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It’s easy to create a veneered chessboard with an inlay accent, using a minimal number of tools.

Project #2306 • Skill Level: IntermediateTime: 2 DaysCost: $125

Online Extra: Download the full chessboard dimensions here: April 2023 Online Extras

Everyone loves a beautiful chessboard, and this project makes a perfect gift for playing or a fun charcuteries board. Plus, it’s a great adult-child project. You can also use these skills to increase creative possibilities in any woodworking project. In this article, I will review this easy process, walk through it step by step, and show how to avoid and overcome possible pitfalls.

Overview

The chessboard pattern uses eight strips of contrasting veneer. Typically, a board is 12 x 12 square and each check is 1-1/2. Eight 1-1/2 squares equal 12. Often there is a perimeter border to frame in the field of play.

The board is made by cutting and seaming eight strips of veneer together and alternating the contrasting colors to a 13 x 13 panel. (I make the board oversized first—more on that later). Then I recut the striped panel into eight more pieces at 90° to the seam. Retaping the newly cut pieces and rotating every other strip 180° yields a chessboard. Viola! Add some inlay and a perimeter veneer border with a waterfall edge and you have a woodworking project that is truly spectacular.

Why Veneer?

Wood veneer has many advantages over hardwood:

Wider variety of highly figured species and readily available.

More cost effective.

Easier workability than hardwood.

Provides the highest quality: Typically, when a highly figured tree is discovered during the cutting (felling) process, it’s sent to the veneer plant because it will yield a higher price. For example, an average 17 diameter by 10 long log yields approximately 200 board feet. That same log cut into veneer generates 10,000 square feet.

Better availability as some species are only obtainable in veneer.

Easy to ship.

More stability.

More sustainable: Veneer yields 42 times more square footage than hardwood. Kerf cuts in hardwood is wasted while veneer is sliced into leaves with no kerf.

Tools and Supplies

Veneer

Break away expendable utility knife

Calipers

Table saw

Vacuum bag press or clamps and cauls

White glue & Thin CA glue

Double stick tape

Cutting mat (18″ x 24″)

Random orbital sander

PSA sandpaper

Router with 1/8” bit

1 The styles and combinations of veneer are countless. Here, I’ve selected some quilted mahogany, curly maple, and dyed veneer.

Select the Veneer

Veneer is available in a wide variety of species and figures and is typically 1/42 thick. I suggest spending as much as you can on the veneer because a chessboard requires only a little over one square foot and using a rare and/or highly figured veneer adds a higher aesthetic value and that wow factor we all love. Select a minimum of 13 in length for cutting continuous strips.

Veneer can arrive flat, smooth and supple, or wrinkly and brittle. Flat and pliable veneer is much easier to work with. Gnarly veneer can be conditioned to make it soft and flat. For a video on conditioning veneer, visit my YouTube channel, ImagineGrove Woodworking, and watch Conditioning and Flattening Veneer.

Select two contrasting veneers and a border veneer, and consider additional inlay(s) you might add, like a nautilus star. Look for a nautilus star inlay project in an upcoming article of Popular Woodworking.

2 The cutting template needs to be the precise width you need for your veneer strips.

Create a Cutting Template

Cut a 1/2 thick piece of MDF exactly 11/2 wide and a minimum of 19 long and be sure it’s perfectly straight. This can be done by joining or sanding one edge on a flat machine table first, then ripping it to 11/2 wide. Seal the edges and harden the fibers with one coat of thin CA glue. Once dry, lightly sand the CA edge with 320 grit paper on a flat surface. Add a strip of fine grit PSA sandpaper to the bottom side for “gription.” (I love that word.)

3 Harden the edge of the template with thin super glue.

For safety, add a bead of hot glue 1/8 back from the edge on the top face, which helps prevent your fingers from overhanging during the cutting process. This happens more times than I’d like to admit and is especially important when children are involved.

4 “Joint” the edge of the template by sanding the edge.

5 A bead of hot glue adds a tactile boundary point to the guide to keep your fingers safe from the blade.

Make a second straight edge, same as above without the hot glue or sandpaper, and double stick this to one edge of the cutting mat (18 x 24 is a good size). MDF also makes a good cutting surface.

6 Large, heavy-duty scissors work well to trim the veneer to length.

Cut the Veneer Strips

Cross cut the veneer at least 12 cross grain and 13 in length and cut one side straight. I use a break- away style knife and make a few light cuts, making sure to keep the veneer flat by pressing the straightedge firmly down. This is very important to achieve a clean straight cut.

7 Trim the stock edge straight.

8 Use one template to register the edge of the veneer, and then use the second to position your cut.

9 A spacer allows you to make a strip wider than the rest.

Push the veneer tightly against the straight edge on the mat; use the cutting template to cut three 1-1/2 wide x 13 long strips and one slightly wider ~2 of each color. I use a 1/2 scrap piece of MDF as a spacer between the straight edge and the cutting template to easily create the parallel wider strips. Again, hold the veneer firmly down flat while cutting and make a few light passes through the veneer. Did I mention how important this is?

Seam and Tape

Using a veneer tape (a thin, moisture-activated paper tape), tape the strips together (and now I’ve written the word tape too many times!). TIP: Use distilled water for veneer tape because some tap water can stain veneer.

10 Veneer tape is used to fasten the strips together. This tape has water-activated adhesive.

Some people like to use light-tack painter’s masking tape, but I strongly recommend against it. Masking tape is harder to remove, can tear the grain, and will build up in thickness with multiple overlapping layers which can leave an impression into the veneer during the pressing process.

Lightly dampen a short 1 piece of veneer tape with a moistened sponge or veneer tape dispenser and tape two contrasting strips of veneer together tightly, starting in the middle. To set the adhesive, use a household iron set at low (275°) or the nylon setting. This holds the veneer firmly in place and evaporates excess moisture. It also allows me to keep working without the risk of the tape slipping while still wet. When using an iron, use only the very tip on the tape and do not heat the surrounding veneer with the entire iron footprint, which can dry out and shrink the veneer.

11 Applying the tape and ironing it with a hot iron rapidly sets the adhesive.

Hold the veneer seam tightly together and work outward from the center, adding tape along the way. In some cases, I apply a center piece of tape, and then one at each end if the seam is tight.

12 After seaming the strips together, use a square to define a right-angle.

13 Then, start trimming the strips to width.

Afterwards, I tape over the entire seam with a 13 long piece of tape. It’s important that the entire seam is taped over.  After the six 1-1/2 alternating strips are seamed together, place the wider pieces on each side and tape. Lastly, with an accurate square, cut one straight edge 90° to the taped seams, working from the bottom (the un-taped side). Doing so, allows you see the veneer seams clearly to align the square. Now repeat the above strip cutting process and cut six strips at 1-1/2 width and remember to cut two extra-wide ones too.

14 As before, after trimming strips, create one wider strip using a spacer.

Assemble

Working from the bottom (the un-taped veneer side), rotate every other strip 180°, align the center square intersections, and temporarily tape together with painter’s masking tape. Finish with the wider veneer strips on each side as before. Flip the entire grouping over and tape the top side with veneer tape; be sure to keep the seams tight together as you go and tape all of the seams. I also tape the perimeter to protect the veneer from too much handling. Once fully taped, remove the blue painter’s tape.

15 Line up the seams and “tack them” with blue painter’s tape.

16 After flipping the veneer over, apply a liberal amount of veneer tape to the seams.

Final Sizing

Using the cutting template, align one edge to the last outside seam of the wider strips on all four sides and mark with a fine pencil. This will define the perimeter of the board as these wider pieces will need to be cut down to 11/2.

17 Mark the perimeter using the template.

Check the squareness by measuring the diagonal, corner to corner where the new pencil marks cross. You might need to make a minor adjustment, which can be fudged, typically by a scooch (a term I use that means less than 1/32). Once you confirm squareness, cut the perimeter veneer panel to end up with a square 12 x 12 chessboard pattern, which is ready for a border.

18 A beam compass is an easy way to check the board for square.

The Border

Oversized veneer strips with enough leftover make a perfectly aligned, 2 wide, grain matched border that waterfalls over the edge. Now we cut four 3 wide veneer strips that are 18 long. Tape these strips to the perimeter of the checkerboard and leave the corners overlapping. These will be cut later to create a perfect miter seam. To define the overall size of the board (16 x 16), draw a perimeter line from the chessboard perimeter seam with a 2 wide x 18 MDF spacer. Draw the miter seams using the chessboard corners for alignment and run the pencil line along.

19 Position the border veneer and tack it in place with blue tape.

Cut the Veneer Miter

We’ll make these veneer miter seams align perfectly with the chessboard corners — and I mean perfectly align! Now it’s time to cut the MDF panel core to the exact size of the finished board. In this case, I cut a 1/2 piece of MDF to 16 x 16“. You’ll want to make sure it’s perfectly square. When you’re sure it’s square, double-check its squareness again. Set the MDF core onto the veneer and confirm that the overlapped miter corner pencil lines align perfectly. Again, a minor adjustment can be fudged on the veneer miter for perfect alignment. Be sure to make a reference mark to match the MDF with the veneer so if the panel gets turned around the alignment will still be good.

20 As with the board, use veneer tape to attach the border.

21 Carefully mark the center of the board and draw diagonal reference lines.

Registration

While the core is still perfectly aligned on the veneer, add short blocks with a small piece of double- sided tape and stick them down and around the perimeter. This acts as a placement registration when pressing.

22 Small blocks help register the MDF core on the veneer.

23 Use a utility knife to cut the miters on the border.

Now that we know that everything lines up and it has register blocking, cut the veneer miters through both layers at once; pressing down on your straight edge; making 2-3 light cuts; and tape them together.

24 Some last minute veneer tape helps keep everything aligned.

Backer Veneer

All veneered panels must have veneer on both sides of the panel, which creates a “balanced panel” and prevents the panel from warping. For the backer, cut and seam together more veneer that is a little larger than the overall board, 16-1/2 x 16-1/2. You can use “backer veneer,” which is less expensive, a completely different veneer, or one of the board species you have already chosen to use for a more elegant presentation. It does not have to be a chessboard pattern.

25 Prep the back as well.

Press

There are several ways to press veneer, including platens; crisscrossing cauls and clamps; using an industrial hot press, or for hobbyist and small shops, a vacuum bag is by far the way to go. They are very effective and roll up for out-of-the-way storage.

26 I prefer a white PVA glue for applying veneer instead of a veneer or yellow glue.

The bottom line on pressing veneer is to apply an even amount of glue with even pressure. Lay the backer veneer, tape side down, on a smooth flat piece of melamine (or MDF covered with craft paper). Apply a thin coat of white glue (3 mil thick) to the MDF core with a roller or fine-notched trowel. Flip the core onto the veneer and slide it into the vacuum bag.

27 A vacuum press and bag squeezes the veneer together.

Press for about one hour to allow the glue to obtain its initial tack. Cut the excess overhanging veneer and press the top veneer in the same manner. Be sure to keep the orientation in the same direction and drop the glued core in between the alignment blocks for perfect registration.

For full adhesion, keep this final pressing in the bag for at least six hours. A full cure can take 24 hours out of the bag.

After Pressing

Remove the panel from the press, twist off the registration blocks and cut the excess veneer off, and number these veneer strips to the core’s edge. These will be used to veneer the edges and provides the grain to waterfall over the edge for a perfect match. Lightly sand the core edges with a flat sanding block to remove any fuzz, being sure to keep the sides square.

28 After the board is pressed, remove the veneer tape. A damp sponge reactivates the adhesive and lets you pull off most of the tape easily.

Lightly moisten the veneer tape with a damp sponge to soften the adhesive and peel it off. Clean up the remaining surface with a card scraper and remove the last bits of tape and glue glaze (glue that has seeped through the veneer to the top surface, which will look shiny or whiteish from the water).

29 For stubborn bits and any left over adhesive, use a card scraper—it’s safer than sanding because you can quickly sand through the veneer.

Need Repairs?

If any bubbles appear in the veneer from the moisture, don’t panic—this is a good thing! I’d rather find them now than after finishing. On my veneer pressing projects, even without any veneer tape, I lightly wipe the entire surface with a damp sponge first to reveal any lose veneer.

30 To fix a bubble, use a hot iron (no steam) to reactivate the glue.

31 A heavy metal roller can be used to press the bubble back down.

Bubbles can be caused by too much glue, not enough glue, the glue started to dry and glaze over before it adhered to the veneer, or from not enough or uneven clamping pressure. No matter the reason, bubbles are easy to fix. Set your iron to 200° or the delicate setting, then heat the bubble (and just the bubble) with the tip on the iron to press it back down. Then using a block of wood or a roller, continue to press the veneer down until the glue cools. (A steel roller is best because the metal acts as a heat sink and cools the glue fast for re-adhesion). If the bubble is starving for glue, inject a small amount into it, then iron and clamp it down flat.

32 For larger bubbles, use a needle filled with glue.

Edges

Now’s the time to glue on the edges with the corresponding veneer cut off strips that you trimmed earlier. Spend a moment to confirm that the grain is aligned between the top and the cutoff. Apply a thin coat of glue to the chessboard’s MDF edge and stand the panel up onto the veneer cut off strips. Be sure it is on a smooth flat surface; I like to use melamine or MDF with packing tape to create a non-stick surface.

33 Trim the veneer and glue the trimming onto the edge of the board. This creates a “waterfall” edge, and gives the appearance of solid wood.

Since the panel is 16 wide, you will need only two clamps to disperse the pressure evenly down to the veneer edging. Be sure that panel is square and perpendicular to the clamping surface.

After about 15 minutes, trim the overhanging veneer while the panel is still clamped and glue the next side, repeating the process for the remaining edges. After all the sides are completed, hand sand the edges and ever-so-slightly bevel the veneer to the top and bottom faces with a 320-grit paper of sandpaper on a hard block.

Sand the entire surface with 180-grit sandpaper using a random orbital sander and be careful not to over sand the edges (an easy place to sand through the veneer). Apply a sealer coat of gloss lacquer to seal the grain before the perimeter inlay.

Hooray for Inlay

Adding a perimeter inlay accent creates an impressive artistic pop of color or wow to your chessboard. It also adds a higher price point if you’re selling them (and cover up bad and/or open seams, in case you have them).

You can use a contrasting wood species, silver, paua abalone strips, cultured opal, turquoise, or in this case, mother of pearl (MOP). I like laser-cut inlay strips because I know they are perfectly parallel and a consistent width.

34 Use a router to create a groove for an inlay strip.

To cut a precise pocket, take a router with a 1/8 bit, and place the MOP under the base. Drop the bit to the work surface (a scrap test piece of MDF), then remove the MOP and perform a test cut to confirm the depth is correct. Digital calipers are handy for this operation.

For minor adjustments, place a piece of paper or card stock on the bottom of the router base to raise or lower the cut by a scooch. Use this method to adjust the width of the cut by adding shim stock onto the router fence.

35 Easy Inlay strips can be trimmed with a chisel.

Use a light re-positionable spray adhesive to hold the paper in place (the adhesive residue can be cleaned off with mineral spirits in the future). The finest adjustments can be made with this method on both the height and width cuts and testing is always a good idea. I like to leave my inlay a hair high so it can be flushed down to the veneer.

36 The strips are adhesive backed and pressed into place.

Once the inlay kerf is cut into the board, pre-miter the MOP with a 45° square and chisel or utility knife. Easy inlay MOP has a very strong PSA backing: peel it off and place the first corner in the groove. Work your way around, dry fitting each piece, and carefully match the butt and mitered corners tightly before adhering with the PSA backing. Once it’s installed, press it one more time with a steel roller and flush the MOP to the veneer using a card scraper or 320-grit sandpaper. Fill any butt or miter seam gaps with crushed MOP dust and a drop of thin CA glue.

37 Ensure good adhesion by rolling the strips down.

To tighten up the inlay aesthetic, tape off both sides of the strip seam with masking tape and fill the entire taped void with wood filler that matches the border veneer. This ensures that any minor gaps will be filled, and this method gets them all at once. After the filler is dry, remove the tape, which leaves the filler slightly high, then sand it off leaving only filled gaps, and move to the next side.

38 Use a cabinet scraper to flush the inlay to the rest of the board.

39 Fill any small gaps in between the board and inlay with a solvent-
based filler.

Sand the entire piece again with 220-grit and finish with a few coats of lacquer, sanding in between coats. You can add wooden or rubber feet to the underside for some grip and to allow the board to float.

40 Thin CA glue wicks down into the gaps around the inlay, fills them, and seals the MOP down.

With a little practice and carefully selected veneer, you can create an eye-catching chessboard that will add beauty and magic to your play. But maybe I’ll start with checkers. It’s your move!


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