Chess Set – Part 1
Chess is one of the world’s most popular games. In this first article, I will begin with the most challenging part, turning the knights.
I have played chess since I was a boy and have used many different chess sets. When I decided to make a set for myself I wanted one that would not only look and feel good, but also be ‘playable’. That is, the pieces would have to be easy to distinguish from one another (especially pawns from bishops), easy to grasp, and have a nice balanced weight so they would stay put on the board.
Everyone is probably familiar with what a chess set looks like – a board with sixty-four 2-1/4″ squares arranged in eight rows by eight columns, and two sets of sixteen pieces (players). I wanted my chess pieces sized so that they would not appear crowded on the squares, and so that the king and queen would stand out a little from the rest of the players. As is common to all chess sets, I varied the height of the pieces according to their value in the game.
A general principle in turning is to use good materials, and this is especially true for this project. I suggest that you use dense, tight-grained hardwoods that have contrasting colours but similar densities so that all common pieces will have the same weight. My personal favourites are East African blackwood and boxwood. Both are wonderful woods to turn and their natural colour matches the generic black and white common to modern chess sets. If you prefer the original colours for chess sets (red and white), then red heart (a.k.a. Chakte Kok) and boxwood are good choices. Alternately, you can use a wood that bleaches well and apply a stain to the pieces. Again, boxwood is a good choice here.
You will need 40″ of 1-1/2″ x 1-1/2″ stock for each set of sixteen pieces, for a total of 80 linear inches. This is roughly three quarters of a board foot of materials per side (1 ½ BF in total). To avoid the need to laminate thinner stock it is best to use 6/4 (1-1/2″) stock. Remember that you will be turning two sets of each piece – one out of your darker wood, and one out of your light wood.
“Ultimately chess is just chess – not the best thing in the world and not the worst thing in the world, but there is nothing quite like it.”
Turn the Challenging Part First
The most challenging piece to turn is the knight, as it needs to be carved as well as turned. I discovered a way to take a lot of the work out of the carving and ensure all four knights are the same size. The technique I use, called ‘ring turning’, was developed in Seiffen, Germany over 300 years ago. The tops of the knights are turned separately from the bases and then glued together after they have been carved.
If you are a little worried about your ability to do this I suggest you cut an extra block or two and glue them into the original ring – it’s just as easy to turn five, six or more as it is to turn four. Then practice on the extra ones before starting on the final pieces. I hope you will be as surprised as I was with how easy it is to make the ‘hardest’ part of this project.
Next issue, I will discuss how to turn the bases for all the chess pieces and give some tips on duplicate turning. In the final article I will talk about how to decorate the major pieces.