5 Chess Board Design Decisions

chess board walnut maple

Until now, I have made some very simple chess boards that have no boarder or decoration (see my previous posts like this one for more info). It is a simplicity I appreciate, but I wanted to share some thoughts that follow my most recent board build – a framed board shown in the image above.

1. Solid wood vs. veneer

Solid wood boards looks great from the sides and age well, but it can be costly to use all that fancy wood. Making a thinner board can be problematic because the wood is more likely to warp over time. Veneer would be cheaper to produce, but if the material is too thin it will wear or chip so that the substrate will show through. Not pretty. For my board, I used 3/8 thick veneer glued to half inch thick plywood. This increases the stability of the board whilst maintaining the weathering characteristics of solid wood. Best of both worlds.

2. Grain direction

I like my grain to run from player to player, but I have seen and made boards with the grain running perpendicular to the main direction of play. I’m not sure if there is a ‘proper’ way to do it. But you have to make a conscious decision about it before your glue up because you can’t simply rotate the board once it is made – you need to have a white square to the right of each player in the final configuration.

3. Square size

This is easy if we want to make a board to chess federation rules and use Staunton-style pieces:

“…the size of a square should be twice the diameter of a pawn’s base. It is recommended that a side of the square should measure 5 to 6.5 cm.”

So a 2″ square is the benchmark in general. But for a smaller set, or a different style of piece (for example one where the bases are very wide compared to the upper dimensions) the size of the board should be adjusted accordingly.

For a new or non-standard set design, the size of a square relative to the base of the pieces is open for discussion.  In general, the pieces should be neither cramped nor too spaced out.

4. Frames/boarders

A frame is optional for a solid wood board, but if you have used veneer then a frame is a must to hide the base material. I find mitered frames very tricky to produce, but make the neatest frames that hide all end grain. The segments need to be precisely the same thickness and length, the miters need to be 45 degrees on the dot.

With a chess board we also need to visually differentiate the frame from the main playing area, assuming the frame is made from the same wood as either your light or dark squares. This is achieved by:

1) altering the height of the frame relative to the board (either raised, or depressed like the example I show in the image above),

2) cutting a groove in the frame next to the board (example from chesshouse.com shown here),

3) gluing a thin strip of contrasting wood to the frame pieces before the miter cuts are made (which is the option I took for the board featured at the top of this post),

4) use a wood colour for the frame that is not used for the squares (Like this example from Jon Crumiller’s collection).

5) Of course, no differentiation between the squares and the frame is a possibility if it is a conscious decision.

In order to show I have used thick hardwood for the squares I set the frame 1/4 inch or so below the main playing surface.

5. What’s under the board?

The main choices here are felt, leather or leaving the bottom unfinished. It is also feasible to add small feet to the frame to raise the board off the table surface. Thin leather is desirable as the board would be less likely to move during play than it would with felt. But as I use felt for my chessmen (it slides better than leather) I tend to dress my boards with felt, too. Be aware that there is a spectrum of quality of felt depending on the blend of constituent materials.

Off course, you could go to town including storage under the board, but I have not made anything that complicated. Yet.


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