Shadow Box / Vertical Chess Board




This is a design of a shadow boxthat can also be used as a vertical chess board. It is made using hand tools and it is a straightforward project for even the novice. Just a miter box saw, a hammer, some glue, nails, and you can easily build this in a Saturday afternoon. As a shadow box is has 64 suggested spaces but because there are no vertical inner walls, objects can occupy more than one space in a row. A larger shelf is on the bottom.

As a vertical chess board it allows easy access to a very large chess set without taking up any floor space. (Remember how big TVs were before they became two dimensional?) Besides it great to help theme a game room or study.

Although I built mine with leftover pine from others projects, I have sized the dimensions so you can build it with materials easily found at your home center.

Now this is a project for a shadow box. The design and directions for the chess pieces is not included. If there is enough interest I will publish an Instructable for the chess pieces.

Step 1: Plans and Materials

The box has the follows pieces.

The left style, right style, top rail, middle rail, and bottom rail (all shown in red) are made from common pine 1 x 2s (3/4" x 1-1/2"). (In cabinet making, a rail is a horizontal piece while a style is vertical.)


The horizontal slats (shown is green) are made from lath. (3/16" x 1-3/8")


There 32 spacers (shown in blue) are made from common pine 1 x4s. (3/4" x 3-1/2")


With only 32 spacers, half the spaces will be blank. As a shadow box it means some spaces have a 1-3/8" deep shelves while the others are 5/8" deep. When used as a chess board the wall color will make up half the spaces. If the shadow box painted dark brown or black it will look like a decent chess board on most any color wall.

Step 2: Cut Spacers

Clamp a stop block on the miter box to set the cutting length to 5-1/4". It isn't important that they be exactly 5-1/4" as long as that they all be the same exact length to each other. A stop block will do this. If you buy three, 6ft 1 x 4s then you are have enough wood to make 32 spacers while cutting around any imperfections. Keep the extra pieces as they will later be used to use set the correct placement of the spacers on each row.

After cutting, give all the pieces a good sanding with 120 grit sandpaper.

Step 3: Cut Slats and Rails

The slats and rails are all cut at the same time to make sure they are all the exact same length. In an ideal world they would be eight spacers wide or 28 inches. However the chances that the 1 x4s are exactly 3-1/2" wide are extremely small. So you need to place eight spacers together and measure this width. Better yet, place a rail or slat next to the eight spacers to mark the distance. Cut all slats and rails at the same time to that length.

After cutting, give all the pieces a good sanding with 120 grit sandpaper.

Step 4: Glue and Nail Spacers to Middle Rail

On the top rear of the middle rail, glue and nail four of the spacers. Start flush on the left and use extra spacers to correctly position all four. Nail from the bottom with 5d finish nails. This forms the 1st row.

5 penny nails

Nails are 1-3/4" long.

This forms the 1st row.

Step 5: Glue and Nail Spacers to a Slat

Glue and nail spacers to a slat. It will be the same as the step before except that the spacers are now flush on the left. Nail in place with 5/8" finish brads.


This forms the 2nd row.

Step 6: Finish Attaching Spacers to Remaining Slats

Glue and nail spacers to the six remaining slat with three flush to the left and three flush to the right. This completes all the row assemblies. Use 5/8" finish brads. You can now see the box starting to form.

Step 7: Stack, Glue and Nail Assemblies

Start with the first row. Apply glue to the top of the spacers, place second row on top, and nail it into place. Repeat this process until are eight rows have been assembled together. Apply glue to the spacers on the top row and nail the top rail into place. Use small nails where appropriate and long nails where appropriate.

If you look close at the spacer, top row second from the right, you will see a small filler piece has been added. That is because when I was cutting the spacers I had a piece of scrap 5-1/8" long. Somehow it got in with the good pieces and I didn't notice it until gluing the assemblies was completed. I bring this up to show that mistakes happen and wood working is just learning to cope with mistakes. I cut a small filler piece and glued it to the spacer. The paint I will use will cover it.

Step 8: Cut Styles Then Glue and Nail to the Assembly

Use the miter box to cut both styles at the same time to a length of 51". The sand with 120 grit sandpaper. On each side nail the styles into place. Start at the top and nail the style to the upper rail. Then nail style to the four flush spacers on side. (Don't try to nail to the slat. You will most likely just split it.). Nail the style into the middle rail and then to the lower rail. The construction is done. On the finishing.

Step 9: Give the Box a Good Shellacking

The bad news is that pine sap contains turpentine and it can leach through your paint to show any knots or end grain the wood has. The good news is that a coat of shellac will seal the wood and keep this from happening. Shellac is compatible with most every kind of finish and is a great universal sealer. It also comes in a spray can.


This link shows a case of six but single cans can be found in the store.

By the way, shellac is made with alcohol and back before alcohol was denatured, the finishers with drinking problems would drink the shellac and get "shellacked". Bakers with drinking problems would drink the vanilla (40% alcohol) and get "baked".

Step 10: Paint

You have many options for paint. One of the easiest is to paint it with flat black auto primer. It comes in a spray can and goes on very thin. Better to a bunch of light coats instead of one of two heavy coats.

I painted this with a chalk paint made with 4 tablespoons of calcium carbonate for every 3 oz of latex interior wall paint. I picked up a 7oz sample at the home center for less than $4. A five pound bag of calcium carbonate cost me $10 and it will last me forever. I would send some to any of you that ask, but it is never wise to send a hand marked baggy of white powder through the mail. Sorry!

The two photos show the front and back of the patch. Of course being a woodworking the first thing you show people is your mistakes. Came out just fine.

Step 11: Mount to Wall

If you want to mount it permanently then drill holes into four of the spacer and attach to the wall with screws into studs, or molly bolts.

For a removable mount get two heavy duty picture hangers and bend the tab 90 degree. Mark the location of the wall and nail in hangers. I like to measure from the top of the wall at the ceiling.

Place the shadow box on the wall.

Step 12: Shadow Box and Chess Board

From the figurines in the shadow box you can most likely guess the age and gender of my Grandchild

Here is a side view of it as a chess board. This project pulls double duty.

Step 13: Shoulda Coulda Woulda

After completing this project there are a couple of changes I would make.

As a chess board the depth is okay but as a shadow box it would be nice if it was deeper. Next time I will build with common pine 1 x 4s and redwood bender board.

The paint I used was black and although it looks nice against any wall, the black pieces wash out. Next time I will paint it a very dark dark green.



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    13 Discussions


    2 years ago

    I love this idea. I can imagine my family members walking past the board and making their moves over days with the game on display. A few questions though. You didn't mention making the chess pieces themselves, were they purchased or made? Also do you think if you made it deeper you could use pieces from a box set or maybe use metal for the shelves and magnetic pieces from a travel set?

    4 replies
    Kink JarfoldWefneck

    Reply 9 months ago

    Yes, a next move indicator is brilliant. Yes, also on making it deeper for regular size pieces.



    Reply 2 years ago

    Thank you for the kind words. I agree with family playing a very slow game. I could also see one in a coffee shop where play would be once a day. I have plans for the chess piecesss and may publish an Instructable on it. I like you magnetic idea. I wanted to make pieces from really thin plywood with magnets glued to the back. I would them paint a chess board on the frig. My wife vetoed that one..


    Reply 2 years ago

    ...and rightly so! EVERYBODY knows you paint fridges with slate paint and put a box of multi-color chalk nearby...


    Reply 2 years ago

    Google image "vertical chess board". shows a "to move" marker like I described above.


    2 years ago

    Thanks for the inspiration, just made an account to say I plan on making this with some improvements. I see my self adding a metal plated blackboard segment on top of the board so people can write their names and use a magnet to show whos turn it is. Thank you for uploading your project one here!


    2 years ago

    I like the idea, I'm probably too lazy to make all the flat-pieces but I suspect a regular set would work just as well.

    Thanks for the idea!

    1 reply

    Reply 2 years ago

    If I was going to use a large regular set I would make the rails and style for 1 x 4 and use 3-3/8 bender board for the slats


    2 years ago

    interesting idea to play chess over days in this way ! Maybe for playing chess some magnets to hold chess pieces better in place on the shelfes would be useful.


    2 years ago

    Since this is custom-made for walk-by games that may take days, you might consider a marker that can be slotted onto a shelf and flipped upside down to indicate "white to move" and "black to move".

    1 reply

    Reply 2 years ago

    That Is a good idea.. Maybe a white i=on one side black on the other that could sit on the bottom shelf.