Our DIY Chess Table

My older two boys go to a charter school that promotes playing chess. As a matter of fact it is even part of the curriculum starting in 3rd grade. Because the school celebrates chess tournament winners, my boys asked to join the after school chess club (I am sure they are hoping they will be one of those tournament winners someday). I know that chess may have a reputation of being “uncool” in many circles but it is amazing to look at some of the advantages that chess players may gain. According to ChessVibes, here are “10 big brain benefits” of playing chess

  1. It can raise your IQ
  2. It helps prevent Alzheimer’s (the brain disease my grandfather died from)
  3. It exercises both sides of the brain (as a preschool teacher, we’re taught that this is so important for brain development)
  4. It increases your creativity
  5. It improves your memory
  6. It increases problem-solving skills
  7. It improves reading skills
  8. It improves concentration
  9. It grows dendrites (helping expand brain growth and depth)
  10. It teaches planning and foresight (helping your kids to make better decisions in life)

I love all those benefits, but even if they didn’t exist, I love that it is a quite activity that my boys enjoy! They love playing chess with friends at school and love challenging each other and adults outside of school. We started with a great Chess Teacher set that my dad found at a garage sale. This is set is great because it is not only portable (the size of a typical board game) but it has all the possible chess moves for each piece printed on the front of that piece.ChessTeacher

This last Christmas I decided that it was time to change our family room play area by moving the “train” table, legos, and all the toys upstairs to the boys rooms and playroom. This area was great when our kids were all preschoolers as it gave them a space to play while I made dinner and did other things downstairs. Now our boys are old enough that they don’t need to be next to me every second and if they want to be downstairs they can do their homework at the kitchen table or choose a portable activity that can be put away.

We were ready for a more grown-up family room space so I thought it would be fun to make a chess table to fill that space and give it to the boys as a surprise Christmas gift. It is always fun to find something they are not asking for yet I know they will love. : ) So I started doing research online. I checked craigslist for tables both regular and those that were already chess tables. Surprisingly, I found several tables with chess boards already on them, yet none quite fit the space like I had envisioned. I ended up choosing a pub table with two chairs and fold down sides that would fit the space well. Since it was on the other side of town, I asked my parents if they would pick it up. They did and asked if they could buy it for their gift to the boys…even better (especially since I knew I would be asking my dad for help in finishing it).

Now that I had the table, I searched online for other DIY chess table posts. I found one that had completely stripped and re-stained a worn table. Their table turned out great but I wasn’t about to strip and re-stain this like-new table. I found others that suggested creating a template out of tape, but I didn’t want to risk scratching the table as I cut out the template so I used tips from both and…eventually got started.

With the business of the season, it was only a few days before Christmas and I was just buying the supplies. My dad and I went to Home Depot (3 trips total until figured out everything we needed).

Here is what I used:ChessTableSuppliesWEB

(*indicates items we already had and didn’t need to purchase)

Mineral Spirits – $5.74

220 grit sand paper – $4.47

Tape measure*

Carpenter’s square*


Frog Tape (supposedly a tighter seal than blue painters tape) – $5.87

Black paint (I used a very small portion of the 8 ounce oil based flat paint) – $4.78

Small artist brushes (I used brushes for oil based paints from home depot) – $3.37

Polyurethane (I used most of the 8 ounce clear semi-gloss can) – $5.78

Good medium sized paint brush (I used one 3 inches wide)*

Foam roller*

Small bucket/tray to pore polyurethane in*

Smooth rag*

To keep the project a secret, we had put the table inside our enclosed trailer. So with the help of my parents who were watching the kids, I snuck out into the trailer to get started.

  1. The first thing I did was clean the surface of the table with a rag and a small amount of mineral spirits. (My dad told me to be very cautious with mineral spirits on a rag as it can spontaneously combust if it isn’t laid flat to dry – not sure about this but I didn’t take any chances)
  2. Next was the light sanding. I bought the 220 sandpaper because the polyurethane can said to lightly sand with 220 sandpaper in between each coat. That was the most nerve racking part for me. I did not like scratching up the table. I felt like I was ruining it. I wanted to make sure the paint and poly didn’t peal off, but I was very light with the sandpaper. I recommend using a sanding block (or creating one by wrapping the sand paper around a block or similar object) to give you a flat and even surface. It is also important to sand gently WITH the grain of the wood so that the “scratches” blend in with the grain.
  3. Now that I had created dust, I used the rag to clean the surface again.ChessTable 1-2
  4. Next I measured the table and marked the center point. Because a chess board is an even 8 squares by 8 squares, I made a small X at the center point where the two center lines would cross.
  5. Now to draw the board design with my pencil. I decided to have each of the squares 2 inches by 2 inches. I actually drew the board out on two pieces of disposable shop towels (that is what was there to use in the trailer) first to make sure I liked the fit on the table. I used my husband’s carpenter’s square (a large metal L-shaped ruler with a right angle) to make sure that I was keeping my rows and columns as straight as possible. Occasionally I would get off a little but because I drew very lightly with the pencil, I was able to erase small sections and redo as needed. With my 2 inch squares and my one inch boarder all around, the board ended up being 18 inches by 18 inches.
  6. Once the board was drawn, I carefully placed the Frog Tape around the outside of the border, which was the outermost edge of the board. I used my fingers to press down all the edges of the tape to make sure it got a good seal.ChessTable3-4 b
  7. Next came the painting! I am not an artist but I figured I could paint squares. First I needed to figure out which squares would get painted. In chess, the bottom left corner for each player is black. So if your table will have specific player ends like mine did, you need to determine the end the player will sit at and then start with the closest Left square. I painted that square first. I tried the ½ inch brush but found the bristles to fan out too much so I switched to the smaller ¼ inch brush. This gave me greater control of where the brush was painting. I started by carefully painting inside the edges of the square and filling in the center. I found that since the paint is thicker than stain, it was important for me to get the paint strokes to look even at the end of painting each square. How it looked was how it dried. I continued painting every other square (the “white” squares I just left as the wood color) making sure that I kept up my chess board pattern. After painting all 32 squares, I finished by painting the 1 inch border. All this painting was a tedious task but I finished it in about 3 hours.
  8. As soon as I finished painting the border, I carefully removed the Frog Tape, leaving a beautifully straight outside border!
  9. Next I let the painted board dry. Because the next day was Christmas Eve (and I still had wrapping to do) this was as far as the table got until after it was presented to the boys on Christmas morning.
  10. The week after Christmas, we moved the table out in to the garage and my dad helped me add the 4 layers of polyurethane. First I needed to do the light sanding again – not my favorite part – followed by a dry rag to wipe the dust.
  11. Next came the first layer of polly. I went back and forth between a matte, semigloss, and gloss finish but am so happy with my final decision of semigloss. We experimented with the best method of application but found that applying the poly with the foam roller and then finishing it with the brush seemed to work the best for us. The poly got sticky fast so we needed to work fast and not go over any one area too much. I also found that when it was cold in the garage (after the sun went down here in AZ), the poly got sticky even faster.
  12. We let the table dry for 4 hours or more in between each layer and then did that light sanding and wiping again before applying the next layer.ChessTable 5-6

Once we got the table moved in to place, I needed the right chess pieces. The ones we had were definitely too small. So it was back to the internet! There are many wonderful and expensive chess pieces out there and some day when my kids aren’t in the “likely to drop things” stage, we may invest. But for now I found a great triple weighted tournament chess set with a 3.75” King and two extra queens (comes in to play when a pawn gets all the way to the back row of your opponents side). They were a very reasonable $17.14 after shipping. We have had one of our Rooks chip already but that is what happens when it falls to the tile. : )PlayingChess

Now that the table is always set up, my three boys (ages 8, 6, and 4) play often. They usually play tournament style with the winner playing the next person. This usually means my younger two alternate playing my oldest, but I am so impressed with how they all try and so far (knock on wood) they get along very well while doing it!

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Comments: 2

  1. Emma March 30, 2014 at 6:03 am Reply

    Absolutely beautiful! My children are now at a similar age (my boys are 4, 7 and 9) and love chess, I am hoping to work a similar project for the next birthday.

    Thanks for such a great post.

    • growingyourfamily April 3, 2014 at 6:40 pm Reply

      I am so glad you enjoy the post. I hope your table turns out great!!!

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