March 15, 2021

How to Carve Chess Pieces: A Detailed Guide

A friend of mine asked how to carve chess pieces. He has recently started playing the game. Chess pieces have been a part of my life forever. I have been an avid chess player since I was a child. You will find several chess boards and chess pieces in my home. My phone has a couple of chess apps as well. No matter what I buy, there is nothing more satisfying than a set you make for yourself.

Multi coloured chess pieces

Not only are the pieces designed precisely as you like them, but you know who is responsible if it is not quite right. Besides, the wood best chess sets are expensive. That is why this should be your next wood carving project. So, how do you start making your chessmen? This article is a beginner-friendly guide to designing and carving each chess piece. Let’s look at how to whittle chess pieces.

Decisions to make before starting

Now that the idea has been formed, we need to move to the design phase. There are a few things that you should get out of the way immediately. These will determine the direction of the next few steps. Determine the size of your chess pieces before you start. They range between 3 3/4 and 4 1/4 inches in King size[Source]. You can go as small as you would like, depending on the board you will use. It can also be based on the wood available or the size of your hand.

Shapes are just as important. Consider what sort of shape and look you are going for. There are a number of options. The main ones are “rounded” or “straight.” Perhaps a tiki chess set?

The choice of color a thing that can wait until later on in the carving project. Decide if you want to maintain the traditional “black and white” pieces or be more adventurous.

What sort of finish do you have in mind? You can go with a smooth finish, or something rustic and raw. The beauty of wood carving is that it allows for both. This is where the shapes will make another appearance.

Finally, you also want to decide what wood you will be carving. Fortunately, we cover that in the next section.

Choosing the right type of wood for chess pieces

There are many kinds of wood that you can use for carving chess pieces. Some are more delicate than others. You can base your selection on the price of the wood, the look, weight, or ease of access. If you are still learning to carve, we would urge you to consider the readily available wood options. Softwood may be easier to learn on than hardwood. Experienced people may not mind. Let’s help you choose the right wood for your chess set. Decide based on your level of carving competence.


Some of the earliest chess pieces ever made were made of Rosewood. That is when chess was still Chatturanga by name, of course. The wood came from Chhattisgarh in India. Fortunately, you can purchase rosewood in other parts of the world nowadays. It is characterized by a rich hue, often brownish with darker veining. That makes a lovely chess set, no matter what sort of finish you go with.


Basswood is very light, soft, and easy to work on, even for beginners. It will give your chess pieces a granulated look. That is something to consider if you are going for a rustic finish. It is very easy to come by, which makes it one of the more affordable options.


Mahogany is a hardwood that is often used in furniture. I would only recommend it to those with some carving experience. The finished product will be incredibly durable.


It’s very grainy which sometimes can make detailing challenging. It is neither expensive nor very economical, it is more in midrange budget wood.


Balsa is considered one of the strongest wood in the world. It is light but strong and this makes it an ideal candidate for your chess set.


This is a white color wood that sometimes colors reddish when growing on acid soil.


Cherry wood is famous for its super bending properties. It’s not as hard as other types included on our list.


Hickory is a hard and strong. It is widely used for its best special feature of shock resistance.


This is strong and great in looks, it stains great. It’s very much attractive for its color, smooth grain, nice texture, and durability by nature. 


This is hardwood, but not as hard as maple. It is durable and stains well. This wood has great texture.

Pacific Albus

Pacific Albus has a fine texture which looks better with the art. And this wood is very easy to glue, easy to boring and turning and sanding also.


Pine is hard to detail because of its different grains. It’s pretty resinous and light in color. You will enjoy finishing off as it is easy to control or embossed lines.

Poplar Wood

Poplar is very easy to resize. Soft grains are perfect for wood art. It burns very easily and it’s so accessible. The color is light, hard surface, gouge resistant, and economical.


Redwood will cost a little more because of its scarcity. It is hard and strong. Overall, a perfect condition for perfect pyrography.

Refer to our post on the best wood for pyrography for more information on each type.

Chess Wood Carving Patterns

Pawns: You are looking to achieve a square head or one that is completely rounded. The square head can be achieved with a chisel and some

Bishops: Bishops are easier to make if you have a mini lathe to hold the piece. It allows you to get that pointed tip head just right.

Knights: Knights can be difficult. Allow more time for them. If you are a beginner, I would encourage you to go for the square kind of knight. They are valuable members of your chess set.

Queen: The queen will require the sort of attention that all queens deserve. You can make an identical body to the king, then spend a bit more time fine-tuning her. The crown requires a detailing knife. That will allow you to add other patterns if you want to.

King: If you took our previous tip, you will only need to make a few cuts to the king’s head to achieve that cross. I cannot tell you how many times I have snapped it by mistake. Take your time.

Castle/Rook: The rook is easier than the king and queen. Work on the top part of the block at the end. You can use your detailing knife for this step. You’ll need a pair of these for your chess set.

Get Some Free Patterns Here

Required Tools

You will need the following tools and materials:

  • A mini lathe.
  • Chisels.
  • Sanding paper.
  • A vice.
  • A detailing knife & Chipping knife.
  • Wood.
  • Pencil and ruler.
  • Vanish.

The Process

The wood carving process will take between 5-7 minutes to create each chess piece. Here is each step you will need to follow:

  1. Cut the wood into a small block suitable for one piece.
  2. Outline the shape of your piece on the block.
  3. Fasten it into a vice or the mini lathe.
  4. Cut the largest chunks and leave the last bit for detailing.
  5. Remove from the vice to finish the detailing by hand.
  6. Outline patterns to detail.
  7. Patiently finish the wood carving of each chess piece.
  8. Sand off any excess.
  9. Paint the wood in your desired colors.
  10. Once dry, give it a vanishing finish, if you want one.
  11. Add a weight to the bottom of your piece.

Your chess set should be ready for a game after a while. If you encounter any form of issue, we would love to help find a solution that will work for your chess pieces. If you make a tiki chess set, we would be keen to see it. Enjoy the project. Dare to be adventurous with the patterns on the chess pieces. Use the net and resource below for more information and for ideas to better your chess pieces set and their patterns.

Video Resources

Recommended Books

Making Wooden Chess Sets

Wooden Chess Sets You Can Make

Woodturning Chessmen

David D. Hughes

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