Zen Garden Coffee Table

Corner view

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.

“Zen Garden Coffee Table”
Mahogany w/ poplar inlay


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.