Long before television or radio, many people's leisure hours involved chess or checkers matches played on game boards that were simple to make and are highly collectible today. Sign painters, carriage makers, and talented amateurs crafted these boards for family and friends, trying to marry function and beauty; some older boards still have the brass or iron hooks used to hang them as decorations when they weren't in use.
After eons of evolution and refinement -- close cousins of checkers and chess were played in ancient Africa and Asia -- game boards and playing pieces are easily available in an almost infinite array of shapes, sizes, and styles. But homemade boards are just as easy to create as they were centuries ago and retain a warmth and attractiveness that's difficult to capture with mass-produced boards.
Begin with a small, sturdy table that will be able to survive the elements; tag sales or flea markets are potentially a great source for an inexpensive table. The table should be small enough so that both players can comfortably reach around the board to move their pieces. The twenty-nine-square inch table Martha used was found in New York City's Chelsea Flea Market. It was given a two-coat base of Martha Stewart Everyday Colors Turkey Hill Green paint, then stained with an acrylic latex deck stain. The stain fights mildew and prevents blistering, ensuring the table will look its best for many years.
Martha allotted a 20-inch square in the center of the table to serve as the game area, measuring four and one-half inches in from the edge on each side. A carpenter's square makes this job especially simple; set the gauge at four and one-half inches, and draw a line around the perimeter of the table. Using easy-release blue painter's tape, tape around the square game area. To guard against paint drips, tape some kraft paper around the edges, as well. Using a three-inch sponge brush, paint the area within the taped borders. After the paint dries, remove the tape and kraft paper, peeling the tape rather than abruptly pulling it.
To create the individual squares within the main area, make a rubber stamp out of a block of plywood with adhesive backing; this is done with a Design a Stamp kit, which is available in most crafts-supply stores. Checker and chess boards are segmented into eight rows of eight squares each; given Martha's twenty-square-inch game area, each individual square will be two and one-half inches long. Using a ruler and a pencil, lightly draw a line from one corner of the game area to the other. Paint the surface of the rubber stamp, lining up the edges to those of the game square, with the inside point of the stamp perpendicular to the pencil line. Brush the stamp with more paint, and align the corners with the pencil line next to the first square. Continue lining up the stamp corner to corner along the entire length of the pencil line until you reach the other corner; you'll be able to see a harlequin pattern emerging. Once you've completed a diagonal line of squares, continue to stamp by strategically aligning corner to corner. When the game area is entirely covered with the pattern, let it dry overnight before you use it or leave it outdoors.