Build a Quarto Game

Author: Rob Brown
Photos: Rob Brown
Published: December January 2022
Quarto game board
post-thumbnail

Easy to learn, yet hard to master, Quarto is a game for all ages. It also makes a great gift for someone with kids or adults who enjoy a fun challenge.

  • DIFFICULTY
    2/5
  • LENGTH/TIME
    2/5
  • COST
    2/5

Quarto is a game invented by Blaise Muller, a Swiss mathematician, in 1991. It’s distributed by Gigamic (gigamic.com), which also sells many other board games. The two-player game has 16 unique pieces that are played in one of the 16 locations on the 4×4 board. In the original game each of the game pieces has four characteristics:

  • Tall vs. short
  • Solid-topped vs. hollow-topped
  • Circular vs. square in cross section
  • Dark vs. light in colour

In reality, any four attributes can be used, as long as they are distinct from each other. For creative woodworkers, this is a great opportunity to try a few new techniques, such as laminating differ­ent species of wood or types of veneer, or adding texture, carving or pyrography to the 16 game pieces. Not only can this be a lot of fun, it makes for a one-of-a-kind game.
I chose these four attributes:

  • All solid wood vs. contrasting veneer laminations
  • Square vs. octagonal in cross section
  • Tall vs. short
  • Textured vs. smooth top

Cut Veneer Strips
To offer a visual difference between two halves of the game pieces, Brown cut contrasting strips of veneer with a knife and straightedge to sandwich them between the outer solid walnut layers.

Cut Veneer Strips

Glue Them Up
With glue on all the joints, the pieces can be clamped up to create two of the blanks. Notice no glue was applied between the two blanks – just to the veneer layers.

Glue Them Up

An Even Octagon
Brown set up his table saw to make the 45° cuts, then moved the rip fence in until the cut facets were the same width as the remaining flat surface between the facets.

An Even Octagon

Four Passes Per Blank
Once the setup is complete, four passes can be made, rotating the blank 90° between each pass. The offcuts remain between the open area between the rip fence and the blade until the saw is turned off and they’re removed.

Four Passes Per Blank

Organized Chaos
As you work on the 16 game pieces, it’s important to keep them organized. Here, they’re awaiting the final attribute (texture) to be added. With squares on the left, tall players towards the back, and the pieces separated into solid and contrasting veneer groups, Brown was able to choose one part from each pair to add texture to their upper surface.

Organized Chaos

Not Too Much
Add glue to the underside of the upper board layer, doing your best to keep glue away from the circular openings. Too much glue will make an ugly mess when it squeezes out.

Not Too Much

Add the Texture
Although many different techniques could be used to add texture, Brown opted for a rotary tool and small cutting burr. He textured the center area of the tops on the inside of the border.

Add the Texture

Textured Border
Once a pencil line has been added, Brown uses a V-gouge to create a border for the texture. Accuracy isn’t critical, as a slightly imperfect look shows it was made by hand, not machine.

Textured Border

Layout is Important
With the diameter of large drill bit you have in mind, lay out the locations for the centers of the 16 holes on the 1/4" thick plywood upper layer.

Layout is Important

Add Edging
Solid wood edging can be cut then adhered to the sides of the game board to protect the board and enhance its look.

Add Edging

Ready for a Finish
Sanding the visible surfaces of the game board is the first step in applying a quality finish.

Ready for a Finish

Easy Application
An aerosol spray can will make quick work of all the small game pieces, not to mention get into all the textured surfaces on their tops.

Easy Application

First, the game pieces

The hardest part of this project was just keeping the unique attri­butes of the pieces straight in my mind. I started with four 16″ long blanks from which to create the pieces. My finished pieces are 1-1/4″ square and either 3-1/2″ or 2″ high. The exact dimen­sions aren’t important, as long as the difference in height is easily recognized by the two people playing the game. One thing to con­sider at this point is the size of large drill bit you have on hand. Rather than purchase a large drill bit to accommodate the size of the game pieces, size them to the diameter of drill bit you already have. I used a 2-3/8″ diameter bit, but anything around that size will do. Even if you only have a 1″ drill bit you can make it work, but remember you need to create pieces that will fit into the hole created by your drill bit.

The 1st attribute: solid wood vs. contrasting veneer

The first two blanks were simple 1-1/4″ × 1-1/4″ solid pieces, 16″ long. The other two had to be laminated with alternating light / dark / light layers of veneer glued at their center. I chose walnut for the main species. To create the two blanks with contrasting veneer down their center, I ripped four pieces of 5/8″ wide × 1-1/2″ thick walnut. I then used a knife and straightedge to slice oversized pieces of maple and mahogany veneer for the contrasting veneer species, then applied glue to the layers and clamped the two blanks up.

When they were dry, I used a knife to remove most of the veneer waste, then dressed all four of the blanks down to 1-1/4″ square. At this stage two blanks had contrasting layers of veneer running down their center while the other two blanks were solid wood. This took care of the first attribute.

The 2nd attribute: square vs. octagonal

Next on my list was to machine half of the blanks octagonally in cross section and leave the other half square. This is where it starts getting slightly tricky, as you can’t choose just any two of the four blanks to cut into octagons. You have to choose one of the solid wood blanks and one of the blanks with contrasting veneer running down their center.

With those two slightly differing blanks in your hands, there are a few options for chamfering the four corners to create the octag­onal cross sections. A router table with a large chamfer bit is an option. A hand plane to remove just the right amount of mate­rial is another option. I chose my table saw, with the blade tilted to 45° and a sub-fence attached to my rip fence. I angled the blade and clamped a 3/4″ thick plywood fence to my rip fence so its lower edge was a little below the center line of the blank. This left me with a gap of about 5/8″ between the lower edge of the sub-fence and the upper surface of my table saw. Any off-cuts could remain in there and not be shot out of my table saw when cut free from the blank. Adjusting the rip fence in or out to leave me with an even octagonal cross section was the final step.

At this point I ran the two blanks across the saw four times each, leaving me with two 16″ long octagonal blanks. This took care of the second attribute. Before moving onto the third attribute, use a belt sander or other sander to smooth the edges of all of the blanks. It’s easier, faster and safer to do it now, before the players are all cut to length.

The 3rd attribute: tall vs. short

The was an easy one. I marked lines on all four of the blanks so the parts would finish at either 3-1/2″ tall or 2″ tall. The important part of this was that each of these four blanks had to be divided up so they produced two long parts and two short parts. After tak­ing all four of the blanks to my miter saw, I cut the parts to length. Third attribute complete.

The 4th attribute: texture vs. smooth

The fourth and final attribute needed extra care in order not to ruin all my work up to this point. Texture had to be added to half of the pieces, but not just any eight pieces. I organized them on a work surface so the square pieces were on the right and the octag­onal pieces were on the left. I further organized them so the tall pieces were farther away from me, and the shorter pieces closer to me. I then put them in pairs, with the solid pieces together and the pieces with contrasting veneer down their center were side by side. I then took one of each of these pairs and brought them over to my workbench.

A pencil line, added freehand with my middle finger running against the edge of the pieces to act as a guide, was added to give the texture a border. Once a square was added to the tops of the square pieces, and an octagon was added to the tops of the octago­nal pieces, I used a sharp V-gouge to add the border. Then, with a small, round carving bit in my Dremel rotary tool, I added an even texture to the center area of the tops.

The board

Like the game pieces, there are dozens of ways to create the board needed to play the game. I chose to use a two-layer approach, so I could bore 16 holes in the upper layer, then glue it to the lower layer, giving me very positive locations to position the pieces.

I enjoy making a small project like this with exotic woods, so I chose pomelle bubinga veneer (very bold and figured) for the upper surface and bird’s-eye maple for the edging. I made the lower layer with an upper surface of flat-cut maple veneer so the colour matched the solid edges. Plywood was used for both the upper and lower core.
Although I used a vacuum press for much of the pressing in this project, the parts aren’t so huge you can’t easily use clamps and cauls to apply pressure across the two panels that make up the board.

I trimmed the 1/4″ thick upper board layer and the 3/4″ thick lower board layer oversized by 1″ in both directions. I then cut one exotic face veneer, one flat cut maple face veneer and two back veneers the same size as the plywood cores. Best practice calls for all veneered panels to be balanced, meaning if you veneer one side of a panel you should veneer the other side, too. I applied glue to the parts and pressed them up.

Trim and cut 16 holes

Now I trimmed the two board layers to within 1/4″ of their final size. This was because I had to glue them together before trimming them to their final size. With the two layers close to their final size, I laid out the 16 holes on the 1/4″ thick upper layer so the gaps between the holes, as well as the gaps between the holes and the edge of the board, were the same. Math is a beautiful thing when it works out.

With the hole centers marked, I used my drill press to create all the holes. I drilled slowly, not wanting to have a lot of tear-out as the bit exited the other side of the 1/4″ plywood.

Before assembling the two layers I sanded the inner edge of each hole smooth and broke the upper edge so it would be easy on the fingers during use.

Next, sand the show veneer on the lower layer, apply glue to the underside of the 1/4″ layer, bring the two layers together and press it up. You don’t need a lot of glue, as the layers won’t really be forced apart during play, and you want to avoid unsightly squeeze-out. When dry, cut the board to size, keeping in mind the location of the holes and trying to keep them spaced evenly.

Add edging

Solid wood edging protects the board and adds a visually pleasing finished look. Rip the four strips to size, miter their ends and glue them onto the board. I used a table saw miter sled for the cuts as I find it easy to shave an extra 1/64″ off a part to fine tune its length. It leaves me with a smooth cut and I find it quite safe.

The solid wood edges were machined slightly oversized, and they finished a bit proud of the upper surface of the game board. Rather than try to sand the solid edging down and risk sanding through the exotic face veneer, I first chamfered the edges. This removed some material from their upper edge. Then I used a sander to flush the solid edges. It was a lot easier with less material to remove. Because the edges weren’t applied perfectly even and the chamfers were also uneven, I re-chamfered the four edges to ensure they were even. At this point I sanded the edging and readied the board for a finish.

Apply a finish

A finish will help protect wood, but I think in this case its main function is two-fold. The parts of this game have to look good and feel nice to the touch. This is a high-end product, after all, and it increases the pleasure of playing the game if these two aspects are enjoyable.

Finishes look and feel different when used on different species of wood. I recommend testing a finish on the species you’re using before committing to the whole project. I used an aerosol can of Varathane Professional Polyurethane to coat the game pieces and board with four coats of finish. I allowed each coat to dry thor­oughly before sanding and applying another. I also took extra care to coat the end grain of the 16 pieces, so no grain showed through. When fully cured, some wax and #0000 steel wool created a very pleasing sur­face to both the eye and hand.

How to Play

Each player selects a piece for their opponent to place on the board, and they alternate turns. A player wins when they’re able to place a piece on the board that forms a vertical, horizontal or diagonal line of four pieces with the same attribute (i.e. all four with textured tops or all four with an octagonal cross section). Because of the fact that you choose a piece for your opponent to play means this game is as much about defense as it is about offense.

We Have a Winner!

The person who places the piece that creates a line of four pieces with matching attributes is the winner. Here, the winner is about to place a piece that would create a horizontal row of four pieces with textured tops as their shared attribute.

Quarto game board


Rob Brown - [email protected]

Rob is a studio furniture maker and the editor at Canadian Woodworking & Home Improvement.

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