Introduction: Three Dimensional Chess Board

For my SIDE Project, I decided to make a Three Dimensional Chess Set, just like the kind that Kirk and Spock famously play in Star Trek: The Original Series.

3D Chess is played just like traditional chess, but with the added third dimension to promote "spatial thinking." Pieces cannot easily transition between the three large main boards, however. Smaller boards that can be placed above or hung along the corners of the main represent "starships" that must act as a bridge for the pieces to cross between levels. I even found a set of rules on the chess variants pages. The science-fiction twist to traditional chess and the fascinating nuances that can be exploited made me want to see this chess in real life. Inspired by this, I decided that I could make a playable 3D Chess Set using the classroom's laser cutter and 3D printer. For more of our class's SIDE projects and others, you can check out

I will show you how I made my chessboard, and then create custom pieces for our chess set.

Materials Needed:

  • 5mm-thick medium-density fiberwood
  • 9mm-thick cast acrylic
  • 3D printing PLA
  • Hot glue

Equipment Needed

  • Laser Cutter (Universal Laser Systems VLS3.50)
  • 3D Printer (MakerBot Replicator 2)
  • Some CAD software (SketchUp)
  • Hot glue gun

Step 1: Planning the Board

To design the chessboard, I followed the rules on the chess variants pages, and used SketchUp to plan the board before laser cutting the boards.

The 3 main boards are 4 squares x 4 squares, with each square being 30mm per side. The 4 movable boards are 2 square x 2 squares, and the squares are still 30mm per side. All boards are cut from approximately 5mm thick medium-density fiber wood.

The three main boards are positioned in space like steps. Each board is 120mm above the next. In addition, from a top-down view, each board covers half of the board below it.

The movable boards must be able to be taken off and placed or hung on any corner of the three main boards. The movable board cannot be on the same level of a fixed board, but always above one or between two fixed boards.

The assembly that I designed in SketchUp involves a 3d printed "clip" to slide onto the corner of a fixed board, which is attached to a "stick" that connects to the movable board. The entire assembly is 60mm tall, including the thickness of the board, which is enough to go between the 120mm space between fixed boards.

Keeping these rules in mind, I designed the board in SketchUp. I also designed a stand (to be cut out of the 9mm acrylic) to hold the 3 main boards in place. I also designed a small test piece to represent the maximum size of a chess piece that I will eventually design.

Many edits to my project were made during this step. I had originally planned to use AutoDesk Inventor to design the board, but eventually decided that it was too difficult to learn quickly and for such a simple project so I decided to use SketchUp instead. I also originally decided to use magnets to hang and attach the movable boards, but the magnets that I ordered were entirely too powerful, so I decided to use a simpler method to attach the boards.

You download my final design here.

Step 2: Cutting the Boards

The laser cutter that I used uses Adobe Illustrator to laser the designs. I drew the design of both movable board and fixed board in Illustrator following my design. The laser will cut out the boards and raster, or engrave, the squares onto the board. The rastered squares are slightly indented, so i created a small area on any corner that was rastered in order to meet the thickness for the attaching clip. I cut the pieces out of 5mm medium density fiberwood. At first, testing the laser on a movable board, I found that the maximum raster setting make scorch marks on the wood, so I had to tone it down.

After the designs were done, I cut out the 3 fixed boards and the 4 moving boards. In the photos above, you can see the designs (download) that i made in Illustrator, and the laser cutter in use. The final boards can be seen together, the fixed board with an attachment clip that will be made in the next step.

Step 3: Printing Moving Clips

The movable clips to attach the moving boards to the fixed boards are exported directly from SketchUp with a plugin that converts the file to an stl file. The clip (first photo) is a small block with a space in the middle to slide onto the corner. There is a protrusion out of the end that extends into the top portion. The top portion (second photo, item on the left) is essentially a beam that attatches to the moving board at the top. The final stl file that includes the top and the clip is here. Using my 3D printer's software, I printed the clip and top as seen in the above photos. I did have to revise my design 3 times to make sure that the clip had a good size that fits, and that the stick portion goes into the top. I hot glued the top moving portion to the movable board.

In order to allow the board to be hung from a corner of a fixed board, I hot glued the clip to the top, and then drew squares on the underside of the moving board by hand. The final moving assembly that is glued together can be seen in the last photograph.

Step 4: Cutting the Stand

The stand is what will hold the fixed boards together. Originally I wanted to design a curved stand that looked like the real thing, but I found that the design would be too large to cut out in one piece from any slab of acrylic that we had. If it were made in pieces, it would be too unstable and inaccurate for hot glue. Thus, I designed a more simple design. I modeled it to see how it would work first, then drew the final design in illustrator, that includes 3 beams to glue the fixed boards onto. I cut the board out of comparably thick 9mm cast acrylic. The final result is shown in the second image above. Later, I cut two additional sticks to attach to the base of the stand in order to stabilize it.

Step 5: Assembling the Board

You should have all the parts as shown in the first picture. If you have not yet assembled the movable board, see step 3.

The stand requires two small bars to glue to the base of the stand to keep it upright. These can be in any length, but also preferably the height of the bar it is connecting to. You can see this in the first half of the second picture above. Hot glue these to the base. Make sure they are fixed in place well and are level.

The acrylic stand has small bars to hot glue the fixed boards onto. You can see this in the second half of the second picture. Glue these in place and make sure it is level.

The final assembled board should look like the third picture, with the movable boards attached in the starting positions. This concludes the board building phase of the project.

Step 6: Designing the Chess Pieces

I drew my inspiration for these simplistic, but elegant chess pieces from the Google Image result seen in the first picture. I wanted something that matched the sci-fi spirit of the game, but would be easy to model.

You can see the results of my modeling above. You can design your own models, or even use store-bought pieces. However, according to the design, the pieces' maximum height should be about 50mm. The suggested max diameter is 20mm. Simply keep in mind that the squares are 40mm by 40mm, and the height between a movable board and the fixed board above or below it is slightly less than 60mm.

My final SketchUp files for the chess pieces can be downloaded here. You can see these designs in the first two pictures above. I used a plugin for SketchUp to convert these files to STL's. Make sure there are no gaps in your chess pieces, so that the pieces print correctly, which is a mistake that I made at first and had to correct.

Step 7: Printing the Chess Pieces

I chose to print the two sides in silver (black) and gold (white). You can see the final result of the prints in silver in the second and third pictures. I put the STL files in MakerBot Desktop, then printed them with the Replicator 2. I used about 20% infill. After the prints, the project is completed!

A game in progress can be seen in the last image.

The only thing that this board cannot do is to mount two boards on the same corner. Hopefully further revisions can add this feature.
I learned a lot about using 3D printing, laser cutting, and the design process by doing this project.