Canadian Woodworking

Chess Set – Part 2

Author: Bruce Campbell
Illustration: James Provost
Published: August September 2008

Last issue, Bruce talked about using traditional ring turning to make the heads of the knights. Now he turns to the bases for all the chess pieces.

To read Part 1 of this series click here.

First, lets take a moment to get familiar with the profiles we are about to turn. There are only two profiles for the bases in this project, each made up of several parts. The lower section has a ¼” high column with slightly concaved sides, a chamfer at the bottom and a shallow ‘V’ at the top. On top of this sits a bead flowing into a halfcove finished off by a cone on top. The upper section is ½” high for major pieces and ¼” for pawns. So, overall, the bases are ¾” high for major pieces and ½” high for pawns.

Base style for King and Queen (top) and other pieces (bottom)

Turning the bases

Story sticks

Collet plugs

Recall that we are using 1 ½” square stock and have 40 linear inches of each type of wood – 80″ in total. Mount a 3″ length of stock in your lathe. I leave the wood square and use a 4-jaw chuck with spigot jaws. This allows me to grip a lot of wood, or as little as ¼”, ensuring a solid grip. This significantly reduces waste.

Begin by roughing the piece down to 1 ¼” in diameter. Trim the end square and chamfer the corner very slightly. Then, cut a shallow ‘V’ ¼” from the end. Usinga parting tool make a cut ⅝” from the end until the remaining timber is ⅞” in diameter.

Many chess sets have felt on the bottom but I prefer to turn and decorate them with a chatter tool instead. Imagine a clock face on the bottom and run the flat edge of a chatter tool from center outward toward eight o’clock stopping just before the edge. Be sure to keep the whole face of the cutter in contact with the surface. This will cut a beautiful sunburst pattern. Then use a point tool (or a skew on its side) to cut a ring on the edge of the chatter work to give it a nice frame. This step only takes a few seconds and really adds to the quality of the pieces.

Cut a shallow cove between the bottom chamfer and the ‘V’ and turn the left side of the ‘V’ into a small bead (about 1⁄16″ wide). Cut a cove that connects smoothly out of that bead and connects to the ⅞” part you made earlier. Move ⅛” to the left and part down again to form a tang with a diameter of ⅝”. Then cut a straight bevel from the end of the cove to the tang.

The base is now shaped properly and can be sanded. If you are using boxwood or blackwood and have made good cuts you will probably be able to start with 220 or 320 grit paper. Smooth out the coves but be careful not to sand out the sharp corners. They look much better when they remain sharp. Sand to 600 or 1200 grit and then finish with your favourite friction polish. I stay away from carnauba-based finishes, as they do not tolerate moisture very well. Try a synthetic-based polish instead.

Finally, part down from the left side of the bevel until there is only about 3⁄32” left and then part it completely off leaving a small post on the top. To finish the knight, drill a small hole in the bottom of the head and glue it on to the base using epoxy or carpenter’s glue. The knights are done!

Turning the Rest of the Pieces

The knights were made up of two pieces. The rest of the chess pieces are each turned from one piece of wood. There are 28 more pieces to make – 2 kings, 2 queens, 4 bishops, 4 rooks, and 16 pawns. This can seem to be a daunting task but there are techniques to make it easier.

Don’t worry if common pieces are slightly different. Strive to make them exact but accept that variations in materials and your technique will make them differ, and this can add considerable charm to the set. Before turning the remaining pieces make yourself a set of story sticks. These are simple layout gauges that allow you to quickly and accurately mark where you need to cut on each piece. Make five of these story sticks from thin, stiff material such as plastic, veneer, or heavy paper.

Make two full size photocopies of the scale diagram of the pieces. Cut the photocopy templates out from one sheet and carefully cutthem in half vertically. Glue each left side half to a story stick being sure to locate the bottom of the piece even with the stop on the right of the story stick. Using the second photocopy template and a good pair of calipers, measure all the different diameters of each piece and write them on the story stick for that piece. For example, where the base of the pawn meets the upper part, the diameter is 7⁄16” and the collar and the head are ½”.

Using the Story Sticks

Mount a piece of wood long enough for one of the chess pieces. Turn it to the correct diameter (15⁄16” for the king and queen, and 11⁄4” for all other pieces) and finish the bottom as described earlier. Adjust the tool rest so it is at center and close to the wood, and while the lathe is running, lay the appropriate story stick on the tool rest and slide it to the left until the stop lightly brushes on the end of the wood. Using a pencil, mark all the appropriate lines from the story stick onto the wood. Now all the lengths you need are on the wood and you can read the diameter at any point off the story stick.

Start from the right and work left (from the bottom of the piece to the top). Turn the base first. Move left (up) to the next mark and cut down to the right diameter. Then shape the piece up to that part. Continue up until you reach the top but leave enough material so you can sand and finish the piece before you part it off.

Finishing the Tops

With practice you can get nearly the whole piece finished leaving only a small piece of wood holding it to the lathe. But, of course you can’t do it all – the very top is left unfinished. For the king, queen and rook we need to do even more shaping. In order to finish the tops we need to recheck each piece from the bottom in a way that will not mark it. To do this we need a collet chuck.

If you have a commercial collet chuck with the right size collets you are in luck; but if you are like most of us, you do not have this expensive and rarely used equipment. However, you can easily make a collet plug using your 4-jaw chuck. Well, actually, you need to make two – one for the kings and queens (at 15⁄16″) and one for the rest (at 11⁄4″).

Start by turning a piece of medium-density hardwood down to 13⁄4″ diameter and square off the face. Cut a clean, vertical recess in the end ¼” deep by 11⁄4″ in diameter. Part this off about 1″ long being careful to make a clean part on the back. Now, take this to your bandsaw and make four cuts in the piece.

Put this plug into your 4-jaw scroll chuck and align it so that it is squeezed smaller as you tighten the chuck. Place one of your pieces base-first into the plug and gently tighten the chuck. You will feel the plug squeeze the piece and hold it firmly. It may take some adjusting to get the piece centered but you will then be able to finish the tops of the pawns and bishops.

The kings, queens and rooks need special attention, so in the next issue Bruce will explain how to finish them. He will also share some delightful variations to this project.

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