In this series of posts I’ve been looking at the different methods used to make dice, first looking at mass-market acrylic dice and then resin dice, and the similarities and differences between them.
However, dice aren’t just made of plastic. I doubt a material exists that someone hasn’t looked at and said “I wonder if I could make dice out of that?” It turns out the answer is usually yes.
Metal, wood and stone have all become popular materials for dicemaking – but because of the expense involved in the raw materials and the rigorous industrial processes involved, they’re almost always positioned as premium or luxury dice, something special for when you want to go beyond plastic.
This is part three of a multi-part series of posts about how dice are made. See the index in the sidebar for links to all the posts in the series.
As always with this series I’d like to thank:
- Alex Abrate of Level Up Dice for generously sharing his time and knowledge; without Alex I wouldn’t have been able to write these posts.
- Lena, a fellow dice goblin with some truly lovely dice; Lena kindly assisted with pictures of handmade dice.
- Melissa of the Goblin Dice Hoard Facebook group for dice collectors, who generously shared pictures of many amazing sets of premium dice.
How Dice are Made: Post Index
- Post 1: How Acrylic Dice are Made, including the basics of dice-making.
- Post 2: How Resin Dice are Made, including handmade dice from indie and hobbyist dice makers, and a comparison of acrylic vs. resin dice.
- Post 3: How Metal and Wood Dice are Made, popular materials in the premium dice market. (That’s this post.)
- Post 4: How Stone, Glass and Other Premium Dice are Made, and when stone isn’t stone.
Level Up Dice – Bocote Heartwood wooden dice. Picture from levelupdice.net.
How Premium Dice Are Made
Modern plastic dice, both resin and acrylic, can achieve some truly stunning effects at incredibly cheap prices, and will likely always form the backbone of the mass market for dice. However, premium dice made of more specialist materials are very popular and feature a range of effects which plastic can’t emulate.
Premium dice come in a range of materials and prices vary accordingly. The most common materials for higher-end dice are metal, wood and stone; some manufacturers use more obscure materials, but they’ll usually be formed into dice in one of the existing methods – developing new industrial processes is expensive in both time and money.
The Starting Point: Billets
Most premium dice (except cast metal) start as billets – a billet, in industrial manufacturing, is a bar or block of material that is ready for further processing.
Billets used for dicemaking are usually a long squared rod, about an inch square in cross-section, made of wood, metal or glass (or a more specialised material). Billets for natural gemstone dice might be in the form of a slab or chunk of the material as found in nature.
A billet will be cut up into dice-size pieces, then shaped using a process appropriate for the material.
Metal is the most common material for premium dice, and can be formed into dice in a number of ways.
Cast Metal Dice
Most metal dice, especially those at a lower price point, are made by casting. Cheaper cast metal dice are usually made of zinc alloys; more expensive cast metal dice are often created from copper, steel, brass, titanium, and even tungsten.
No matter the alloy, the basic process is to heat the metal until it reaches its melting point, and pour the liquid metal into a mold to form the die shape. Once the die has cooled and been removed from the mold, it may go through a second stage to add detailing depending on the design. Common detailing stages include:
- Enamelling and inlays – these may be applied by machine; fancy inlays with glitter or complicated effects may need to be applied by hand.
- Plating and coating – often seen in zinc-alloy dice, this effect involves applying a thin outer layer of another metal to create a different effect. For example, this is responsible for the glossy black finish on metal dice sold by a number of brands.
More expensive metals are rarely plated or enamelled as it reduces the effect of the higher-end material.
Enamelled cast metal dice. Mythica – Spellbinder Inferno by Die Hard Dice. Picture thanks to Melissa of Goblin Dice Hoard.
Precision Metal Dice
Precision metal dice are created through a ‘carving’ technique called CNC milling, rather than casting. These dice start their life as a billet of metal, cut down into chunks, and then put into a CNC machine to shape into dice.
CNC machines use a cutting tool such as a drill, rotary cutter or laser to remove material from the worked object. They deliver precision because their movements are pre-planned and programmed into the machine, and then controlled by a computer, allowing the machine to make the same cuts time and time again.
The CNC machine cuts the chunk of metal down to dice size and shape – a process which requires manual assistance to turn and realign the chunks as each face is finished. Some designs can take up to 20 manual realignments per die for the shaping step.
Level Up Dice – Caged Damascus Steel precision metal dice, picture thanks to Melissa of Goblin Dice Hoard.
Raw metal dice such as steel or tungsten are complete when the CNC shaping is done and numbers are engraved.
However, some precision dice (often aluminium dice) are anodized for colour and pattern, requiring two or three more steps:
- After CNC shaping, the dice are anodized – they’re suspended in a coloured liquid and electrified; the electric current causes the dye to bond to the surface of the metal.
- The anodized dice are then re-CNCed to engrave the numbers. (Non-anodized dice can be engraved as part of the shaping step, making them faster to produce.)
- If the numbers are to be coloured rather than bare metal, the dice are anodized again to colour the numbers.
Forged Metal Dice
Very few creators are making these dice but no discussion would be complete without mentioning the fact that a few inventive souls are hand-forging metal dice using blacksmithing techniques. Gil Ramirez is perhaps the best-known, due to his association with Critical Role.
Kraken Dice – Projekt KG Crimson Precision Aluminium dice, picture thanks to Melissa of Goblin Dice Hoard.
Wooden dice made industrially – rather than by indie creators – are generally created using the same techniques as precision metal dice.
A wood is selected and formed into a billet; the billet is then trimmed into dice-size chunks, and shaped into dice by CNC machining, which can also be used to add the numbers.
Specifics will vary with the wood, as each material is different, but the fundamental processes are the same. This also applies to “created” woods such as technical wood, which is popular with some wooden dice makers.
One notable variation exists where the numbers are inlaid with metal or another material (such as resin or a resin/stone compound). With dice like these, the method used to inlay the numbers will vary depending on the material being used.
Redwood Burl dice with Aluminum Inlay by Artisan Dice. Picture thanks to Melissa of Goblin Dice Hoard.