Hnefatafl: the Game of the Vikings

The Making of a Hnefatafl Game

Hnefatafl games by Cyningstan
Hnefatafl games by Cyningstan

Friday, 8th November 2013

What effort goes into the making of the games in the Hnefatafl Shop? I thought I'd let you know about the process of making these boards. It's time consuming, but it's not difficult.

Obtaining the wood is the first thing. Currently I use Russian Redwood for the hnefatafl games. The widest planks I can get hold of from my local supplier are about 8.5in wide, or around 220mm. This can accommodate an 11x11 square board, if the squares are 0.75in (19mm) square.

First I mark a plank out: not just the cut lines but the complete board pattern too, in pencil at this stage. Mistakes in a pencil grid are easier to correct than mistakes already burned in! Apart from the grid, I typically only mark the centre and corner squares with a cross. I think a game looks ugly when one starting layout is set out on a board marked for another, so these minimal markings allow the board to look aesthetically pleasing no matter how the pieces are laid out.

Once marked, I cut the boards. I use a hand saw for this and a small folding workbench. I use old wood to prevent a tight vice grip from leaving marks on the game boards.

The next phase is to sand the edges and corners of the boards. Not only does this remvoe splinters, but it gives the boards a pleasing rounded form. I hand-sand the boards with good rough sandpaper, as I find that using an orbital sander doesn't save any time; you have to mess about putting the wood in and out of the vice with a power sander, and the result often needs finishing off by hand anyway. So I sit in a chair and sand each board on my knee. This can be quite pleasant work in the summer, outside with a nice cold drink.

Now it's time to burn the pattern into the board. I do this with a 40W soldering iron, and a metal ruler. As the pattern is alraedy marked in pencil, this is a mindless and boring task. So I put on the radio or a podcast to listen to while I do it - quite a pleasant part of the process.

After the board is marked, it's time to add the finish. I use cellulose sanding sealer: one coat applied with a brush or a cloth will dry in about an hour in a well-ventilated place (best outside when the weather allows, as it doesn't smell very nice). After the first coat is dry, the surface should be rough: I sand it down lightly with fine-grained sandpaper and apply a second coat of sealer. When this is dry, I sand down again. The board then has a smooth, glassy feel.

Now it's time to add the beeswax polish to finish the board off. Just one coating of this, buffed up, finishes the board off. I apply sticky felt pads to the underside of the board, to prevent scratching of (or by) other wooden surfaces the board might be placed on.

Finally, the pieces. These are glass beads, approximately 10-12mm across to fit nicely in the 19mm squares with a bit of breathing space. Glass beads are more commonly found in 20mm size, but these would obviously be too big. I find games more pleasing to look at and play with if each piece has a decent amount of breathing space, so the 12mm pieces in 19mm squares work very well. I put the pieces into an appropriately-sized drawstring bag. With just the addition of a rules leaflet, the game is ready to play, give away or sell.

I'm finding that this is very time consuming for the price I charge for these games. Rather than put the price up, however, I'll keep looking for ways to speed up the process. I'm investigating pre-cut plywood boards (which also allow me to make bigger boards as well as saving time), and I'm also looking into screen printing as a way to apply more complex patterns more quickly.

Keep an eye on The Hnefatafl Shop to see what improvements I come up with!


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