Introduction: Laser Cut Playable Chess Puzzle

About: I finished a degree in psychology, sociology, and industrial design. Now, I'm trying to figure it all out.

Most people will confess to having completed, or at least attempted, a jigsaw puzzle at some point in their lives. Usually. there is a picture that is revealed at the end and the people who were laboring away at fitting pieces together can bask in their accomplishment before a toddler or pet destroys it minutes later.

As technology has advanced, so have jigsaw puzzles. They can be made with materials sturdier than printed cardboard and in some cases have no images at all. The shapes have changed from the standard pieces we are familiar with to those crated with the help of computer software to resemble brain synapses. You can have puzzles that have shapes within shapes or entire chunks that are attached together.

Regardless of the jigsaw puzzle, usually it is a one and done deal. A person completes it, looks at it, and then puts it away. How many functionalities does it have? How many times can you complete the same puzzle before it isn't fun anymore?

In order to solve this problem, I designed a puzzle that was multi-functional. I centered it around the game chess so that the board itself would be a puzzle where the playing pieces can be used both to complete the puzzle and then play a game so the fun can continue.


This was a laser cut project, but if you don't have one but are really determined I am sure you could do something similar with hand tools.

The items I used:

1. Glowforge laser cutter

2. Material to make the puzzle, draftwood in this case

3. Coarse and fine sandpaper

4. Paint

5. Adobe Illustrator

Step 1: Figure Out What You Want to Do

In order to start making a puzzle, you first need to figure out what it will look like. How will everything function? What will this puzzle do? For me, I listed the following criteria I needed to hit for this project to be successful:

  • Be a puzzle
  • Have the chess pieces be part of the puzzle
  • Be able to play chess after completing the puzzle

After listing what I wanted to accomplish with my design, then I thought about the layout.

It is good to start with general dimensions. How big do you want everything to be? In this case, I wanted each square on the board to be 1 inch squared. Then, I estimated how much space the pieces would take up and how they would slot into the board.

Using Illustrator, I made a general game board that I would base all my drawings off of. The outer box would be the final dimensions, the inner box would be the playable area, and the slots would be cut out later so the chess pieces can stand up.

When making the slots, make sure that they are the same width, or a tiny bit bigger, than the thickness of your material. For example, if you are using plywood that is 1/4" thick, make sure your slot is 1/4" or a little bit bigger so your pieces will fit in there.

Step 2: Make the Chess Pieces

In order to play chess, you need to make some chess pieces. I designed some simple ones using Adobe Illustrator. A simple silhouette was fine for my purposes. When you make yours, it can be whatever style you want.

After you make your pieces, add a tab on the bottom that is the same width as the slots they will stand up in.

Step 3: Arrange the Pieces

After you have your pieces created, you then need to arrange them in the border portion of your puzzle. You may find that your initial estimate for the border is too small. Take into account the space you have so you can make sure everything will still work out. Make sure you have a line around your pieces since these will be cut out.

Step 4: Give the Pieces a Border

Next, create a border around the pieces that is a thicker line. This will be engraved into the material to help make the pieces pop.

Step 5: Make Your Puzzle Piece Lines

So, now for the actual puzzle part. Using the help of the Internet, I found some general puzzle piece shapes and used those to create puzzle piece lines that will be cut. You can make up your own piece configuration but make sure that the pieces can hold each other together. The chess game won't be fun if the board shifts apart during play. You need the board to hold its shape.

I wanted my chess pieces to have an active role in the puzzle element, so I connected my puzzle lines and my chess piece lines to create really irregular pieces full of holes. The cut out spaces give the puzzle some interesting forms.

Step 6: Make Your Play Board Engravings

Once the puzzle pieces are configured, you need to make the squares on the board. This grid will be engraved so you can see each square clearly.

I will break down this picture into the different lines and the order I cut them in.

  1. Thick Red Line: This is an engraving line to outline where the pieces go
  2. Green Line: This is an engraving or score line to show the chess board play area.
  3. Thin Black Line Inside Red Line: This is a cut line to cut out the chess pieces.
  4. Black Line: This is a cut line that will cut out the actual puzzle pieces.
  5. Blue Line: This is a cut line that will cut out the slots that the pieces will fit into.
  6. Yellow Line: This is a cut line that will cut out the entire board.

As a general rule, I like cutting out all the inner components before cutting the larger shape, which is why the yellow line is last.

Step 7: Power Up Your Laser Cutter

I used my Glowforge to engrave and cut the file according to what I wanted. When everything was done, I took all the pieces out, and peeled off the protective paper that keeps it from burning the surface.

Then I realized my mistake...I didn't make sure that the file imported into the Glowforge application was the correct size. I just made sure it fit on my material. So, despite making sure to dimension the slots the proper thickness, it didn't matter because my prototype was scaled down. Despite this, I decided to salvage my prototype instead of wasting material.

So, lesson learned and a list of reminders from me:

  • Make sure to check that your dimensions are correct when designing
  • Make sure to check that your file will come out the correct size
  • Double and triple check everything before you cut so you don't waste materials

Step 8: Assemble Your Puzzle

Make sure that everything came out the way it was supposed to.

In my case, it did everything except for the chess pieces fitting into the slots thanks to it being slightly smaller than I wanted, so I had some sanding to do.

Speaking of sanding, in this step you can look over your pieces and sand down anything that doesn't quite fit. Coarse grit takes a lot away at a time, which is what I used when shaving some material off from the chess pieces themselves, but fine grit will only take away a tiny bit if you need to do some finishing work or smooth down a splinter or sharp edge.

Step 9: Add Some Color

If everything comes out the way you want, then you can add some color. I used paint thinned with some water to denote white and black chess pieces and to show the alternating pattern on the board itself.

When painting something that will slot into something else or will connect with another piece, remember to use a thin layer of paint. Unless you specifically built it into your design, your cut will have a very small gap between the connecting pieces and paint will add a layer that may make your piece no longer fit.

If you make a mistake with paint, you can try wiping it away depending on the material, or in the case of wood products you can take some sandpaper and sand it off. Though, this will make the surface uneven.

Step 10: Try It Out

At the end of the design and prototyping process, make sure to test everything out. Here, I stood all the pieces up in the slots to make sure they stayed up and then set up a chess game scenario as a visual.

My design allows the captured pieces to be placed back into the puzzle on the relevant player's side.

Step 11: Conclusion:

My project was very technology heavy and I am lucky to have the machinery and computer software I do. However, don't let this discourage you. You can make something similar using some hand tools and power tools. It might take more material and more time, but it is doable.

Hopefully this inspired someone out there to keep making cool stuff. Good luck!

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