The past few summers, we’ve done some super-fun oversized outdoor game projects (Jenga, anyone? How about Yahtzee?), and this summer is no exception. This year, we’re putting a big twist on a classic: chess. I love this project because it takes a fairly simple concept and applies a serious dose of creativity—it’s always fun to take a material you work with day in and day out and make something unexpected from it. In fact, I’ve found that when I’m in need of a breakthrough with a design idea, it really helps to do a project like this.
Today’s project came about in the middle of trying to figure out the dunk tank. The shift in focus meant I was able to successfully complete the dunk tank and create an entirely new project that’s a great source of entertainment at the beach, the park, or the backyard barbecue. It’s also a great project for testing your skill level. This project challenged me to use a circular saw in a more creative and precise way. You can keep this project basic, or apply some more advanced technique to up your craft. Ready?
Step 1: Cut Four-by-Fours
To start, clamp the wood to your work surface. Then, make your cuts with a chop saw. One four-by-four should be enough to make half of the pieces, so you’ll need two. Cut eight 4” pieces for the pawns, two 6 1/2" pieces for the rooks, two 9” pieces for the knights, two 5” pieces for the bishops, one 10” piece for the queen, and one 11” piece for the king. Repeat with the second four-by-four.
Step 2: Sand
Sand everything except the knights—we’ll get to those later.
Step 3: Make Pawns
For the pawns, use the shortest (4”) pieces. You can leave them as-is, or follow my lead and add a fence cap—I always believe in a little flare.
I love this project because pretty much everything is glued together with a construction-grade hot glue. It’s made for gluing down hardwood flooring, so it’s strong and dries quickly, but it works just as well in a little $20 hot glue gun as it does in an expensive contractor hot glue gun. I’ve been doing it for years, and it’s one of my favorite tips. Plus, my impatient self loves anything I don’t have to wait for. Instant gratification, am I right?
To add a fence cap, simply pick one you like and glue it on. Make 16.
Step 4: Make Rooks
For people who aren’t familiar with chess terms, a rook is the castle-looking piece. This piece is our first piece with a modification, meaning you can keep it fairly simple, or you can practice some detail work.
For the simple option, glue large fence post caps upside down on top of the 6 1/2" four-by-four lengths. You can stop here and have a castle-esque piece without any more work.
For a more detailed option, measure across the top of the fence post cap and mark every 3/4" on either side. Use a speed square to draw lines that connect the dots—you should end up with six of them. Starting between the first and second lines, shade in every other space with a pencil. Don’t skip this step, or you might accidentally cut out the wrong section, and that’s always a bummer.
Next, take your circular saw and adjust the depth of the blade to 3/4". Clamp down the post cap and cut along the first line. Continue cutting as close to the line as possible, until you’ve cut out the entire section between the first line and the second line. You’ll end up with a lot of paper-thin ridges at the base of that section—we’ll eventually knock those out with a chisel. This cutting technique is frequently used with table saws because it’s really easy to get nice, straight lines. This is that, but on a smaller scale.
Repeat this process with the other shaded areas. Use a chisel to remove the wood ridges, then sand until smooth. Secure to the four-by-four with glue. Make four.
Step 5: Make Knights
A knight is also known as the horse! This is definitely the most complex of the pieces, because let’s be honest, there’s no easy way to make a horse shape from a four-by-four. If you find this too challenging (or if you don’t want to take the time), another option would be to take a notch from the top of the wood that creates a little step—this is a more abstract way to represent the knight. The beautiful thing about this chess set is that it doesn’t need to look just like the classic chess piece—it just has to be different from all the other pieces on the board. Once people know it’s a knight (even if it doesn’t look anything like a horse), they know it’s a knight.
For those who are up for a challenge, start with the 9” four-by-four pieces. At the top, measure in 1” from both sides and mark. Measure down 1 1/2" from the top of the left side, and down 1” from the top of the right side. Connect the marks on both sides to form two triangles.
Then, measure 3” and 4” down on the right side, and use a speed square to mark a line along the side of the four-by-four. Mark a third mark 1” in from the edge and 2 1/2" down. Connect these three dots to form a triangle. Then, set your circular saw to 25° and the blade depth to 1 1/2". Cut along the side of the four-by-four, following the top line.
To cut the bottom line, set the circular saw to 50° and the blade depth to 2 3/4".
Sand. Make four.
Step 6: Make Bishops
To make the bishop, use the 5” length of four-by-four and a colonial post cap.
Adjust the circular saw to 45° and the blade depth to 2”. Clamp down the post cap, then cut 2 1/4” down from the point. This creates the classic diagonal cut of the bishop’s hat. Sand if necessary, then glue the post cap to the four-by-four. Make four.
Step 7: Make Queen
To make the queen, glue the ball post cap onto the 10” length of four-by-four. Make two.
Step 8: Make King
To make the king, attach an inverted post cap onto a fancier post cap (the more detail, the more regal!) with glue. Secure this “crown” onto the top of the 11” four-by-four. Make two.
Step 9: Cut Board Pieces
All your chess pieces are finished. Congrats! Now it’s time to make the game board.
Start by cutting your pieces of one-by-six spruce into 64 squares. You should be able to get about 17 squares from each 8’ board. Fair warning: this is a lot of cutting. Measure the width of the lumber (which should be around 5 1/2"), and use this as your guide. With a chop saw, you can construct a simple jig for more efficiency, just like we did with the Jenga project. Doing this will make every cut the exact same length without having to measure each one.
Step 10: Sand Each Piece
Once you’re done, sand.
Step 11: Cut Board Backing
Next it’s time to cut the board backing. We’ll eventually adhere the 64 squares to this, and it’ll break down and fold up for easy storage.
Start by cutting your four-by-four sheet of plywood into two pieces. You can do this with a circular saw at home, or, if you’re like me and can’t fit a giant piece of plywood in your car, you can have Dunn Lumber make the cuts for you. One piece should be 26 3/4" wide, and the other should be 21 1/4" wide.
Then, cut each piece in half. You’ll have four pieces now.
Step 10: Stain
Next, stain everything. I picked our darkest and lightest wood stain, but you can go with a less intense contrast if you’d like. Stain half of the pieces in the color espresso, and half of the pieces in natural color. Then stain half of the checkerboard pieces in the color espresso and half of them with the natural color. A note: because we’re using two different types of wood, let all of the plywood checkerboard areas reset for 15 minutes before wiping the stain off (but wipe the stain off the chess pieces immediately). Let everything dry.
This step takes some time—I watched a movie while I stained everything!
Step 11: Glue the Board Together
Your board is cut into four pieces for easy storage, but for the purpose of this step, we’re going to pretend it’s only two pieces (the first two you cut): the wide one and the narrow one. The wide and the narrow pieces lock together, and when they’re unlocked, they can be folded in half again. We’ll eventually attach a hinge to make this possible—we’ll get to that in a later step. Keep all of this in mind so this next step doesn’t confuse you!
The finished board will have a 2” border. Measure in 2” from the outside edge and make a mark on either end, then connect the dots with a straightedge. Repeat on each side.
Starting with the wider piece, begin placing squares along the seam where the two quarters meet up (this is where the board will fold once we add hinges) and along the line you marked 2” in from the edge. Glue down. Alternate between dark and light, adjusting the glued-down pieces as needed.
Once you have three rows across the wide piece, add only the dark pieces on the fourth row. These will overhang the board halfway, and will make the interlocking possible—kind of like a zipper.
Repeat this step with the narrow half, this time with the lighter pieces overhanging—make sure everything lines up the right way.
Step 12: Add Hinge
Cut your 48” hinge to size with a hacksaw—you should have one hinge for each size. Screw into place, paying special attention that you add screws only in areas where it’ll go through both the plywood backing and the checkerboard pieces—if it goes only through the plywood where the two parts interlock, the screw will stick out.
Step 13: Add Trim
Make trim from one-by-threes. Measure around the board and cut pieces accordingly with mitered cuts using a miter saw or a circular saw. Cut the trim in half at all of the seams so the two halves can fold in half at the hinges. Sand.
Then, wood burn numbers and letters so you can say, “Move B4 to B6.” You should have the letters of the alphabet (A through H) on one side, and numbers (one through eight) on an adjacent side, oriented like the diagram below.
Next, stain the trim. Let dry, then glue to the board.
Step 14: Finish
To keep everything in prime condition (especially if you’re wanting to leave this outside overnight), finish with an exterior finish. I usually go for a matte finish, but I like a glossy finish for this project.
This project is great for not only upping your chess game, but for upping your skills. As I mentioned in the introduction, I’ve always used a circular saw in a very functional way, and this project challenged me to reach for more advanced techniques. Adjusting angles and blade depths and using the circular saw in an unconventional way was a good exercise in finessing those skills—and it was fun. And while I’m not much of a chess player these days, I am excited to watch other people play giant chess in my backyard all summer long.
How to Play Chess
Check out chess.com to learn how to play (or just brush up on the rules).