Hiya! It’s Mandi, from Making Nice in the Midwest. On winter nights, our family likes to hunker down with a bowl of stovetop popcorn and start up tournaments of our favorite games, like Dutch Blitz and Euchre. One of my favorite childhood memories is playing checkers with my grandpa, so I thought it would be nice to have a set to enjoy with the next generation on nights when we’d like to turn off the t.v. and stretch our brain muscles. I figured, while I’m at it, I might as well make it a beautiful checkerboard set to display as home decor, too! That way, the game is always out and ready for action.
Making your own beautiful gold leaf checkerboard is pretty easy, and I’ll share some tips with you for making your checkerboard extra nice so it can be passed down for generations to come. This fancy checkerboard would look great on your coffee table, hung on a wall, or wrapped up as a gift for a friend.
- 2 15″ square pieces of 1/2″ baltic birch plywood
- Wood glue or Liquid Nails
- High performance wood filler (Does not need to be stainable.)
- 180 + 320 grit sandpaper (A rotary sander will give your muscles a break.)
- 1.88″ wide painter’s masking tape
- wax paper
- decorative hole punch no larger than 1″ (I used a star punch.)
- white primer + paint
- Clear Glaze in a spray can (or polyurethane)
- 24 1.75″ wooden discs
- Gold toned metal leafing kit (or just leaf paper + sizing will do)
- Paint brush
Step One: Cut and glue together your plywood. I recommend using baltic birch plywood because it’s made up of finer layers of wood, making it strong (won’t warp), less likely to chip during cutting/drilling, and it actually has a nice looking grain if you decide to stain your wood instead of paint it. If you’re cutting your own wood, cut the squares roughly at first, a bit larger than what you need. Then glue the two pieces together and cut them to the exact 15″ square. If you’re having your plywood cut at the hardware store or lumberyard, have them cut it to two 15″ squares, and then glue them together at home, being careful to keep the two pieces aligned on top of each other. I used Liquid Nails as my adhesive because I had some leftover from a previous project, but any wood glue would do. Just apply it to one side of the plywood, wiping away any excess glue after pushing the two pieces together. No need to camp or tape them together unless you want to! The reason you are using two pieces of wood is that the extra bulk makes the checkerboard much nicer looking and gives the appearance of a higher quality item.
Step Two: After the adhesive has dried, apply a coat of wood filler around the edges of the board, and along any uneven surfaces of the wood. Some high performance wood fillers will require mixing with a hardener before using them. You can use your finger to apply it, or a small craft spatula. It’s okay if it’s globby, and you can apply excess wood filler if you need to, but make sure you don’t leave any crevices uncovered.
Step Three: Allow the wood filler to set up completely, and then sand away the excess, leaving a nice, even surface behind. Gently and ever so slightly knock off the sharp edges of the wood while you’re at it. Use 180 grit sandpaper for the beginning of this process, then switch to 320 grit sandpaper to smooth down the edges and each face of the board. You’re sanding with fine sandpaper so that the board will be nice and smooth, ready for painting. To see if the wood’s ready to paint, use the back of your hand to feel the surfaces to make sure they’re super smooth. If your edges still are uneven, do another round of wood filler and sanding. This extra step will really make the final product look nice and well crafted.
Step Four: Wipe away the dust from the sanding process, and then prime the wood square and wood discs in a well ventilated area. You might need a few coats of primer on each side, but don’t apply it too thick or you will have runny, uneven spots. After the primer has set up completely, sand the wood square very lightly with 320 grit sandpaper to smooth away any grittiness from the surface. There’s no need to do this to the wooden discs, unless you enjoy a tedious project! Wipe down the freshly sanded square and paint it with a few light coats of paint. Allow the paint to cure for two days before beginning the next step. Trust me- there’s no sense in rushing this process and then ruining the surface by masking it off too soon before the paint has cured!
Step Five: Next we tape off the wood board and discs to prepare for the gold leaf process. Are you excited yet? To make sure the spaces in your taped off checkerboard are perfectly even, tape all across the board (as shown above), and then remove every other strip of tape. Do this again perpendicular to the first set of striped tape, so that you’re left with squares like what you see in the left image below. Press down the edges of the tape with the side of your thumb so no sizing can sneak underneath the masking tape as you brush it on.
You’ll also need to tape off one side of each wooden disc so that the finished checker pieces have a flip side for “kinging” during play. I used a star shaped paper punch for this, punching the shape into wax paper that had been covered at the edge by a strip of masking tape. (See above image.) Then, I cut out the squares, pulling the tape off the wax paper and putting it onto half (twelve) of the wooden discs, making sure the stars were centered on the disc. Then I took the stars that I punched out, removed their wax paper backings, and placed each of the twelve stars onto the center of the other twelve wooden discs.
Step Six: With a paint brush, apply the gold leaf sizing (from your gold leaf kit) to everywhere you want to have gold leafing- the exposed squares of the checkerboard, the inside of the masked stars on half of the wooden discs, and the front, back, and sides of the other half of the wooden discs (the ones with just the star sticker). Note that you’ll need to work with one side at a time when leafing the gold discs that have just the star stickers on them.
Follow the directions on your gold leafing kit, but my directions told me to lightly brush the sizing onto the space I wanted to leaf, wait 30 minutes for it to set up, and then apply the gold leaf paper. I tried not to get too much sizing onto the masking tape around the area I wanted to leaf, but it’s inevitable to get a bit around the edges, and that’s fine. Don’t worry about keeping the gold leaf paper perfectly unwrinkled- the wrinklier and crinklier it is, the prettier the finished texture will be. After I pressed the golf leaf paper into place, I used a soft flannel cloth to burnish (rub deeply) the golf leaf paper onto the area, and the excess gold around the area just flaked off. If there are any pieces that the gold leaf isn’t sticking to where it should, just repeat the leafing process on those areas. Feel free to use any leftover pieces of metal leaf for this. Try not to handle the metal too much with your bare fingers, though, because oils from your hands could leave tarnish marks. I handled mine more than I thought I should, but there were no tarnish marks. Hooray!
Step Seven: Make sure all of the unattached gold leaf bits are cleared from the area before removing the masking tape, because the tape leaves a slightly sticky residue that will attract stray gold flecks and ruin the nice white area around the gold squares. Slowly peel away each piece of blue masking tape, blowing away any gold flakes that might stubbornly fly into the air. Use the back of your hand to press down any raised bits around the edge of the gold squares, and then spray the board and your checker pieces with a couple of light coats of clear glaze to seal in the metal and give a nice shiny finish to the board. Allow the glaze to set up for at least 24 hours.
Step Eight: You now have nice gold squares on your board, but no checkerboard pattern just yet. You will need to cover the gold squares you made with more blue masking tape so that you can gold leaf the squares in the next row over, creating a checker pattern. I did this step the same way I taped off the squares in step five, with the rows of tape directly beside each other to space out the columns and rows. The existing gold squares should be behind each intersection point of the blue masking tape. Now gold leaf these spots just as you did the previous ones, carefully remove the masking tape, and finishing the board by spraying with two more coats of clear glaze.
As you can see in the image above, my squares were not perfectly covered in gold leaf, but I decided I liked the slightly imperfect look where the leafing didn’t stick on every single spot. It looks very textural, and not machine made- which I love! I am definitely one to be very concerned about the smoothness of my paint job, but not so much about the perfection of the gold leaf appearance. It’s simply a matter of preference.
I let our board set up for only a few hours before we just had to play a game of checkers together. Of course, I was promptly beaten before I could get even one king, so I think a little practice is in order. Time to make the popcorn!
Credits // Author and Photography: Mandi Johnson