3D printed custom chess set

Community Chess

Chess has been proven to help improve memory, develop critical thinking and analytical skills. And building your custom set adds a new dimension to the game! Our pioneer Christopher Sweeney shares his experience of creating a unique chess set with his students from scratch.

I had the pleasure of starting a new course at my school called Interpretive Design, and I had a group of wonderful senior students who both collaborated and worked independently, used their imagination, problem solved, experimented, and combined traditional arts with computer-aided design. I was also fortunate to have a student teacher, Ms. Lindsay Waibel from Moore College of Art here in Philadelphia, who brought her seamstress skills and energy to our semester-long project that we undertook. I want to start off by saying this project idea was a borrowed lesson from Josh Burker, a fellow educator and author of the Invent To Learn Guide to Fun. I started with Josh’s Community Chess Set project, and added my own twist.

Before we get into technical specifics of how this project was conceived, let me break it down. For those of you who have not played chess, there are sixteen pieces on each side: one king, one queen, two rooks, two bishops, two knights, and eight pawns. Each student was responsible for designing a specific piece of the chess set, and both the black and white chess pieces needed to be created. Since I had seventeen students, the two students who were assigned the pawns needed to create eight copies of their pieces. The students were asked to create costumes that they could wear to represent their pieces. After creating their outfits they put them on and we scanned them using the 123D Catch. The students then digitally retouched the scanned files. The last step was to 3D print the model in a bronze-filled filament, and post-process the printed model with sandpaper and a rock tumbler in order to achieve the polished look of a cast metal chess set.

As with anything I do or see, I always want to push the envelope, so I knew that I wanted to go large or go home. Lindsay and I had the students pick their pieces out of a hat. After having selected the name of a chessman, students had four minutes (which we timed) to trade or get the piece that they wanted. After that, there was no trading.

The first step of the process was to make the costumes. The students had to use creative strategies to figure out what could be scanned, what couldn’t, and what was optimal for the process. Some students chose to use a new material Lindsay uses in her cosplay costumes, a material called worbla. This material can be molded to any shape with a heat gun and can be sanded, painted, and glued. This was very helpful when the students needed specific shapes and forms that would have been difficult to create with cardboard. This process took longer than a week, even with having my students working for two hours every day. After their costumes were completed, we would review them and make sure they were scannable with the 123D Catch app.


communtity chess costume


wearing costume

another costume
community chess costume

community chess costume
community chess costume


community chess costume

Even though I had much success in the past using 123D Catch, the light in my new room was not optimal. We tried several places to get good scans, both in my room and in a common place in the building, but we were getting frustrated with the failures. Finally, I decided to use some Brownie studio lights I had bought from a flea market and painting easels to prop them up to get the light needed to process the photos. The scans finally came out much better, and the students were ready to post-process. Autodesk products are my go-to for software purposes, and this project needed it in the several-step process needed to complete the designs. My students did a post-scan practice clean up in Meshmixer  with an old scan I had that was easier than the clean up they had to undertake with their own designs. Both Lindsay and I worked with them one-on-one to show them some basic operational things to make their chess pieces cleaner and easy to print. This took a few days to show them the ropes of the program. They were then up and running cleaning up their files. The students worked on their files for about a week, preparing them for the next level of the design process.

3D scan of a custom chess piece
scanning a custom chess piece

After the files were cleaned up, the students worked with another tutorial that I wrote last summer. This tutorial used files from a scan from the Penn Museum’s Greek collection. What I learned about scanning and 3D printing with my students last year, I was able to put to use with the work we were doing this year. Lindsay did research and found the measurements for the chess pieces from the World Chess Federation website so that the pieces would be tournament size. She was also nice enough to help create the pedestal that the students used for the practice piece they were working on in Tinkercad, as well as making a wonderful visual of the measurements of each chess piece.

chess size guide
designing a chessman in tinkercad

Once the practice and tutorial were completed, the students uploaded their cleaned up scans into Tinkercad and put them on pedestals. Measurements were then checked against the official ones from FIDE, and then their files were exported to Cura to be printed on our classroom’s Ultimaker 2 Extended +. The first side of the chessboard was printed in ColorFabb bronzefill, and after many, many weeks, the printing was completed in time for our end of term Design show at CHAD. Our goal is to print the other side of the board with ProtoPasta’s stainless steel filament.

3D printed chessman

The post-process we used on the bronzefill printed pieces was the same that I had used for our Penn scans from last year. I had each student use a variety of sandpaper, from 300 to 1500 grit. After sanding, the students put their 3D prints in a rock tumbler for two hours to overnight, depending on their designs. In the tumbler, I have a variety of media, the majority being brass screws used to clean, sharpen, and shine the prints. The finished side of the set speaks for itself.


This project provided many lessons learned for both teacher and students, ones that I will use for next year’s design students. One thing that I would recommend is doing a dry run through the whole process, as one thing we learned was that we had to reduce the mesh in the scans so that they could be used in Tinkercad. It was an awesome experience, and we will be doing a live chess match with the costumes before the end of the year. I encourage other educators to take on this project with their own students, as it provided a challenging and engaging design experience for my students and brought my class together in more ways than one.