Chess Set

Copyright 2002 by Jim Wilson

I turned this chess set in 1994 or 1995 on a simple lathe I built from scrap for the purpose. The white pieces are maple; the black ones are walnut. They are not stained, but have only a simple tung oil finish to bring out the natural beauty of the wood. Someday I plan to make a nice board to match, but I usually play out rather than at home, and a wooden board is too cumbersome to carry, so it is not at the top of my project list.

Click on an image to view a larger version.

chess_set_1b.jpg (59 kB) A complicated position.
chess_set_3b.jpg (49 kB) Here you can see the wood grain and the nice contrast between the maple and walnut.
chess_set_closeup_b.jpg (38 kB) This picture shows the profiles of the pieces.

I took a minimalist approach to the design. The bishops have no mitre and the knights have no eyes. The queen's crown and the rook's parapet are unadorned as well. These details would not be hard to add, but they would be prone to damage from every day use.

This set has been used very heavily for years, and has needed only one tiny repair -- a pawn's collar, which was broken in a pawn-spinning[1] contest with Grandmaster Tal Shaked at my dining room table. How many pieces flew countless times from the table onto the tile floor, I will never know, but I think the damage was understandable, and the memory well worth it.

The pieces are modeled after the Staunton style commonly used in chess competition. The set is designed to be played on a standard tournament-sized chess board with 2-1/4" squares. The heights of the pieces are approximately as follows:

King - 3-3/4"
Queen - 3-1/4" to 3-1/2"
Bishop - 2-3/4"
Knight - 2-1/4"
Rook - 2"
Pawn - 1-3/4"

The bases of the pawns are sized so that four of them can fit on a single square. They are about 1-1/8" diameter. The King and Queen have a base about 1-1/2" in diameter. Bishops and Rooks about 1-1/4", with the Knights just slightly larger.

I added lead weight to give the pieces a more substantial feel than is generally found, and to make them less prone to toppling during play. To add the weight, I bored out the bottom of each piece after finishing and poured in the molten lead. The lead was melted in a copper crucible I made from a 1-1/2" copper pipe end cap and an old wood-handled screwdriver. When the lead cooled, I leveled the bottom with wood putty. After the putty dried, I applied an adhesive-backed felt pad and trimmed it to fit.

The weights of the pieces are: King and Queen, 42 grams; Bishops, 26g; Knights and Rooks, 28g; Pawns 16g. If I ever make another set, I will increase the weights, perhaps as much as double. The pieces are still occasionally toppled in time scrambles and blitz play, and of course even more often in bullet (one minute) games.

Jim Wilson

[1] A pawn[2] can be spun on its head, like a top. You hold the pawn inverted by the head, between the thumb and middle finger, and launch the pawn spinning onto the table by snapping your fingers. This rare and highly valuable skill requires a bit of practice. I wouldn't recommend learning on an expensive set. :-)

[2] The other pieces can be spun, too, but with much greater difficulty.

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