I ruined more than 1 trolley this way. It's very hard to keep them flush to the top, and there's no change that the flat head screwdriver recess on top of the insert will take the force needed to screw it in. Eric Forman showed me this ingenious trick for getting the insert to screw in using a cut-off screw (10-24), a couple of nuts, and a drill that made my life a lot easier.

As long as the dimensions are carefully controlled and the parts are tested for ample play as they move past each other, everything should go smoothly. A combination of gluing on paper templates and marking cuts and holes by hand did the trick for this step.

Step 7: Make the Pulleys

As I said, I made these parts on the laser cutter because it's fast and I have the great fortune of having regular access to one. These parts could be done by hand using hole saws of varying diameters or even on a band saw or scroll saw and a sander if you happen to have very steady hands.

I designed the pulleys so that each part has 3 aligned holes. The center hole is for the axle and the other two are for joining dowels. I figured this would keep the pulleys perfectly flush, which it did, but this might be overkill. If you're doing this step using either of the old-school methods I mentioned, I would suggest just going with one hole.

IMPORTAINT: it's fine to make all of the pulleys completely out of wood, but the driver pulleys must have more friction. I solved this by making them with rubber centers which would grip the cable firmly, but you could probably also do it by using rubber gaskets on the pulley centers, by coating the centers with something that grips (liquid rubber perhaps, maybe even some kind of contact cement).

The first draft of this project had wooden pulleys all around, and it didn't work very well because the pulleys kept slipping.

ALSO IMPORTANT: The dimensions of EVERYTHING in this project have to be exactly as they're shown on the shop drawings within a tolerance of about 1/16". All of the parts are interdependent, so changing the dimeter of the pulley centers will result in the cable binding.

Step 8: Cut and Bore the Dowels

For this step, I cut down the dowels into 3" lengths to make them more manageable on the drill press. Using a dowel vice, I clamped the dowels down and centered the drill press on the face of the dowel. I had to drill the holes very slowly make sure the hole was flush.

Once I had dowels with holes drilled through, I simply measured the lengths I needed and cut them with a Japanese flush saw.

Step 9: Assemble and Attach the Tray

First, I added a skirt glued to the bottom of the base. This mitigated some warping that started to happen in the wood.

Then I joined the parts of the tray using glue and joining dowels. Corner clamps ensure that everything is square. It's important to get the placement right- the posts have to be positioned such that lower holes face the long side of the rectangle, and the upper holes face the short side.

Once the tray was finished, I glued and clamped it to the base with a 2 1/4" offset from each side (the dimensions are on the shop drawings).

With the tray attached to the base, I inserted the dowels with a rubber hammer.

Step 10: Attach the Axle Caps

The axle caps glue to the end grain of the tray posts, which means glue only won't do the trick. To solve this, I drilled holes in the posts for joining dowels. The tops of the posts are very thin once the holes for the brass tubes have been drilled, so this isn't really ideal.

To properly align the caps, I dry-fit a dowel in the second hole on each axle cap. This kept the caps in place while the glue cured.

Once the glue dried, I re-drilled the holes in the posts so that the brass tubes would fit without the joining dowels getting in the way. The Japanese flush saw comes in handy here for cutting off the dowel sticking out of the top.

I repeated this process using a table clamp for each cap and it worked perfectly. Once the caps were in place, I also inserted the rest of the axle dowels and cut them to size.

Step 11: Assemble the Gantry

For the gantry, it's important to make sure that all of the faces of the trolleys are flush and aligned with each other. To fasten the trolleys to the tube, I used 60 second epoxy, a work-table vice, and a bar clamp to ensure everything was aligned properly.

The two trolley tubes are joined by the stylus in the middle, and the gantry tubes on the perimeter of the tray are pressure- fit into the holes with a rubber hammer. When I assembled all these parts the first time, I realized the X-axis trolleys were upside down- the brass inserts were on the bottom of the trolleys.

I found that the epoxy bond came apart without much trouble, so handling the parts and resetting made two of the trolleys come off. Another epoxy bond and more clamping got everything together.

IMPORTANT: Make sure the length of the trolley assembly from end-to-end is exactly 18 1/2" on the Y-axis (13" from center to center of the gantry holes), and 15 1/2" on the X-Axis (10" from center to center of the gantry holes). It's important the the hole spacing is precise, because being off by even 1/16" will create too much friction on the gantry and it will bind.

Step 12: Add All the Shafts and Pulleys

I did this part piecemeal throughout the process, but you could do it at any point after the caps have been glued on. The diameters of the pulley holes are marked on the shop drawings, but suffice it to say that all the pulleys except for the two driver pulleys should be loose on the shafts. I made them so that the holes are 1/4" and the shafts are 3/16" and everything moves smoothly.

The shafts should be glued in place to both the dowel with the centered hole and the hole in the axle cap. The 1/2" spacers (7/16" actually) go between the stacked pulleys on all the dowel posts except for the two cranks. The crank post on the left side (for the upper gantry) has no spacer, and the one on the right (for the lower gantry) uses the 1" spacer.

The crank handles are glued to their shafts, as are the driver pulleys. The crank handle dowel posts need a little play so that the cranks can turn easily, so I drilled the holes to 1/4".

Step 13: Thread the Cables

The diagrams in this step show the path the cable has to take in order for the gantry to work. The steps are basically the same on both axes except that the X-axis has a tensioner pulley between the trolley and the crank handle.

  1. The cable starts by tying a loop in the end of the fishing line and hooking onto the thumb screw on the trolley closest to the crank handle. The cable loops back through the 1/8"Ø that's aligned with the thumb screw and comes out of the hole towards the crank handle.
  2. Next, the cable loops around the crank pulley once. This creates the friction needed to pull the cable in either direction.
  3. Then the cable loops around the upper left pulley, followed by another wrap around the upper right pulley.
  4. The next part in the line is the thumb screw on the opposite trolley. The cable loops through the hole so that the thumb screw clamps down on the cable as it passes over the top of the trolley.
  5. After it loops, the cable continues in the same direction it was going, hooking around the lower right pulley, passing through the 1/4" Ø hole on the trolley.
  6. Next, the cable makes a left turn against the upper right pulley, then another left turn against the upper left pulley.
  7. Once it's through all the pulleys it threads through the 1/8" hole on the first trolley again, this time wrapping around the thumb screw that keeps it in place when tightened.

It's important to keep the gantry tight against the side of the tray closest to the crank when tightening the thumb screws. It's kind of like tuning a guitar- part of it slacks, the other is too tight, and you have to readjust a few times before it's really settled.

Step 14: Pour in Some Sand and Test It

You could use pretty much any sand, but I went with purple garnet sand because it sparkles and it creates a nice contrast with the light colored wood.

The way I designed it, a left turn on the left crank sends the Y-axis up and a left turn on the X crank sends the X-axis right. This is a bit counterintuitive, but you get used to it. In hindsight, I could have just flipped the trolleys and it would have felt more natural.

The action is pretty smooth for the most part, but I think a little axle grease on the tubes would help. The fishing line doesn't stretch at all, which is really important in keep the action consistent over a long period of time. People in the office have been playing with it several times a day for a few weeks and it's still running smoothly.

Step 15: Zen Out

This project was difficult, but also a joy to make. It took a lot of patience and concentration, which it what it takes to draw with this thing. I have to say that it creates the transcendental experience I was hoping for. To draw with it or trace out stones, I find myself in a state of singular focus and concentration.