Introduction: Wood and Resin Chess and Checker Board With Pieces From Scraps
So I had this beautiful vision of rough wood spreading into deeply colored resin taking the shape of elegant chess pieces as a wedding present for my friends, and I got…something similar to that if you don’t look too closely. This project was a journey filled with panic, hardcore guesswork, shrugs, optimism, plane rides, shaky fingers, and cookies. Like anyone would, I thought it was pretty bad until I gave it to my friend. Then it was all worth it. Even though it was a couple of months late.
For most of the project I had access to a shop full of wonderful tools, and for the rest I was in my own shop where I had just as wonderful but very different tools. It can definitely be adapted, but you’ll need some specific power tools, most helpfully a table saw, miter saw, and scroll saw.
To begin with, you’ll want to decide the types of wood you’ll use, the size of the squares on the board, the size and style of pieces, the colors of resin, and a plethora of other difficult decisions. Or you can wing it as you go and use whatever you have available. Which is pretty much what I do but with a small splash of planning. I’m going to write about what I did, but obviously feel free to adapt as much as you want.
Step 1: You'll Need...
- Scraps of poplar and maple
Or whatever kind of wood you have. Use wood that is naturally distinctive from each other, with one being much darker than the other. I would have loved to use something like walnut and maple, but all my shop had on hand was poplar and maple. You’ll need...
At least 6’ of poplar at 2” wide and a little over 0.5” thick and the same amount of maple for the main part of the board.
At least 6.5’ of either poplar or maple that can be ripped to 1.5” wide for the border.
At least 5' of the live edges of scrap wood for the chess pieces, again in both poplar and maple.
At least 2’ of each kind of wood at 2” wide for the checker pieces
My resin measuring methods are questionable at best and I definitely ran out at some point in the process, but in the end, I used a 32 oz kit and a 16 oz kit of Art n’ Glow clear casting and coating epoxy.
- Zar Modern Walnut wood stain (a smaller amount if you can get it)
- Helmsman spar urethane in clear satin (a smaller amount if you can get it)
- Mica powder - assorted colors
- 1.5" round silicone mold tray
- Wood glue
- 20x30” sheet of foam core
- Hot glue
- Tack cloth
- Disposable cups
- Plastic spoons or popsicle sticks for mixing resin
- Mold release (can find online or simply use pam cooking spray or Vaseline)
- Various sandpaper grits
- Table Saw
- Miter Saw
- Scroll Saw
- Palm Sander
- Belt Sander
- Planer (especially if using rough and scrap wood, you could work around not having one)
- Jointer (optional)
- Router with cove bit (optional)
Basic hand tools
- Combination square or square
- Measuring tape
- Quick-release or C-clamps
- Bar clamps
- Utility knife
- X-Acto knife
- Hot glue gun
- Safety glasses
- Dust mask
- Hearing protection
- Nitrile gloves
Step 2: Constructing the Board
For making the board, I followed this YouTube video while making a few adjustments. I’ll write out what I did here, but watching that video covers most of it. The instructions here will give you a board made up of 2” squares with a 1.5” border, making the entire shebang 19” wide.
Chopping, ripping, and planing can be done in different orders, but I did it in this order based on the original size of the wood I was working with and the room I had around different tools in the shop.
Using a stop block to ensure every piece is the same length, cut 4 pieces of poplar to 18” and 4 pieces of maple to 18” on the miter saw so we get 2 extra inches to work with. Also cut 4 more pieces of whichever wood you would like the border to be at about 20” each. You’ll cut them to the exact size later.
Plain all the pieces down to about 0.5” or whatever thickness you like the look of. Keep in mind it will get a bit thinner, just make sure every piece is the same thickness. And hey, if you bought surfaced wood for this instead of using scraps from your friends’ various projects, you can skip this part!
Rip each piece on a table saw to 2” wide. Rip the 4 border pieces to 1.5”, or whatever width you decide you like the look of.
Set the border pieces aside for now and glue together the 18” pieces lengthwise together, alternating types of wood. Make sure the glue is smeared all over the connecting edges and not on the outside edges.
Use bar clamps to push the pieces together, optionally placing small scraps of wood between the project and the clamps to keep from damaging the wood. Wipe off excess glue, then sandwich the board between scraps running perpendicular with quick-release or C-clamps to keep it from bowing. I would recommend using more clamps than in this picture, refer to the next clamp session for more sturdy clampage.
Once dry, square up one side of the board. You can use a jointer, a jig (instructions for varying versions of which can be found all over online), but I had a side that was seemed pretty straight. So with my perfectionism and laziness in constant contention, my laziness won this battle and I just put that straight-ish side right up against the table saw fence and squared off the other side. I then put the newly (hopefully) squared side against the fence and cut eight 2” strips. Make sure the strips of wood are perpendicular to the fence so that when you rip a new piece, you have 2x2” alternating squares of wood in a strip.
Lay them on edge in alternating directions, glue the edges nicely, making sure to get all the wood glue on your fingers to peel off later, and lay them out so a checker pattern is formed. Clamp better than the last time.
Once dry, slice off as little as you can from the sides of the board, squaring it up and making it even.
Return to your lonely border pieces and use a cove router bit to make a quarter circle groove along one edge of each border piece
Miter one side of each piece to 45 degrees
Lay each piece against the board and mark where the other side of each border piece needs to be cut, and chop at a 45-degree angle so that the pieces fit together cleanly around the board and the routed groove is against the board, not on the outside. I always panic for a second thinking I cut it at the wrong angle. Thankfully I avoided it this time. I hope your possible momentary panic fades into certainty as well.
Glue the connecting edges and lay the board on the corner of a worktable. Clamp two of the border pieces to the table, and then clamp the board together evenly across its length. Clean off excess glue and leave to dry one last time.
My shop had a large planer with an open side, so I ran the board through on both sides a few times to even everything out. I then used an orbital sander with finer and finer grits. You could also do the entire thing with an orbital sander. I then realized I was dumb because I was going to have to sand it again when I filled the groove with resin. Be smarter than me. You don’t have to sand it to 400 grit yet. I didn’t do this next bit because I liked the sharper edge (and my laziness won again), but you can also route the outside edge of the board with whatever bit you like to give it a nice edge.
The main construction of the board is finished! Set it aside!
Step 3: Making Blanks for the Chess Pieces
Ok, this is the point where I started going off book and it got interesting. I wanted to make all the chess pieces 1.25” wide at the base. I found this pattern online and using Word because my Photoshop and Illustrator skills were nonexistent, I found out the height of each piece. You can use whatever pattern you want or even make up your own, but just make sure it will work with a scroll saw. So no completely crazy shapes that will take more than one cut up a side or cuts that would take out chunks when cut from two sides. If that made any sense. It will later, trust me.
Knowing the dimensions of each piece, construct a mold box. I ended up making a mold box out of foam core and hot glue. I wouldn’t entirely recommend doing this because it ended up overheating, foaming everywhere, and bending the foam out of shape. Somehow, it still worked pretty well in the end, but there are many better ways to do this. Making separate boxes would probably work better so the resin isn’t heating the resin next to it, finding or making a silicone mold box would be great, or maybe just pouring a few pieces at a time. Or doing it in two batches and pouring every other piece for each batch. I leave that in your capable hands! Or maybe it was just the climate or weather and everything will be fine. At any rate…make a mold box so you have 32 boxes that are 1.25” wide and a little higher than the height you previously calculated for the pieces. And please use mold release. Don’t be me.
Find live, rough, and interesting wood scraps and rip just the rough part away from the nice part of the wood. We don’t need that nice part. Make a nice collection of each of the types of wood, chopping them to various heights at the miter saw.
Place 1-3 pieces in each box, putting a dab of hot glue on the bottom of each wood piece as you place it in. This will prevent it from rising or moving around when you pour in the resin. Half of the cavities of the mold box should contain poplar and half should contain maple. If you were ridiculous like me and made each compartment the appropriate size for its piece, make extra sure that you’re filling half of each size with poplar and half with maple.
In a well-ventilated area wearing gloves and a respirator, mix together equal volumes of the two resin parts for 3-5 minutes. If you’ve never worked with resin before, it can take a bit of getting used to, but it’s a lot of fun and with this kind you have about 40 minutes until it starts becoming unworkable. Split the mixture equally and add the desired colors. I mixed a couple of different blues of mica powder to one half and a couple of dashes of silver and white to the other batch. A little powder can go a long way. You can also use acrylic paint or alcohol ink or no color at all! Just make the halves easily distinguishable from each other and match nicely with the wood it’s paired with.
Pour the resin into the lowest part of each cavity, keeping the cup you’re pouring high from the mold so that minimal bubbles form. Make sure to pour the correct color in with its matching wood type.
If you’re able to use a vacuum chamber to suck the air bubbles out of the resin or a pressure pot to pressurize it, do it! I knew my pieces would come out with air bubbles, and they certainly did have them, but I had come to terms with the fact…I won’t go into those processes here, but it will come out much better if you want to go that extra mile or two!
As you can see, this is when things got exciting. It looked great at first, but then it started foaming and bubbling out of the mold. And my past self didn’t think to glue down the wood, hence the hastily glued in popsicle sticks. Thankfully you can skip this step, but this was when I stuffed my resin, mica powder, power tools, sad excuse for a mold box, and chessboard wrapped in towels into my checked baggage, hopped on a plane, and came home for Christmas. Again, this step is not required.
Step 4: Cutting Out the Chess Pieces
Hot glue is always much stronger when you don’t want it to be. If you used the method I did, spend hours of your life cutting each block of resin and wood away from its neighbors with a hacksaw, then shave off the excess foam core with a utility knife.
This part would be good to use a chop saw, but if you’re suddenly back home for Christmas break and only have access to a scroll saw now, slice off the foamed up top of each piece. Print and cut out enough patterns for the 32 chess pieces, making sure they’re slightly smaller than the width of your wood and resin chunks. Crease along the dotted line of the pattern, find the truest edge of your warped chunk and tape it securely with clear packing tape. This part is tiring but exciting! Wearing a mask or preferably a respirator, cut up with the scroll saw along each side of the pattern, making sure to do it in one cut. A few pieces like the cross of the king are an exception. Put the pieces back together as flush as possible, and tape it together again. Flip it to the second patterned side, and cut it out again. You don’t have to be so careful about making sure it’s done in one cut this time. Slice off the bottom. You’ll be left with a three-dimensional piece. The link to the pattern in the previous step also gives good instructions for this. Also, don’t cut your fingers off. With the warped blocks, the part of the saw that holds down the piece as you cut can’t do its job as well and you have to instead use your failing finger strength to hold it down. Keep from descending into further chaos and madness with some tunes as you cut away. Once all your 32 pieces are cut, sit and marvel at them for a while, then pull yourself up and start on those checker pieces! But have some cookies first. You deserve it.
Step 5: Constructing the Checker Pieces
You presumably still have access to your tools. I did this early and you can do the same, but nonetheless you’ll need to cut, plane, and rip a piece of poplar to 2’ x 2” x 0.5” and a piece of maple to the same dimensions for the checker pieces.
Cut twelve 1.5” diameter circles into your poplar and twelve more into the maple with a scroll saw, then cut random organic shapes through them however looks good to you. Fit the pieces into the silicone mold, and if they don’t fit tightly, put a tiny dab of hot glue to keep them from rising or slanting when the resin is poured.
Mixing the resin again and using the same colors with the same corresponding wood, fill the cavities around the wood pieces. Overfill it slightly rather than underfilling it. You should have 12 lighter wood pieces with lighter colored resin and 12 darker pieces with darker resin.
Step 6: Cleaning, Shining, and Putting It All Together!
While you have the resin out and mixed and aren’t panicking like the last resin session, make sure your chessboard is level and pour your two colors into the groove of the board, making it transition to the other color as cleanly as possible and as close as possible to the center of the board. I did it this way to make it match and signify which side of the board is which, but if you want to make it a single color or a completely different color, go for it! If you do it the way I did, make sure that if a player were sitting on a side, the resin is poured so that a light square is on the bottom right-hand corner. A bit of foreshadowing: make sure you know what the wood will look like once it's stained. Sometimes the lighter wood can become darker later. Once it’s cured, use an orbital sander to make the resin flush with the wood, working from a coarser to a finer grit. I worked from about 120 to 400 grit, hand sanding the final couple of grits. I also needed to sand the sides as it had some blade burn.
When the checker pieces cure, pop them out and bring them to the belt sander. Sand them down until the wood shows cleanly and everything is flush and even on both sides. Switch to a different piece occasionally in the middle of sanding it since the resin can bend when heated from the friction. While you’re at the belt sander, sand down the bottom of the chess pieces to give them a clean and even base to stand on.
Clean up all the pieces and the board as much as possible, hand sanding and using tack cloth as needed.
I tried a variety of stains and finishes, and I eventually settled on modern walnut stain with a spar urethane finish. The stain adequately colored the woods differently, and the spar urethane shined up the resin and made everything look extremely glossy. This was just to my taste, try different combinations on the plenty of scraps you’ll have from the chess pieces! I would have loved to use just a clear coat on top of everything to bring out the natural color of the wood, but the woods didn’t look different enough if they weren’t stained. Again, I would recommend using woods that naturally look very different from each other like walnut and maple, but using scraps, this was what I could pull off! Be warned, though, with the stain, the poplar wound up being the darker color and the maple was the lighter color. Which is the opposite of what it looks like when the woods are left unstained. So if you’re following the resin pattern in my board, the bottom right corner is a dark square instead of a light one. Oops.
Anyway, stain your pieces, quickly wiping off the excess stain so it doesn’t set into the resin. Stain the board, and let everything dry. Coat everything in spar urethane, let it all set, and you’re done!
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