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Chess Pieces - Materials & Manufacture

Introduction

Complete chess sets comprise both a chess board and chess pieces.
In this article, we take a closer look at the three most common materials used in the construction of chess pieces (also called chess men), namely wood, metal and marble.

Wood
Considering that well over 90% of all chess sets made today are constructed from wood of one kind or another, it is not surprising that this is the most familiar material to the majority of people.
Frequently, chess pieces and boards are made from dissimilar types of wood, which can be due to a number of factors, such as:

  • Manufacturing limitations
  • Expense
  • Desired finish
  • Wood properties - hardness, ease of carving, density etc.

    Metal
    Metal chess pieces are generally cast using various alloys, a process which allows the production of highly detailed chessmen that would be impracticable or difficult to reproduce in other materials.
    Metal pieces are ideally partnered with metal or leather boards.

    Marble
    In this category, we include the "artificial" marble resin as well as the natural alabaster forms.
    Marble resin can be formed into fairly intricate shapes and is often used (after painting) for themed and "fun" chess pieces, whilst alabaster is carved in a similar process to that of wood.

    There are of course, many other less commonly used materials that we mention here only for completeness, these being glass, plastic, ceramic, leather and stone.
    In extremely high-end chess sets, it is not uncommon to see chess sets constructed entirely from precious metals and gemstones, although these are often little more than status statements and decoration, providing limited functional value.

    Our complementary article All about chess boards investigates the materials more generally used to construct chess boards.

    Index:   Boxwood  Maple  Sheesham  Rosewood  Bud Rosewood  Ebony

    Metal & Brass  Marble Resin  Alabaster
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    Chess Pieces - Materials

    Boxwood

    Boxwood ShrubBoxwood BranchesBoxwood shrub and branches
    Boxes are densely branched evergreen small trees or shrubs, native to Northern Europe and Asia, although cultivation is now widespread throughout North America.
    Boxwood is a fine-grained hardwood with a slightly yellowish appearance and natural luster, and is one of the few woods with a density greater than that of water.
    White wooden chess pieces are almost exclusively made of boxwood, often with a light lacquer coating for protection. Boxwood is easily workable on a lathe and has excellent carving characteristics.
    To obtain non-natural colored boxwood chess pieces, an appropriate wood stain must be used.

    Boxwood KnightA Boxwood Chess Knight
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    Maple

    Maple TreesMaple trees
    Maple wood is more often used in the construction of chess boards and tables - see
    Maple Chess Boards for more information.
    To reiterate, maple is a very fine grained, dense and hardwearing wood, and although it's not the easiest wood to carve, makes for smooth and delightfully tactile chess pieces.

    Maple BishopMaple PawnMaple Wood Chess Pieces
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    Sheesham

    Sheesham is often used for the dark pieces in a chess set. Sheesham wood is also known as golden rosewood or Indian rosewood.
    The term "sheesham" is in fact Indian in origin, as are our sheesham chess pieces.

    Sheesham is a tight-grained hardwood, with hints of both dark and light highlights that carves well.
    Whilst the color is not as deep and rich as rosewood (it varies from a light, almost "orangey" brown to a dark brown, whereas rosewood is generally a darker red color), nonetheless, sheesham makes an excellent, relatively inexpensive choice of material for dark chess pieces.

    Sheesham KnightSheesham BishopSheesham Wood Chess Pieces

    As is the case with all natural woods, the precise color and grain will vary from set to set, although the appearance of chess pieces will generally be more consistent within sets, as complete chess sets are often carved from the same section of the same tree!
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    Rosewood

    Rosewood is a very popular type of wood used for chess men.
    The rose bush is prized for its rich, deep, dense wood of unrivalled color depth and appearance.
    Colors range from light rose to a dark, deep brown. Rosewood exhibits a very tight grain, with very unusual and striking patterns, often with dark bands.
    As rosewood is relatively hard to carve and work on a lathe, this tends to make the pieces more expensive than sheesham - the plus side being that they are very hardy and resilient to chipping.

    Rosewood KingRosewood BishopRosewood Chess Pieces
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    Bud Rosewood

    Bud Rosewood is a rare type of rosewood, generally used on only the very high end chess sets.
    It has exquisite color depth of rich burgundy mixed with dark, almost orange hues.
    The complex color blending is very hard to describe, but these pieces really do look incredible!
    Because of its rarity and the fact that it must be turned by a master craftsman to bring out its full potential, bud rosewood chess pieces are amongst the most expensive available.
    Bud rosewood can be polished to a very high natural sheen and chess pieces made from this wood are often expertly carved in order to bring out the maximum amount of natural beauty and to exhibit a stunning amount of detail and interest.

    Bud Rosewood KnightBud Rosewood Knight
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    Ebony Wood

    Ebony is a rare hardwood of the ebenaceae family, found principally in warmer climates and the tropics.
    Being an exceedingly difficult wood to carve, ebony is generally only entrusted to master carvers.
    Most think of ebony as being exclusively jet-black in color, and whilst this is indeed the most common color, ebony wood actually varies from dark red through black, with a rich variety of dark shades.
    Ebony is a very dense, strong and heavy wood, which, along with its scarcity, results in ebony chess pieces being very expensive. The texture of the wood is smooth and even, making handling ebony chess pieces a tactile delight.

    Although ebony is very strong, it is also slightly more brittle than other types of wood, and so will not stand drops or knocks quite as well. We assume that anyone purchasing an ebony chess set would however, want to take exceptional care of it!
    True ebony should not be confused with ebonized wood, which is created by an inexpensive process using special dyes or chemicals in a controlled fashion, to achieve a black finish.

    Ebony QueenEbony KnightEbony Queen And Knight
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    Metal & Brass

    In general, our metal chess sets are made from a die-casting process, using alloys of metals such as aluminum, zinc, tin, copper etc. in various combinations.
    Brass is, of course, a particularly dense alloy of copper and zinc and is relatively resistant to tarnishing. In its natural state, brass is yellow in color - the silver finish for "white" brass chess pieces is often achieved by zinc electroplating.
    Metal chess pieces can generally be produced with less expense than a similar wooden set, since the process can often be more automated, reducing the manual labor required.
    These pieces have a cold, clinical feel compared to our wooden sets, which may appeal to some and not others. It is mainly a matter of personal preference!
    Metal chess pieces are used far more often in a decorative setting, or bought more as collectible items than wooden pieces, although of course, there's nothing to stop such sets being used for actually playing the game!

    Most of our metal chess sets are produced by Italfama of Italy, a company famous for producing magnificently detailed and perfectly weighted chess pieces of the highest quality.
    We also carry themed metal men from Manopolous of Greece.

    Metal Renaissance KingMetal KnightMetal Chess Pieces
    Brass KnightA Brass Knight from our Staunton brass chess set
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    Marble Resin

    Marble resin is often known as "cultured marble", and is produced by mixing ground marble and stone with specially formulated polyester resin. Usually, about 25% of the product is the resin itself.
    The mixture is poured into moulds as required and left to set. In most cases, chemical catalysts are used to speed up the setting process.
    In contrast to natural marble, which is porous and stains easily, marble resin is always coated with a protective layer of polyester gel that protects the surface.
    Marble resin is easily painted, and this makes it ideal for character and themed chess sets.

    Natural Marble Resin KingNatural Marble Resin KnightNatural Marble Resin Chess Pieces
    Painted Marble Resin RookPainted Marble Resin KnightPainted Marble Resin Chess Pieces
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    Alabaster

    Alabaster occurs naturally as a translucent, fine-grained variety of gypsum, a hydrous calcium sulfate.
    It occurs in many different colors and levels of translucency.
    Alabaster is a soft mineral, easily scratched with a fingernail, although the exact level of hardness varies according to the precise water and mineral ratios in the material, as well as other factors.
    Modern day alabaster should not be confused with the onyx-marble of ancient times, which is a much harder calcium carbonate mineral.
    Alabaster may contain natural, irregular "veins", colored by impurities - these often add greatly to the material's appeal and interest.

    Natural Alabaster StrataNatural Alabaster RocksRaw Natural Alabaster
    Orange Alabaster Chess PieceWhite Alabaster KnightAlabaster Chess Pieces

      View our alabaster chess sets >>

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