Zen Garden Coffee Table

Corner view

“Zen Garden Coffee Table”
Mahogany w/ poplar inlay

The Zen Garden Coffee Table is the first piece of furniture I’ve built in my adult life. The idea came to me fifteen years ago when I realized I would be on an endless search for the perfect coffee table for my apartment. Over time, my tastes changed, but the table remained just a thing of fantasy. A friend suggested I hire someone to make it for me, but I knew my limited knowledge of woodworking would only result in a dream half-fulfilled. I had to make it myself.

I took a furniture-making class at the Corcoran, in which I learned about the anatomy of trees, the beauty, dynamics and limitations of wood, and the different types of lumber. I also learned to use the shop tools safely and picked up some basics of joinery and carving.

I decided that the table’s zen garden must be cover-able to prevent “tampering” by resident quadrupeds (I think we can all agree that cat shit is not zen). I also wanted an area of black river stones to frame and balance the white sand. I also decided that the tabletop height must allow for two to four adults to dine while sitting on tatami mats. Finally, I wanted an Asian-inspired design that would also be modern and practical for everyday, western-style use.


I started with a new set of sketches based on my requirements, consulting my professor as I made revisions. Then I moved on to a full-sized styrofoam and cardboard model, testing my rough measurements and scale, and making an epic mess in the living room. I soon moved my design into Google Sketchup, where I was able to break the table into smaller and smaller components, while figuring out how to join them all together.

After joining everything up, I painstakingly sanded and finished everything, following my teacher’s tenet: Elimination of all evidence of process.


With a beginner’s knowledge of woodcraft, measuring and joinery caused me the most concern. Also, I realized it’s very useful to know what parts to sand before joining, as this prevents a lot of hard work later.


I’m quite pleased with the Zen Garden Coffee Table. I consider it to be a prototype, and would happily make one for someone else. I’ve been bitten by the bug now, and I’m giving serious thought to the other furniture ideas I’ve had.

See also: Production Diary – Zen Garden Coffee Table on Google Photos.