Constructing Chess Pieces
The manufacture of chess pieces requires a high level of skill and precision. Mass produced plastic chess sets are injection moulded which lends itself well to producing 1000s of cheap, yet perfectly functional chess sets. Wooden chess pieces however must be individually turned and carefully fashioned by hand.
Chess pieces begin life as shapeless blocks of hardwood. It’s important that a high grade of solid hardwood is used, any voids or knots will render the chess piece a reject (or at least it should do). Typical woods for chess piece production include boxwood, ebony, rosewood, and sandalwood. Some very expensive chess sets contain extreme amounts of detail, the knights displaying strands of hair and detailed teeth. It is therefore essential to use a dense, consistent wood that is solid enough to be carved to this level of detail and remain strong enough during use.
Amateur wood turners will sometimes attempt to turn their own chess pieces, often will ill fated and inconsistent results. The professional method of chess pieces turning involves a metal blade that is essentially a reverse blank of a chess piece. In fact the finished chess piece should fit into the pattern of the blank perfectly. This metal blade must be extremely sharp & hard. It must be able to cut through dense hardwood while avoiding splinters.
Using this method allows a skilled wood turner to create uniform chessmen at quite a pace. The resulting chess pieces are now perfectly formed and ready for polishing and weighting.
Weighting chess pieces
In the days gone by most high quality chess pieces were weighted with lead. The chess piece was hollowed out and molten lead poured inside. The unsightly base area was then covered with a leather or felt pad. This resulted in extremely heavy chess pieces, just what most chess players desire.
These days the use of lead in products, especially those that might come into contact with children is frowned upon, indeed many developed countries have banned the import of lead products. The result is that most modern chess men are weighted with short stubby pieces of steel or iron.
High quality chess pieces usually have a smooth and shiny surface. An initial glance often leads people to believe that a form of lacquer is applied in order to achieve this finish. Indeed some chess pieces are lacquered, usually in colours such as red, white or black. The most traditional finish however is a natural wood finish that is polished to a high shine.
The detail, fine lines and intricate carvings of some chess pieces would be subdued by the process of applying lacquer to achieve a uniform shine. Therefore the best method is wax polishing. This process involves a motorised polishing wheel that spins at high revs. The rough chess pieces are held up against the polishing wheel until the grain has been polished super smooth.
A very hard wax is applied to the spinning polishing wheel, the heat from the friction melts tiny amount of the wax that become embedded in the fibres of the wheel. This wax then transfers itself to the surface of the chess piece and becomes part of the surface of the chess piece. In it’s pure form the wax seems as hard as glass, only when it gets hot does it soften enough to become part of the polishing process.
The result of this process is a beautifully finished chess piece, shiny yet not too glossy and still full of detail and precision.
Piece by Piece
The pawn is usually the smallest of the chessmen, in fact sets where the pawns are larger than the other chessmen are extremely rare. Certainly in all the Staunton chess sets the pawns are the smallest and thus reflect their power within the actual game of chess. The classic Staunton pawn follows a set design whereby a round ball sits upon a pedestal. Chess set manufacturers will aspire to creating pawns with near perfect round balls on the top, a flattened top, or highly non spherical pawn doesn't look good. Those with the roundest balls are best.
The rook takes on the depiction of a castle turret. Due to its significance in the game of chess it's not unusual to see slightly disproportionately large rooks within a set, although by tradition they should be just one up from the pawns in terms of size. Despite it's simple round castle shape rooks can take on enormous detail shown in the precision of their angles and turning. A perfectly made rook is extremely satisfying, simplicity made perfect!
It's often said that bishop wears a hat, in real life Bishops certainly do so why not in chess? The bishop would essentially be a fairly plain piece if it were not for the slot cut in the hat. The angled slot can range from a basic cut on cheap sets, through to a stunning bevelled carving on luxury sets. We are of course talking about Staunton bishops here.
Chess playing aside, the knights are without doubt the most significant pieces in a chess set. People have bought whole chess sets simply because of the knights. Even the most ornate and obscure chess sets tend to depict a horses head for this piece, but the Staunton chessmen got it right. The original design has inspired thousands of variations of the Knight, often seen as the piece with the most scope for creativity and complexity of carving. On seriously expensive luxury chess sets it's not unusual to see knights with flowing hair, teeth and gums, pupils in their eyes and a very specific facial expression. What is more amazing is how this amazing artistic carving is duplicated four times for one set with each of the knights looking completely identical.
The queen is usually the second tallest of the pieces and takes on a sleek elegant appearance. In most chess set designs she wears a crown. The Staunton design typifies this and keeps the piece feminine while retaining a sense of authority. Expect to see most expensive luxury sets of chessmen come with not two, but four queens in the set.
Last but certainly not least is the king. The tallest of the chessmen and certainly the most majestic. Often seen by collectors and enthusiasts as the most beautiful of the pieces. A king has elegant curves and a distinctive shape, it's iconic profile is as legendary as a coca cola bottle. The top of the king is decorated with a cross like piece called a phinnial. Traditionally in the shape of cross this piece is usually carved separately from the rest of the piece and in the case of very luxury sets can be very intricately carved and polished.