Making a chess set. Part 1- The King

As a geek and a wood turner. One of the most obvious things to attempt to make on the lathe is a chess set.In fact it was probably one of the first things I thought of to work towards. I did a lot of research at the time, and found that chess designs are not particularly readily available on line. At least not for free.
Though obviously there are plenty of pictures.

Realising that making a chess set was likely to be quite hard. I did not attempt to go straight for that, and actually left it to focus on other things, though my intention remained to attempt one when I got good enough.

Not last Christmas, but the one before, my lovely girlfriend decided to set me on the path to the chess set I’d talked about making, by giving me some sticks of ebony and boxwood with which to actually make a start. This was very cool, but faced with actual materials to start with, I was even more conscious that I wasn’t good enough to do a good job, and didn’t want to waste the gift.

A couple of weeks ago we went to France to visit Kat’s dad, and his workshop:-) -After over a year of not using my gift, I finally decided it was time to have a go. Spurred on by Kat saying she’d rather see the wood used for something than left gathering dust!

The first thing I needed to decide upon was  a design to go for. I didn’t want to do the classic ‘standard’ style chess set. Mainly because I didn’t fancy having a go at the knights. But also because I wanted to try something a little different than the sets we already own.


Originally I tried to draw designs of my own based on things I half remembered seeing:

But I wasn’t very happy with them, then I came across this page Daydreams: turning my own chess pieces that contained some interesting links, and a picture of an unusual chess set at the top of the page, which apparently was “turned out of a piece of 13th Century Oak by an English turner on pages 30, 31 of Gareth Williams’ Master Pieces: The Architecture of Chess”
Like the author of that page I like the design and so I set to drawing it out as a schematic in my makers note book.

With designs in hand I set off to France with my ebony and boxwood, and my narrow parting tool. This turned out to be a good idea since Kat’s dad does not have one, and I used it for most of the sizing and laying out of the pieces. Pretty much everything else I turned with a smallish spindle gouge with a fingernail grind.


I decided to start with the king (uh huh)

The other important tool I took with me was a set of vernier calipers. With this I basically measured things right from my diagram on the page, locked them in, and transferred them to the wood. I started by measuring the distances between the major features, such as the widest points and the narrowest points. I actually used the points on the calipers to mark the wood transferring the sizes exactly.
I used the parting tool to carefully reduce the diameters for each section to the widest mark. Then part down to the narrowest points. before using the spindle gouge to form the curves.
I constantly turned to refer back to the design, and used the calipers to check sizing.


It did not take long before I had something that looked like my king design


I decided to finish with finishing oil, and here you can see it stood next to its drawing all finished.

Of course I knew I’d done the easy part. I’d made one piece. But it was pretty close to the intended design, so that was a good start.

The next day I set to work on the same design in ebony. The ebony was not as nice to work with, as it mostly came off in fine black powder, which turned my hands black. I obviously was concentrating as I failed to take any in progress pictures.
This time as well as referring to the design, I often held the white king up to the in progress black king to compare against what I actually ended up with, not just what I’d intended. This helped get some of the curves to match.
Ultimately I ended up with something which I feel matches pretty well.


And so I was started on my way to a chess set of my own.

In part two, I’ll look at the bishops.


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