Building a chess-piece box that’s better than the pieces it contains

I’ve always loved playing games. As a kid living in Puerto Rico, my parents complemented the street Spanish I was learning with a Monopoly game in Spanish. I still have it today. By the time I got to high school, I was battling out Gettysburg over a monster, multi-map edition by SPI. Then it was off to college. My dorm room had no surplus space for games. But it did come with a roommate, Roy. So I picked up a cardboard chessboard along with some wood pieces to take my mind off the tough time calculus was giving me.

The pieces came in a wood box that was a bit crowded…


…and painted a terrible orange.


 I suppose that’s great if you’re a Bronco fan (which I am,) but not so great now that I’ve become a self-proclaimed woodworker. The quality of the chess pieces themselves pale in comparison to the memories they’ve given me over the last 32 years. So I decided to give them a finely-crafted home.

The old box got the once-over with my ruler. That scrutiny led to this plan.


 Materials selection & rough-cutting pieces

Classic French furniture draws upon a lot of beautiful mahogany. And if it’s good enough for Louis the XIV it’s good enough for my box. I harvested the side pieces from a piece of African mahogany I had left over from another project. It was ¾” thick so I resawed and planed the pieces to form two 5/16” halves, which were then cut to form the sides and front/back pieces.

For the top panel I resawed a 4/4 piece of maple and edge glued the pieces to yield a book-matched grain worthy of royalty.


Pre-glue-up details

My design called for everything to be assembled—bottom, lid, divider—for the glue up. So I had to complete many steps before the sticky stuff hit the edges.

With the pieces all trimmed to exacting size on a shooting board, I routed slots for the bottom (1/4” plywood) and the top panel (1/8” wide groove). The top panel got rabetted around the edges to give me a 1/8”.

The box has a divider to separate the black pieces from the white ones. I prefer this setup because it cuts down on the time it takes to sort and separate them for play. The divider is also made of ¼” plywood. I routed stopped dados in the front and back side panels to accept this piece, leaving a tinsy bit of room to accommodate the green lining that would adorn it. Next came a coat of Danish oil for the interior. Once that dried I applied the remaining green felt liner.


Joinery and glue-up

After dry-fitting the pieces, and tuning a bit here and there on the shooting board, I glued up the box. Once dry, I reinforced the butt joints by drilling 1/8” holes to take brass pins cut from a rod. These were glued in place with 5-minute epoxy.

After that, I sawed off the excess parts of the rods and sanded the entire external surface, progression from 180 to 2000 grits until I had a pleasing, shiny surface.


Final touches

The next step was to separate the lid from the rest of the box. I don’t have a table saw, nor do I trust sawing it off accurately by hand. So I put a 1/8” straight-cut bit into the router table and used it to make the kerf to separate box from lid. I took several passes, increasing the depth of cut each time until only the last 1/32” remained. A box cutter dispatched this last bit while also helping to dress up the edges to make them clean and true. A razor blade served to trim the green felt so that it was even with the top edges of the lower-half of the box.

After two coats of Danish oil dried, I attached cheap big-box-store hinges to join the lid with the box body, and a latch to secure the lid. I was a wee bit off, with the lid hanging over one side by about 1/64”, and under by that amount on the opposite side. So I planed these surfaces smooth, sanded them and finished them with Danish oil. The next day I applied two coats of paste wax.


The fun part came when I transferred the chess pieces to their new home.


Now they have a quality resting place to match the wonderful memories I’ve collected with them. And when I pass them on to my chess-playing nephew they’ll keep the pieces safe so the next generation of my family can make chess memories of their own in style.




About The Write Biz

By day, I'm a mild-mannered copywriter who harnesses frontal-lobe creativity (right brain) to help B2B marketers generate leads and sales. By night I pick up hand tools to create wooden masterpieces...and give my black lab Bella the "red dot" laser to chase after.
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1 Response to Building a chess-piece box that’s better than the pieces it contains

  1. Jose Santiago says:

    Nice chess box. I thought you might like to make your own chess pieces. I have pasted a link to Jim Kape’s Book below. This is what got me started on my woodworking about year ago. Enjoy.

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