A Driftwood and Glowforge Chess Set

My nephew (a pretty cool guy BTW) has started playing a lot of chess. I thought it’d be fun to make him a custom board using driftwood from the beach — it’s been too long since he’s been able to visit in person, but at least I can send a bit of Whidbey Island his way. The Glowforge made it easy to finish the job with an etched playing surface and pieces; I love the way it turned out! (I masked out his full name because he’s wisely not hanging out on social media like I am.)

The Driftwood Base

The base is a solid piece cut from a nice beach log — still a big fan of my electric chainsaw for this work! Rather than hoof it all the way back on foot, I rowed my inflatable the quarter mile down and back to the house. You can’t tell from these pics, but it was actually a crazy foggy day with visibility no more than maybe thirty yards. I did not stray far from shore.

First step was to flatten the slab. The router sled I created last year was perfect for the first side — just like with code, it’s awesome when you use something like this a second time! I then ran it through the planer until it was parallel on both sides. Next I dried the slab in the oven for about four hours at two hundred degrees. This worked ok, but there is just so much moisture in the beach wood that quick-drying creates a ton of stress on the fibers. I was able to work around the cracks that opened up, and the warp planed out ok, but I think sometime this month I’m going to cut a few pieces, give the ends a nice coat of Anchorseal, and then just leave them in the garage to dry for a year. That’s a long time and I’m not very patient, but it’ll be worth it to (mostly) eliminate ongoing cracks and warps.

After cutting the base square on the table saw, it was time to move onto the center recess for storing pieces. Originally I planned to just hollow this out, but I’m just not very skilled with detail routing yet. Instead I cut the slab in a tic-tac-toe fashion, planed down the middle piece until it was a good height, and glued it all back together. It’s amazing to me just how strong well-made glue joints can be; the wood around them will often tear before they give way. A tip from this very amateur woodworker: buy a ton of good-quality clamps; it’s just impossible to build well without them.

Last steps on the base were to (a) shave off the uneven edge created by the kerfs during the tic-tac-toe cutting, (b) use a roundover bit to route a nice edge along the top; (c) sand it all to about 240 grit; (d) embed and glue in some magnets in the corners (more on this later); and (e) apply a few coats of Tried and True finish. I used this finish for the first time because it’s popular for wooden toys, and I’m kind of obsessed with it now — a combination of linseed oil and beeswax that goes on easily, buffs well and looks and feels great. Woot!

Glowforging the base

A piece of 1/8″ MDF with a white oak veneer serves as both the playing surface and a lid for the recess inside. Etching 32 squares takes a long time (SVG links are at the end of the article)! The board is secured with some small but relatively mighty disc magnets I got from Amazon. Honestly this could have turned out a bit better, but it worked OK. The magnets are 3/8″ diameter, but I couldn’t squish them into a 3/8” drilled inset — so I went up to a 1/2″ bit and that was fine after sanding down the edges a little. I secured a pair of magnets in each corner using J-B Weld epoxy. As an aside, J-B Weld is the absolute best. Years ago at Adaptive my belt buckle broke in the middle of the day and one of the folks in the lab hooked me up. That metal-to-metal repaired joint is STILL HOLDING under stress (OK eventually I did get a new belt but that one is still my backup). Amazing.

After that was dry, I put a third magnet on each stack, dabbed some epoxy on the top, and carefully placed the board so the magnets were aligned. This was the right approach, but I kind of screwed it up. The board and base are square and non-directional, so ideally you could just drop the board down in any rotation. But because the base isn’t perfectly square (remember when I trimmed off the kerf edge? That means the final piece is about 1/8″ shorter than it is long), the magnets are actually in a rectangle, not a square. Barely a rectangle, but enough that if you rotate the board 90 degrees it doesn’t sit well.

Worse, I reversed the polarity of the magnets in one corner so if you rotated the board, two corners actually repelled each other. Ugh. The rectangle I could live with but not this, so I carefully pried those magnets out and replaced them the right way. End result — a solid “B” job. I ended up burning two little dots, one on the corner of the board and one in the matching corner of the base, to make it easy to align.

Then the pieces

Now, my nephew takes this stuff very seriously, and I think he may choose to play with his own more traditional pieces. But I wanted the set to be complete, and I just wasn’t up to trying to lathe out a full set in two different woods. After thinking about it quite a bit I ended up cutting out a set of discs based on some great creative commons art (hat tip CBurnett and note my derivative SVG files linked below are freely available for use and modification as well).

The black pieces are on an MDF with mahogany veneer; the white ones are on basswood — so there’s clear contrast between the sides. I made an extra set of each in case some got lost, and they can also be used on the reverse side for checkers (although he’s pretty much too cool for that). Unfortunately I neglected to get any pictures of these before sending the final piece off — oops!

And finally, the inset

The final touch was to line the bottom of the storage recess with an engraved cork sheet. The ones I use are 2mm thick and have adhesive on one side — really nice for these insets, bowl and vase bottoms, and so on. For this project the adhesive wasn’t quite enough, so I added some wood glue and used my daughter’s pie weights (blind bake to avoid a soggy bottom!) to hold it all in place until the glue dried.

That’s a wrap

And that’s it! Lara made even cooler stuff for our niece and it all went into a box for their birthdays. I think I like these hybrid projects the best, using the Glowforge to add details and components to a piece made with more natural materials and techniques. SVG links are below; I didn’t include the cork inlay because that was just a personal note … but good settings for the cork sheets are 1000/10% for engraving and 400/100% for an easy cut.

Thanks as always for reading; it’s almost as fun running back through the projects in my mind as it is making them in the first place. Except for all the mistakes… so many mistakes.