Whether you're frequently calling “checkmate” in four moves or constantly losing your queen to your opponent’s pawn, displaying a classy stone chess set can impress your friends and intimidate your rivals. And knowing that you created it yourself can make the game more fun, no matter what your skill level is.
The symmetry is so important on this thing. You don’t want a lopsided rook.
Larry Terrafranca, Colorado artist and sculptor
Your First Move
Making a chess set out of stone is a time-consuming project, says Texas artist and designer Pablo Solomon, who has worked with stone most of his life. But if you want the do-it-yourself experience, Solomon recommends that you start by practicing with softer materials.
“I would suggest a product called Marblex by Amaco,” said Solomon. “It can be shaped or carved easily when moist and hardens without baking to a marblelike look.”
Make or buy prototypes of the pieces, make a latex mold and cast them in Marblex, nonbake terra cotta, plaster of Paris or a similar material, says Solomon.
“You can even do like many jewelry and countertop makers do and grind up marble or another stone and mix it with epoxy and cast it,” he said. “The mix can even be colored to look like turquoise or another stone. It really is hard to tell if done well.”
For inspiration on the shape and style of your pieces, look at a variety of chess sets. If you’re a purist, go with a classic style. For the adventurous -- you are carving your own chess set, after all -- choose a theme that reflects your personal style or passion, such as animals, music or literary characters.
Coordinating Your Attack
When you’re ready to start in earnest, go to a rock and mineral shop and have the owner show you some stones that are relatively soft and can be carved somewhat easily, such as soapstone or alabaster, says Solomon.
If you have a lot of time to devote to the project, you can use small rock files and chisels, but Solomon recommends purchasing a good high-speed cutting tool with interchangeable heads, including diamond-tipped cutters and grinders. This type of tool costs $50 or less at home-improvement stores or online.
To save time, have the rock shop cut the stones for the chess pieces into approximate shapes, says Solomon. "They have diamond saws and can do more in 10 minutes than you can in a month.”
If you want to take on more of the project yourself, Colorado artist and sculptor Larry Terrafranca suggests getting the rock shop to cut your stone into appropriate-sized squares. Find a chess set comparable in size to what you envision for your project, measure the pieces and use those measurements as a guide for the size of your squares. Then begin cutting away the excess stone.
“If you’re making a rook,” Terrafranca said, “remove everything that is not the rook.”
Terrafranca recommends drawing the shape of the piece on the side of the stone, then cutting away the excess stone on that side. Turn the stone 90 degrees and do the same thing, continuing around the stone. At the front and back of the stone, be sure to measure and draw the center line of your piece to make it symmetrical.
“The symmetry is so important on this thing,” said Terrafranca. “You don’t want a lopsided rook.”
For safety’s sake, Terrafranca advises purchasing an inexpensive vice or some type of hold-down mechanism, found at woodworking shops or through online suppliers, to keep your chess pieces in place as you carve.
“You don’t want to be cutting your piece and slice into your hand,” he said.
Constructing the Battlefield
For the board, Solomon suggests having the rock shop cut squares out of onyx or another stone of your choosing. Prices will vary depending on the stones, but it is often the labor, not the stone, that generates the expense, so be sure to get a quote from the rock shop before starting the project.
You might find precut stone tiles for under $1, Solomon says, or pay $20 each for small custom-cut and polished squares, and even more for harder or more exotic stones. (The same principle applies to the stone for your pieces.)
As an alternative, a local monument company might cut granite or marble tiles into smaller squares for you, Solomon says. Hobby shops often have colorful tiles that have been mass-produced very cheaply.
Terrafranca suggests purchasing inexpensive marble flooring in two different colors at a home-improvement store, then cutting it into squares with a tile cutter.
The squares can be fastened to a base made of wood, stone or tile. Even a small table or serving tray could be used, says Solomon, as long as it is strong and will not bend or warp.
Secure your squares to the base with a good glue or adhesive product. Terrafranca recommends polyurethane construction adhesive, which allows you time to make adjustments before it hardens.
When your pieces are carved into the shapes you want, leave them raw for a rustic look or sand and buff them to a smooth finish.
Terrafranca suggests starting with 100-grit sandpaper and working over the entire piece then moving on to 140-grit and proceeding with a finer and finer grit, up to about 400. Use a buffing compound and buffing wheel on your cutting tool to polish up the finished product.
Serious carvers or chess aficionados may choose to build a set out of harder or more expensive stone. Solomon has seen sets made from jade, raw emerald and tourmaline. These stones will take more time to work with, he says, but investing the time, money and effort could be worth it.
“Once you get some practice using various tools on various stones, design truly unique pieces and get wonderful stones,” Solomon said. “It will take you years, maybe decades, but if you really want to do it, do it right. Make a real work of art.”
While such an involved and extensive project often takes more skill and more time than most amateurs are willing to invest, Solomon says that the finished product will last a lifetime and beyond.
“Should you actually complete the task,” he said, “you will have a family heirloom.”
Top Five Chess Strategies
Once you’ve finished your chess set, you will, of course, want to settle in for a game. Daoud Zupa, president of the Denver Chess Club in Denver, Colorado, outlined five of the most important strategies:
Keep the king safe. Castle (a defensive move involving a rook and the king) when it's clear the king will be safer by doing so. Don't castle into an attack or stay in the center too long when an attack there is possible -- timing is important. Also, limit pawn moves in the castled area -- these pawns are the king's bodyguards.
Protect your pawns and pieces by direct protection or protected blocking of attacks (this doesn't work against an attack by a knight, which can jump over other pieces).
Control the center. Achieve this by occupying the center with protected pawns and controlling with pieces.
Avoid unnecessary exchanges of pawns or pieces, as the recapturing piece or pawn is able to develop while the capturing piece disappears. Exchanges may be favorable if attacking lines are opened up for pieces otherwise blocked by the pawns to be exchanged, or if the recapturing piece or pawn is awkwardly placed following a recapture.
Make multipurpose moves. Look for double attacks or moves that attack and defend simultaneously.
Based in Denver, Co., Matt Kailey has been writing professionally since 1996. His work has appeared in various publications and online, including "5280" magazine, "The Advocate" and "Beacon Broadside." He recently retired as the managing editor of "Out Front Colorado," one of the oldest LGBT publications in the country. He holds a Master of Arts in education from the University of Missouri, Kansas City.