Horrible Idea: fancy-pants Periodic Table from old Scrabble Sets


A few weeks ago, I was listening to a RadioLab podcast, and among the segments was a somewhat eccentric scientist who had a cabinet that he was slowly filling with every element on the periodic chart. The very idea is wonderful, whether you’re a chemist or not, and for someone like me, who never took chemistry (even in high school) it has a certain appeal. It’s a learning project, to be sure.

The idea is obvious enough for me not to trust myself to think it’s original, but why not take an old Scrabble set, and make a crafty little table of periodic elements myself? Hang it on the wall, look at it smugly, etc. 

So far, it’s just an idea, but here’s what I’d need:

  • At least 2 old Scrabble sets (there are 118 elements, and only 100 Scrabble tiles). Wooden tiles needed. Older=better, since a vintage look can only be cooler.
  • A reference periodic table (Wikipedia will do)
  • Good strong glue
  • Pencil and ruler
  • A woodburning kit
  • A small vise
  • A face mask and a fresh flow of air
  • Ointment for the inevitable burns

Everything above is pretty cheap, except for the woodburning kit, and possibly the Scrabble games. I wouldn’t even bother if I couldn’t find the used games, but I get the sense that a few visits to some thrift stores might be fruitful. Also, given the intricate woodburning, and sheer number of elements, this is not likely to be a weekend project.


  1. Over time, assemble the stuff you need. This is a good project to have in your closet for a couple years before you ever get to it.
  2. Piece out the tiles you want to use and determine the layout you want to adopt on each tile. How nuts do you want to get? I’d probably go with element and atomic number. I can see atomic number being a very tough little  detail, but essential to the ‘look’ of the periodic table.
  3. Lay out the tiles on the game board, referencing a periodic chart. Determine whether you want the lanthanides and actinides represented (of course you do). Tile size: approx 1/2 inch square, board size: not sure. Possible problem: the width of a typical periodic chart is 18 elements wide, or 18 tiles. Width of a Scrabble board is 15 tiles, but with margins which may or may not be big enough for the extra space. Height shouldn’t be a problem, but width is a potential project killer. Consider obtaining a larger board from another game, and flipping it over to serve as canvas. Or, obtain a suitibly-sized slab of wood, though this then makes the project more expensive and therefore ridiculous.
  4. Use the pencil and ruler to sketch out how you want to lay out the tiles. Scrutinize. Determine whether you can/want to put in a title (“Periodic Table of the Elements”) using remaining tiles.
  5. Use the vise to clamp the tiles in place, and use the woodburning set to inscribe the element abbreviations and their atomic number on the blank side of each tile. Wear the mask for safety, since you’re burning through varnish. This is where the art comes in: you’re burning in letters in your own personal character set.
  6. Optionally, sand off the varnish, commence woodburning, then re-varnish.
  7. The tough part done, rearrange the letters back on the board and make sure they all look relatively uniform.
  8. Use the glue to affix the letters to the board. Hang on wall, look smug.

Variation: instead of waiting until all the elements are completed before hanging the board on the wall, hang it on the wall right away, and complete the elements over time. Watch the table grow, look smug faster.

Variation: obtain a HUGE amount of Scrabble tiles, scrap the board, and glue a grid-layer of Scrabble tiles onto a sturdy piece of fiberboard. Then, glue your periodic table on top of that.

Overall, I do recommend  reading up on each element as you complete them, so they are more than just a jumble of cute letters to you personally. At least, that what I’d do if I ever get to this project. You’re completing a story by doing so, not just a project, the story of the particles that make up the universe, and that’s pretty neat.


2 thoughts on “Horrible Idea: fancy-pants Periodic Table from old Scrabble Sets

  1. Yo hey ha, I’m having the darnedest time trying to find someone who made a custom Scrabble board with a woodburner. Your blog entry here is the #1 Google result for “woodburning Scrabble”.

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