Introduction: Design and Build Your Own Hnefatafl Game Board

About: We are a married couple who love to build things and photograph those things.

I'd like to start this Instuctable by explaining my motivation for making this game board. A few months ago I saw an I'ble about how to make a very interesting chess board. Since I have a brother who is WAY into chess and other strategy games, I thought I'd try to tackle the task of making a nice board for him. But before I started the project, I realized he already had a nice hand-carved chess board given to him many years ago. Nevertheless, I enjoy woodworking in my spare time so I decided to find another project that involved a game board.

Once I found this Instructable, I knew I had to build it. Now if you've never heard of the ancient Viking game "Hnefatafl" then you've been missing out. It's a strategy game that actually predates chess. That's probably why it has so many fewer rules. Although there are so few rules, I'll save some time and just link to them here.

Step 1: Design You're Game Board

I guess once you've got a grasp of the rules, the first step would be to figure out what size board you want. I went with an 11 x 11 size. This seemed to be the most common and had the easiest to find rules. You can search the web for a very long time in search for the "original" rules and come up with nothing substantial. The fact is, it's such an old game we aren't very sure what the original rules are. The rules I've linked to are the fairest for both attacker and defender that I've found.

Step 2: Cut Grooves

So for my 11 x 11 size board, I started by cutting a piece of 1" x 12" pine board to 11" x 11". I then cut grooves at 1" intervals both horizontally and vertically across the board. I made the grooves 1/4" deep and blade-width. You could stop here if you like. It's a perfectly acceptable game board as is. But since I've been wanting to try wood-inlay, I decided to fill these grooves with a different type of wood.

Step 3: Wood-inlay

Since pine is a light wood, I wanted to go with a darker wood. I chose to use red oak because mahogany or ebony are not as readily accessible in my area. I did find some 1/4" x 2" strips that I CAREFULLY cut down into 1/8" strips to fill these grooves (my table saw blade is about 1/8" thick which is what I used to cut the grooves). A safer way to do this would be to use a hobby saw like this one. If I had to do it again, I would certainly buy one of these.

Once you've got enough cut for one direction, dry-fit them in place to insure that they'll fit before you glue them. Then run a bead of wood glue into each groove followed by the strips you've made. Now I made my strips higher than the grooves with the intention of planing/sanding them down flat later. After pressing your strips firmly into the grooves, wipe the excess glue from the board with a clean rag.

I then sanded down the oak strips so that they were level with the pine board. This, of course, leaves you with the task of cutting a whole bunch of small strips to fill in the many holes you have left. I would suggest doing this with a hand saw if you haven't purchased the hobby saw I told you about earlier. Doing this with a regular table saw would be a good way of removing unwanted fingers if that is what you have in mind. You could use an electric miter saw (which would be safer) but I still think you'd have a hard time cutting out all the pieces without destroying them.

After cutting out a sufficient amount of pieces, try dry-fitting a piece or two before gluing. I wouldn't try to do the whole board at one time considering that some of the glue would be dry before you've fitted all the pieces into place. You may also need to use a rubber mallet or similar device to fit these pieces all the way into place. Once the glue is dry, plane/sand the oak so that it's level with the pine.

Step 4: Add Your Design

This is the part where you can really make it your own. I decided to use viking/Norse symbols for the "hostile/restricted" tiles. I first printed out the symbols to the appropriate size and transferred them to the board with carbon paper. I then used a wood-burner to burn these designs in permanently. I also used a small etching tool to carve small swords for all the attacker's tiles and shields for the defender's tiles. However you want to mark these tiles is up to you. It makes the game a lot easier to set up if you do this step. It also makes the board a lot nicer to look at.

I then added a frame made of poplar I had kicking around. Then I used a router with a 1/2" round-over bit to finish it off. I would suggest using some sort of stain or clear coat to protect your board at this point. I chose a clear stain to start and a wax/oil to top it off. There are many I'bles on this method so I won't go into the details. The wax/oil mix gives it a smooth/glossy texture that everyone seems to like.

Step 5: Make Your Game Pieces

This step can be completely disregarded if you buy your pieces. I was going purchase flat glass beads of different colors to use as game pieces, but decided to make them out of wood to keep the antique style of the project. After looking for many hours for a design that met my liking, I decided to make these. I started with 1" x 2" cedar which I cut down to 3/4" x 3/4" x 2". I then carved in the faces with the etching tool and stained them different colors. I used a light stain for the defenders and a dark stain for the attackers. I made the king the same way I made the rest of the pieces, but he is 3" instead of 2" tall. I then sprayed the entire set of pieces with a clear coat to make them shiny.

You now have a fully-functional game board in which to play Hnefatafl. But if you stop at this point, you won't have a place to put your pieces when you are not playing.

Step 6: Build a Box

So to solve the problem of a place to store the pieces, I built a box for the bottom of the board. I then attached the board to the top with hinges and added a magnetic catch and felt pads. You could build this box a little taller and make a drawer to pull out instead of hinging the top if you want to get fancy. I would also put foam in the bottom to keep the pieces from damaging each other.

The last thing I did to finish the board was to print out the rules of the game in "Norse" font and antique the paper with tea bags. I glued the rules to the underside of the game board and sprayed several layers of lacquer to the top to keep it from ever peeling off.

I hope you find these directions helpful. Please feel free to leave comments below.