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Making Joshua's Chess Set

The first time I dabbled with making a Chess set, I was locked up.  I was one of the four lucky bastards among the Long Term Prisoners at the Camp Lejeune Brig who, during the latter part of my one-year sentence, was selected to work at the wood shop for my daily job.  Beat the hell of sitting in a 6' x 8' cell all day.  There, we would work like elves to strip down old barracks furniture and turn the raw material into toys in support of the Marines' Toys for Tots campaign.  We made rocking horses, outdoor children's furniture, simple trains and fire trucks, doll houses, etc.  We also made a lot of shadow boxes for flag & medals displays intended for fallen Marines.  

Occasionally, we were able to work on our own projects, and with a proper bribe, one may be able to have a guard slip the finished project to someone on the outside.  I was able to keep an intricate puzzle box that I made for Petra, and I was also able to slip a retirement chest--similar in size to a foot locker or hope chest--out the door to a buddy of mine who was retiring as a Gunnery Sergeant.  The retirement chest was cedar-lined and had inlaid removable display cases and a top tray, and on the outside, had a 360-degree intricate carving of the Battle of Belleau Wood, complete with relief stain work (various stains which were thinned near the extruding portions of the carving).  Unfortunately, no photos exist.

I remember studying intently, the project of a fellow prisoner named Ross.  He made a beautiful Chess Set.  I made two while I was in there, much more simple in style, and they quickly vanished from the drying room after completion... a common occurrence attributed to the crooked guards.  This past December, I made another; it was the first time since the brig, eleven years ago.

It all begins with two dissimilar types of wood.  At first, due to availability (West Texas, devoid of trees and far from regular delivery routes, does not offer much for the creative woodworker... most creative outlets are in metals, as noted by thousands of cool ranch signs, horseshoe benches and tables, and similar types of wrought furniture), I tried cedar and prime pine.  I made the cedar Board by ripping and gluing 6" fence panels together.  Unfortunately, having been far removed from any woodworking for the past several years, I've forgotten much.  Cedar is incredibly soft and porous, and doesn't glue together very well.  I ended up having to scrap the cedar, and ended up sorting through the badly cupped and bowed, highly-overpriced red oak that has collected dust on the rack at Lowe's for at least a year by my estimation.  For my lighter wood, I stuck with prime pine, because no white oak,poplar, or other deciduous wood was not available except in small strips.  I had a week until Christmas. 

It all begins with measuring.  You need to cut two boards the same size, slightly larger than you want the finished chess board to be, and they must be cut perfectly square.  Since I'm working with the cheapest table saw you can buy, I needed to measure the distance between the front and back of my saw blade and the guide every time I changed the guide's position on the table.  Once the boards are verified square (using a large construction square, equal corner-to-corner measurement, or "3-4-5" method), you'll need to draw out an 8 x 8 checkerboard pattern... and draw the 1/8" saw blade cut lines as well, or your side pieces will be short.  Now lay the boards on top of each other with the wood grain of one board running perpendicular to the other.  Label the top upper edge of each board with "TOP" or "NORTH" for reference.  Then number each square, one through sixty-four on one board and the same on the other board, using the same method for both boards (with the North edge at the top, number left-to-right, top-to-bottom or whatever).  Then put a small dab of wood glue on each piece of your bottom piece of wood, on each of the numbered spaces.  Dab the glue to the side of the number.  You want enough glue to hold the two dissimilar squares together for cutting, but not so much glue that you can't pry the two blocks apart.  It doesn't take much.    

Wait 24 hours or until dry.  Then make all the cuts in one direction.  You should have eight strips of bi-layer wood.  Put eight dabs of wood glue on the side of each strip, right where the two types of wood meet each other, and approximately centered on the squares that will be separated on the next cut.  Clamp the board together and let set for 24 hours again.  It's best to clamp the nearly-finished chess board into a perfectly square frame, so that it doesn't shift while setting.  Return the next day to make your second set of cuts, now going the opposite direction of your first set of cuts.  You should be holding eight strips of bi-layered wood that can now be separated into small squares.  Once separated, put the two boards back together like separate puzzles, or create stacks of numbered blocks (light teens, twenties, thirties... dark teens, twenties, thirties, etc.).  Put the blocks together in alternating colors to create two separate chess boards.

Now build a frame with a backer board to set your chess board in, fit it dry, and when you're happy with the assembly, individually glue the pieces to the inside of the frame to the backer board and sides.  Use a belt sander to knock down the height of the board so that all pieces are uniform.  Sand in one direction only.  I chose to go with the grain of the darker wood.  Finish sand it with a palm sander and successively-finer grit paper.

I used a stamping kit and a turbo torch to personalize the board.  I'm pretty sure just about anybody could have done that better, ha ha ha.

Next comes the hard part.  Making pieces.  I understand completely that most of the time, the pieces can just be purchased.  If I was running short on time, I would have done that.  But I had some time still, and I had lots of antlers.  So I attempted to carve a single, simple chess Pawn, just to see how long it would take.  The first one took me 30 minutes.  Then I started pondering the development of a system.  While I pondered, I applied the first layer of polyurethane to the board.  I'm preferential to Minwax oil-based stains and polys; in this case, I used either clear satin or clear semi-gloss poly.  I can't remember which.


I carved a second Pawn, to see if I could make it look similar to the first one.  I was impressed by the strength of the antler, which could be dropped without breaking the newly-carved piece off, even when held up by a mere toothpick-breadth of antler.  The system worked.  Here's how I did it... by the time I carved the third or fourth one, I had the Pawns down to less than ten minutes a pop.

Step One:  Measure the height of the piece

This is my carving tool... a Dremel EZ Lock metal blade.  Used 5 blades to make all the pieces.

Step 2:  Cut the drawn line by rotating the antler slowly.  Leave some of the core.

Step 3:  Draw and cut a second line.  Make all your measurements about equal for other similar pieces.

Step Four:  Cut a bevel from the center of your two cut lines in the previous image, down to the core that you left behind.  Do this by shaving pieces off while rotating the antler.

Step Five:  Cut a top bevel similar to the one you just cut.

Here's my traditional working pipe at center.  The insert at right is for another pipe bowl I plan to carve.  The hip little stick at the left holds cannabis oil; my peers pick these up from time to time due to our close working proximity to Colorado.  I'm not fond of smoking joints... don't like the smell of stale tobacco cigarette smoke or stale marijuana joint smoke.  But one or two hits of this vapor have a pretty chill effect, great for working a project like this all day.   

Got one side of my Pawns done.  Felt like a pretty big accomplishment!

To add to the nostalgic value of this chess set, I used the set of antlers from one of the two bucks we shot on our first and only (I'm not really into hunting) father-son hunt with Josh, Caleb, and myself in Pennsylvania several years ago.  I saved a set of antlers from that hunt for a future project for Caleb.

Almost finished with the Pawns for the other side.

I remember finding this antler.  It's been chewed on by a squirrel, rodent, rabbit, or similar animal.  They get their calcium intake that way, and it also helps them keep their incisors from growing too long.  I learned about this firsthand, when I found the other shed antler below.

I picked up this antler (images above and below) in Camp Upshur, at Quantico, Virginia, back around 2002.  We were training there, and my eye was drawn to this huge Delmarva Fox Squirrel.  He was going to town, holding this antler and gnawing on the end of it.  I knew a family of these squirrels earlier in North Carolina, they shared the tree next to my hunting stand for years.  Of course, by 'hunting stand,' I mean to say a 2x2 piece of plywood perched thirty foot up the side of a Longleaf Pine.  Always intrigued by those critters... I watched them change colors and patterns throughout the year as I poached for deer meat.  First time I saw one, I thought it was a skunk in a tree.  Freaking huge.  Black with a white stripe down its head.  In summer they'd be reddish-brown and gray with no stripe.  Loud as hell, sound like kids running through the forest.  They taught me how to forage for pine nuts many years before I ever saw pignolas sold in a store.

Poached my whole life, by the way, until I stopped hunting years ago... a truly respectful hunter, I never shot a doe, a big buck, or a young buck.  I looked for six-to-eight pointers with at least a few years on them.  Used the meat, bones, hides and antlers.  Killed only to supplement our meager food allowance.  Never liked "hunters" or their tactics very much.     

Okay, the Pawns had a system.  For the rest of the pieces, I just kinda went freestyle.

Stained the dark pieces.

Poly coated both sets and let them dry under heat lamps.  It was like ten degrees outside.

There's the finished set.  Gave it to Josh for Christmas.  Of course, we also bought his first car, a 2014 Mustang with the title in his name.  So the chess set paled in comparison.  But Josh and Caleb and I broke it in for a few rounds, in which each of them beat me once as I took their skills for granted!  I suspect though that this little week-long project will hold value long after the memory of the Mustang has faded.  Things like this only appreciate with age.  :)  

This post first appeared on Despite All Obstacles, please read the originial post: here

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Making Joshua's Chess Set


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