This is my friend Brian and I designing a
table that will soon become the ultimate Christmas
gift surprise for his wife Lori since they’ve
talked for years about having a place where
they could always have a game of chess going
What Brian doesn’t know is that I’m going
to surprise him…because the perfect time
to surprise someone is when they aren’t
But how do I do that without Brian finding
out and also without the help of Lori since
that might accidentally spoil both surprises?
The first thing Brian and I did was sit down
and talk through what he knew Lori would and
wouldn’t like in a tall top table…also known
as a bar table or a pub table.
The good news is they both share the same
sense of style and enjoy the architectural
designs of Frank Lloyd Wright so we wouldn’t
be making something he likes and thinks she
likes…but she doesn’t really like.
Because of the short timeline before Christmas,
Brian was going to have a woodworking shop
build it based on the design I helped him
All of the quick sketches from that meeting
were referenced while creating the first draft
of the design in the computer and those were
made into life size prints that were put on
foam core and then cut out so we could quickly
have an as close as possible representation
of size and proportions.
While looking at it together so I could get
his feedback, Brian mentioned that Lori and
he liked the idea of having the table because
they could always have a chess game going
on so they would always be doing something
Yep, they’re a lovable couple.
I asked if he wanted a chess board built into
the table top.
He liked the idea, but preferred to get a
chess set later and didn’t want to lock the
table into just one kind of game.
This is when it hit me and I knew exactly
how I was going to surprise Brian.
What if I took the design stylings that were
a part of the table I knew they were going
to enjoy and applied them to their own one
of a kind chess set?
Then, Lori would be surprised by Brian and
Brian would be surprised by me!
It would be a suprise-ah-pa-looza of epic
After making changes to the table design and
getting them to the woodworkers later that
night, I started on the chess set.
After some research, it seemed like pretty
much every chessboard had some kind of frame
around it and sometimes had a storage box
underneath for the pieces.
But, since Brian and Lori are always going
to have a game going on they won’t need to
store the pieces and since they like strong
vertical lines, if the chess board was surrounded
by a frame the vertical lines created by the
different color squares being next to each
other wouldn’t be visible.
Since time was short and the board was going
to be pretty simple, I started on that while
thinking through what the chess pieces could
The table was going to be made out of cherry
so I got some of that and maple since the
colors of those two woods contrast each other
They got cut into strips, glued together,
clamped, dried, unclamped, cut into strips
the opposite way, every other one got flipped,
glued together, clamped, dried, unclamped
one more time and then the chess board was
At least (ha ha), that is what I thought was
going to happen.
Things were looking pretty good until I put
the board on the table.
Unfortunately, it was warped and not by a
little bit and not in just one way.
It wasn’t going to be possible for me to get
it perfectly flat and since the goal was not
to have a frame or base, there wasn’t going
to be any way to hide problems.
Since I didn’t know what to do, I moved on
to making the chess pieces.
I wasn’t trying to avoid the problem, I’ve
just had enough experience with design challenges
to know that sometimes the best thing to do
is not focus on them and in the meantime some
part of my brain way in the back would keep
thinking about it and before I know it a possible
solution or next step will come to mind.
So, while the back of my brain was thinking,
I sketched chess piece designs using the same
elements that influenced the look of the table.
After finalizing the designs, I knew I wasn’t
going to have the time to make them all by
hand, but the designs were simple enough that
I could take the time to learn the basics
of a computer modeling program to build them
digitally and then have them 3d printed like
the parts to the helmet I made for my friend
George a while ago.
Some of them got printed by a friend and the
printer didn’t do that good of a job.
It was a bummer, I’m not going to even show
you what they looked like, it was pretty sad.
But, the good news is I realized what could
be done to the chess board!
So, I stepped away from the problem of the
chess pieces and moved back to that.
I remembered that my friend Brent has a CNC
machine, which is basically kinda like a drill
connected to a computer that can move around
above a table cutting stuff the way you want.
The chess board was placed on top of another
board and friction fit with blocks and shims
so it couldn’t move around.
Brent’s coworker Jesse attached the base board
to the table and then used the CNC to flatten
one side perfectly.
It was so fun to watch a machine do something
in a couple of minutes that I wouldn’t have
ever been able to do.
After that, he took if off the CNC, flipped
it over and ran it through a drum sander multiple
times to slowly and gently flatten the other
Now, it was perfectly and beautifully flat.
Ha ha, success!
After softening the edges a little bit, I
was going to do the stain and finish myself
since the furniture maker’s shop was far away
and I knew Lori and Brian would appreciate
the chess board matching the table.
But, after asking the furniture makers I found
out the stains and finishes they use weren’t
available anywhere near me.
This could have been a problem, but they quickly
offered to do all of it for me and at the
same time they were staining and finishing
I enjoy long car rides so getting to do that,
having the chess board match the table and
getting to see the table being finished was
Plus, an answer hadn’t arrived yet from the
back of my brain on how to make all the chess
pieces before Christmas, so a four and a half
hour drive to and from the furniture makers
would give me plenty of time to think about
The challenge was that due to their production
schedule, they needed to start the process
by 9 in the morning.
With some family events for me the night before,
I was going to need to leave the house by
4am that day to get there in time.
Have I ever mentioned that I’m not a morning
Ha ha ha.
Thankfully, I had multiple alarms, plenty
of coffee and got there in time for everything
It was really fun to see the table in person.
They had made a few design changes and all
of them make it a better table.
Everything got stained and polyurethaned,
went through the drying process, lightly sanded,
wiped down, polyurethaned again, dried, lightly
sanded, wiped down and polyurethaned again.
Every time the pieces got smoother and more
It was an amazing process to watch and they
couldn’t have been nicer showing me how they
make stuff and the time and care they put
into every single piece.
On the way home I realized that it was a good
thing I hadn’t been able to print out all
the chess pieces.
Instead, it would be better to print just
a few, so Lori and Brian could see what they
looked like…and then offer them the ability
to make design changes and pick the final
colors they would love.
I still wanted to somehow show them what all
the pieces would look like on the board, so
the designs were printed and placed on foam
In the mean time, another friend was able
to print a few of the chess piece parts and
they all got glued together and squares of
felt attached to the bottoms so they wouldn’t
Bumpers got added to the bottom of the board
to lift it up just a little for air flow.
Brian had gone to pick up their son Sean from
college and on the way back they got the table
and asked to hide it at our place for a few
Being reminded that Sean was back in town
gave me the answer for how I was going to
get the presents into their house.
Everything got wrapped up on Christmas Eve
Eve, also known as December 23rd, and then
Sean picked it up while Brian, Lori and their
daughter were at an event.
On Christmas Eve, Brian and Sean came over
and they got the table.
Now, it was just time to wait.
This project was a lot of fun and there were
unexpected surprises at pretty much every
step along the way.
But, to be honest, the more I do this the
less I’m surprised by the surprises.
In fact, the surprises are kind of expected.
Most ideas end up being at least a little
or a lot different than originally intended.
And it isn’t necessarily a failure that causes
this to happen, it’s just a part of the process.
So the sooner you move past being frustrated
by something not going the way you wanted,
the sooner you can ask the question, “what
could be done now?”.
These bumps along the way usually make an
idea arrive even better than you first expected.
And even if they don’t, working through problems
and discovering solutions will all grow the
skills you’ve been given to make for others.