This project was inspired by three things: wanting an easy alternative to building a fence in the backyard, an excuse to work with a wood we’ve never worked with on the blog before (ipe!), and somewhere to plant a little garden.
I built this privacy screen planter to fit on the balcony outside of my new apartment. We just moved to a mother-in-law suite and this provides us with a little privacy from the Airbnb next door. It pulls double duty as a screen and as the source of my herb garden. Plus, it has handles and it’s on wheels, which means I can roll it around wherever I need a little privacy.
Ipe (pronounced e-pay) is a hardwood typically found in South America and in parts of Central America. It’s sturdy—three-times-harder-than-cedar sturdy—and it’s absolutely beautiful, even when it weathers naturally. The details of the grain almost make it look manufactured, but it’s not! It is one of the more expensive options on the market (for the aforementioned reasons)—this is a great opportunity to introduce it in a smaller way. As with most of our projects, this one is customizable, so if you’d like to use a less expensive wood, go for it.
I was feeling a little apprehensive about working with a new wood, especially with one so dense, but as long as you have a good sharp blade on your saw and pre-drill before you drive screws, you’ll be fine.
One problem I didn’t anticipate up front was how heavy the final piece would be. Ipe is twice as heavy as cedar, and my first iteration of this project was too top heavy. Initially, I had the planter box supported by wheels, and that made it unstable. After some trial and error (and having it topple over on me a few times), I came up with the final design, which works kind of like a handcart. When it’s upright, it rests on the planter box; when it’s tilted backwards, the weight’s transferred to the wheels so you can easily roll it around. Well, as easily as you can wheel around 60 pounds of ipe and 120 pounds of potting soil.
Let’s get started!
Step 1: Cut Wood For Privacy Screen
Note: The dimensions of this project are fit to my balcony, but this project is totally customizable. Make sure it’ll fit where you want to put it.
This project uses four pieces of cedar for the planter box and the vertical supports: a one-by-twelve, a one-by-four, and two two-by threes; a one-by-ten piece of spruce for the planter base; and one-by-four pieces of ipe for the horizontal slats.
Cut the one-by-twelve and the one-by-four each to two 36" and two 9 1/4" pieces. Cut the one-by-ten to one 34 1/2" piece and two 5" pieces. Cut the two-by-threes into two 63" pieces and two 9 1/4" pieces. Finally, cut the ipe one-by-fours into 13 36" pieces.
Mark your cuts using a speed square, then clamp down. Use a circular saw or a chop saw to make your cuts—just make sure you’re working with a sharp blade when it comes to the ipe.
Step 2: Sand Wood For Privacy Screen
Use a sanding sponge or sandpaper to smooth out any rough or cut edges. Make this quick; it’s going outside.
Step 3: Put Together Planter Box
First, we’re assembling the planter box that’ll sit at the base of the privacy screen. Attach the long one-by-twelve side to the shorter one-by-twelve ends with 1 1/2" screws. Make sure the shorter ends are sandwiched between the longer ends—the one-by-ten base will eventually fit snugly inside. Pre-drill before driving your screws; this will reduce the chances of splitting.
Once the two shorter ends are attached to the long end, flip the piece over to attach the other long one-by-twelve end. Before securing in place, fit the one-by-ten base piece into place to make sure there will be room for it. Secure the long end with 1 1/2" screws, then secure the bottom in place with the same screws. Again, make sure to pre-drill before driving your screws.
Step 4: Assemble Planter Box Skirt
We’re essentially repeating the same steps as above, just with narrow boards. Pre-drill, then attach the long one-by-four end to the short one-by-four ends with 1 1/2" screws. Flip over and attach the remaining long end.
This skirt is both aesthetically pleasing and helps get the planter box up farther off the ground so you don’t have to add as much soil.
Step 5: Attach Planter Box Feet
Take your two two-by-three pieces and position them on the sides of the planter box base like little feet—try to line them up with edges of the one-by-ten base; when we add the cedar skirt, it should fit snugly around the feet. Secure the feet with 1 1/2" screws by drilling down through the top of the base of the planter box.
Step 6: Add Skirt to Planter Box Base
Flip the planter box over so it’s feet-side up. Fit the skit on the base of the planter box, around the two-by-three feet. In theory, it should align seamlessly with the base of the planter box. If it doesn’t fit perfectly, don’t worry about it too much. Secure with a screw in each corner.
Step 7: Drill Drainage Holes in Planter Box Base
This one’s pretty self-explanatory—drill a few holes with a large bit in the base of the planter box so the water can drain.
Step 8: Add Vertical Supports for Privacy Screen
Now we have the planter box base, it’s time to add the supports.
Along the back side of the planter box, measure in 8” from either end and mark. Do this at a few different points to ensure your support is attached straight up and down and doesn’t tilt to the side. From the bottom of the planter box, measure up 2 9/16" and mark. This will give you room for the wheels at the bottom. Place the two-by-three vertical supports outside these lines and secure with screws through the back of the box. I used three evenly spaced screws.
Note: Because the supports are so long and a little unwieldy, it helps to use a clamp for this part or have an extra set of hands.
Step 9: Attach Wheels to Vertical Supports
Position your wheels on the bottoms of each two-by-three vertical supports. Direct the wheels so they’ll roll the privacy screen back-and-forth—not side-to-side. Part of the base of the wheel will hang over the edge of the two-by-three; don’t worry about that. Secure the wheels with screws through two of the holes.
Step 10: Stain Ipe and Cedar
The beautiful thing about ipe is that it weathers, well, beautifully. It ages to a nice gray, so if you want to skip this step altogether, you can.
That said, I was very excited to see how the stain would take to the ipe (it's fun to stain, FYI!) and I wanted to highlight the differences between the two woods, so I went ahead and stained both the ipe and the cedar.
For this project, I used Penofin stain—a cedar-colored one for the cedar, and an ipe-colored one for the ipe. They were both named after the woods and were meant to enhance their natural color.
One thing to note: you have to use a hardwood stain on the ipe. You can use the ipe stain on the cedar, but you can’t use the cedar stain on the ipe. As always, when using Penofin or any other finish, follow the directions on the label carefully. Overapplication is a common mistake people make and can lead to a gummy, sticky mess. And be sure to wipe dry!
Step 11: Mark and Pre-Drill for Screws
Next, we’re marking and pre-drilling holes for the screws that will connect the horizontal ipe slats to the vertical supports.
Using a speed square, measure 6 3/4" in from the edge of the slat. Make a line. On that line, measure 3/4" up from the bottom and down from the top and mark. The points where these lines meet is where you’ll place your screws.
Generally, I’m not overly concerned about my craft when I’m placing screws. In this case though, I’m using a gold screw against dark ipe, so the screws really stand out. Having them nice and straight will really add to the final product; not having them nice and straight will make it look kind of sloppy. It’s worth it to take your time here!
Pre-drilling is absolutely necessary with the ipe—it’ll make everything easier. If you have a countersink bit (which both drills a hole as well as a recessed spot for the head of the screw to sit flush in), I’d recommend using that. Most screws naturally sit flush with the surface of the wood, but because ipe is so dense, the screws need a little extra help.
Step 12: Attach Ipe Slats to Vertical Supports
Next, it’s time to make the privacy screen! To do this, attach the slats to the vertical posts.
Start by measuring 1” up from the top of the planter box and making a mark on the front of the supports. Measure and mark a line 5 1/2" from the outside end of one of the ipe pieces. Line up this board with the marks on the vertical supports. Clamp in place, then secure with screws.
Use plastic spacers to create a 1/2" gap between the bottom slat and the next one. Line up the ends of the slats using a straightedge or speed square, then secure. Repeat with the remaining slats.
I love this part because you really only have to measure once—after that, you just use the spacers and the previous slat as a guide!
A few notes: I built a prototype of this project with spruce, and positioning the slats with spacers with one set of hands (my own) was a breeze. The ipe is much heavier and tended to fall off easily—and loudly. Be careful not to let a board fall on your feet or fingers, and clamp as you go. If you have someone to help you for this part, even better.
Finally, I found that some of my ipe pieces were darker than others. I intentionally tried to mix up the darker and lighter pieces for some variation throughout. It looked most natural this way.
Step 13: Attach Handles to Privacy Screen
To make moving the privacy screen a little easier, add large handles to the vertical supports based on how tall you are. Find where your best leverage is and go off that.
Voila! Now you have a functional piece that gives you privacy, enhances the vibe of your outdoor living space, and acts as a mini garden.
When you're planting, make sure to choose plants that suit the amount of sunlight you’re getting with the privacy screen. And make sure you don’t plant until the privacy screen is in place, otherwise you’ll be lugging around 120 pounds of soil. I opted for planting an herb garden that's perfect for making summer cocktails in mine and planted mint, basil, sage, rosemary, and cilantro, and because it’s small, I actually stand a chance at keeping the herbs alive (I think).
It’s always challenging working with a new type of material (especially one that’s so heavy), and even though the physics of it all were challenging, it was worth it for the final piece, which will last for a good many years.
Now go enjoy the fruits of your labor!