How to Turn a Chess Set - By Mike Peace


 Turning your own chess set is a rewarding project well within the capability of a novice woodturner with basic turning skills. I strongly encourage new turners to develop basic tool control with small spindle turning projects turning lots of beads and coves before moving on to larger cross grain projects like bowls. A chess set is a great skill builder because turning multiples of an item really hones your skills.

Pick a Design

Skip the traditional Staunton design we are all familiar with! There are some beautiful sets out there with relatively simple, elegant designs. Start with a bit of internet research to find a design you like. Make a storyboard for each piece to help you reproduce the design. Draw your pieces to scale or copy and paste a photo into a Google doc or Word doc and scale it up or down before pasting each image on some cardboard stock. Write the key diameters on each storyboard.

Select Your Wood

Sure boxwood and ebony would be nice. But, you can use any dry, close grain hardwood that will hold details well. Woods like maple, walnut, and cherry are popular choices due to their wide availability at a lumberyard. Alternatively, perhaps you already have some dry spindle stock. You will need two pieces approximately 4 foot long and 1.75” – 2” square for each color. Consider the aesthetic you want to achieve and the contrast between light and dark woods for the different pieces. Remember, you can always dye the dark pieces as I did!

Prepare Your Blanks

Once you have selected your wood, cut identical size blanks for each separate chess piece. Cut to final dimension with perhaps an extra 1/16” to diameter and length. For example, pawns will be smaller than rooks or knights. Use a tablesaw or bandsaw or even a handsaw to cut the blanks to size.

Mount the Blanks on the Lathe

My preferred chucking technique is to use a DIY screw chuck mandrel. Drill a ¾” hole in each blank and next drill a smaller hole to match your screw. This allows you to hold securely each blank so you can shape the top of the piece without support or damage from a live center. This chucking approach also allows you to weight each piece with a few pennies after finishing for an elegant feel. Use epoxy to secure the pennies and cover with a scrap of felt. Alternatively, you can simply turn each piece between centers and part off at each end. Or if you like, turn a tenon on each blank to fit a smaller set of chuck jaws to hold in a scroll chuck to shape and then part off.

Turn the Pieces

Start with the simplest piece, the pawn, and rough the piece round. Use a spindle roughing gouge to efficiently turn the piece from square to round. Next, transfer your key dimensions from your storyboard. I prefer a 3/8” spindle gouge for most of the detail turning. However, I strongly suggest getting comfortable with a skew for making the many Vee cuts needed for the various design features. Start with the top of the piece toward your tailstock and work your way down to the base paying attention to proportions and details. Use sharp tools and turn at relatively high speeds like 2000 -3000 rpm. Strive for avoiding tool marks that are difficult to eliminate with sanding without changing the shape of a small piece!

Sand and Finish

Once you are satisfied with the shape of each piece, sand them thoroughly to remove any tool marks and achieve a smooth surface. Start with a coarse grit sandpaper and progressively move to finer grits for a polished finish. After sanding, apply a finish of your choice to enhance the wood’s natural beauty and protect it from damage. I prefer lacquer. Using just wax is tempting since you can get a quick shine. However, that shine will quickly wear away with any use.  

Repeat for Each Piece

Repeat the turning, sanding, and finishing process for each chess piece, ensuring consistency in size and style throughout the set.

Once all the pieces are turned and finished, assemble your chess set on the board and enjoy the fruits of your labor! Admire the craftsmanship and personal touch that went into creating your heirloom set as you engage in strategic battles on the board.

Woodturning a chess set on a lathe is a fulfilling endeavor that allows you to exercise your creativity and woodturning skills. Whether you are a seasoned woodturner or a beginner looking for a challenging project, crafting your own chess set is sure to provide hours of enjoyment both in the workshop and on the chessboard.


If you want to see more details on turning a chess set, check out this Playlist on my YouTube channel.

Final thoughts from Paul: Thank you Mike for writing our first guest article! Your writing and educational videos always inspires me to try new things at the lathe. Can’t wait to try turning a few of these chess pieces myself! If you’d like to learn more about Mike Peace, he is a frequent demonstrator and regularly uploads Woodturning educational videos to his YouTube channel Mike Peace Woodturning.