Sunday, July 27, 2014

Carving chess pieces (part 1)

Cycling home a few weeks ago I passed a tree that fell over. The municipality cleared most of the debris but left the majority of the tree in the woods next to the path (presumably to decompose and continue with the circle of life). I was struck by an idea to carve a chess set and thought it would be OK to take one of the broken branches.

I have almost no experience in wood carving and the following is a bit of the process I followed to create half a chess set. The whole process from finding the wood to the current stage took approximately 10 days working on it leisurely during the holiday.

I started by buying some equipment: A figure saw, a whittling knife, a whetstone and carving gloves (highly recommended). In addition I used gouges (which required sharpening after my previous project in Ytong) and sandpaper. This is the only tools I used and, although tempted I, decided not to use my Dremel for this project.

Next, sawed the branch into three manageable pieces and removed the bark. I think the wood is Beech but I am not completely sure.
Removing bark
Probably Beech wood

At this stage the amount of debris became problematic. Luckily, we were also cleaning our closets and I found a use for all the broken jeans that we accumulated over the last 5 years. Using the newly acquired whittling knife I removed the stitches along the seams and re-stitched the pieces together to make a nice big denim sheet. Carving on this makes it very easy to clean up afterwards.
Extremely durable sheet to work on (made from 6 denims)

The first two pieces I carved was a bishop and a rook. I was very happy with the rustic look and how easy it was make these in such a short time (each piece took approximately 2 hours).
First pieces and whittling knife 

However, there are 16 pawns in a chess set and I decided that I should start making some. Pawns are very easy to make and after the first I started to cut two from one piece as it is slightly easier to handle a larger piece of wood.
First and second pawns 
Two pawns from one piece

The second bishop turned out much better than the first and I started to reconsider the amount of "rustic" that I wanted. I, however continued without measuring anything and merely eyeballing the sizes and shapes of wood to use.
2nd bishop

I found a nicely shaped piece for the queen and a knotted piece for the second rook. My plan is to lightly stain all the knotted pieces to make the dark pieces. To make up the full dark set I will also stain some of the pieces that have no knots/marks, but will stain them slightly darker. I have already made some stain that I am happy with (steel-wool, coffee and vinegar) and tested this on a piece of scrap wood (but more on this in in another post).
Queen in progress
Completed queen and partly completed 2nd rook 
Nice naturally colored pieces

I knew the biggest challenge would be the knight and decided it was time to attempt one. A few times during the process I was tempted to start over. I however continued with this one and below is the end product.
Piece used for knight

Completed knight

To keep or not to keep...

This piece of course took the longest to make (I would guess between 5 and 6 hours). I am not sure if I will keep this one or even this design, depending on how the other knights turn out...

And this is the current stage of the project, almost half a chess set. I have 9 pawns but lack one knight and one king (I have a clear design in mind) to complete half the set. Also some of the current pieces have been selected to be stained. But I have mixed feelings about the pieces. I am very happy with some but may want to redo others. I will however not redo any until I have a complete set and by this time my enthusiasm to stain and finish the ones I have may prevent me from re-carving any piece.
Current design of pieces
Current state of set (one pawn wandered out of shot)

Since my vacation is at an end I will not be able to carve as much. However, "winter is coming" and the number of days left to work outside is limited. I will try to complete the carving before it gets too cold. I also need to research finishing techniques and are leaning towards shellac (let me know in the comments if anyone has an opinion on this). I think a rustic look but with a high gloss finish may be quite nice. There are however some issues with Sweden and their extreme fear of anything alcohol (this include denatured alcohol, methanol and isopropanol), even to use as solvent in wood finishing procedures (but more on this later).

I will have more in a following post and maybe, in the future, try to make a chess board.


1 comment:

  1. I really like the knight sib!!.. and the rustic look. very cool !! maar weet nie so mooi van die high gloss finish nie. think matte would be better. doen 'n test piece in beide en post vir 'n vote