Building any kind of box can be a little challenging. Coving its sides can make it a little more time-consuming. But making a chessboard lid out of 64 small square blocks of wood so all the corners match up neatly can be totally overwhelming. And trust me – nothing receives quite as much scrutiny as the top of a handmade chessboard.
But there is no reason to be afraid of making a chessboard. All you need is some basic woodworking experience, a well-tuned table saw and, most importantly, lots of patience.
I tackle this project in four steps:
• First I prepare the wood.
• Next I make the chessboard, which will be inset in the box lid.
• Then I assemble the box.
• And finally I cut the lid off the box, install hinges and finish the piece.
As with any project, quality materials are important. For my chessboards, I use walnut and maple, although any contrasting woods will do. Select wood that is equally dry, and joint and plane it to thickness. As always, your wood must be straight.
8 Strips = 64 Squares
A chessboard is made up of 64 square blocks. Thirty-two squares are dark and 32 are light. If the corners of the squares don’t line up properly, the contrasting colors will make any gaps extremely noticeable and the project will be ruined. The prospect of accurately cutting and gluing together 64 blocks is daunting, so don’t do it. Instead, make the squares in strips.
First cut four strips of walnut and four strips of maple both 2″ wide and carefully edge-glue them together, keeping the ends aligned. When the glue has dried, true up one end by crosscutting the assembled panel on your table saw.
Note: You don’t want to move the table saw’s fence to do this. Use an accurate miter gauge or crosscut sled. Then, with the fence still set at 2″, crosscut the panel into 2″-wide strips again. Here are some secrets to successful square cutting:
• Make sure your table saw’s blade is set at 90° to the table and your table saw’s fence is perfectly parallel to the blade.
• Don’t move the table saw’s fence between cuts.
• Use a blade stiffener to avoid any chance of blade flutter.
• Keep the blade low to the work (one tooth above the wood is a good rule of thumb).
• Try not to pause part of the way through a cut. This will produce a slightly wider cut at that part, which would be very noticeable on a chessboard.
You now have eight strips of wood 2″ wide. Rotate every other strip end for end and glue them back together, as shown in photo 3. Make sure you glue the pieces back together on a flat surface and use a jig similar to the one I used in the picture.
After the glue has had time to cure, you can plane or sand all surfaces to remove any irregularities. If you own a planer, unplug it. The grain of the blocks will be running in different directions because of the construction method we used and there is a good chance of some severe tear-out. For years I hand-planed and scraped the surface smooth. These days I used a drum sander and it works just fine.
Now cut the groove around the edges of the chessboard for the splines that secure the board in the lid. This can be done by making a couple of passes on your table saw with the blade set up to 1/4″. Then plane a light chamfer around the outside top surface of the board and sand in stages up to its final grit (I go to #600-grit). The underside of the lid will be visible when opened, so make sure you sand both sides.