Meet Your Challengers with a Travel Mate

Dating back to the British Empire, this clever traveling game table for chess (or checkers) folds into a trumpet-sized case — ideal for trips to the jungle or anywhere.

I’ve always enjoyed those safari scenes in old Tarzan movies —

porters pitching tents to the beat of distant drums, parrots squawking in the trees overhead, while servants set out furniture on the edge of the sun-baked veldt. That last part really intrigued me … until I came across “British Campaign Furniture: Elegance Under Canvas 1740-1914,” by Nicholas A. Brawler. This fascinating book documents the history of knockdown furniture in use by the British army and Crown colonists around the world at the apex of the empire. Included are such celebrated artisans as Chippendale, Hepplewhite and Sheraton. 

In among the folding chairs, sofa beds and campaign desks, I found a gem of a project — a traveling game table for chess (or checkers) that folds into a trumpet-sized case for jungle jaunts. This clever little table offers some interesting challenges for the woodworker and a chance to try out new techniques such as a multifaceted column, some pivoting feet, lots of hardware and even a little brasswork. The table breaks into three sections for storage, which happen to be logical subassemblies for construction, too. The tabletop and apron fold in half to become the case, the pedestal leg telescopes into itself, and the feet unscrew from the pedestal and fold away.

Start at the top

The tabletop features a hardwood game board and border that are laminated to a 1/4" substrate and then edgebanded. The simplest substrate is 1/4" mahogany plywood. One side will be seen when the box is opened, so that should be the best-quality face. Trim the substrate to the dimensions shown in the cut list on Page 48. [Note: The top will finish at 13" wide, but it needs to be cut in half later on, so an extra 1/8" in this dimension is for the saw kerf.] 

To make the squares on the game board, rip four 11/2"-wide strips of maple and four more of mahogany, and edge glue them in alternating colors like a cutting board (Fig. 1). Actually, any contrasting species will work here. After the glue dries, crosscut the panel into 11/2" strips. Then reverse every other strip to form the checkered squares of the game board and glue up the panel (Fig. 2). Note that I used clamping cauls (strips of scrap wood and spring clamps) on the ends, to keep the subassembly flat while it dried.

Next, sand one face of the game board and glue that to the substrate, centering it on the plywood. A vacuum press works best, but I had excellent results using a couple of 30-lb. sandbags to provide clamping pressure (Fig. 3). Once the glue is dry, the border can be added. The cut list dimensions for the border pieces are a bit wide, so that they can overhang the edges of the substrate; this is because they’ll be trimmed later. Make sure there’s no excess glue where the grid meets the substrate, then glue and clamp the borders in place. When the glue is dry, use a bearing-guided flush trimming bit chucked in your router table to clean up the edges (Fig. 4). 

The assembled top can now be sanded smooth and flat to a uniform ½" thickness. Check the edges every inch or so with calipers, make pencil marks on the top where a little excess needs to be removed, and proceed around the entire edge in this manner. Don’t sand the bottom face of the plywood as this will be seen, and you don’t want to sand through its veneer.

Now you can rip the top into two halves (Fig. 5). Note that the wider borders are the ones being cut, while the narrow ones ride against the fence. To avoid any tearout on the bottom face, apply a strip of masking tape along the cut line. Use a fine plywood blade and take your time.

There are visible seams along the edges of the game board halves, between the borders and the substrate. Rip some mahogany to create banding, and round over one edge with a ¼" beading bit. Dry fit the banding to the three outer edges of each half, with the square edge flush with the bottom of the substrate, and miter the corners to length. What you are creating is a 1/8"  rounded lip on the top of the table to keep chess pieces from rolling off. This is a traveling table, after all, and the ground on safari may not always be level. I positioned the banding by using painter’s tape (Fig. 6), then applied glue and clamped it while the glue dried.

A couple of box frames

The two halves of the game board are housed on a pair of hinged frames. Begin construction of these frames by ripping stock for their short and long sides. The dimensions given are for mitered corners. I actually used a drawer lock bit for the joinery on my table (Fig. 7). I like the solid, glue-only joint and no-slip clamping that is created by this bit. If you go my route, you’ll have to trim the short frame sides; how much will depend on the bit you use, but the outside length of each short side should be 61/2". 

The game board halves sit on top of the frames and are secured to them with small brass clips, which you’ll make in a few minutes. Slots for these swiveling clips (Fig. 8) can be milled after the frame is glued up, using a slot-cutting bit chucked in the router. However, if you don’t have access to a slot-cutting bit, you can mill a continuous ¼"-deep slot in the inside face of each frame piece using the table saw. In that case, you’ll need to mill the slots now, prior to assembly.

Apply glue to the corners and clamp each frame together, checking that they’re square and flat. After the glue dries, place the frames side-by-side in the “open” position and mark the locations of the hinges.  To form the hinge mortises (Fig. 9), chuck a straight bit in your router and plow two grooves in each frame. Clamp a straightedge in place if your freehand skills are rusty.

The apron clips are made from ½"-wide brass stock. For safety, I attached the strips to a wood scrap with two-sided tape (carpet tape works well), and crosscut them on the table saw (Fig. 10). While they’re still attached to the scrap wood, drill and countersink a hole in each clip for a brass screw (Fig. 11). Bend each clip to shape (a simple Z, as shown in Fig. 12) so that it fits perfectly into one of the slots in the frame, and screw the clips in place to secure the game board halves to the frames. Note that no glue is used or required; the clips allow the wood to move slightly and respond to changes in the ambient humidity and temperature. I've used this mechanical connection to stay true to the original design, which actually used solid hardwood, instead of plywood, as the substrate. If you want to keep it simple, you could glue your plywood top directly to the sides and skip this step.

Complete the construction of the box by adding some hardware. Pre-drill for the hinge screws and attach the hinges. A small brass hasp keeps the two halves secure, and a stock metal handle makes the whole project portable. Attach both with the screws that come with them (Fig. 13), pre-drilling the holes to avoid splitting the wood.


Constructing the telescoping pedestal for this table is a fun challenge. It is a six-sided tube with a six-sided pole fitting snugly inside. Let’s start with the tube.

Cut the six staves that make up the tube to size, and then chuck a 30°/60° bird’s mouth bit (Fig. 14) in your router table. Test the bit height and the fence location on scraps cut to the same size as the tube staves and, when everything is just right, mill one edge of each stave to form the angles (Fig. 15). I found that marking the end of my scrap piece with a 30° angle and a perpendicular pencil line ½" along that line (Fig. 16) really helped during setup. The tube staves must be the right thickness and width. Cut them wide and the tube becomes oversized; cut them too narrow and the tube will be small.

To assemble the tube, lay out the staves edge-to-edge and face down, and use masking tape as a hinge to line up the outside angles before it's all folded into the proper tube shape and glued. The parts are made up somewhat long so the tube can be trimmed to size after the glue sets (Fig. 17). 

While the tube is drying, the post can be made. Rip it to the dimensions shown in the cut list, then lay out the 30° angles on one end (Fig. 18). Start by marking the two centerlines horizontally and vertically as shown. This divides the surface into four rectangles. Now measure 7/16" on each side of the centerline along the two wider faces (that is, the top and bottom edges of the stock in the photo). Connect these marks with two pairs of lines that meet the horizontal centerline, as shown. You now have a six-sided layout. It is vital that the post blank is accurately sized or the angles will be off. Set up the table saw to cut just outside the lines (Fig. 19) and clean up the saw cuts with a very light pass on the jointer (Fig. 20). Test fit the post in the tube as you go; it should fit snugly and yet slide smoothly inside the tube.

After trimming the post and tube to their final length, insert the post into the tube. Measure up 71/2" from the bottom and center a 5/16"  hole in one of the staves. Drill all the way through both parts (Fig. 21), and then remove the post. This hole will accommodate a brass rod, which will be embedded across the tube in a few minutes. When the table is being used, this rod stops the post from sliding all the way into the tube. When it’s being stored, the tube is turned 60° and a slot lets it slide past the post. Re-drill the hole in the post to 3/8", lay out the slot and cut it on your bandsaw (Fig. 22). 

After trimming the post and tube to their final length, insert the post into the tube. Measure up 71/2" from the bottom and center a 5/16"  hole in one of the staves. Drill all the way through both parts (Fig. 21), and then remove the post. This hole will accommodate a brass rod, which will be embedded across the tube in a few minutes. When the table is being used, this rod stops the post from sliding all the way into the tube. When it’s being stored, the tube is turned 60° and a slot lets it slide past the post. Re-drill the hole in the post to 3/8", lay out the slot and cut it on your bandsaw (Fig. 22). 

Cut the brass rod to length and tap it in place in the tube. Ideally, it should fit snugly, but it can be epoxied in place.  Brass is soft enough to sand smooth as you sand the faces of the tube, so leave it a touch long and clean it up later. 

Insert a second brass rod on center 1/2" up from the bottom of the tube (Fig. 23). Drill the two holes in the tube for this now. (See the exploded view on page 49 for their locations.) Prior to installation, this rod must become a nut to secure the foot subassembly to the pedestal. That means it must be drilled and tapped for a ¼"-20 bolt at its midpoint. If you don’t have access to a tap and die set, any auto repair shop or metalworker will drill and thread the hole for you. Secure the rod in the tube with the threaded hole centered.

A friction-fit lock

A fairly sizeable wooden block is attached to the top of the pedestal post, and this is notched to fit over a wooden lock that’s attached to the underside of the table. Let’s start with the lock. Any close-grained hardwood will work here. The lock is ¼" thick at the base, and a long tongue is cut into it to provide a spring fit (Fig. 24). The pattern for it is on page 49. 

The block slips over this lock and receives a two-step notch in its top face (see page 49 for dimensions and locations). The deep part of the notch clamps the two frames of the tabletop together, so that they stay open during use. The shallow part of the notch slides over the lock, securing the pedestal to the top (Fig. 25). Cut the stepped notch on your bandsaw, making sure that it fits snugly over the two box sides. Determine the lock's location by clamping it in place and sliding the block over it until it locks in place. With the block centered, mark the location for the lock. Remove the block and glue and screw the lock in place.  Attach the block to the top end of the pedestal post with glue and two countersunk  screws.

Tripod in the tropics

The table has three feet that fold out from the pedestal to steady the table on uneven ground. The feet are fairly small, and all sides need to be milled, so I decided to make a couple of sleds for the router table to handle this. Sleds help ensure accuracy and safety when routing small parts. Two sleds are used here, each cutting half of the foot profile. 

The first step is to transfer the foot pattern to some template stock. I used ¼" hardboard for this. Cut the template to shape on the bandsaw and clean up the edges with a drum sander and files or rasps. Locate and drill the pivot hole shown on the pattern. This hole will be used to locate and hold each foot on the sleds. Use the template to transfer the pattern to the stock for all three feet and cut them to shape on the bandsaw, staying just outside the pencil lines. Drill the three pivot holes.

The template lets you transfer the profile of the leg to the first sled. Use it to mark out the back (inside) edge of the foot profile along the edge of the wider sled (on the left in Fig. 26). Be sure to include a flat space for the bit to start and end the cut. Rough cut the profile on the edge of the sled using your bandsaw. Drill the pin location into the sled and glue a dowel into the hole. This dowel, a pair of toggle clamps, and two scrap wood blocks will align each foot blank and hold it in place on the sled. Lock the template to the sled and clean up the edge with a bearing-guided flush trim bit.       

Now you can use the sled to mill the first half of each foot blank. If your bit isn’t long enough, mill the bottom half of each foot, and then adjust the cutter height to complete the milling with a second pass (Fig. 27). Remember, you’re essentially just cleaning up here, as the feet are already bandsawn to shape. 

With the back profiles milled, the second sled can be made in the same manner as the first. Here, the blocks behind the blank must be more closely cut to support the cleaned edge of each part. Use this sled to clean up the front edge of each foot.

Now you can switch bits and ease the edges of the three feet with a bearing-guided 3/8" roundover bit. A starter pin is essential here for safe milling (Fig. 28). And care must be paid to the changing grain directions during all of this routing, to prevent tearout.

The pivot block

This is the final machined part in your table. The three feet are hinged to this block, and it in turn is attached to the pedestal. Although it looks like a complicated part, it is really just a hexagon with dadoes and holes in it.

Although the final part is only 11/2" tall, for safety I started with a 12" long blank. After laying out the profile (see page 49), cut it to shape on the table saw in the same manner as the pedestal post. Sand the cut faces and then lay out a dado in each of three alternating faces (Fig. 29). Mill the dadoes, being very careful to center each cut on its face. Crosscut the resulting molding to length (11/2"), and you’re ready to drill the block for rods that hold the feet. 

These holes need to be centered across the dadoes. This means drilling into an angled face. To ease the process, I made a quick holding fixture for the drill press (Fig. 30). A 1"-thick piece of scrap mounted on a riser block keeps the part at the proper angle. And I added a stop block to keep all the sides the same.

Next cut the pivot rods and test fit the feet. You will likely need to sand the curve below the pivot hole as I did, to allow the feet to fold properly. Be very careful not to sand the flat face. This face keeps the feet properly oriented in use. Once you are satisfied with the fit of the feet in the block, remove the pins and feet. 

To attach the block (and, of course, the feet) to the pedestal post, a ¼"-20 hanger bolt needs to be screwed into the center of the pivot block. This is a piece of hardware with a threaded bolt on one end and a threaded screw on the other. Be sure to drill an adequate pilot hole to prevent splitting the block (Fig. 31).

Finishing and hardware

Remove any hardware and sand all of the parts. I used brass hardware, but a leather handle would be nice, too. I applied several coats of a clear water-based poly finish to the feet first, sanding between coats with 400-grit paper. When dry, I replaced them in the pivot block, installed the rods, and then added mahogany plugs. These I trimmed and sanded flush, and then I applied finish to the rest of the project. 

To use the table, unlatch and open the box. Remove the feet and pedestal. Slide the pedestal post block over the center of the apron and onto the lock. Screw the pedestal tube onto the opened feet. Finally, slide the pedestal post back into the tube, ensuring that it does not slide past the brass rod, and set the table on its feet.

Ralph Bagnall

A professional woodworker for 20 years, Ralph Bagnall builds reproduction furniture in his home shop, and has been teaching and writing for the past several years. He recently moved from New Hampshire to the island of St. Croix, Virgin Islands, to pursue his woodworking in tropical sunshine.


Table saw, drill press, bandsaw, jointer, router table and bits, sander, clamps, glue, sandpaper, painter’s tape
Multi-Side bit #3506,


1" butt hinges and screws (2) 
Brass handle (1)
Brass hasp (1)
1/2" wide brass stock, about 12"
Screws (14) 1/2" x #6
Screws (2) 11/4" x #8
5/16" brass rod, about 12"
Hanger bolt (1) 1/4"-20
Wood plugs (6)

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