Hand-Carving a Game Tile From Bone

Introduction: Hand-Carving a Game Tile From Bone

Board games are awesome. From Chess to Monopoly they have proven useful in developing mental skills. And playing board games is a great way to spend an evening with friends.

One game which I've been playing lately is called "Azul" and it is great fun because the gameplay doesn't have to interfere too much with the conversation, but there is still a lot of sneakiness which can be deployed.

One of the game pieces is a small (3/4"x3/4", 20mmx20mm) tile which is used to indicate which player has taken a particular action and therefore goes first in the next round. That tile is made from white plastic with a stylized "1" on it, but since this website is about making things, I decided to make a similar tile from bone to give to the owner of the game.

To make this, you will need supplies as detailed in the (brand-new) "Supplies" bit below.

For tools you will need

a hacksaw
lots and lots of sandpaper in grades from 40grit up to several hundred
some way of holding the workpiece whilst you saw
a tiny chisel, which you can make using this Instructable. (The mother-of-pearl is optional, but does add a nice touch of class)

A square is useful, but you can use the corner of a sheet of printer paper if you need to.


To make this, you will need

A piece of cleaned bone large enough to yield the game piece
Paint to color the number
Varnish to seal the paint and prevent it being rubbed off.

Step 1: Rough Shaping

Take the bone and decide which location will give the best fit to the desired end shape. Since bone is generally tubular and curves in various directions, there will probably be imperfections in the finished piece. Hey, nothing's perfect, and it does prove the organic nature of the source.

Mark the outline of the shape on the bone in pencil and then cut along the four sides using the hacksaw. Holding the workpiece in a soft-jawed vice or clamp will allow you to cut faster and more accurately. As you can see in the fifth photograph here, I only sawed along three sides as the bottom edge of the piece was too close to where the cut should have gone. That is not a problem: read on.

Using 40 grit sandpaper, hold the piece vertical and remove material from the uncut side. This is a bit awkward, but better than trying to saw off a tiny fraction of a millimeter. The 40 grit paper cuts a lot of material, so be careful to not remove too much.

Again using the 40 grit sandpaper, flatten the two largest faces, making them as parallel as you can. The coarse grit avoids clogging quite well, so just tapping it on the bench should dislodge most of the dust when you are finished.

Once the large surfaces are paralleled, check the surface. As you can see in the tenth photograph here, there is still some internal structure visible on the recurve of the underside of the tile. This attracts dirt, and may weep marrow which will stain the piece, so remove material until there is clean, solid bone visible. This can be done with the sandpaper wrapped around a small, round former, but I just used a rough round file and then tidied up with paper.

Once both flat surfaces are showing smooth bone, get the four shorter edges trued up. You can make sure that they are square to each other by comparing them to a square (or the corner of a sheet of printer paper). To check that each short edge is orthogonal to the large surfaces, stand the piece up on edge. If it stands up straight then you're golden. Again, the 40 grit paper will remove material quickly.

Lastly, go up through the grades of sandpaper to remove the marks left by the rough stuff. About two hundred should be fine enough.

Step 2: Carving Symbol

Using an ordinary pencil, draw the desired symbol on the better flat surface. Lacking much skill in carving, I chose a "1" which had no curvy bits in it. If you are more skilled, then feel free to get artistic.

I used a chisel made from a masonry nail which had a point about 2mm wide (5/64"), much wider than the shaft of the "1". So I lined the chisel point along the side of the number and used hand pressure to push down as shown in photographs four and five above. I made a "V" groove where the figure was, about 0.5mm (1/64") deep.

The last couple of photographs show me shading in the partially carved groove with a pencil to enhance the visibility of any mistakes (there were plenty). Once I had identified where the line needed straightening, I removed all the pencil marks with an eraser.

Step 3: Surface Polishing

With a nice groove cut, I went back to the sandpapers, using finer and finer grades to get a nice polish on the piece.

I stopped at about 600 grit, but for a larger piece which will be handled more, it might be worthwhile going to higher grit. Bone, especially load-bearing leg bones, can produce a beautiful smooth surface.

These higher grades of paper don't clean easily at all. If you can find a way to clean them, then please write an 'Ible for it and let me know. Otherwise, just get used to the fact that you have to throw them away after only a few passes of the workpiece.

Step 4: Painting and Sealing

After sanding, I blew the dust off, and then washed and dried the bone to make sure that it was dust free.

I tried using a water-based enamel paint, but that didn't adhere very well (it was quite old), so I went with cheap poster paint, and that was fine.

I filled in the character by hand using a "0" brush, and giving it three coats, letting it dry naturally between them. Once it was all dry, buffing with a paper tissue removed any paint from outside the carved groove.

Since the poster paint probably isn't very robust, I wanted to coat it with varnish to prevent it being abraded off. I used an aerosol polyurethane, which worked pretty well. I gave it two coats, sticking to the recoat instructions on the tin.

To prevent the varnish doing anything funny around the lower edge of the tile, I supported it on three contact points. This Instructable (not mine) is brilliant, and inspired me to make my own. Sadly, the game piece is far too small for this solution, so I balanced it on top of three nails held point-up in Blu-Tak. That worked surprisingly well.

And once the varnish is done, you're good to go and play Azul.

Step 5: Mistakes and Improvements

The first attempt at painting with enamel didn't work. Heigh ho. Manufacturers really should say on their product information sheets whether their paint will stick to bone.

I tried a test piece where I filled the groove with hot-melt glue. Once that had set, I shaved off all the excess with a sharp knife. That worked OK, but the glue was about the same color as the bone. It was only after I had finished the painting that I thought of colored hot-melt glue. That could well work, so if you try it then let me know.

The texture of the varnish is what is felt when the tile is handled. Since the paint is in the recessed groove, it might be possible to polish the varnish off with very fine sandpaper, leaving the paint protected but the surface of the tile feeling as smooth as polished bone.

The piece of bone which I used was the scrap from another project and so there were more wavy edges on the finished piece than I would have liked. Better material selection would have given a better finished product.

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    3 years ago on Step 5

    Instead of trying to color hot-melt glue, why not use epoxy, which would be much easier to add color to.

    Alex in NZ
    Alex in NZ

    Reply 3 years ago

    I'm not coloring the glue: it is sold as colored.
    The idea of using epoxy does sound interesting, as it might be easier to get completely flush with the surface. I hadn't thought about it, but since reading your comment I went looking and found this 'Ible which talks about how to color epoxy.
    Thank you very much for your suggestion :-)