There are as many ways to make your own chess set as there are people to imagine them. Naturally, it’s best to use what you have on hand or can obtain easily obtain. If the ideas below don’t fit your needs, a quick internet search will yield all kinds of creative ways to make chess sets out of a variety of different materials.
If you aren’t sure why you should take on this project, click here to read about why we think it’s worth the trouble.
Wooden game pieces
This is our favorite for several reasons. It takes multiple sessions to complete (which is a good thing). It is one of the many ways for kids to express their own personality, which in the long run builds their investment in playing. It’s also relatively inexpensive, while still being reasonably durable.
We recommend that this project be broken down into 15-20 minute session across multiple classes to make the project more manageable and help meet the goals of the project [click here to read about those].
Wooden pieces – We ordered the pieces from here, but we are sure you can find comparable pieces elsewhere. We used the wooden people for most of the pieces and pawns and the ‘milk can’ for rooks.
Cardboard or other Material for the board: We used a 12” x 12” pizza box for the board (such as these). It’s just the right size to allow 1” squares and space to write in the letters and numbers along the side. You can purchase these in bulk online or possibly get them donated by a local pizza shop. We have also used 12” square canvas drawstring bags (such as these) with cloth paint/markers. If you use this idea, you will need to put cardboard inside the bags until the paint dries. This will also serve to keep the fabric flat while being painted.
Chessboard Stencil: We purchased a stencil with one inch squares from a local craft shop to help create the board, but a stencil can be easily made using cardboard and the stencil template on the right. Students can color in the dark squares using a sponge brush and dark paint or markers.
Paint or other medium to color the pieces: We recommend a child-safe non-toxic, washable paint.
Covering for the work surface: Craft paper, newspaper, cut open paper grocery bags, etc. can all be used to protect desks and tables.
Art supplies: Paint brushes, sponge brushes, scissors, markers, etc.
Protective coating for the pieces (optional): School Glue or other non-toxic material for coating the pieces. This is optional, but will keep the paint from chipping.
Clean up materials: Wipes and paper towels.
Extras for decorating: Pipe cleaners, aluminum foil, markers, glitter (very fun, but messy), craft wire (depending on the age of your students), bits of cloth, miniature pompoms, cardboard, beads, etc. to customize the pieces These can be used to create swords, clothing, crowns, eyes, buttons, etc.
- Make the board first. This is especially helpful if you are using pizza type boxes, because students can then use it to store completed pieces. Don’t forget to put their names on the boxes. If you are not using boxes for the boards, it doesn’t matter whether you do the pieces or the board first, but you will need something (such as a paper lunch sack) in which to store the pieces as they are completed.
To make the boards, use a stencil with 1-inch squares and paint or color in the dark or light squares, depending on the color of the material used for the board (for example, if your box is white, students will paint on the dark squares and vice-versa). You can also have students draw the board using a ruler and a pencil, but the stencil is far easier for staying inside the lines.
Once dry, label the board with the numbers 1-8 along the side and the letters a-h across the bottom. Make sure the a1 square is a dark square. It can help to have the students raise their hand when they are ready to mark their squares so that you can confirm that they have this correct before they get started.
- Give the pieces a base coat of color. Half should be a dark color and half a light color. Ensure that kids have the right numbers of pieces/pawns. Make sure the coating is dry before moving on.
- Customize the pieces. We recommend that students keep only one type of chess piece on their workspace at a time. Students can use different color paints or markers to customize. Once this is complete, they can use glue to attach other customizations. We recommend providing a variety of materials from which they can choose. For example, pipe cleaners can be used for crowns or swords. Felt can be used for clothing. Cardboard and foil can be used for an armor or a shield.
- Take lots of photos. Once the boards are done, you will want to document your students’ work so that the world can see what they’ve created (we’d love to see what your students have made, so please share). You may want to send the boards home with a sheet that suggests easy chess-related activities parents and others can play with the students and/or simple how-to-play chess instructions.
- Make sure that your students make the pieces so that players can tell the difference between the light and dark pieces.
- It can be a challenge to keep the stencil still and flush with the paper or cardboard onto which students are painting. This is particularly important if using paint because the paint will bleed onto the light squares. If you have a volunteer parent, this is a great way for them to help. Younger students in particular often have a hard time holding the stencil while painting or coloring. Depending on the material used for the board, you may be able to tape the stencil down gently.
- Be sure to recommend that kids wear appropriate clothing for messes and/or bring a coverup.
- If you are worried about the mess, you can use a dip paint to color the pieces ahead of time. This will give the pieces a base color which the students can then decorate with markers.
- If you do not have dedicated space, it may help to do this activity at the beginning of each class so that paint and glue have time to dry before being put away. Most paint will dry enough during a class as long as it isn’t put on too thickly. If you have to put the pieces away before they are fully dry, consider putting them on wax paper. If you are able to leave the pieces out to dry, you may want to put their pieces on separate paper (wax paper doesn’t stick as much) on which they have written their names.
You can follow the same basic instructions and an adapted materials list to create boards and sets using a variety of other materials that you find preferable. Certainly, there are less messy options that will work better if your space is not suitable for messy activities.
Recycled materials (e.g., bottle caps, poker chips, cardboard,etc.). You can come up with a specific idea or provide students with an assortment of materials and see what they can create using their own ingenuity.
Duct tape: Make the board by folding strips of two different colors and
weaving them together (click here for one example). Cut edges and tape around the sides to prevent unraveling. Make pieces by gluing printed chess pieces to the top of a folded strip of duct tape and cutting them out. Several students in our camps also created carrying pouches out of Duct tape which they designed themselves and taught the other students. We love it when we offer a project and students take it and run with it, making it their own.
Nuts and bolts – Although a little more challenging to organize, this was, hands down, the most popular make-your-own chess set we have ever tried at our camp. We did this years ago and still hear from parents and students that these are treasured chess sets. You can find instructions here. Here is how we constructed the pieces.
Felt: Similar to the duct tape version – cut 1-inch strips of felt and weave. Ruler-width makes the right size and is easy to manage. Bottle caps, flat stones, buttons or other items can be used for the pieces. Glue can be used to attach 2-D paper printouts to create the pieces.
Here are directions for one felt chess board idea. You can collect a variety of bottle caps to make recycled pieces or you can try something like this. If you use a paper printout, the color of the bottle cap won’t matter; however, you can purchase bottle caps that are uniform and even have different colors (see link above). If you want to make it a little easier, You could also use these instead of glue.
Craft Foam: The process is the same as for felt.
Clay: Pieces can be made out of different types of clay to be used on a cardboard (or other) board.