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How To Make a Windowbox

I’ve made all sorts of things over the years, from birdhouses to football stadiums. Building a simple windowbox sure brought on an extra dose of of logorrhea, however. There’s information sprinkled in there somewhere, if you look hard enough. 

You Can Make It If You Try

Let’s make something.

I make things all day, every day. I’ve made so many things of one sort or another that it’s hard for me to go anywhere and not see one. That’s gratifying. Why don’t yo make something? I’ll help.

The winter is grinding here in the Northeast. It will be gloomy here by the shore until Memorial Day, and never really gets warm until July Fourth. I need to think about spring. How about you? There’s no better way to think about spring than to make a window box.

You can make it now, and have it ready for the first warm day when you clean the winter’s mess from the flower beds. You can know the satisfaction of making something with your hands, and then compound your accomplishment with the making of the flowers that will surely love it in there. Let’s do it. Let’s make a box of mud to hang on your house.

We’ll need a plan. I have one, and I’ll give it to you. You’ll need a few tools. I have all those, and I bet you do, too, or can lay your hands on them. You’ll need to have a little spare time to work on it. I don’t have any of that, but don’t worry; my windowboxes are all finished already. So I’m your early bird, and also the first mouse. You can be the second mouse. Remember, it’s the second mouse that gets the cheese. So get ready to build your “Second Mouse Windowbox.”

Day One: Take the rest of the day off. I’ll sign your timecard. Come back tomorrow.

The Windowbox: What’s In It For Me?


Well, as reader and commenter Ruth Anne pointed out: geraniums. Of course, to impress your friends you draw back upon yourself and say: “Geraniums? Certainly not! Pelargoniums!” Of course we’re down home people here at Sippican Cottage and just refer to everything as: “Dah flowahs.”

The windowbox we’re going to make is well suited to geraniums. There you see it just planted with little nursery geraniums and a few vinca vines to eventually droop down. The spot gets good sun in the afternoon so the blooms come. The plants get quite tall for how little soil there is for them to grow in. See yesterday’s photo.

We filled another box of the same design with begonias, which show flowers even though the window faces northwest, ie: never gets any sun.

So what’s a window box for, exactly? Well, it’s got a few uses. In urban settings, it might be all the outdoor plants you’re going to get. In suburbia, the plantings around the house are generally there to blunt the join between the ground and your house. But you can’t see them much from inside the house. Getting them up at sill level brings the outdoors inside a bit, without transferring the buckets of mud indoors.

The purpose of most plants in home landscaping is to achieve a picturesque effect. I’m not sure very many people understand that. There is a melding of cognitive dissonance with a sort of Home Depot delirium tremens in evidence in most landscaping. The houses look like they are at war with the yard; the plants look disconnected from one another and the house; everything is laid out like a farm plot, which is is by its nature unnatural looking; and neatness to the point of plasticity is prized over the picturesque. Your plantings need to be a well organized mess to achieve a picturesque effect. That’s subtle, so it’s harder to understand than a profoundly organized sterile looking yard.

Other than vines creeping right up the siding, the windowbox is the easiest way to further banish the dotted line between inside and outside, harsh and soft, and nature and artifact. And deer don’t like to eat out of them. If you want flowers around here, that’s pretty much your first and only consideration.

You can click on the Amazon box in the right hand column and search for books about what kind of plants you might want to put in there. Then decide which window you want to put the windowbox under, and measure it. Windowboxes traditionally are made the width of the sash, but I like to make them the width of the sash and frame.

There. Day 2 of making a windowbox is over, and you haven’t hit your thumb or broken a sweat. See? I told you it would be easy. Tune in tomorrow and see if we’re actually accomplishing anything yet.

Window Box Hostage: Day Three

OK. Back to that window box. Let’s get the material selection out on the table, so you can get lots of good and bad advice about it from everyone. You’ll hear things like:

It’s gotta be cypress, for rot resistance.

It’s gotta be pressured treated wood, ditto.

It’s gotta be cedar, ditto.

It’s gotta be lined with copper, or it will rot.

Don’t make it from metal, it cooks the plants.

Make it from pine, so it will paint up well.

It’s gotta be marine plywood, assembled with epoxy, or it will delaminate.

And so forth.

Well, it could, but doesn’t have to be any of those things dear reader. You’re gonna get ten, maybe fifteen years, tops, out of your window box, no matter how indestructible it is. Let’s keep it simple, and well, picturesque.

We’re gonna make the box out of MDO. Medium Density Overlay. Why? Because it’s cheap, and easy to work with, and strong, and not too heavy, and it paints up well, and it holds a screw pretty good. MDO is the stuff that road signs were made from, before they were made of steel. It is an exterior plywood, with waterproof glue, and a tough paper face on it, impregnated with waterproofing too. It’s a light golden color when you buy it around these parts.

You can make two window boxes out of half a sheet of MDO. A full sheet is 4′ x 8.’ You could get four out of that, easy. We’ll also use some pre-primed #2 pine, 3/4″ thick, and 2-1/2″ wide, for the bands around the box, to stiffen and adorn it. You’ll need about 16 linear feet per box. They call that a 1 by 3. That’s called its nominal size, and traces the measurement of the lumber back to before it is dried, and shrinks, and is dressed to its final dimensions. It does seem to the fledgling lumber purchaser that calling something 3/4″ x 2-1/2″ a 1 by 3 is like calling the small coffee a medium, and figuring no-one will notice. But you are in the lumber yard now, dear reader, and they’re not trying to pull a fast one; believe me, they don’t feel the need to make any bones about taking the shirt off your back for a strip of wood a bird was chirping in a few weeks ago. It’s just one of those interesting and time honored traditions that traces its roots back to Noah, and people who know that sort of thing, know that sort of thing.

Now if you go to the Big Orange Place and ask for MDO, the pleasant teenage girl or boy with the orange smock and braces might mistake it for MDF, which is medium density fiberboard, and entirely the wrong article. MDF is brown talcum powder, mixed with nasty glue, pressed into big rectangles. It’s what bad furniture is made from. It lasts approximately ten minutes outdoors, unless it rains, in which case it disintegrates immediately. And it weighs +/- 750 pounds per sheet, or so it seems to if you try to carry it. And it’s loaded with formaldehyde from all the glue. Every single thing in IKEA is made out of it. Buy Sippican instead.

Anyway, 1/2″ thick MDO is what you want.

Now we’re gonna start measuring. You should too. How wide is the window you’re adorning? No, no, not the window sash alone. You should include the casings that flank it too. I’ve got 40″ here. That’s about average, and not too long for one trough. Really long windowboxes are generally a more difficult proposition, they have a tendency to bow out in the middle of the span from the weight of the wet soil and plants, and require either many partitions along their length, or better yet, you can divide the window box into more than one box. I’ve made them 10-12 feet long on occasion, but there’s a lot more structure in those than we need to deal with here.

(The box is under the three windows ganged together on the right, waiting for spring planting. BTW, the entire “gingerbread” front of that house is MDO, with pine battens on it. It’s great stuff.)

Wow, you look fatigued. You go rest. We’ll bring out the sawhorses tomorrow.

Four Days Of Windowbox And Counting

Now back to that window box.

We need a plan, and the boat plan won’t do. But it’s going to take longer to draw a plan than to make the darn thing. Let’s just grip it and rip it, shall we?

Alrighty then. Here we are, ready for a sheet of MDO. Now all those people who offered you all the advice about indestructible windowbox construction aren’t going to like my sawhorses. That’s because, Ladies and Gentlemen, everyone has a different plan for sawhorses. It’s like DNA. No one has your exact formula, unless of course you’re OJ Simpson.

Now I admit, my sawhorses are made from packing crate lumber and cobwebs. I’ve been given plenty of advice on how to improve them, all of it unsolicited. But then again, I made them shortly after Reagan had his first inauguration, and they’ve been stored outdoors for a good part of the interval between then and now, and used, abused, and knocked about considerably quite regularly, and I’m still using them. Many of the people who offered me critiques on them have passed to their reward, while my horses are still going strong. I endeavor to attend the funerals of these kind souls, who tried to save me from the shame of inferior sawbucks, without being asked. My wife always wears a red dress, and I whistle during the eulogy, generally.

I once visited The Orange Place, and saw to my consternation, pre-made sawhorses. The horror! I thought it was illegal to buy a sawhorse. At least from a zen point of view, if you don’t make your own, how can anyone trust you to make anything atop them?

At any rate, the two by fours atop those horses are cut from trees that weren’t planted yet when I made them, and they still don’t wiggle in the joints. The two by fours keep the sheet we’re about to cut from collapsing when you’re 90% done crosscutting it, and drawing snickers from your neighbors. They’ll be over offering advice on sawhorse construction, if you falter, so use the studs.

Right there is the the majority of the elaborate toolset you need to make this thing, dear reader. The saw goes back to John Kennedy’s inauguration. A tape measure, a ruler, and forty year old circular saw. Okay, set the circ-saw depth to a little over 1/2″ depth of cut, and cut the panel in half length wise. You’ll be left with two four foot square pieces. They’ll be easier to handle than the whole sheet.

Cut a 9″ wide strip off the side of the half sheet. Save it for later, now cut single pieces 7-3/4″ wide, 7-1/2″ wide, and 4-5/8″ wide, all 39″ long. Like this:

Now, the piece might not be precisely 39 inches long. Why? Because when you ripped the 9 inches off the sheet, the saw blade took a little for himself. It doesn’t matter. Whenever possible, we’re gonna use the articles themselves to measure, not a ruler, and save trouble. I’ve never understood this measure twice cut once business. I’ve heard it all over the place. Books, TV shows, radio, on t-shirts and mugs. But let me tell you friends, in the real construction world, things move fast. And in the real world, the real motto is: Measure twice… Hey! what’s taking so long? Why didn’t you measure correctly the first time? You’re fired! Something like that.

Use one of the strips you just cut for a ruler to measure four 1 by 3 pine strips like you see above (read yesterday’s essay to find out how big a 1 by 3 is.) I put the glue in that last picture for a reason. We’re gonna use it, because it can’t hurt. Make sure you get exterior glue, the interior stuff isn’t water resistant. It’s the nails and screws that hold this thing together, but let’s give the adhesive a fighting chance, and get the right stuff.

Hey, we’re actually doing things now. You must be exhausted. The sun goes down early this time of year, when it’s not in your eyes. Take the rest of the weekend off, and return tomorrow for day of rest amusement, and Monday for the beginning of the end of the beginning of building the windowbox.

Windowbox Extravaganza -Day Five..Er…Six

[Editor’s Note: Day five or six, I’ve lost count, of the windowbox debacle. I think it’s day five; I can’t remember. Six days. Sheesh. And I’m not sure it’s over yet.]
{Author’s Note: Yeah, but the window box is just a pretext to write in my inimitable and compelling style.}
[Editor: Sez you.]

Ever mow the lawn with a toddler in your lap on the tractor? What an expression he has the entire time. Beatific, true, but something of a game face too. Grim determination. I imagine you have the same expression on your face if you’ve been following along with this window box business. At this point, I’m like a Wallenda,- you’re vaguely interested in what I’m doing, but you wouldn’t be totally surprised or disappointed if I fell. Well, let’s see.

Now, I’ve got a table saw. Three, actually. I’m not sure if you do. Many people have one in their basement, gathering dust, if not sawdust. It makes it easier to trim this thing out, if you do, but it’s not mandatory.

What I want you to do, is take a length of 2-1/2″ wide pine, and rip it in half, sorta. Set the fence for 1-1/4″, and the blade will take his vigorish, and the waste side of the cut will be a little thinner. No matter. The 1-1/4″ wide piece should be the same length as the battens you cut for the front and back of the box, in my case, 39″. But I told you before, why measure? Lay the piece on the span, and mark the cut right on it. You can’t go wrong that way, and save walking over to the saw, mumbling to yourself: “38 inches, and one big line, and two sorta big lines, and two teeny hash marks” over and over, and mismeasuring. Take the waste cutoff from the 1-1/4″ strip, and cut two pieces 7-3/4″ long, and glue and nail them on both ends of the front panel, flush with the edges. The last picture shows it better than I can explain it.

Which reminds me. I’ve got lots of books about making things. Houses, boats, furniture, paintings, all kinds of things. And I can tell you modern books about making things look so much better than old books. They have acres of pictures showing you precisely how to do what’s being done. Even my modest little “What’s New Page” can bring instant digital photos and accompanying text, with links to buy the things I’m using, and accompanied by the occasional pictures of dead actresses for good measure. Amazing, and good.

But I can tell you dear reader, that the books I treasure the most have few, or no illustrations in them. They’re usually 50 plus years old, some much older, and they contain more information than modern books, which are loaded with space gobbling visual information. Since books were precious then, and rarer than they are now, the people who wrote and published them really seemed to be able to write well. The modern ease of photography and writing has removed the heavy lifting of publishing, and we’re all 90 lb weaklings compared to our immediate predecessors. There’s a lot of information in a fifty year old textbook. There’s a lot of pictures and white space in a new one. The modern how- to books are not even in the written tradition, I think, they’re more like the experience of working along with someone, like a helper. It’s an oral tradition they mimic, and they’re not even trying to write, they’re writing down what they would say, instead. Which is fine, and useful in its way, but…

[Author’s Note: This windowbox thing was originally written three years ago. Please note during the following that I had the idea for “The Dangerous Book For Boys” back then, and there would be no marbling paper in mine. Where the hell is my book advance?]

I have a book reprinted in 1924, originally published in 1905, entitled “The Scientific American Boy.” It’s filled with a compendium of industrious activities for young men. The book itself is a wonder. It is sparsely populated with a few crude line drawings of the items being discussed, and tons of lapidary and useful text. And they expected you to make, and use, for amusement, the following items: a skating sailboat; snowshoes; a tent; a crossbow; surveying instruments; canvas canoes; rope ladders, a tree house; a derrick and windmill to pump water; a scow with a sail; a toboggan; a winter shelter; a small sailboat; a hammock; paper kites; a water wheel; a log cabin with a fireplace; a gravity railroad, which is essentially a handmade rollercoaster; a cantilever bridge that any modern civil engineer couldn’t improve upon; and dozens of other things to make and use, made from readily available things using hardly any tools.

And the part that strikes me as most extraordinary about the whole thing is the fact that you could make this stuff with just a few crude drawings because the text is so well thought out, terse, and incisive. Now it’s also neat to think of children making all that stuff and, well, playing outside, but let’s leave the pontificating about “kids these days” out of it. Those kids nowadays have different skills, and they’re not necessarily inferior. The average teenager knows more about a computer that Bill Gates does, for instance.

And each and every one of those venerable books sits on the shelf and mocks me silently when I write, like I did two paragraphs ago: “The last picture shows it better than I can explain it.” Oh well.

OK, back to business. Now you need 2″ wide stock for the little frames on the sides. Rip it on the tablesaw, if you’ve got one, or make do with the 2-1/2″ stuff. Because the front is canted forward, and the sides are vertical, the 2″ side frames will align themselves visually with the 2-1/2″ frame on the front. Now if you inspect the last picture, you’ll see we have covered up all the screw fasteners and the laminated edges of the plywood. And the 2″ wide pieces align perfectly, cut square, to the little canted portion of the sides. The frames will add the play of light and shadow, and depth, to the whole enchilada, and a certain “whatsis,” as Bertie Wooster would say.

In that last picture, I’ve also laid out what’s coming next, in advance, just like you do when telling a bad joke, which I am also an expert at.

Glue and nail the 1-1/4″ strip on top of the back. Cut 2 pieces from 2-1/2″ wide stock, 7-7/8″ long, to the long point, with a 15 degree bevel on the front edge- just like the battens we put under the bottom. There’s that 15 degree thing again. It’s kismet. Or destiny, Or schadenfreude. Or something. Glue and nail them atop the sides, as shown. Now measure the span from the outside to the outside edge. Better still, lay the 2-1/2″ front nosing right on it, mark it, and cut, glue and nail it. Now we’re done. Making the box, that is.

Now, a window box does best when it sits on a shelf or brackets, it’s true, but we’re going to hang this lickity split, and make our bets and take our chances, as they say at the track, and get to the grille earlier.

This next thing is complicated, I know. Gird your loins. Buck up. I have faith in you.

Get some galvanized screws. Long ones. Now I prefer bent ones, because I’m strange, and cheap. You could use straight, brand new ones, but where’s the challenge in that? Suit yourself. Get 4 of ’em at least, whatever you choose, a box of mud is heavy.

We’ve got to go through, let’s see, 1/2″ of MDO, a 3/4″ cleat, +/- 1/2 ” of shingles or clapboards or somesuch siding, and another 1/2″ of sheathing, just to get to something substantial, framing wise, under the sill. What you’re looking for is the framing subsill, usually a doubled 2 x 4 affair, buried in the wall under window opening. You need 3-1/2″ to 4″ screws, galvanized, to find it and grab it. Tuck the box up under the sill, so that rain from the window sill drips into the box. Predrill the four holes, evenly spaced, about 1-1/2″ inches down inside the box, using the nifty bit you got at Amazon through my search box, that’s putting my kids through school.

Now comes the really hard part. Drive those four screws, through all that stuff, and be sure to strip the heads just as the heads snug up to the MDO. Don’t strip the heads too soon, or the screws will stick out into the box and annoy the ladybugs, and your window box will rattle around. But it is important that you strip the screws horribly, just like the professionals do. Otherwise, when the box is old and tattered and the next occupants of your home want to remove it, and they want to continue the ancient and time-honored tradition of swearing and cursing the thoughtless Neanderthal person who installed the blasted thing in the first place, they will not be disappointed. Of such traditions, civilization is built.

Tomorrow: Paint and Flowers! I guess. Is this thing on?

Oh Yes; The Windowbox

Top o’ the morning to ye, Sippicanite. Or Sippicanette, as the case may be. If you use that third bathroom at the alternative bookstore, please write to me and tell me what suffix to use to greet you properly, too. We’re nothing if not mannerly around here.

It’s a long road that has no turning, as they say, so let’s turn the corner on this window box thingie, and get back to despoiling the internet landscape with our opinion on other matters, shall we?

Well. Well, well, well. Now you’ve had plenty of advice, up to now. What with me grinding away, your neighbor coming over to critique your sawhorses, and the helpful teenager at the Big Orange Place explaining to you politely that he doesn’t think they sell four inch long, galvanized screws that are already bent. Of course, if you like, he’ll get on the intercom, and summon someone in charge to ask. You can always tell who’s in charge down there, they’re the only one amongst the clerks who can shave, either their chin or their legs, respectively.

You think you’ve gotten advice up to this point? Hold on, dear reader, for the onslaught of unsolicited opinion, for you are about to paint something.

Now people who are willing to help you paint something are a smaller proportion of the population than even the people who need that third bathroom I mentioned earlier. But everyone is ready to tell you how to do it. Actually, that’s imprecise. They mostly are prepared to tell you how you did it wrong, and ” back in ‘______’ we don’t do it that way,” after you’re done. And you missed a spot.

Now I used to paint things for a living, mind you. Small, quotidian things at first. Big, elaborate things later. And believe me, I’ve heard it all. I once painted a trompe l’oleil mural, in a mansion, and the roofer came in, filthy, unshaven, swearing, with a cigarette sporting two inches of ash dangling in the corner of his mouth, and he offered me advice. Now I suspect that his experience with two point perspective and faux marble might have been, how do I put this politely, not absolutely top shelf.

But shame on me. Perhaps I’ve got two many preconceived notions about folks who use @#$! as a verb, a noun, an adjective, an adverb, and the object of a prepositional phrase, all in the same sentence. Maybe I should have given him the benefit of the doubt. I might have missed the day he was on the Today Show and got his Lifetime Achievement Award for Decoration, along with his honorary degree from the Sorbonne.

“Why the #$%! is this like this?” He said . “I wouldn’t do this in my #$%!-ing house.”

Really, do tell. The one in the south of France, or the other one?

So take it from someone who’s been paid to render an opinion on paint. Everyone’s going to offer an opinion for free. And I doubt anyone is going to give you the counsel I’m about to.

Pick out a nice color in a water based, low lustre house paint. Open the can. Stir it until you get bored. Get a disposable 3 inch brush. Slap that paint right on the wood. Twice. you’re done.

The horror! No primer! No sanding! No expensive flag tipped tynex/orel brushes! You visigoth you.

Now trust me, it doesn’t matter. It won’t peel. Let me take that back. It might peel, but if it’s going to, because of the sun and rain and snow, it will no matter how you finish it. Remember, it’s supposed to look weathered and simple, not fussy. So don’t bring fussy into it. But here’s the hard part: Don’t make a mess. Paint never really looks right if you make a mess. Being neat is not fussy. Leave the shrubs and the siding out of it. And don’t paint it a color that competes with the flowers.

All paint brands are about the same, if you compare like for like, product-wise. Gaudy claims from the manufacturers about this or that characteristic are generally true, but one is 99% something or other, and the others are 98%, and it’s not worth worrying about.

Except one thing. Pigment cost money. Both the kind of pigment in the paint, and the very expensive pigment they use to print the sales brochures. And if there’s any difference between the brands that matters, it’s almost always the quality of the sales brochures, and sophistication of the colors. And getting rich, earthy sophisticated tones for paint requires a sophisticated approach to the pigments. Cheap paint makes grey by mixing lamp black with white. It wears well, and applies easily, but it’s Just Grey. Better paint has people educated in color, researching combinations, and using four pigments to achieve Grey. Rich Sophisticated Grey. And you can use their materials to find color combinations that don’t look like they belong in a trailer park. Just stay away from the color chip displays that look bland overall from a distance. You’ll be fine.

First, soak the innards with raw linseed oil. When that soaks in, put in some more. It will keep the water in this box of mud we’re keeping from immediately wicking into the carcass of it and speeding up its inevitable decline. Now, lay a piece of window screening in the bottom of the box, to keep the good soil from slowly sifting out through the neatly drilled holes you put there. Then put a thin layer of something that will keep the drainage good in the bottom so the roots don’t rot. I use a couple of trowels of gravel from the driveway, but anything will do if it lets water drain free. They sell nifty styrofoam pellets now, of the sort that nurseries have been using for years to mix in their soil to keep it from caking. They work well, and don’t weigh as much as gravel. Then the peat and the poop, mixed with good garden soil. And in go the geraniums, and the vinca vine. Or Boston Ivy. Put the vines nearer the front of the box, and it will droop nicely over the canted cap we put on the front of the box for just that purpose. Or you choose the flowers. Who am I to give you advice?

By the way, that’s me behind the flash, mirrored in the darkened window. I think I look great in the photo, don’t you? I should have my picture taken like that all the time. Now you know what I look like.

Now you’re wondering how we chose our color. Well, we chose it because its name, and its delicate tone, conjured up images of ancient babylonian temples, washed by the biblical sun to a delicate ivory; or perhaps the color of the finest cheese, labored over by the flinty Vermont farmer, and seen in the rich, clear beams of the first sunshine of the farm workday, filtered through the mist in the meadow; or perhaps evoking a panorama of wheat, languidly waving in the gentle breeze, stretching to the horizon on the rolling plains of Tuscany, and crowned by the regal Mediterranean sun.

Ben Moore named it “182.” Get some. You’ll love it.

Tag: windowbox

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