Following on the heels of my post about kids, trees and entrepreneurship, I'd like to share our story of how we developed chess pieces specifically for Crazyhouse chess. My sister's husband, Matt and I share both a common first name and more pertinently, an interest in Chess. I did need to add that, as our discussions together were instrumental in bringing this about, and it would be rather strange to read a post written in both 1st and 3rd person.
While I've enjoyed chess, having read a book or two and played some, I am not very tutored. On the other hand, Matt, my brother-in-law, has really been excited about chess and its variants for some time, in recent years being especially involved with Crazyhouse Chess. He has enjoyed subscribing to some of the most common blogs and has played a lot with friends from work and enjoys teaching the game to his family and anyone else he knows. In the last year or two I've built him a couple of chess boards as small side jobs, which I can say was great. The two boards shown below were both made for him and led to developing the chess pieces we now make.
This board was made with a mahogany frame, dark walnut squares and lighter cherry squares. I added zebra wood inlay with ipe wood outlining to add interest.
This striking board was made of East Indian Rosewood and Maple with a mahogany border stripe and is solid through the thickness, so the back side of the board is essentially the same as the front making the board usable on both faces. It is about 3/4" thick and fairly light weight considering the density of the wood used. Each piece is sequenced so that the grain runs from one square into the next of the same color with grain lines running the length of each run. I was really pleased with the way it turned out. Anyway, while boards can be fun, I'm mainly focusing on the chess sets because there are so many manufacturers out there that make nice boards at great prices. But, if people want a board to match their set, I can make them to match as a nice perk.
Then, after he had a board, Matt said what he really needed now was a chess set to go with them, but there was a catch; he needed a set specifically for Crazyhouse. I learned about some of the difficulties of playing Crazyhouse with tangible pieces. Matt had seen where people had made their own pieces but naturally wanted a quality product as attractive as the boards we'd made. We came to the conclusion that pieces needed to be standardized, sufficiently thick to handle easily and manufactured so anyone can get a set.
With those goals in mind I started looking for ways to accomplish this. After months of looking and more thinking, we purchased a laser cutter and began working in earnest and this exciting development has grown out of those efforts. Our laser cutter has now enabled us to make pieces to precise sizes and to reproduce them quickly enough to supply the needs of Crazyhouse players who want a more tangible experience. We created all of our own images based on interpretations of modern icons, so the artwork is unique and doesn't infringe on any person's unique work. The icons we use have been optimized for speed and quality, though we've added some fun details. We now have 3 categories of pieces that are of varying complexity and price.
The first category shown above is the "Classic." "Classic", meaning our baseline offering, is a simple option for those who just want to play the game. These pieces are a new style, implementing modern technology to differentiate it from the Staunton or otherwise named styles of pieces which are generally made by the process of turning on a lathe. These are subdivided into Standard Sets, 2-Sided Sets and Bughouse sets. The 2-Sided Sets are specifically for Crazyhouse players and are the focus here. For "Classic" sets, the color of light pieces are the same for all options, the dark pieces are stained a dark brown or stained Ebony for an additional charge. We found that with laser engraving, black on black is hard to see, so we fill the engraving on ebony stained pieces with a white filler, so it is visible. All pieces are seal coated for durability.
Note: Standard sets are used for standard chess and Bughouse sets are two standard sets for side-by-side games. Check out rules for playing the Bughouse variation found elsewhere, online. The back of each token matches its front.
Now, for Crazyhouse:
Each 2-Sided piece used for Crazyhouse chess is a flat token cut from a quality birch plywood having the icon for each piece engraved on its surface. As we make pieces, we glue together 2 layers of plywood to a thickness that lends itself to easy movement, thin pieces being awkward to pick up. Gluing layers together also allows us to independently create and apply a dark piece to the back of the light so that the pieces are reversible. Thus, in capturing a piece, it may be easily flipped and kept in one's "pocket" until ready to be "dropped" onto the board during play.
This feature eliminates having a second set of pieces and saves time when seconds matter. Pawn promotion toppers, a queen and a knight, enable players to quickly and easily promote pawns with a single layer token that rests on top of the pawn below it and affords Crazyhouse players with the most versatile range of motions needed to counter an attack or make of their own. If captured, the topper is easily removed and the base pawn is placed in the pocket.
As a side note: we do offer single sided sets that even those engaged in the original style of chess could appreciate, though token shaped pieces in a market full of carved sets may be merely a curiosity. Who knows, maybe slim tokens in a flat box may be more convenient than thick carved pieces. Slim is good, right?
The next category is the Premium Set. This set is made with a plywood core and also engraved, but is "premium" because it is layered with a quality veneer product that gives each piece its own natural beauty. There is a selection of premium domestic woods and a couple exotic woods available upon request. My brother-in-law, Matt, has requested I make him a set to match the rosewood board above and I'm now in the process of making that set.
The final category is the Executive Set. These feature dark pieces on a light background and light pieces on a dark background. The intricate pieces of veneer are "inlaid" to create a flat, smooth surface with each alternating portion of veneer fitting closely within the other. We cut these veneer "stickers" from fine hardwood veneer that has been prepared with pressure sensitive adhesive - psa backing. This is a fantastic product and has a host of uses. These pieces are painstakingly fitted and pressed together for a refined appearance and are the luxury set we make for customers who want the best. All pieces are then seal coated for durability.
We want to offer options because people love choosing and want the things they get to reflect what they appreciate. Henry Ford's philosophy that ‘Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black’ isn't going to fly nowadays, but then again, he wasn't making airplanes, or chess pieces. I'm hoping that you can find something you like among the choices we offer and give us suggestions if nothing quite speaks to you. Through this contribution, we want to see the Crazyhouse community grow and enjoy their exciting place as an independent advancement to a fantastic and historic game.
Customize your Pieces Here!
We just passed the cherry harvest this year and it was another great year. So, considering this is a woodworking site and blog, I must say that cherry trees are good for something other than just chairs...They are good for raising kids, just ask George Washington's Dad. There are all sorts of lessons to be had from trees. Here are a few:
Every spring, trees make an early start because they know that winter is coming and they have jobs to do before it comes. Sometimes they are hit by frost and get set back, but they still do their best to grow, whatever the circumstance.
Trees like children grow up looking for space, but they are given strength to stand from their roots. If the roots are good and deep, the tree will stand through good seasons and bad.
Trees take a lot of heat, but unlike other things that just get hotter as the sun shines on them, they do something with that energy. Trees lower the temperature of the air around them (because they make shade, but also because photosynthesis uses much of the sun's energy to make sugar). After all that work, does the tree keep that sugar for itself? Not all of it, a good deal of it is wrapped around each seed in the form of fruit and is given away to help the next generation. Talk about generosity.
Depending on how you take care of a tree, you can yield a little fruit or a lot. In the West where we live, water is a big deal and if the trees have water at the right times, things go great. But if not, the tree doesn't last that long. Carefully pruning away unnecessary branches and weak wood will also make a big difference for trees and people.
What you do with fruit is entirely a matter of preference. Eating some along the way was great fun (the little guy in front collected more in his cheeks than in his basket - I'm almost certain he is eating a cherry, not picking his nose). Since it isn't generally advisable to eat gallons of cherries all at once, as gastric distress results, the joy of harvest can be extended throughout the year, or the neighborhood. The smiles didn't change much from last year to this.
These little guys decided to make jam with their cherries. Here are a few stages in that process as recorded by my wife.
This kid doesn't really like loud noises, but the blender he used was uncomfortably loud, so he wisely went and grabbed the hearing protectors he's using. Later, he trained his sister on how the machine works.
Some supervised stirring...
Now for the sales...
Victory! This excited little buddy of mine did great. I'm proud of the way he got an idea and made it happen. Way to go son!
Joinery is a skilled approach to combining wooden elements so that the basic unit of lumber, the board or plank, can be combined in a functional and ridged form that is good for something. Joining these pieces has been refined into basic forms that are not simply good engineering, but required for the longevity and durability of what is made. Joining techniques have been so ingrained in our culture (I just love good puns), that it doesn't take an expert to appreciate an ability to join wood in its traditional forms.
In modern construction, these forms have all but disappeared, except as kept alive by architects and builders doing their best to convey a particular feel or style. Manufactured goods generally skirt away from joinery or attempt to mimic it only in appearance because manufacturers no longer can afford to take time to compose each piece, or deal with variation. The techniques of joinery require changing the geometry of the raw material, whereas modern products are generally variants on the shapes that are most easily manufactured. Good joinery is a preservation of a way of thinking in danger of replacement by a perspective of mass production. Historical artifacts are a testament to how durable and beautiful wood furniture can be.
So, after a long philosophical discourse on why I think its important to keep traditional joinery alive, here is how I built a bed frame using the mortise and tenon joint. The mortise and tenon is considered strong for good reason. The cross section of the horizontal member passing through the vertical post is what determines its strength. I cut the mortise with chisels and the tenons with saws and planes. Fit between the two pieces was aided with files. While my methods were somewhat crude and not as perfectly fitted as might be hoped, the joints are still attractive. One way the joints were highlighted was by allowing the tenon to extend slightly through the mortise, so it is both visible and can be felt without protruding far enough to be a knee knocking hazard.
In this piece, there are two mortises adjoining at right angles. I think it would be preferable spacing these apart and leaving material between, but it still came out strong. There were also blind mortises in the upper cap portion of the headboard that are not visible. The headboard and foot board both incorporated this joint in the lower frame area as well as to hold the cap on. Each cap and bottom rail in these was fitted with a blind dado which housed the ends of the ship-lapped planking. Shiplapping was used to prevent problems with shrinkage across the grain. So far, we haven't had any significant issues with this.
Here is the final product. The joints give a distinct look and unify the piece, giving it a solid, but refined look. I just realized I haven't said anything about the hardwood selected for this project. The hardwood we settled on was Khaya mahogany. It isn't known for being as flashy as Sapele, but it still has some fantastic striping.
The mahogany used here was finished with shellac and wax. The natural gold striping is very bold on this piece. Mohogany striping can be very dramatic. It also darkened significantly in a couple of months, so be aware of this when using clear or lightly tinted finishes. One reason mahogany has been so highly prized is because of this characteristic. It's rich brown color comes with age and has been a distinguishing characteristic of long lived and finely crafted work. For this reason, I'm especially glad it could be used on this piece using traditional joinery.
When I was just a lad, I remember a similar project that my father undertook. I'm sure my parents had some late nights building and upholstering a pair of small, hand-crafted couches. At the time, they used white vinyl that was commonly available for upholstery projects at the end of the 80's. I'm sure they admired their creation proudly when complete, but sometime in the intervening weeks, I discovered that a pencil, carefully sharpened, would make a nice, neat row of holes in the said material. Somehow, Mom and Dad knew exactly who had done it. On that occasion, I learned that hiding under my bed wouldn't serve to prevent the impending consequence of my youthful folly.
So maybe it was genetics or subliminal memories, but it just seemed natural with our young family, that there should be a comfortable place for tired adults to sit and visit at the end of the day. Getting that monster couch, which never looked so large at the store, down that pokey hall and through the doorway, after it turned the initial corner getting into the hall is never an elementary endeavor. Well, for that much effort, you might as well try something of your own.
For those looking for a nice starter project where space comes at a premium, this bench might be a good one to try. At the time, we didn't have a lot of nice wood, but showcasing what we have went a long way with the help of some clearance upholstery which covered the plywood frame. Hand coped and contoured edges, symmetrical detailing, square false tenons for the arm-rest, and uniquely carved legs make a rather small piece really stand out.
The legs were the most fun. Using a compass and some curve templates, along with a bit of creativity, the front legs of this bench extend upward to meet the arm-rest which appears to be tangent to the cylindrical top of the posts. The bottom of each terminates in something reminiscent of a horse's hooves. Perhaps there is a bit of an Egyptian theme going on there. In contrast to the complex shape of the front legs, I do like the gentle curvature seen by the shadows cast on the faces of the rear legs and the slight taper down to the bottom, so if fancy and carved seems daunting, the gentler shapes found there might be more appealing.
I am rather critical of my own work, so if you see something that really bothers you, just remember, I may be in full agreement with you; because, while I'm proud of some features of this bench, there were certainly a few things that could have been better. Here is a short list: If I were to do it over, I'd make the armrests from thicker stock to accentuate a larger round on the interior of the arm and to balance better with the stouter legs. The ears or "viking horns" are a bit much and might have been more subdued to reflect the lower rail, which I think is a better composition of curves. I also discovered, after the fact, that there are some fantastic products for giving a cushion a bit better curved shape and it would be easier to keep the lines nicely perpendicular. The upholstery tacks used here were pretty simple to use, but some piping on the edge of the fabric might help keep the edge a bit neater as well. I did wrap upholstery around the back and ended up using screw fasteners where they wouldn't be as likely to be seen to connect the top rail to the back to give it some extra height (be very careful when putting a screw through fabric because the screw can grab and ruin woven things pretty quickly).
Personally, the armrests were a bit low for me, so be sure to measure for what will be best for you. Significant help is available for anyone taking on furniture projects and wondering how to size these pieces. One good reference is http://www.brezlin.com/design/chairguidelines.html. Thanks for the info! Lastly, if you are anxious for the welfare of this bench, rest assured, it is safe. The bench now sits in my parent's home, safely away from the pencils and curiosity of six year-old's. ;)
Matthew is a talented young woodworker that enjoys unlocking the natural beauty of each piece of wood. He had an early start to his woodworking pursuits in junior high classes and has in the last 7 years, begun to combine his design training and experience with some talents that remained dormant for a number of years. He loves exploring techniques and the best that is out there and in so doing, he has created many custom pieces for family and friends and begun marketing his work for the enjoyment of those who appreciate hand-crafted, unique and inspiring work.