Introduction: Hardware Chess Set

About: A strange man with a strange name in a strange world. I have eaten shark in the woods and lost my glasses going over a waterfall.
Although many people have made chess sets out of hardware pieces, none of them lived up to the vision I had for a hardware chess set.  So, one sunny summer Saturday, I decided I was going to create the most awesome hardware chess set, which overcame all the problems I had with other ones I had seen online and blended masculine steel and Lego(TM)-like modularity. 

Most of the hardware sets I have seen either used glue or locktight, painted one army, or had modified hardware or car parts to make the pieces more artistic. Almost all of these were interesting, but my vision was to make a chess set out of entirely unmodified hardware pieces available at Ace hardware or Lowes. I didn't want to paint, glue or embellish the raw hardware, but to merely artistically use what was available as stock hardware.

In order to satisfy my no-paint rule, I needed to still be able to tell the sides apart.  The most common way of doing that is by color (black and white) and the less common way is by style.  Originally, I thought I would be forced to use style differences, but after starting to look for parts, I realized I could utilize the yellow-zinc plate as a different color than the clear or white zinc plate.  As an added advantage, using the gold/silver color scheme meant that I could substitute brass when necessary.

To actually make this set took several hours in several stores, standing around and picking pieces up, looking for different shapes and envisioning the final chess pieces in my head. If you want to make a set just like mine, you aren't going to have to do this. However, I would highly reccomend the experience, and if you decide that my set just doesn't quite tickle YOUR fancy, well you're going to have to do that same process yourself. To be honest, that time spent thinking and envisioning the parts in the bins transformed into something new was probably the most fun for me.

Step 1: Getting Materials

Like I said in the introduction, when I designed this, I spent several hours in several different hardware stores browsing and picking pieces up and turning them around etc.  If you want to, you can just take the list that I've got and get the same pieces.  It's likely you'll need to go to more than one place to get all the parts. Some of them are very obscure.  In the attached spreadsheet (also here online), I indicate part numbers from fastenal for all the pieces I could find on Fastenal's website, and McMaster part numbers for the other pieces.

The part numbers listed are really just to give you another reference for what each piece is. I would recommend going to your Lowes/Ace/Local/whatever hardware and just spend some time walking around with an open mind about what you could create from re-imagined stuff.  Seeing, touching, holding, etc are all very valuable for sparking ideas, in a way that a web store with all its convenience just can't do. (Just like hugs are better than skype!)

Also, you might need to buy more of most things than you're going to use.
You'll also need a hacksaw or metal-cutting bandsaw to cut the all-thread rod to the appropriate lengths.

Used for:                                    description:                                                QTY

bases of all silver pieces:           zinc coated flange nut 1/4-20  :              16
bases of all "gold" pieces:          yellow zinc coated flange nut 1/4-20:   16
silver pawns:                                hex head bolt zinc coated 1/4-20 x 1/2:  8
gold pawns :                    hex head bolt yellow zinc coated 1/4-20 x 1/2:  8
rooks, knights, bishops:                  zinc coated hex nut 1/4-20      :            8
rooks, knights, bishops:      yellow zinc coated hex nut 1/4-20      :           8
rooks :                                                      castellated hex nut           :               4
knights:                                                 1/4-20 wing nuts                   :              2
knights:                                      brass 1/4-20 wing nuts                    :             2
knights:                                     1/4-20 pound-in wood inserts          :            4
bishops:                           zinc(or nickel) coated finish washers:                  8
bishops:                                          brass coated finish washers:                  8
bishops:                                         nickel coated acorn nuts:                          2
bishops:                                          brass coated acorn nuts:                          2
king:                                        1/4-20 x 1 1/2 oval head machine screw:      1
queens:                                       1/4-20 x 5/16 T nut:                                       2
queens:                                                  keps lock nut:                                      2
queens:                                            twistin wood insert:                                  2
gold queen, gold rooks:                           brass washer:                                3
gold king:           1/4-20 x 1 1/2 brass oval head phillips machine screw: 1
kings:                  1/4-20 x 7/8 coupler nut:                                                       2
                                     1.5 ft 1/4-20 all-thread rod

Step 2: The Pawn

The pawns are the shortest piece, and the most simple.  They consist of a 1/2 inch long 1/4-20 hex head bolt and a 1/4-20 flange nut.  For the silver side, look for the white (or clear) zinc coating, and for the gold side, you should be able to find both the bolt and the nut in a yellow zinc plate.  I found that I had to buy grade 8 hardware to get it in the yellow zinc plate, which means it's a little more expensive.  (for an explanation of the different grades of hardware, check out : )

In the process of playing with and collecting many chess sets, I have developed some pretty strong opinions about what makes a good chess set, and what are good design practices for chess sets. But more about that later.  I am really happy with how the pawns turned out.  They are simple, recognizable, easy to move.  It's also a great sense of accomplishment to have half the pieces built in about 45 seconds!

However, the pawns are also the least secure assembly, since there's no double nut to lock the assembly on the threads.  It's very loose and easy to take the base off of the pawn. However, it's not a huge problem, and doesn't affect the gameplay, and I was/am determined to not use glue. I like that the whole set is able to be disassembled into its unmodified pieces.  And, the looseness of the pawns could be thought of as suggestive of the frailty of the pawns... so now it's artistic! :)

Step 3: The Rook (castle)

The rook makes use of a particularly relevant piece of hardware called a castellated nut to provide the crenelated turrets that are common to rooks in modern chess sets. The body of the tower is just two (2) standard hex nuts. When they are tightened against each other, they will probably have their edges offset. sometimes a more aesthetically pleasing offset between the edges can be found by flipping one or both of the nuts over and re-tightening. The offset edges help give an appearance of stonework.

Unfortunately, I don't think that castellated nuts are available in yellow zinc plate, and I felt that the gold castle was not visually different enough from the silver one (especially when viewed from the the top). To address this, I made a compromise and included a "collar" of a brass washer for the gold rooks.

The best way to cut the all-thread rod to the proper length is to assemble each piece on the uncut remainder of the rod, and then mark where to cut. It should end up about 7/8ths of an inch for the rook, 9/8ths (1 1/8) for the knights and the bishops, and something close to 1.5 for the queen. The pawns and the kings don't need the all-thread. You can

I made my rook design to be very reminiscent of modern conventions in chess sets, which are mostly modeled after the Staunton chess set . However, the rook is probably one of the most enigmatic pieces in chess. It always seemed a little funny to me that you would have a fortress moving about in straight lines, but in truth the fortress or castle description is probably a confusion, and the ancient chess pre-cursor game Shantranj described a chariot (which makes a lot more sense for moving quickly in a straight line). One theory is that the chariots were heavily armored and decorated to look like a moving fortress, and another theory is that when the game came to Italy, the word rukh became the italian rocca, meaning fortress. See the wikipedia article for a discussion. I think that it is a little silly to say that it is "wrong" to call a rook the castle, since the castle tradition is very very old, and since the currently accepted piece design conventions are much more identifiable as a castle than as a "rook" which has no helpful common meaning in english.

Step 4: The Knight (Horse)

My girlfriend says I'm her Knight in Shining Armor. I rescue her on a regular basis. It's fun.

But as far as the knight for the chess set, it was one of the most troublesome.  Unlike the rook, there's pretty much no controversy or ambiguity in the knight, but it is unique among the standard chess designs for its dramatic departure from radial symmetry, and in it usual higher level of detail than many other pieces as well as its strange move pattern when compared to the other modern chess pieces.  Its strange movement has inspired all sorts of stuff like the knight's tour .

When I was looking for a piece to represent the horse's head, I knew I had a challenge in front of me, but I didn't anticipate it being so difficult.  At first I thought I might be able to do something with some grease joint parts, but there wasn't a good way to attach them to the 1/4-20 base.  I had pretty firmly decided on the 1/4-20 standard for a good playing size, relative inexpensiveness and the widest availability of parts, so I wasn't excited about changing that for just one piece, and it probably wouldn't have worked anyway.

But here is some of the importance of having physical things when you're doing this; I would never have thought of using the wing nut upside down if I weren't picking it up and playing with it.  It's certainly not perfect, but I think it is recognizable, and as an added bonus, it was easy to find the wing nut in brass for the other side, while with the grease joint parts I would never have gotten two colors.

Step 5: The Bishop

The bishop is made from an acorn nut, finishing washers, a standard nut and the base.  It will be really loose around the middle finishing washers until you tighten it up to hold them together.  I think the bishop is the piece with the most opportunity for improvement in my set... it comes across as a little bit unfinished to me, which ironic since it's made with finishing washers . The bishop piece has historically been an elephant, so I feel mine are paying a little homage to that on account of being the fattest pieces in the set. 

When I'm teaching people how to set up a chess board, I like to say that the reason the bishops go right next to the king and queen is that in medieval times, the bishops of the church were always whispering in the ears of the royalty.  It's a cute story, and I like to think that it helps people to not switch the bishops and the knights, which is a common mistake when setting up a chess board. 

Also, when building this, it should end up taller than the knights, but the threaded rod will be just a little shorter, since the acorn cap adds height to the top.

Step 6: The Queen

This piece was super-fun to put together, to be ornate and use all sorts of awesome pieces I happened upon.  Unfortunately, those awesome pieces don't come in yellow. :( so in order to make the gold queen distinguishable, I had to add a brass washer at the top.  Also, while ridiculously cool, the twist-in wood insert is just a teensy weensy little bit too tall, so that the queen is just a little taller than the king, which goes against my design philosophy for chess sets. However, I think this could be addressed by instead making the king a little taller, possibly.

One of my favorite parts of this piece is the coronet on the top made from a Keps nut.  It make a perfect multi-point crown which has the added benefit of spinning and jingling!  The T-nut also adds an air of deadliness befitting of a queen I think.

Step 7: The King

I was worried about the King, not at first, but when I started to try to find pieces for it.  You see, there's a few conventions that I wanted to follow with the king: either he should have a single peak (in contrast to the many spikes of a queen's coronet), and/or should have a cross on the top of the crown, as well as being the tallest piece.  Unfortunately, my king didn't end up being the tallest piece. (He's about the same, maybe a little shorter than, the queen).  I also wondered how I was going to find a cross shape from hardware.  Beginning to worry I'd have to compromise on my no modifications ideal, I suddenly realized there were crosses all around! Phillips head screws! and so my King had his cross.  The coupler nut just adds a bit of weight and simple filling out of a simple piece.

Step 8: Putting It All Together

I just used a wooden board that I had lying around to pair with this set. At the beginning I was hoping to have the board be made of hardware as well, but I didn't have  any inspiration about how that would work. I thought about expanded sheet, but I don't really see how that would work well.

Since the bases of all the pieces are steel, you could make a board that had a magnet under each square and have it be a magnetic set if you wanted to.  64 magnets is a lot, though!

Have fun!

If you need help in setting up the board and learning the moves, consider this instructable:

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