Introduction: 3D Plywood Catan Board

About: Analog maker dabbling in digital manufacture

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?

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...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Step 9: Paint

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!

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

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.

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