Inexpensive Human Chess Set for After-School Club




About: Once a mechanical and materials engineer that worked on rockets, I am now a stay-at-home mom to three incredible children. I also teach chess to elementary students after school once a week. I first got ho...

DIY Human Chess Set

While teaching an after-school chess club for elementary students, my club needed a creative (a.k.a. "inexpensive") way to make a human chess set for the kids to wear.  It also had to store pretty compactly, since we have little room in our club's Rubbermaid bin for an elaborate multiple costume set.

I came up with this system of headbands and foam chess pieces that can easily attach to each other using hook and loop closures, yet can store flat in plastic gallon bags in our club's bin without taking up too much room.  And it doesn't cost as much as outfitting 32 children with character costumes!

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Step 1: Materials List

You will need the following:

36" X 36" package of black felt
36" X 36" package of white felt
4 sheets of 12" X 18" (2mm or 3mm) black foam 
4 sheets of 12" X 18" (2mm or 3mm) white foam
Scissors, rotary cutter, and/or Xacto craft knife
White thread
Black thread
White Hook and Loop closure (Velcro), 16 inches each side
Black Hook and Loop closure (Velcro), 16 inches each side
White 3/8" elastic, 128 inches total
Black Permanent Marker
White Paint Marker
Double Stick Fusible Glue and/or E6000 craft glue
Sewing Machine
Clipart images of the chess pieces (included here)

Step 2: Foam Chess Pieces

I found reproducible images of chess pieces on the internet and printed them out on regular paper.  I cut out the images and traced them onto the foam sheets with pencil.  Yes, I know I have included two queens of each color into the set.  The extra queen allows for a pawn to turn into a queen if it happens to get across to the other side!  

I then used the black permanent marker to outline the white foam pieces and the white paint marker to outline the black foam pieces according to the clipart images.  

Step 3: Felt Headbands

I cut out 32 approximately 1-inch by 20-inch strips (I just used the width of my ruler as my guide) of each colored felt.  I also cut out 32 approximately 4-inch strips from the elastic roll.  I sandwiched (and pinned) the 4-inch elastic at one end of two strips of same colored felt.  I started sewing at the long end of the headband opposite of the side with the elastic pinned in it and continued sewing each side of the headband EXCEPT for the final side.  I left that side of the headband open so I could slip the other end of the elastic in it and sew it closed.

As you can see in some of the pictures, I sewed over the elastic inside the felt back and forth a few times for extra security.   I left two inches of the elastic exposed from the ends of the felt to allow enough stretch to fit an adult head as well as a childs.

Step 4: Hook and Loop Closures

There are many Velcro options out there, but for the headbands and the foam pieces, my preference is for the non-sticky-backed strips of Velcro.  The sticky-backed Velcro is almost impossible to sew through without getting the sewing machine's needle all gummy and it peels off the foam pieces too easy as well.  I cut the black and white Velcro strips into 32 1-inch pieces--16 loop sides and 16 hook sides of each color.  I kept the "fuzzy" loop side consistent with the felt headbands and used the "scratchy" hook side for the backs of the foam pieces.  This would allow for kids to quickly switch their chess pieces between one another without having to remove their headbands as well.  I sewed the Velcro onto the middle of the felt headbands, but you could use a double stick fusible glue instead and heat-set it with an iron.  I glued the other half of the Velcro to the lower third of the foam chess piece back with E6000 craft glue.  

Step 5: Completed Human Chess Set

The chess set fits easily into four gallon plastic bags, labeled for easy organization.  It was inexpensive to make and I had most of the materials already in my craft stash.  The headbands fit both kids AND adults, and the foam pieces could easily be exchanged between players without having to remove headbands as well.  And I can easily replace lost or broken pieces (as is inevitable with children) without much effort.

Now that you see how quick and easy it is, I hope this instructable inspires you to make your own human chess set for your youth or after-school club.   Our chess club has fun breaking up the monotony of regular playing with a few human chess games a year.  And some kids just learn better when they can physically act out the motions of how each piece moves across the board.  Our "chess board" was just a grid taped to the school's floor using painter's blue tape (or another easily removable tape), with a simple X to designate the colored squares.

Thanks for reading!

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    8 Discussions


    2 years ago

    I love this so much that I wrote a Donor's Choose grant to get the materials. It was funded so now I'm actually making them. I don't really sew, but I wanted to make them high quality like you did. I'm curious, though, should I sew the Velcro on one strip of felt before I sew two strips of felt together or is better to sew it to the doubled felt? Thanks for this. My students are super-excited. (I have most of the stuff cut out, but nothing is put together!)

    2 replies

    Reply 2 years ago

    You can do it either way. Sewing machines can handle two pieces of felt sandwiched together pretty easily, but if you have concerns you can always sew it to on side first before sewing the pieces together. Thanks for your comment! I never know if people find this instructable useful and helpful until somebody says so. I hope your students have fun with the set. We just used our again a month and half ago in chess club, so they are still holding up well after all these years.


    Reply 2 years ago

    Thank you! I'm kind of afraid of the sewing machine. (I missed that week in 6th grade.) My mother-in-law bought one to use when she visits, but she rarely visits and uses it even less often.

    My students are very excited. I think it really helps them understand it better when they can actually be the piece.

    Thanks for your help and your instructable.


    4 years ago on Introduction

    Hi, I was wandering if I could please have an email address from you please so I could contact you directly? I work for Intralinks London and am organising a Winter Corporate party and would like to have a set of these hats. Kind regards.


    4 years ago on Introduction

    I made this as costumes for the play The Seven Sided Dice which has a real life chess battle in the last scene. It was for a kids theater company with kids from ages 7-16 participating. We made the foam chess pieces just like in the directions. The only change we made on the foam pieces was using white poster paint instead of the white sharpie paint on the black pieces. We started with that but it was very light and didn't show up well on stage. Instead of making headbands we purchased inexpensive ski caps in white and black and sewed the velcro directly onto the hats. I attached a picture with my three daughters in their costumes. I did 30 in all but didn't want to post pictures with others children in them. The black outline on the white pawn didn't show up well with the black background in the picture but looked good on stage during the show. Right before opening night we realized one of the foam pieces had gotten lost so had to make another foam piece quickly. I didn't have time for E6000 craft glue so just used sticky back velcro instead and it held up for all 4 shows. Overall the directions here were very helpful and I'm glad I found something that was very doable for a small children's theater company with a tight costume budget. We paired the pieces from the directions here with thrift store turtlenecks. The kids supplied most of the pants from home.

    chess pieces.jpg
    1 reply

    Reply 4 years ago on Introduction

    That is awesome! I am so glad you were able to adapt it to fit your needs. Thank you for letting me know that writing this instructable was worth it. Sometimes I don't [document all my ideas] because I think no one else will need or use it, but seeing your story makes me smile and lets me know that maybe someone out there needs a jumping off point for their project that I could help with.

    We always have fun playing human chess games at our school. The first time is definitely a learning curve on what works and what doesn't work with kids aged 6 to 13. But the second time playing with all the kids was a blast!