When we see a supreme luxury set of chess pieces it’s often difficult to imagine just how much work has gone into producing it. There are many stages that the producer has to go through in order to end up with 32 perfect chess pieces that are good enough to attract the ‘luxury’ price tag.
A chess piece usually starts life as a solid block of hardwood that is cut roughly into an eight sided shape. It’s then put into a lathe and turned to it’s correct shape by pushing a very sharp blade against it. The blade is of utmost importance. It must be a perfect reverse of the desired shape and extremely sharp. The aim is to cut into the spinning wood without splintering the wood or leaving small hollows. Not something an amature can achieve very easily! The end result should be a perfectly formed chess piece albeit with a slightly rough surface.
Smoothing things over
The next job is to carefully sand the rough surface of the chess piece away. This is usually done with very fine abrasive paper. Then the piece is polished with a rotating buffer to remove the sanding marks. There are many stages to the sanding and polishing of a chess piece. Mechanical polishing combined with hard wax is used to create the desired effect.
A weight off your mind
Even the best style and quality of chessmen would be nothing without some weight inside them. The chess piece is clamped carefully and then a large hole drilled into the base. The hole is then filled with either molten lead or a steel disc. It’s vital that some room is left in the hole for some flexible filler. If the metal weight goes in with a tight fit it can cause cracking later on!
Covering things up
The base is then covered with either a felt circle or a piece of leather to cover up the weight and filler. After this a final stage of polishing takes place. It’s worth noting that during all of these processes each piece must be carefully checked. Defective or damaged pieces must be thrown out and replaced with a new one. On luxury chess sets it’s typical to turn around double the quantity you need in the knowledge that 50% wont make it through to the end of the finishing process without picking some damage of defect. Super luxury chess sets will often have minute tolerances of what can be considered acceptable, which can mean the pile of rejects is huge compared to the finished examples.
The classic look that chess players and enthusiasts love is the deep black of ebony wood for the dark chess pieces. When polished to a deep shine it looks so deep, so black, so Staunton! But Ebony is seldom this black by nature. It will often have streaks of dark brown running through it. It is common practice to stain the ebony jet black in order to create a uniform blackness.