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I'm in the process of building a board gaming table with a recessed play area and this is one of many things I can't seem to find a consensus on.

A lot of the build is still in the early phases, but essentially I'll have a 3.5' x 5' (exact length TBD) recessed play area a couple of inches below the surface of my table.

I was planning on cutting down a piece of plywood to size and adhering some type of cloth/foam surface to it and securing on the backside with staples (exactly what type of surface is also TBD, and hopefully not too relevant to the approach I take). I would be able to lower the playing surface into the recessed area where it would sit snugly. The underside of the table will have boards providing support for this playing surface.

My main questions are:

  1. Should I be concerned with the type of material I use? Appearance isn't an issue. The only place it'll be visible is from underneath anyway and I don't care if that is ugly. I'm able to get some inexpensive OSB locally, but I wasn't sure if there would be any concerns with adhesives or stapling or anything. I've also seen sheathing and MDF used for this sort of thing, but they both bring my cost up and I'm not sure if they actually give me any benefit in my case.
  2. Is 1/2" thickness what I want? I figured 1/4" would flex a bit during install or if I need to remove it for any reason, not to mention difficult (or impossible?) to staple the material to...
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    Hi, welcome to Woodworking. I concur that 1/2" is probably sufficient for this. I was going to add a few more titbits here but I see they're running overlong so I'll expand them into a formal Answer.
    – Graphus
    Jul 26, 2022 at 16:18
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    Sort of a side-note but I would not 'adhere' (glue or whatever) the playing side of the felt to board. There's a good chance you'll want to replace it later. I would just stretch it taut and secure the back really well similar to how you would upholster a seat cushion.
    – JimmyJames
    Jul 27, 2022 at 17:39
  • @JimmyJames That was the plan. Most likely I'll do something that'll require a thin layer of foam underneath (as much as I'd like neoprene, it's hard for me to justify that cost at the moment). The foam would be adhered but the fabric would only be stretched. Jul 27, 2022 at 19:27
  • I don't know if your friends/family like to drink beer or other liquids that cause odors (milk would be horrible) but you might not want to glue the foam either. If you've pull the felt around the edges, it will hold the foam in place. If anything, I would just uses a little double-sided tape to hold it in place during assembly.
    – JimmyJames
    Jul 27, 2022 at 19:34

4 Answers 4

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Should I be concerned with the type of material I use?

Well as a general rule, always.

Appearance isn't an issue. The only place it'll be visible is from underneath anyway and I don't care if that is ugly. I'm able to get some inexpensive OSB locally, but I wasn't sure if there would be any concerns with adhesives or stapling or anything.

OSB is strong and at least as dimensionally stable as decent ply. You can glue to it no problem (note: give the surface at least a light sanding) and with the right staples and stapler getting staples into it is similarly not an issue. But that irregular surface might be a problem if you eventually choose to go for a thin covering without cushioning.

Even if you did finally select felt/baize adhered directly to the surface OSB isn't completely ruled out, but the work needed to get the same dead-flat surface one gets automatically with a sheet of ply or MDF would seem to me to offset any savings in cost (plus the cost of any filler you'd need to buy).

Is 1/2" thickness what I want?

I think this would be perfect for this. Many regular plywood users go with 3/4" ply almost exclusively for anything structural, so for this project they'd use it here too. But a part of that is simply because they probably already have a sheet or two handy they can immediately reach for.

And the additional strength provided by 3/4" is very unlikely to be needed here; with the saving in both cost and weight it's worth going thinner IMO. Both ply and MDF will give essentially a totally flat surface, but unless you have access to better quality MDF (usually not tan/light brown) plywood offers many advantages so I would definitely pick that preferentially.

Decent 1/4" plywood isn't so weak you couldn't conceive of using it here (especially because there would be no worries about it sagging under its own weight) but if this piece is to be handled repeatedly I'd want to go thicker just to have a panel that was a little more robust and able to take occasional rough handling.

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  • I definitely understand concerns about OSB not being smooth/uniform. Whichever route I go though, there will be at least a couple mm of cushion. Likely either in the form of foam padding under some sort of felt/speed cloth/billiard cloth, or neoprene. The goal is to have just enough cushion that dice rolls are muffled and there's enough give to easily pick up cards. I wouldn't have fabric alone on the surface. Jul 26, 2022 at 16:51
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    If you had OSB lying around spare, I'd glue down hardboard (I think you might call it masonite) or very thin MDF, like 1/8", to provide a smooth surface. If you're buying material, ply is nice to work with, or MDF. Chipboard would also work but isn't worth the saving here given the risk of damaging the edges when handling.
    – Chris H
    Jul 27, 2022 at 13:59
  • Good idea on laminating a smooth surface to the top, @ChrisH, but with padding under the fabric, I think it would be less important. If the OP were to use neoprene, I can't imagine that the roughness of OSB would matter in the least on the playing surface side. It might matter on the bottom side where it might catch people's pants or legs.
    – FreeMan
    Jul 27, 2022 at 14:17
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    @FreeMan 2mm neoprene would be enough for that, certainly, and not too soft. I think that with 1/2" ply or MDF topped with baize, you wouldn't really need padding unless you wanted really quiet rolling; unpadded baize is traditional for card tables, for example, and those were also used for dice games (at least in my grandparents' house)
    – Chris H
    Jul 27, 2022 at 14:34
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    @BrootsWaymb, if you're going to cushion millimetre thick for completely silent dice throws then I think any concerns about the uneven (but, importantly, still planar) surface of OSB go away. If it's cheap where you are and examining it in the flesh you can see it's not junk then I'd say go for it.
    – Graphus
    Jul 27, 2022 at 16:04
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I would say that your main requirement is to have the surface smooth and flat so that the covering material is also smooth and flat in turn.

OSB is not appropriate for this, as it has a rough texture and quite a lot of splinters and protruding pieces of wood that would require a lot of sanding to smoothen out (and would still suffer from not fully glued pieces of wood).

Low grade plywood might work, especially after sanding it. Higher grade plywood would work well for this.

MDF can also work well for your needs, with the caveat that you already mentioned that it will not hold staples all that well. However, if you also plan to glue the covering material, the staples are not under any significant force and MDF would be fine.

Finally, I agree with your intuition about using at least 1/2" sheets. 1/4" does indeed seem to thin for good staple holding (requiring short staples) as well as requiring a lot of support underneath (and still probably feel hollow and cheap).

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I once built some gaming boards for friends. I built them out of OSB. The material worked well.

I used 1/2" material.

I sanded each down by hand, but a power sander would work fine too.

After sanding, I used a shop vacuum to remove the dust, followed by a tack cloth.

Using spray adhesive, I then covered one with felt and the other with velvet.

For support during construction and for use afterwards, I used sawhorses. This allowed each table to be quickly disassembled for transportation or storage aside a wall.

Both tables worked well. Personally, I liked the velvet-covered one a bit more. Plus, velvet comes in a wider range of colours than felt, which gives you more choices for personalisation.

If your friends are Cheetos aficionados, I recommend additional sanding, and then sealing and staining the boards instead of covering them. Cheetos and felt make a bad combination; Cheetos and velvet isn't as bad, but you probably don't want to spend your time regularly exfiltrating the Cheetos dust from your nice table.

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  • Did you use OSB or plywood? They're often used for the same purposes, but are made out of totally different materials and have different properties out of the factory.
    – FreeMan
    Jul 27, 2022 at 14:19
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    @FreeMan Thanks for noticing my error. Sorry, I made an edit before posting and didn't clean it up fully. I originally thought I made one out of OSB and one out of plywood, and then found some photos to learn that they were both OSB. It was a train set board that I made out of plywood. It worked well too, but the game tables were both OSB. I'll edit accordingly. Thanks again. Jul 29, 2022 at 7:07
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    No worries! I was just confused. ;)
    – FreeMan
    Jul 29, 2022 at 11:36
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Should be I be concerned with the type of material I use?

You should be concerned with the qualities that are important to you. Appearance isn't one of those for this project, but there are others:

  • flatness: I'm sure you'll want the surface to be flat and remain so for a long time.
  • weight: Weight might be a factor if you'll need to move the table, but it can also affect how the table sounds as you throw dice or drop objects onto it. If you want the table to have a solid feel to it, a heavy playing surface will help.
  • rigidity/sturdiness: Similar to weight; a thicker, more rigid surface will make the table feel more solid.

Is 1/2" thickness what I want?

Personally, I'd go with 3/4" material. I like the weight and stability of MDF for something like this, but plywood or even melamine-coated particle board could work. But you could certainly choose 1/2" material and look for ways to keep it flat and make it feel more solid. For example, you could attach it to the table by screwing through the support boards into the bottom of the game surface. Or, since you'll probably buy a 4'x8' sheet of whatever material you choose, you could cut strips from what's left and glue them to the back, effectively making it twice as thick and much more rigid.

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