I met my girlfriend at a gaming store, so for her birthday I wanted to give her a copy of one of my favorite tabletop games, Hive. The game plays much like chess and the pieces are similarly very simple, but I wanted to make her something special. I set to work on some custom pieces and a fancy box to hold them.
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A game of Hive is played by positioning hexagonal tiles, each engraved with an insect, against each other according to the way that insect is allowed to move. My girlfriend wasn’t familiar with the game, so I printed out a copy of the rules. I knew I wanted the end result to look very aged and almost Victorian, so an 8.5X11 printout just wasn’t going to cut it. I rewrote and reformated the rules to look like they were observational notes and sketches made by an entomologist in the field. (Click the image to open the full PDF)
The pages were stained with tea to look aged. I always dry stained pages by just letting the surface tension hold them onto a window outside. As long as it’s not windy, they’ll fall off when they have lost most of their water and can just dry in a pile inside.
To make them into a booklet I used a thimble to sew together groups of about 3 folded pieces at a time. The needle then went through the same holes to bind those page groups together. It sounds tedious but it’s not much worse than hand sewing cloth.
The cover was just pleather glued onto cardboard. I always buy cheap legal pads when I need non-corregated cardboard.
There are several official and unofficial expansions to the game. Because I didn’t want to expand later and not have room in the box I made, so I just made all the pieces we may want to use and left just enough room for the box to close with the rulebook in it. I wanted the pieces to feel like they were hand-crafted from exotic woods but it was actually hard to find somewhere that sold anything more interesting than oak. Also, I was sort of broke.
Home Depot had sample tiles of exotic wood flooring panels. They were free. I grabbed a few… every time I went in… for a few weeks.
A few of them actually had a surface veneer of the wood they were supposed to look like, while others just had a kind of linoleum layer. I picked mahogony and bamboo for the pieces and set the rest aside for the box. The designs for each insect would be woodburned in by hand. A laser cutter would have been more accurate and a lot faster, but I wanted them to look like the entomologist created it in the 1800s. I still needed uniformity between insects of the same type on all the pieces and they needed to be perfect hexagons to fit together when played. I printed the designs on paper and used a gluestick to paste them to the wood sample blocks. This gave me a guide for cutting them out and I just woodburned through the paper to make the insect shapes.
I wanted the sides to be a solid color so you couldn’t see the laminated layers of wood, but I wanted the coloring to hold up to any amount of wear from use. Burning the edges would look the best and compliment the burnt insect designs, but I had to find an efficient way to burn all the edges. I set up a torch to heat up a piece of iron held in a vice. Holding each edge against it for a second got the effect I wanted
The pieces had a lot of paper still stuck to them. Because I only used a gluestick, some water and a sponge was enough to remove it.
I wanted the designs on the box to look like geometric representations of ant tunnels going through layers of different sediment. I drew each wall on paper, labeling what kind of wood the individual sections should be cut from. The separate pieces were glued to the corresponding wood.
The pieces were cut out with a scroll saw.
The pieces were re-assembled and glued together into walls.
The paper came off just like it did from the pieces. I masked each wall with a nice even rectangle and spraypainted them.
Any painted portion was belt-sanded away to leave square corners and even sides.
The colors stood out beautifully against each other. A lot of fans, clamps and wood glue were needed to assemble the box.
It looked great all put together.
The pieces of each wall were not all perfectly flush on the face and some seams had minor gaps. To fix this, and tie the box in better to the woodburnt look of the pieces, I burnt along the seams.
The inside got lined with some fancy cloth. Chunks of EVA foam went in the corners to hold the pieces in the propper honeycomb shape.
The edges were a much more complex issue. I wanted all the corners to be covered with brass and copper. I used a brass sheet for the edges.
I marked and scored each edge and bent back and forth until it broke, rather than cutting it. Then, each piece was bent at 90 degrees to cover the corners.
There were other elements that were much more complex. I wanted copper pieces to cover the intersections of the brass. I drew a template on paper and designed the filigree into it. I also wanted a name plate for the game itself and to label it as belonging to my girlfriend. I converted these designs to computer images and had them cut from vinyl.
Each vinyl piece was like a sticker and had to be placed on the metal with transfer paper (I like to use cheap, clear packing tape).
The details that are to be edched have to be pulled out carefully.
The vinyl acted like a resist. I used a chemical called ferric chloride to etch away some of the copper/brass on the pieces that were not covered by vinyl.
I used tin snips and grinders to cut out and clean up each corner cover after etching.
Now that all the pieces were cut, bent, etched and cleaned up, I needed to age all the metal evenly. I used a few different strategies, from more ferric chloride to saltwater, vinegar, and even fumes from boiled eggs. I think the vinegar worked the best.
The end result was spectacular and I sealed the pieces with carnauba wax to stop all the oxidization.
I used a rotary grinder and wood burner to carve out an indent for the game title plate to be flush.
The brass got glued down with two part epoxy onto the corners. The copper went over the corners and over the EVA inserts on the inside.
Rubber bands held everything down while the glue set. I used an antique brass clasp to match the metal I had crafted and it was done!
My girlfriend was in awe with the detail of the set and absolutely loved it.