How to Make a Classic Chess Board

How to Make a Classic Chess Board

The interior decorators of King Tut's tomb used ebony and ivory veneer. So did the builders in the French Renaissance court of King Louis XIV, who used exotics and burl wood to make intricate veneer patterns called marquetry. Today Ikea continues this great tradition, as veneer is widely used in commercial furniture to stretch the use of valuable hardwoods. Done right, veneer—a thin slice of wood applied to another piece of wood as decoration—can greatly enhance a project. Here you'll apply the technique to create a chessboard.


• Pencil

• Craft or utility knife

• Table saw, circular saw, or jigsaw (optional)

• Carpenter's square

• Metal straightedge

• Miter box and handsaw, or miter saw

• Clamps • Safety goggles


• At least 14" × 7" sheet of dark veneer (extra preferred)

• At least 17" × 11" sheet of light veneer (extra preferred)

• At least 2" × 17" sheet of silver (or contrasting) veneer (extra preferred)

• Painter's tape

• Clear tape

• 17" × 17" sanded plywood

• Wood glue

• Scrap wood

1 There are many ways to cut veneer, and each cut tends to give a different, distinctive pattern to the grain. So when you go to the home improvement store or lumberyard, explore not only the colors of veneers but also their grains. Pick 1-ply light and dark hardwood veneers that are exactly the same thickness. Then choose a third piece of contrasting 1-ply veneer—silver works well—for the trim that will go around the outside edges of your board. You may be able to use veneer scraps. Veneer comes with or without paper backing. For this project, raw (unbacked) veneer is preferable, but paperbacked will work as well.

How to Make a Classic Chess Board

2 Cut the veneer into strips. Depending on your tools, use a saw or a craft or utility knife to cut your veneer to size. If you use a table saw, be sure you know how to use it safely, because you'll be making narrow cuts. Like molding, veneer tends to chip and crack when cut. Whatever saw you use, pick the blade with the smallest, most closely spaced teeth, and make sure it's sharp. To guard against splintering, put scotch tape over the lines you will cut, and then slice through the tape. Remove it carefully once you've made your cuts. Measure, mark, and cut four strips each of light and dark veneer. The standard dimension of chessboard squares is 1¾" on a side, so, for now, make eight strips that are 1¾" × 14". Measure, mark, and cut four ¼" × 17" strips of silver veneer, and another four strips of 1" × 17" light veneer for your border.

3 On a flat surface, lay the 1¾" × 14" light and dark veneer strips exactly side by side with the face side down, starting with a light strip. Push the strips against a carpenter's square to ensure that they are exactly square on all sides. If squaring the strips is impossible, shave strips as necessary or replace badly cut strips with new ones. The precision of this step will determine the success of your project. Using the carpenter's square to keep them flush, use a liberal amount of clear tape on the backs of the strips to hold them all together in a square.

How to Make a Classic Chess Board

4 Cut your strips into squares. First, make marks every 1¾" along your first light strip and then make corresponding marks at every 1¾" along the final dark strip. Lay the metal straightedge between the corresponding marks and run your craft knife along the straightedge, being sure to hold the knife exactly vertically. It's fine if your cuts require multiple strokes with the knife. As long as you run true against the straightedge, it's better to make multiple light cuts than risk cracking the veneer. Because you backed your strips with clear tape and then cut through the tape, the cuts in this step will again make strips (held together with the tape), only this time your strips are made of alternating light and dark squares.

How to Make a Classic Chess Board

5 Pick up these strips and, as before, lay the strips side by side, but this time alternate the pattern so that it looks like the standard chessboard. Square these strips against the carpenter's square and again join them together with tape into a perfect square.

How to Make a Classic Chess Board

6 Lay the ¼" strips of silver veneer alongside your squared, chessboardpatterned strips to form a border. Use the craft knife to miter the corners at 45-degree angles (see How to Build a Picture Frame). Do the same with the 1" × 17" strips of light veneer, to complete the border.

How to Make a Classic Chess Board

7 Mount your veneer chessboard surface on your 17" × 17" sanded plywood board. To do this, pick off the tape from one piece of veneer at a time, apply a dot of wood glue to the back of each piece and place it on the board. Once all pieces are in place, clamp them in place to dry. Place scrap wood against the clamp pads to spread the force of the clamp across a wider area—this will help you avoid scratching, denting, or cracking your veneer.

How to Make a Classic Chess Board

If you are feeling ambitious, flip here (How to Build a Storage Chest) and use the techniques there to build what is effectively a small chest to hold your chess pieces and on top of which you can mount your veneer.