Canadian Woodworking

Chess Set – Part 3

Author: Bruce Campbell
Illustration: James Provost
Published: October November 2008

In this final article Bruce shows you how to decorate the tops of the queens, rooks, bishops and kings.

In my last article (Aug/Sep ‘08, Issue #55), I showed you how to make a collet plug. You’ll need this plug to finish turning the chess pieces. I always try to apply any finish to my pieces before taking them off the lathe.

Cross for King turned seperately

(L) On the King, remove the sides of the post; (R) On the Queen, scallop the collar


The Queens need crowns. Use the collet plug to hold the queen by the base. Cut the inside of the top away until the wall is about 1⁄16″ thick and extend the dome on her head until the two curves meet well below the rim. Sand and finish the top and remove the queen from the chuck.

The last step is to scallop the crown. To do this I use a ½” drum sander in a rotary tool. Simply hold the drum at 45º to the rim and sand away a section. Move to the next area and sand again until this new scallop just touches the last one. Continue around the rim until it is entirely scalloped. I prefer to have an odd number of scallops and I try to make each one about the same width and depth. If you use a fine sanding drum the surface will be ready for finish.


The rooks need to have their ramparts hollowed out. Mount the rook by the base using the collet plug. Use a 1⁄16″ scraper to hollow out the top to a depth of ¼” leaving a ⅛” wall. Sand and finish the inside and top. To finish the rook, six equally spaced slots must be cut in the rampart walls. Again I use the bandsaw, but this time it takes two side-by-side cuts to make the slot wide enough.

Mark out six equally spaced lines on the outside of the rampart. If you have an index head on your lathe use it to do this. Otherwise, you will need to space them out by hand. Again, use a piece of scrap wood under the rook’s head to level it. Remember, you will be cutting two slots at once – one on the top and one on the bottom – so level it carefully. Then feed the piece directly into the blade just to the left of the layout line. Repeat the cut on the right.

Do this two more times and you will have the six slots done. If you are careful these cuts will be fairly clean; however they can be easily cleaned up with a small bastard file. Complete the rooks by rubbing some finish inside the slots.


The bishop has a cut in the head set off at 45º running to the center line. I do this using my bandsaw where the kerf of the blade creates a cut that is just about the right width. Arrange the bishop on its side with a piece of waste wood under the head that is thick enough to have the bishop lay level. Slowly feed the whole assembly into the saw at a 45º angle until you are half way through, and then back out. If you do this carefully no sanding or cleanup will be required and the bishops will be finished.


Mount the king with a collet plug, and then sand and finish the top. The top of the king has a post on it with a ring around the post. If you remove the sides of the post it will suddenly transform into a cross. I do this on the corner of my coarse grinding wheel and then finish it off with a file and fine sandpaper.

Additional Decorations

One simple and very useful decoration is to switch the heads on the bishops so the dark ones have light heads and vice versa. This is helpful in reducing the chances that a player mistakes a bishop for a pawn or the other way around. To do this use a very thin kerf saw to remove the head of the bishop just above the top ring. Then sand the surfaces smooth and glue the heads to the opposite colour bases.

Another easy decoration is to turn the crosses of the kings from a different material and glue them on afterwards. Tagua nut, horn, faux ivory, soapstone or aluminum are all attractive choices for this. When finishing the top of the king, cut off the cross (or leave it off to start with) and drill a hole in the center of the head. Then, turn the cross separately leaving a post on the bottom the same size as the hole you drilled in the king. Remove the sides of the turned piece to create the cross and then glue it in place.

Finally, if you are very adventurous you can turn all the bases from another material such as brass or aluminium leaving a post on each. Turn just the tops from wood, drill a hole in the bottom and glue them to the bases. This alternative looks very impressive and can be done with your wood turning tools just like you would turn wood. But, how to turn and finish metal is a topic for another time.

I hope you enjoy making your chess set and get years of enjoyment from using it.

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