Introduction: 3D Plywood Catan Board

Picture of 3D Plywood Catan Board

Catan is a family strategy boardgame for 3-4 players (previously called "Settlers of Catan"). It has a clever modular board that is arranged differently each time you play. Catan has inspired many different 3D versions; the board represents an island with 6 different terrain types, so it is the perfect game to model, be it out of resin or cupcakes. Searching the wider web will reveal literally dozens of versions, many exquisitely modeled, and even a commercial version which sold (originally) for over $300. OK, Catan is hardly chess, but it's off to a decent start.

Note: I've written a strategy guide for the game if you're interested in learning how to play better.

The board described here was made from scrap plywood, wood glue, inexpensive acrylic paint and some leftover polyurethane.

Step 1: Why?

Picture of Why?

The board that comes with Catan has hexagons and a border made of light cardboard. A few boisterous kids and a little warping and the game can be pretty frustrating to play. My initial fix was to glue the border down to a large hexagon of plywood (see pictures). Note: I recently (2015) got given a copy of the 5th edition, and it doesn't have this problem at all. There are small gaps between the tiles that prevent the warping issue.
We usually buy a family board game for Christmas, but this year I thought I'd try my hand at making a 3D Catan set out of materials I had lying around. If you want to make one like it, you'll still need a copy of the game! It's easy to find online or at bookstores.

Step 2: You'll Need...

Picture of You'll Need...

Some 1/4" plywood. I had an offcut that was 8' long and about 1' wide; this was plenty for everything except the base. I had another piece of 3/8" plywood, part of a packing crate, that I used for the base. To cut out the hexagons - at least if you use my method - you'll need a miter saw. To rip the plywood, you'll need a table saw (or bench saw or circular saw with a guide). And to cut out the little pieces of plywood that make the board 3D, I used a scrollsaw. If you could tolerate a little less detail, a jigsaw might do the trick too. I'll suggest some simpler alternatives for each terrain type.

Step 3: Hexagons

Picture of Hexagons

I thought this step would be easy. Rip your plywood to the right width, set the mitre saw to 30 degrees, and cut to a line. Hopeless. You'll end up with nice looking hexagons... but they won't be hexagonal enough that they tile nicely, and a board with gaps all over the place will look crappy. You absolutely must set the saw up so you cut to a stop.
First, cut your plywood to whatever width hexagon you want. I made mine 84 mm, slightly larger than the standard Catan tile. The strip of plywood then needs to be cut to lengths 2/sqrt3 longer than the width, i.e. 1.1547 x longer, so my rectangles ended up 84 x 97 mm. Cut to a stop, which you can clamp to the fence. Cut at least 19 pieces.
Angle your miter saw to 30 degrees; not 30.5 or 29.5, but exactly 30. Cut a bunch of test pieces, and fit together to ensure your angle is exact. Unless your saw is set up amazingly accurately, you'll have to nudge it about from what it reads on the gauge.
Mark the center, then set a stop so your angle cut precisely trims off a 30 deg triangle (see picture). Again, you'll have to fiddle a bit to get it exactly right - sub-millimeter accuracy is in order here.
Cut all the corners off against the stop. If you don't want the tiny triangle to go flying, wait for the saw to stop spinning before you lift it. Repeat process, trimming four triangles off each rectangle, at least 18 more times until you have 19 perfect hexagons.

Step 4: Plan

Picture of Plan

I made a few sketches of what the pieces ought to look like, influenced by the look of both the original flat tiles and the commercial resin set, as well as the practicalities of making plywood shapes 3D. I then sketched out the shapes I thought would look OK on the piece of 1/4" plywood, and sketched a border, too. The border was to have indentations the right shape to accept the cardboard chits that represent ports in the game. Each tile needs a flat part on it so the number markers can sit flat (and they have to sit perfectly flat or the robber will go sliding off!), so this also constrained the design somewhat.

Step 5: Cut

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I looked at all the little bits and realized that doing them with a jigsaw was going to be impossible. Luckily, a friend of mine is a woodworker and he let me sit in his shop for a couple of hours and cut all the bits out with his scrollsaw. While scrollsaws can be used for incredibly detailed marquetry and the like, my first-timer skills were quite enough for this project. I went home with a bag full of tiny bits and a couple of rather fragile frame pieces.

Step 6: Glue

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Glue the bits together using wood glue (yellow PVA). The pictures explain this better than I can in words; you'll end up with the 3D hexagonal tiles, as shown.

No scrollsaw? Here's some suggestions, cut-able with a fine blade on a jigsaw:
The triangles for the forest could be cut using just about anything. I didn't cut enough on the scrollsaw, so came back and did the rest on the bench saw (using a zero clearance insert = piece of duct tape).
The wheat could just be a quartered circle.
The hills could be simple circles.
So could the brick.
The ore could be simple triangles, four of them truncated to provide a flat surface.
The desert can be featureless.
The frame does not need the indentations for the ports.

Step 7: Cut Base

Picture of Cut Base

I wanted a circular base, so I roughly cut this out of the side of a plywood box; it happened to be 3/8" thick (9 mm). I then nibbled the outside off using my bench saw (see pictures), so that the circle was perfect. Then I sanded off the stickers, stopped the holes and smoothed the edges.

Step 8: Mark and Glue Border

Picture of Mark and Glue Border

Lay out the tiles on the base, center them then add the border. Glue it down.

Step 9: Paint

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I used acrylic paints, the only part of the project that we had to buy. 118 ml tubes of Liquitex BASICS in neutral grey (ore), yellow oxide (wheat), light green (hills), cerulean blue (sea), Hooker's green (forest), red oxide (clay) and titanium white (mixed with a little yellow oxide for the desert and beaches). 3 coats. I got some expert advice to protect it with polyurethane, so I brushed on 2 coats of satin finish on all sides of board and tiles. It made the board look a little yellowed, but the effect was only noticeable on the beaches/desert.

Step 10: Play!

Picture of Play!

Set up and play. If you really want to make sure you've got a random set up, shuffle the cardboard tiles that came with the game and use these to determine which plywood tile to place. Enjoy your custom board!

Step 11: Other People's Boards

Picture of Other People's Boards

One of the fun things about posting projects online is that other people not only make replicas but add their own twists to the design. This step collects together some of the other boards people have made, none of which are exactly the same as mine. Thanks to G-Squier, sbiickert and malabo for sharing.


Lateo74 (author)2017-11-10

Lovely. This has fast become my favourite design, from many many good ones.

Fathomlis (author)2017-05-15

Brilliant work! Really nice. So cool, I'm posting a comment 8 years from the 'ible was posted! :)

makendo (author)Fathomlis2017-05-15

Thanks! I still have the board, 8 years on! We still dust it off and play occasionally

Fathomlis (author)makendo2017-05-15

Thats so awesome!

sbiickert (author)2011-06-08

Thanks a million for posting this! I followed along and made my own board. The only real difference with mine is I didn't try for a round board, and I changed up the pasture and hills. Look for the sheep on the pasture!!! :-)


makendo (author)sbiickert2011-06-08

Simon - fantastic, it looks great! You've made my day! :)

sbiickert (author)makendo2012-07-14

I've done some more work, and created the sea hexes, and the other additional hexes for Seafarers of Catan:

I didn't create a border this time, since it would be huge... so I needed to make more hexes than the Seafarers game contains to ensure the entire game is surrounded by water. I ended up making the 19 hexes, then another 15 when I realized I overlooked this.

My original board gets lots of play, thanks again for the Instructable!


MythicParty (author)sbiickert2015-09-17

Hi Simon, what are the (2) tan hexes with the water inside them?

sbiickert (author)MythicParty2015-09-18

The Seafarers of Catan expansion introduced the "gold" hex. I chose to mimic the board piece. I made a central lake, with low hills surrounding it. I also used a gold glitter paint to give the impression of gold in them thar hills. ;-)

makendo (author)sbiickert2012-07-15

Great stuff again, Simon. I've been meaning to build the Seafarers expansion - I own the game, and have planned a big (!) oval board, but haven't got around to it yet. Looking at yours, perhaps the border isn't really necessary... do the hexes stay put OK?

sbiickert (author)makendo2012-07-19

First, I have to say that I have now gone through all of the board layouts for the nine scenarios in Seafarers for both 3 and 4 players and found that I have to make 13 more sea hexes! I seriously overlooked the variety of different ways that the board is put together. Seafarers uses the border pieces from Settlers, and adds more of its own. The Forgotten Tribe scenario is the killer: it needs 47 sea hexes if you don't have a border. It's the painting that takes the time to do it right.

Speaking of which, if you were going to make a big oval board, you would have to come up with a plan to adapt to the different sizes of board that the different scenarios have, for 3 or 4 players. And it would be humungous. Even a 3 player Seafarers board is much bigger than a Settlers game.

As for the pieces moving around, I tried putting down a felt cloth like for building jigsaw puzzles on. Once the hexes were on the mat, they didn't move a hair. I played with my eight-year-old daughter (somewhat more energetic than your average player) without any problems at all. I highly recommend this. A plus is you don't have to store a huge board. All the hexes and the mat can fit in an oversize shoebox.

MythicParty (author)sbiickert2015-09-14

Hi Simon, long shot reply but have to know- how exactly did you do the sheep?!

sbiickert (author)MythicParty2015-09-15

Just little dots of opaque white acrylic paint on the green background. Simple.

flio191 (author)2010-03-01

Wow this is definitely the most brilliant looking, simplistic boards I've seen.  Great job, I'd love to play on that board.  Very... swiss design-y looking.

and now that i have moved indiana jones... i will proceed to take a random card from your hand...

makendo (author)flio1912010-03-08

Thanks a lot. Given that it kind of got designed as it was being built, it turned out better than I could have reasonably hoped.

MythicParty (author)makendo2015-09-17

Instead of Lego Indy ("We named the dog Indiana!") might I suggest using the wooden Dragon from Carcassonne: The Princess & the Dragon

More fitting with both the style as week as the theme. Plus I've never understood how a band of 3 robbers can shut down a whole hex, but a Dragon there? Sure thing. Anyways, that's the piece I use in Catan.

punkypunk (author)2015-06-05

I have always loved this game and your idea is too freaking cool! I love the Lego Indy touch ;)

Ward_Nox (author)2013-03-03

this defiantly give me ideas esp cause i found a template for the tiles that is the right scale

G-Squier (author)2012-07-19

Let me start off by saying: Great instructable, I loved it!

I used your instructable to make a similar version for people who have access to a laser printer. Feel free to take a look. I mentioned your name in the instructable to give you credit.

Keep on making!

G-Squier (author)G-Squier2012-07-19

Forgot the link :)

makendo (author)G-Squier2012-07-19

Thanks, and nice work on the board - cutting out the hexagons in particular must be a breeze on the laser cutter, whereas it is a bit of a headache using a saw. I'll be interested to see if you end up painting it, for playability if not for aesthetics!

pieguy780 (author)2010-06-09

it was the best thing i have seen all day. very creative, how you made the brick so it looked like a heart. Its so cute! lol!

makendo (author)pieguy7802010-06-10

Ugh, yeah. Here's my image comment on that tile... "3 brick tiles. The holes are supposed to evoke a quarry. I'm very annoyed with the random shape I cut out for the central tile, because after it was painted red my daughter told me how much she loved that one because it looked like a heart. Argh!"

sbiickert (author)makendo2012-07-19

Yeah, when I followed along with this Instructable (see my comments above), I chose to deviate from makendo's design there. Not so much about the heart shape, I just thought that I could create a nice "hills" shape with the scroll saw and a couple thicknesses of plywood.

It's the mountains in his design that are killer. Both in that they are awesome and work so well, and in that they take quite a bit of scroll saw work to cut them out.

Feelthbrz (author)2012-07-15

I love the simplicity of the abstraction. I think it works really well for a game like settlers. I see a lot of the laser etched boards and find them overly complicated. This is something I would make and play.

makendo (author)Feelthbrz2012-07-15

Thanks; yeah, I'm still really happy with how it turned out. I like the looks of the laser-etched ones, but I'm not so sure they'd be easy to play on.

Celestianpower (author)2012-01-27

This is amazing! I'm currently in the process of making my own (though I'm cheating and getting the hexagons cut for me...) I'll upload a picture when I'm done! Thanks for inspiring me!

makendo (author)Celestianpower2012-01-27

Thanks, & good luck with the build. Good idea to get the hexagons cut - they're the trickiest bit to get right, for sure.

Spaceman Spiff (author)2012-01-25

Now I need to buy an Indiana Jones Lego piece! "That belongs in a museum!" Ha Ha.

makendo (author)Spaceman Spiff2012-01-25

Yep, he'll save you having to set your death ray blaster to Deep Fat Fry.

careforapint (author)2011-09-14

Wow, Very inspirational! Thanks for posting.

Eye Poker (author)2011-04-29

I'm done with the hexes, terrain and base coat of paint!

makendo (author)Eye Poker2011-04-29

Awesome! I'd love to see it... post a picture if you can.

nolte919 (author)2010-05-26

Could you make the tiles round?  It would be tons easier and it seems you could put the settlements in the spaces between circles.  I might be missing something, I've never played the game.  Although thanks to this 'ible I ordered one. :-)

makendo (author)nolte9192010-05-26

Absolutely! In fact when I first thought about making this board, I was going to make something that looked like one of those fancy wine racks. However, the reality of making perfectly aligned circular holes in a board, then making circles that fitted them exactly, proved beyond me. A laser would be be ideal, but to do it conventionally would have required me buying a drill press and some hole cutters. If you just close-pack the circles without putting them in holes, I think you'd have issues with the settlements dropping out of sight.
It's a great game, glad to hear you bought a copy. Enjoy!

Eye Poker (author)makendo2011-04-10

All you need to do is find a circle the size you want. Use it as a template with a round off bit on your router to make as many circles as you want.

makendo (author)Eye Poker2011-04-10

Agreed, but cutting the circles wasn't the problem I envisaged - it was cutting the holes in the sheet. The problem with just having a bunch of discs pushed together is that putting down the roads/settlements/cities is likely to be problematic.

Eye Poker (author)makendo2011-04-29

The rads would balance in between the circles. There would be a small open space between the circle where the cities would go.

Eye Poker (author)nolte9192011-03-12

I imagine that if you made a large hexagonal base with a lip cut to just the right size the circular tiles would fit in it tight to make the board.

thepelton (author)2010-09-07

I made some hexes for a friend using my Epilog laser. I hope this attaches their file to the comment. I have to find out how I can make them without running afoul of a copyright, otherwise, I would make them for anyone.

makendo (author)thepelton2011-01-27

Nice interlocking lasercut tiles for Settlers of Catan have recently been posted on Thingiverse, including the cutting file.

thepelton (author)2010-09-24

As soon as I leave the library where I am doing these comments on instructables, I plan to go to the local Woodcraft store and get some dyes or paints for those hexes. I will rephotograph them when I am done, and show it off here.

thepelton (author)2010-09-10

The waveform pieces are all on the backs of the other pieces, except for the one desert piece.

makendo (author)thepelton2010-09-13

Good way to cut perfect hexagons. I don't think you need to be concerned about copyright; you'll still need a copy of the game to play on your new board.

AngryRedhead (author)2009-12-20
Have you thought about making a silicon mold of the pieces just for the heck of it?
makendo (author)AngryRedhead2009-12-20

 No; I carefully read homechicken's account of his construction of a 3D set, and decided it was way beyond my modeling and painting skills. It never occurred to me to use the plywood pieces as the pattern, but you certainly could and it would necessitate much less cutting of small plywood bits.
I have, however, thought about getting the parts laser-cut from acrylic in different colours; I think it could look awesome, especially set up with digital dice and LEDs that lit up the correct tiles from underneath :)

cincodenada (author)makendo2010-05-23

Man, now I want to make a sweet version of this with some clever microcontrollering...I'd have to be cautious of making it to electronic-y, Settlers is a very earthy, hands-on game.  But a microcontroller would be sweet just to randomize the board - put some LEDs under each position, that would be color-coded for each type, hit a button, and it gives you a random board.  
And I like the wooden pieces a lot - you could keep the wooden pieces, but somehow have a very thin layer of wood under the number chit, and light them up when they're rolled (if you do digital dice), which would be easy to do if you do the setup thing.  Or maybe light up the edges, shine through the gaps between the pieces (which would be harder to do).

Heck, you could make a fancy set of dice that you actually roll, but are detectable as to which side they land on, and have that light them up!  First I'd have to figure out how to do that though :P

thepelton (author)cincodenada2010-09-10

There is an electronic set of dice that light up twelve LEDS in two groups. The circuit is available at radio shack and probably some dice sales websites.

AngryRedhead (author)makendo2009-12-20
Really?  I don't think it would be so bad with yours considering how minimalist it is and how you already have the pieces constructed, and you could dye the resin/epoxy to avoid painting it.  Tetranitrate used wood for making his tetris ice cubes, and you could totally make the molds, use clear epoxy, and rig up some LEDs for a very crazy effect.  Of course, that's extra work when you already have a set.  However, I bet you could make the molds and sell the boards on Etsy or eBay or somewhere.  From the links you posted, there seems to be a market for these - I've actually never heard of the game before, but meh, I'm not a good sample.  Actually I'm a really bad sample.  :-P
makendo (author)AngryRedhead2009-12-20

I like the idea of the dyed resin. Interesting; I'll look into it. No cutting AND no painting... the perfect project for me!
Settlers has sold 15 million copies, at least according to the Wikipedia - it's a decent game :)

About This Instructable




Bio: Analog maker dabbling in digital manufacture
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