Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Build an Organizer for Arkham Horror

If someone asked me what my favorite board game was, I would probably have to say Arkham Horror from Fantasy Flight Games. Among its many great qualities, the one I like the most about the game is its complexity. With intricate rules and an army of bits and pieces, Arkham Horror provides a fun and long-lasting experience—extra fun if you happen to be a devotee of H. P. Lovecraft. Complexity, however, often comes with a price, and, in the case of Arkham Horror, this price is difficult storage. The large number of components can be tricky to properly store and organize—especially if someone invested in one or more of the game’s many expansions. Of course, you can always use tackle boxes and be done with it, but there are those of us who would like to use something a little more fitting to this great game; preferably, without spending too much money on it. That is where I come in.

In this article, I will guide you through the process of building the above pictured wooden organizer to replace the plastic insert that comes in the game’s original box. My goal is to present you with something that is relatively simple to construct—without any previous woodworking knowledge—yet still looks professional and elegant. Furthermore, this organizer is not only good looking but also highly functional, able to hold the core game and an extra expansion comfortably in one, tidy box.

Although this was my first attempt to work with many of the tools and material I used in this project, I feel confident that I learned enough from my own experience to write this guide in such detail that you do not have to suffer through my mistakes again. So, if you feel up for the task, read on and start building!

What you will need

  • Balsa wood
  • Superglue
  • Wood paint
  • Wood sealer
  • Nails (optional)
  • Felt or some kind of soft fabric (optional)
  • Colored, heavy paper (optional)
  • A sharp knife
  • Ruler / T-square
  • Sandpaper

Before I get to the actual building part, I need to write a few words about the tools and materials you will need. The heart and soul of this project is Balsa wood, a very light timber whose density is actually closer to Styrofoam than conventional hardwood. As a result, Balsa is very easy to work with. It can be cut with a simple knife then glued together, which is precisely the reason why I chose it for this project. It is worth mentioning, however, that due to its lightness, Balsa is more susceptible to damage than normal wood, and it requires more protection too. You can find Balsa planks in most hobby and modeling stores in various thicknesses. To build this box, you will need to buy a few Balsa planks—or rather sheets—of about 5 millimeters or roughly a quarter inch thick.

In order to give your creation a finished look—and the extra protection Balsa requires—you first need to paint the wood and then use a sealer on top to protect the surface. Although you have the freedom to use any paint you like, I would recommend going with a darker color, as it is better suited for the game’s gloomy atmosphere. Also, make sure you buy oil-based paint as opposed to wood stains because you will need a material that can adequately cover glue spots. As for sealers, you are also free to use anything that is made for wood. For my project, I picked one that was designed for furniture because I assumed it would provide a finer finish than those meant to be used outside, and it turned out great.

Even though it is an optional ingredient, I need to talk a bit about the felt. If you decide to do so, you will use it to cover the bottom of the box, giving it a more stylish finish—as well as extra protection for your game pieces. In order it to work well, however, you need to find a material that is: 1) soft enough to protect your game parts, 2) thin enough not to throw off your initial measurements, 3) does not fray at the edges, 4) available in a color that complements your box design. At first, finding such material proved extremely hard for me, until I wandered into a curtain store where they literally had hundreds of fabrics, including a few that fulfilled all the above criteria. Nevertheless, I cannot give a general rule of thumb regarding the material; everyone needs to find out what is available in his or her area and just go with that.

Planning phase
It is always easier to build something if you have a clear, precise plan in front of you. For that reason, I recommend using at least a rough sketch of what you want to make before you start constructing. This way, you will always have something to fall back on should you ever feel lost in the process. I included below the blueprint of the design I used as one option. Feel free to use it! Although I think mine is a fairly efficient design, it is far from being the only one. If you believe you have a better arrangement, by all means go for it. Also, it is important to note that I used the sizes of Mayday’s premium card sleeves as the basis for all of my applicable measurements! Therefore, if you do not store your cards with the sleeves still on or use a different brand of card protectors, that might be another reason for coming up with your own numbers and/or arrangement.

Before you start drawing up the plans for your own design, however, a few points need to be discussed. First of all, the overall height of the box cannot be more than 47 millimeters. This will give you enough room to fit the base game board and an additional expansion on top while still being able to close the box. Furthermore, when you take measurements for your various containers, always over-calculate the spaces needed with an extra millimeter or two—the more the better. This is to make sure that the paint and sealer combo, which add at least an extra millimeter to the thickness of the wood, does not throw off your calculations. Lastly, make sure your spaces are not too snug. After all, you will need to be able to pull your game pieces out of the box, and it will be problematic if you do not have enough room for your fingers. Below, you can find the exact measurements of the box I made!

Building the base
Regardless of what layout you chose, your first step will be to build the base. Cut several sheets of Balsa to exactly 288 millimeter long—this is the size of the Arkham Horror box—and glue them together along their longer edges. Keep in mind, however, that your base needs to be perfectly level, so use a flat surface to make sure your base is horizontal; sand it if necessary. Then, cut off the excess on the last piece until you have a perfect square that fits loosely into the Arkham Horror box—the box should have a millimeter or two of extra space in in case you later need to take out the insert.

Aside from practicing your cutting, this is also a good opportunity to become familiar with the characteristics of the building material. You will notice that cutting along the grain of the wood is quite easy; it is almost like cutting Styrofoam. When you cut against to the grain, however, you need to apply a little pressure, but not so much that it makes the edge tear—a sharp knife can be a big help here. All in all, cutting Balsa takes a little practice, but ultimately, it is not rocket science; just make sure you always hold your knife exactly 90 degrees to the surface, otherwise your edges will not be perpendicular. Furthermore, when you glue the wood together, it is absolutely crucial to make sure all your angles are 90 degrees otherwise your pieces will not completely fit together, and your box will look amateurish. For this, a good ruler is essential, and it might not be a total waste of money to invest in a small t-square. I also used small nails to give extra strength to the corners, but it is completely optional. Superglue alone should be just fine to hold everything together securely.

Lastly, when you put things together, try to use just enough superglue to cover the surfaces that go together and avoid spills. It is easy to go overboard with superglue, after all, it is transparent and makes your construction sturdier. But, you will have a terrible time painting your box afterward since paint will not stick to the glue-spots. To make the process a little more comfortable, I recommend using a more gel-like superglue to avoid spills. Those can be found in any hobby store.

Building the rest
From here on forward, the building the rest of the organizer is fairly straightforward. Once your base is glued together securely, you build your structure on it. First, you cut the outer walls and glue them onto the base. Then, you just keep adding the inner dividers until you have the design you envisioned. If you follow my design, just make sure you follow my measurements exactly as they are tried and true.

The only tricky parts are the circular shapes by token containers 5 and 6 and the inserts at the mythos card holders. The first one is to hold your Ancient One and investigator sheets in place on top of the other tokens, thus preventing them from falling out of their containers. For this, I used sandpaper to get the circular shapes, but you can glue two squares there. I used a circular design because I store my investigator sheets inside a ziplock bag and the closing part of the bag needs to go somewhere.

For the divider between the four section where the large cards go is fairly straightforward. Glue 2 or 3 sheets of Balsa together, depending on how thick your sheets are, and shape four identical “columns” out of them to serve as dividers. I gave you exact measures how far apart they need to be, but ultimately it is up to you and your finger size. Remember, the space between the columns is for your fingers so you can take your cards out. For their shape, I used sandpaper.

Painting and sealing
When you are satisfied with your creation, you can start painting it right away. As I mentioned in the “What you will need” section, your paint should be able to cover glue spots, which you will certainly have regardless of how careful you were while putting your organizer together! In order to ensure a nice and even surface, you need to go through a long and painstaking process that may take several coats of paint and many days to finish.

First of all, you need to sand the surface—with particular attention to the corners and noticeable glue spots—using a very fine sandpaper. But be careful, Balsa is very light so you do not need to sand very hard. When I painted my organizer, I concentrated mainly on the glue spots and left the wood pretty much alone.

Once the surface is sanded, apply a thin layer of paint everywhere. Thin is key here as you will likely need three or four layers of paint to make the surface look evenly coated. It will also prevent the paint from settling in the corners. Depending on the size of your glue spots, the surface will look patchy at first, but the spots will become fainter with each additional layer of paint. You do not, however, want to go overboard and use too much paint as it can really mess up your initial measurements. That is why I recommended overestimating the spaces needed with at least 2 millimeters on each side. Painting also takes a long time because oil based paint needs at least a day to dry. So, if you apply four coats of paint it is going to take you at least four days but probably longer.

Lastly, when your paint is completely dried, you need to administer a thin layer of wood sealer. When dried, this will create a hard, plastic-like layer that will protect both the paint and the wood, as well as give everything a nice, shiny finish. For the sealer to dry, it can take up to a week. To ensure that it dries evenly, put the box in a warm, dry place and make sure it is clean. You do not want dust getting on your freshly sealed organizer.

Fabric lining
Lastly, you can line the bottom of your storage spaces with felt. This part is completely optional, but I found that it greatly enhances the look of the organizer while also protects your game pieces. There are two ways to go about it. You can simply cut the felt to the size of each container area and glue the pieces you get to the bottom. But I found this method a little too permanent. So instead, I glued my material on top of heavy paper of the same color as my felt and used that to line my storage spaces. This method has several advantages. First of all, it is much easier to cut paper to the right size than doing the same with a fabric, saving you from a lot headache. You cut your paper until it is the exact same size as the container you want to line, glue the felt on top, and then cut off the excess on the sides. This will give you a nice, even surface that will not wrinkle. Also, unlike the felt by itself, you do not have to glue this paper/fabric combo to the bottom, thus giving you the option to replace it in the future, should you ever get bored of the color.

When you are finished, you should have in your hand something similar to this:

And that is it! Put the finished product into the original Arkham Horror box—it should fit loosely—and you are done. The organizer should be large enough to store the original game and one large expansion comfortably—or, a little less if yo, similar to me, store your cards with the sleeves on them.

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