Why do chess pieces crack?

It can be a very sad sight, you have a stunning set of wooden chess pieces that were bought long enough ago for the warranty to have expired and in one of the pieces a huge crack is developing. This problem can affect sets from both sides of the price spectrum.

Anyone who knows about wood will tell you that wood will move and change shape over time. When it’s first harvested it is full of moisture, as it seasons this moisture decreases. During this process the wood can shrink, warp or move.

The idea behind wood working is to let the wood complete all of it’s moving and changing before you turn it into your desired object. There are however a few problems. Firstly there are two factors which affect the wood. They are temperature and moisture and the two go hand in hand. Heat the wood to a high temperature and you can expect to see moisture reduce, let the wood sit in cooler damp climes and expect to see the moisture increase.

Because most chess sets are made in one country, then shipped to another it can experience dramatic changes in temperature and humidity. Another factor involved is the weighting of the chess piece. Chess pieces are hollowed out at the base and metal weights inserted. In the old days they used to drill a hole, fill it with molten lead then seal up the base with a leather disc. Worries about the safety of lead caused a switch over to steel which was inserted in the form of solid discs.

In the beginning this caused a problem. The old lead method was quite ideal for the pieces because lead was soft, this meant that the wood could move, bend, and contract slightly and the soft lead inside would accommodate it. Hard steel however was less forgiving and if fitted too tightly inside the chess piece would mean that cracking was very likely.

This problem was solved by drilling a slightly larger hole in the piece than was actually needed so that the steel disc fitted loosely inside. A soft ply-able filler is then inserted around the steel to fill in the gaps and remove any gaps or movement. This meant that the wooden chess piece could move, bend and grow without the weight inside causing the wood to crack.

Despite these developments some cracking will still occur, wood is not a 100% stable material and a degree of change is to be expected in it’s lifetime. When buying fine chess pieces from a retailer ensure you choose one who offers a good replacement policy for any pieces that do crack. Just make sure you don’t start cracking up yourself if one or two of your pieces do.

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