I have a bucket list of chess set designs I want to create – some original and some more closely aligned to existing sets. I’ve recently completed the set pictured above which I would describe as ‘broom stick’ style. This style was brought to the art world by Yves Tanguy (see an example here) and has been inspiration to others (see Ken Belanus’ “modern spiraled set” for example). A broom stick style set is also found in Mike Darlow’s Turning Chessmen book.
My set doesn’t break much new ground, but I did opt for a knight that has a head, rather remain completely abstract. The royalty have crowns, bishops have mitres and the rooks have a characteristic castle form.
What follows is a list of learnings I would like to bear in mind for when I am making future sets.
1. Wood selection
Fundamentally, a chess set needs to be made out of contrasting woods, preferably one light (eg. maple) and one dark (eg. walnut, mahogany or even purple-heart). I have found myself using the same wood type for both the pieces and the board; but it is acceptable, and in some cases completely necessary, to use different colours of wood so that the pieces aren’t completely camouflaged by the square they are standing on.
Another stumbling block was when I purchased only enough rough walnut to make one board and set of pieces. After I planed the rough surface, I found the colour was not consistent within the board, but went from dark brown to a pale brown almost as light as the maple used for the light elements of the set. This made the colour of the board inconsistent, and the pawns were all distinctly lighter than the back-rank pieces. It would have been better with more rough stock to pick only blanks with the same colour.
Lastly, maple is an obvious choice for light squares and pieces. I tried to cut a corner and save some money by using soft maple and quickly found it didn’t sand or scrape to a finish half as nice as the walnut it was juxtaposed against. Hard maple has served me much, much better.
Adding weight to the base of a chess piece makes it less prone to falling over if knocked. Turning a chess piece usually takes a number of steps (roughing and spindle turning between centers, then chucking the piece somehow to work on the top in the case of a crown, miter etc.) , but weighting means you also need to make a hole in the base. This means another step of chucking then drilling for each piece (remember there are 32 of them!). Also, if un-weighted, you could turn a bunch of pawns on the same spindle stock, but adding weight now means each piece needs turning individually.
Is it worth it? I guess if your pieces are designed with weighting in mind, their heft and stability make the added manufacturing time worth while. I worry that an un-weighted set will feel cheap, but I have some delicate designs I want to test which won’t have enough room in their base for weight.
3. Sanding and details
I always rush the sanding. When my finished pieces have blemishes on their surfaces I realize I should never rush the sanding.
I used to try to cut felt circles the exact diameter of my pieces and then glue them on. It works, but I find that gluing an oversize piece of felt to the base and them trimming with scissors after the glue dries gives a more perfect fit.
5. It is not easy
There is a reason people only make one chess set if any at all. It is repetitive, requires a lot of concentration and takes a lot of time. Nice thick wood is expensive. A final product with poor design can sap enthusiasm.
For some reason, though, I have caught the bug. I want each set I make to test another design idea, or delve into the history of chess pieces.