The secret to carving your own wooden chess set (without a lathe) is a little bit of consistency. The wooden chess pieces must look similar to one another, and the styles between, knights, rooks, and bishops must be somewhat similar.
Whether you are a beginner or an expert at carving wood, this article will guide you to creating a fully functioning chess set in any style you want. While we concentrate on carving the chess by hand (whittling), a lot of the tips you will read in the article are also suitable for power carvers.
The article will concentrate on the general tips and ideas that you have to know before carving the chess pieces, as well as the specifics of each piece that you will be carving. Without further ado, let’s start with the things you need to know before starting.
Fundamentals Of Carving a Chess Set
In this section of the article, we will give a good general understanding of what you need to prepare and some tips and tricks that you can choose to implement when carving your chess pieces.
To start with let’s discuss the tools that you will be using. The range of assistive tools can go wild, but the main tools you will be using to whittle the chess pieces will of course be the carving knife. You may also choose to use power carving tools, but we will not be concentrating on that side of carving.
The other thing you will need is to get the wood that you will be carving to the appropriate size for all pieces. You can either do that by cutting a larger log with a saw and measuring each piece to be the same, or buy carving blocks of different sizes from Amazon. For any size of the piece, you will need to count an extra 20% to be carved off. For example, if you want a 6×4 pawn, get a carving block that is 7×5 as the rest will be carved away.
Just like how we said at the start of the article, to get your chess set to look good you will need as much consistency as possible. This means that the theme of the chess pieces, their size, their design all look the same at first glance. If you are making a Balinese-styled king and queen, you can not have medieval knights and modern-looking bishops. The same idea applies to sizes.
Depending on your experience with carving, you may or may not know that 99% of completed carvings are actually sealed if you want them to be durable. This is also important in chess pieces. If you are new to applying finishes on your carvings, head over to our article 5 ways to finish your carving. A simple finish for a chess set would be wax/beeswax.
You can also aim to get the chess pieces to be shiny. This also requires a specific technique to the way you finish your carvings. It can be done with beeswax or even polyurethane, for both methods give a shine to any carving. You can find a tutorial for this method in the same article that we recommend one paragraph above this one.
Finally, you should set the expectation based on your level of expertise. if you are an intermediate woodcarver you don’t have to take the most difficult pattern of pieces. It’s better to carve a simple chess set that looks identical than take difficult patterns and end up with 4 knights that look slightly different.
Wood For Black Chess Pieces
While with white chess pieces, you can use almost any wood, wood for black pieces is a little less common. Of course, you can use walnut stain to give your chess pieces the dark color. However, if you want to leave the wood’s natural color, here are a few kinds of wood that you can use for black chess pieces:
Red cedar a savior to beginner carvers when it comes to carving something dark out of wood. While dark red is not necessarily black, it still gives a clear and rather stylish distinction between the two chess colors.
Red cedar is easy to carve, it is among the top softest woods in the world, therefore, if you are a beginner, we strongly recommend red cedar, if you are an expert at wood carving, then we still recommend red cedar, but also check out walnut as another equally interesting option.
We have a very nice article that describes the different types of cedar and their unique traits. If you would like, find some more information about red cedar in our article all about carving cedar.
Walnut is a go-to wood when it comes to carving dark wood carvings for professional woodcarvers. It is very tough to carve, so we would not recommend it for beginners. With that said, walnut is the ideal dark color that black pieces should have.
The grain and detail of the wood is very beautiful, it is definitely worth carving if you are up to the challenge as it really is the ideal wood for black chess pieces.
Make sure to keep your tools super sharp when carving walnut, and if you have not carved it before, consider going for a simpler less detailed design at first just to make sure that your chess pieces are consistent.
One of the most expensive woods in the world is ebony. We never carved chess pieces out of it, but if you really want your chess set to be luxurious, you can purchase ebony wood for your chess set.
Carving a Wooden Pawn
Pawns can be very different depending on what style of chess you are looking to carve. If you are looking to carve a more traditional chess set, with the pawns looking something like in the picture above, you will need to use the push cut technique to round off the top of the head and then work your way down from there.
More exotic chess styles such as the Balinese style chess that you can see below the subheading “fundamentals of carving a chess set” have more chipping away techniques such as the ones used in chip carving.
No matter what style you are using, when it comes to carving a rather precise design you should make some drawings on your carving. Going back to the traditional pawn, you should mark the deepest area on every layer, so under the pawn’s head, under the collar, and then the start and end of the skirt.
What drawings do, is help you understand after which point you should start making the carving wider again to continue outlining the shape.
There is a very helpful youtube video showing the tutorial of carving a chess pawn. Be sure to watch it to get a better visual understanding.
Key takeaways from the video:
- Use push cuts to round the head of the pawn and to narrow parts leading to a stop new section of the pawn
- Use stop cuts to carve out the deep lines between sections
- Draw on the wood to assist your carving
- Pawns are small, therefore carving off small pieces will make it look more detailed.
After you carve the pawn as shown in the video, you definitely need to sand it and apply a finish of your choice. You don’t have to make the carving super smooth if you don’t want to, but leaving it with visual knife cuts makes it look far too simple. If you are ok with it looking so basic, that’s totally fine, but otherwise, it is easy to finish the job.
Carving a Wooden Knight
Knights are by far the most complicated piece you are going to carve. This is very often the week link in a lot of carved chess sets as it is not at all simple to carve a neat-looking knight 4 times somewhat identically.
A little tip that could help is first carving both white nights and then both black nights. Our technique gets better every time we make the same carving twice, this means the first knight probably will look a little less pretty and the fourth night will look slightly rushed and less detailed.
While this is not always the case, it is not a bad idea to avoid carving first the black knight, then the white knight, and then repeating that again as there may be a slightly larger difference which will be visually more noticeable.
Now to actually carving the knight. A knight needs a thick base, which means that we need to carve off a lot of wood from the middle and top parts. With that said, this is where it gets tricky, if you cut too much off your knight will look poor and weak, but too little, the knight’s base will be too small and it will look disproportional. A balance here is very important.
The knight’s anatomy is not round like other pieces. Instead, if you look from the top it is a little more oval-shaped. When thinning out the knight, only make it thinner from two opposite sides leaving the other opposite sides almost as thick as the wood comes.
As you shape the head and add detail to the knight, you will be carving off the “thicker opposite sides”. This will make more sense once you watch the video below.
Just like with the pawn, push cuts will be your primary technique as you will see in the video below.
Key takeaways from the video
- Make the middle and top part narrow on two opposite sides while the bottom large.
- Shaping the head starts from one of the thicker opposite sides
- Give some highlight to the horse’s mane
- Keep the knight symmetrical, make sure the head does not lean to either of the side.
- Most knights you make will turn out different, however, to make the set more aesthetically pleasing, try your best to make them similar.
- Create the outline of the knight’s ears with a v-cut
- Use stop cuts to mark the different areas of the base.
To make it clear, you should by no means copy the design of the knight. You can if you want to, but you can come up with your own pattern and simply implement the same techniques as shown in the video and described in the description. For example, add very pointy ears or a round base, show your creativity in these details.
Once again, it’s important to remember to keep the style of your knight similar to the rest of the pieces, you
Carving a Wooden Bishop
Bishops are not hard to carve once you have an idea of what you will be carving. The idea, however, is the tricky part. If you know exactly what you want your bishop to look like, then this is great news, but it is very likely you are not exactly sure what to make of a bishop in your carved chess set.
You don’t want to undermine the queen with the bishop’s complexity, but you also need something more simple than a thinly carved stick. If you are carving your chess set in a specific style, then it may be even harder to get inspiration for the bishop.
In classical carved chess, there is one particular element that a lot of people do not notice. The cut on the right side of the head is what traditionally would make the bishop different from the pawn and the queen.
Be sure to use it in your design as it is a very nice detail that looks very much in place, but not many people have noticed. Just use a v cut and try to go as deep as you think looks good.
If you really like the little ball on top of the bishop’s head, but you find it hard to carve, carve it out separately and use glue to stick it on!Cheat note
The method of carving a bishop is more or less the same as you would carve a pawn. Use push cuts to create a round head and work your way down marking different areas of the bishops with stop cuts.
Carving a Wooden Rook
Even though a rook is worth a lot in chess, it is actually one of the easiest pieces to carve. If you are a beginner carver, anything with a larger cube on the bottom and a smaller cube on the top with a few thinning outlines in the middle will serve as a great rook.
Adding details for intermediate and expert carvers is also not difficult either. First of all, as you see in the image above the rook has the 4-6 “castle walls” on the very top of the rook.
The best way to go about carving them is by hollowing out few inches off the top of the rook, and then separating the outer circle into a few of these castle-themed walls. Then add a few cuts here below to highlight the top area.
As we mentioned before, the rook is worth a lot, and you definitely want to show it. One of the ways is to make the rook from a slightly larger block of wood than the bishops and knights. The other is to highlight more of its anatomy.
As you can see on the right (or above if you are reading from your phone) the rook can have up to 5 different depths. These are done with stop cuts, and between each stop cut the depth of the wood is different. More depth will give the rook slightly more assertiveness, which is exactly what your mindset should be when carving one.
Carving Wooden King&Queen
The king and queen of your chess set must be special. Nothing kills a chess set more than a queen that looks like a bishop and a king that is shorter than the rook. They are the two most valuable pieces on the board and it must show!
First of all, decide which one of them should be taller. There are arguments for and against the queen being taller, but this is usually what appeals to most people. However, whether you want your king to be taller or not is completely up to you.
The way that the king and queen are made is very similar, the largest difference is what is on the top of their head.
Another thing to keep in mind is that you also want to add a lot of depth to your king and queen. With the rook, you could make up to 5 stop cuts and this would give you 4 different layers, with the king and queen, however, you should take it a step further and instead of making each layer flat, make it in relief (wavy) going from one stop cut to the other.
To start the carving you first want to round off your piece of wood, just like the rook, we recommend you carve the queen and king from a larger block of wood to give them more priority.
After you have two round blocks of wood, make one shorter to avoid the king and the queen having the same height.
Instead of explaining the whole carving project of the two, here is a very good visual video on how to carve a simple king and queen. If you don’t want to watch the whole 20+ minutes, just take a look at our key takeaways and apply the most important parts.
Key takeaways from the video
- Rounder edges will be more durable, sharper edges will break over time
- To add layers make some areas thinner, however, avoid making them too thin so they don’t break
- To make a little crown on the queen you, draw a small circle on top of your wood block and carve it into a sphere
- The upper quarter of your piece will determine the style of the carving, get creative when planning the design there
- When adding details to the very top of your piece, apply little pressure to avoid cutting it off
- To add a little cross on the king’s crown, narrow down the wood block from two sides with stop cuts and then carve out the cross
Carving a Wooden Board
As a little bonus, we will also provide you with a mini-guide on what to consider if you are carving your own chessboard.
First of all, give some space to the letters and numbers on the sides, as you see in the image to your left. Very often these are forgotten as carvers multiply the size of one desired square by 8 to determine the dimensions of the board.
Give at least an extra half a square on all four sides of the board when cutting it before carving.
You can color the board with pyrography. We have a beginner’s guide on how to get into wood burning that you may find useful if you have never used a soldering iron before.
Wood burning can be used for both shading and writing numbers and letters on your board.
Carving Faces On Wooden Chess Pieces
If you are going for a unique style of carving a face on each chess piece, you are going to be facing a challenge.
To make things easier head over to our ultimate guide on carving faces and see if there is anything useful that you can learn from that article
Carving your own chess set is a time consuming project, after all, 32 pieces need to be carved and finished for a complete set of chess. We hope you enjoyed today’s article and that it will help you carve your chess set exactly how you want it to be.