Canadian Woodworking

Chess Set – Part 1

Author: Bruce Campbell
Photos: Ray Pilon
Illustration: James Provost
Published: June July 2008

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.”

W.C. Fields

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.

  • Start by cutting two pieces of each colour of wood into 5/8″ x 1-1/4″ x 1-1/4″ blocks with the grain running down the long sides.
  • Attach a 6″ x 6″ piece of 1/2″ plywood on a faceplate, mount it on the lathe, true it round, and square up the face so that it is flat. Then scribe a 3-1/2″ diameter circle centered on the block, and mark two lines through the center of the block 90º apart. Remove the whole thing from the lathe and lay it on a work surface. Glue the four project blocks to the waste block (I use gap-filling cyanoacrylate glue for this job) with the grain running vertically. Use the lines you have drawn to space the pieces out evenly and be sure to line up each piece so it is flush with the circle and centered on the lines. Fill the gaps between the pieces with waste wood that is about the same height as the blocks, and then put this aside for a few moments to let the glue set.
  • Make three templates from stiff paper (business cards work well). You need one for the back of the knight (Template 1), one for the front (Template 2), and one for the side profile (Template 3). Now the fun begins. Mount the glue-up back on the lathe and turn the outside to the profile of Template 1. Then turn the inside to the profile on Template 2. I use small homemade scrapers for this. You have two goals – one is to turn the pieces to match the template profiles, the other is to remove enough material so that the front and back templates just touch at the top. This ensures that the pieces are the right depth. Once you are done, remove the setup from the faceplate and cut out the pieces from the waste wood on the band saw. Then, sand the sides of each piece to the profi\ le of Template 3. You now have four identical, roughed out pieces and are well on your way to completing the knights. The rest of the effort is carving. I do most of the carving with a rotary tool equipped with a 1/4″ dovetail burr, a 1/16″ cylindrical detailing burr, and two small ball-end burrs. There are only a couple of places where you may need to use a small knife.
  • Start by carving the mane using a dovetail burr. The mane should be about 1/8″ high by 3/32″ wide. When you have the mane roughed out, texture the sides and edges with a flat-tip cylindrical burr, and round the corners off the chest and back. Then, define the area around the chin, jawbone and under the ears. Carve away the sides of the nose until it is about 1/4″ wide then blend the cheeks back to the jaw line.
  • Round over the top of the chest to merge in with the chin line. The wattle under the chin is not anatomically correct (horses don’t have wattles) but it is a nice detail. To finish the chest carve two deep, curved grooves, one near the back and the other to define the chest. Round the sides over and blend them in. Carve away the sides of the nose until it is about 1/4″ wide then blend the cheeks back to the jaw line. Round the top and bottom of the nose slightly. For the finishing touches add a line for the mouth, shallow holes for nostrils, two lines for each ear, and deeper holes for the eyes. Take care to make them the same on both sides, especially the eyes.

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.

1 comment

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  2. Dear Bruce! A long time. Thanks for sending me a client (forgot his name, but you reached him, and he moved in Quebec.) He came to buy wood, and wanted classes, but I did close the school. I am on Saltspring Island sailing to Vancouver tomorrow. It would be nice to see you. You can reach me at 450-522-7707 or [email protected]. Andre

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