Maker’s grimoire: chess set

The board
I made the board out of foam core 10″ square, then colored with sharpie

One of my colleagues the other day noted that the second and third grade had gotten interested in chess. And would I look for a small chess set in my travels around?  This got me thinking:

  • Grades K-4 build “kits” designed to provide skills but d;on’t invent too much that’s new
  • Grades 5-7 build “projects” designed to build skills;
  • Grades 8+ learn “processes” — how to use tools, to then build projects that they choose.

The kids who are interested in chess? They’re in the “kit” age group, which means I should be looking into putting together a “chess construction kit” for the kids in second and third grade who are interested.

Chess is a fantastic little game, for a number of Maker-related reasons.  One, it has six piece types: pawns, rooks, knights, bishops, kings, and queens.  Second, it has an easy board to make: most of it can be done with a T-square and a sharpie marker.  Third, it has only sixteen pieces (seventeen if you include the board). And that makes it perfect for a Maker’s Grimoire activity.

So this is me, talking through building a chess set “kit”

The Board

The board, as I show at left, was a 10″ square of foam core, which was then marked with the traditional black and white grid, as shown. To avoid accidentally coloring in the wrong squares, I did some in the first two rows, and then marked all the other squares that were relevant in the grid.

The tools that made the board.

Making the board cost about 30 minutes of time; but I’ve made gridded boards before.  In terms of materials, it was a part of a larger sheet of foam core, perhaps a sixth of the total… my records indicate that it’s worth maybe $0.52.

I had to use two Sharpie markers to color in the grid; one started to go dry in the midst of filling in the squares. It may have been old, though, so we can call it a marker-and-a-half, or maybe just two markers.  $1.75 apiece, or $3.00 for the inking of the board.

In terms of tools, I used a pencil to lay out my guidelines, a utility knife to cut the foam core, and a T-square.  Call it $25 in tools, most of which I had already for the Design Lab.  Chances are that you also have most of the relevant tools to make your own chess set; at least if you’re reading this webpage this far, you do.

The Pieces

The core of any chess set, of course, are the sixteen pieces.  I wanted my pieces to be of relatively high-quality, rather than just junk from around the lab, so I got out the two boxes of wooden pieces.  Most of these were bought on sale at various Michael’s Arts and Crafts stores for $0.49, for multiple pieces; but some were bought in lots that cost up to $4.00. Without going through a lot of paperwork, I probably can’t figure out exactly how much the individual pieces cost me.

knolling — the sorting of like pieces and tools into discrete, organized categories — is the designers’ friend

On the other hand, I can take a guess.  The King pieces came in bags of two pieces, and I bought two bags. They were $1.69.  So the kings cost $1.69.

The Queens were made of candle cups, a piece of $0.99 dowel, and a ball. The balls were $3.99 for a bag of 16, or $0.24 apiece (or $0.48 for the pair in the two queens); the candle cups that made up the  body of the queen were $0.49 for two cups.  So each queen was $0.50 apiece, or $1.00 for the pair.

The bishops were these lovely narrow spools and these tiny pegs (maybe for a tie-board, for a man to hang his ties from?  I bought both on sale in packages of multiple parts for $0.49. Not likely a repeatable purchase, but in essence the four bishops cost … call it a quarter. $0.25

The pieces laid out on the board, but as yet unpainted.

The Knights were the most complicated. A square of wood, a dowel glued to the center (in a small pit partly drilled by hand) and two beads strung on the dowel and glued.  $0.75 in parts for the four of them.

The rooks are simply small spools. That’s it. $0.49 for a set of four of them.

The pawns are button caps for drill holes in small wooden projects.  $0.49 for packages that had 7 button caps apiece. I had to buy three packages, and I have a lot left over. 3 * 0.49 / 21 = $0.07 per pawn.

So, to recap:

  • 16 pawns = $1.12
  • 4 Rooks = $0.49
  • 4 Knights = $0.75
  • 4 Bishops = $0.25
  • 2 Queens = $1.00
  • 2 Kings = $1.69
  • 1 Board = $3.50 if I include the markers, $0.52 without
  • 1 used plastic tub for the parts

Or about $7.68 with markers, or $4.70 without.  Once I add in the cost of the glue, we’re probably up to about $8.00, or $5.00 without the markers.

Painting One Side

Of course, the paint was at home

Of course, the paint was at home.  This meant packing the chess set up, taking it home, and getting out the small tubes of acrylic paint.  Yesterday, while I was working on my chess set, the third grade was in there making games for their Connecticut wrap-up project.  I saw them using Sharpie markers to paint their wooden pieces. Gods they were ugly — the sharpie-painted wooden pieces, not the children.  The children didn’t care, but I did — I wanted my pieces to look nice. Stain may have been best, but paint is what I had; and I like the look of plain wood against painted wood, natural vs. painted, as the sides in the competition.

The tube of paint was 2.00. I used maybe $0.25 worth of paint, and a reusable brush. We’re up to $5.00 in materials if I don’t count the Sharpie markers toward the total.

So there we go.  I’ve now built a prototype chessboard and chess pieces for under $10.00, and I’ve found a source for most of the parts which I think I’ll acquire here even more cheaply than at Michael‘s discount aisle.

The next step is to talk to the after-school programs leadership and see if they want a 2-hour workshop.  If they do, I’ll order some parts — wooden parts, blank foam core  — and make up some fliers for school, and an ad for the newsletter.  Then, I’ll round up some older kids to assemble the kits — cut dowel and maybe some small sandpaper squares to finish the parts; count pieces and fill plastic bags; and maybe even write a little rulebook for chess — how the pieces move and some of the objectives of the game (the book has to fit into the plastic bag, for example).

In this way, we teach kids chess, we teach some hands-on Making, we establish a game-aware culture for the school, and we develop a sense of intermediate leadership in the Design Lab between older kids and younger.  AND, I develop my first kit for the lower school.  A win-win all around, I think.

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