One of the coolest parts about playing chess is getting to make your own set. I have designs for several from found and ready-made objects, inspired mostly by Gene Zelazny's design's. His "Salt & Pepper" set I find particularly clever.

My own take on the ubiquitous nuts & bolts chessmen.

This is the first set I ever built. It's my own take on the familiar nuts & bolts chess set. There are many different designs, but the trick is basically the same. The bits I used are as follows:

The hardware to make my version cost about $35 all told. This figure may seem high, but that's because I opted for solid brass and stainless steel for the opposing sides. One of the fundamental problems one faces in designing a hardware chess set is that of coloration: It is straightforward to pick out various bits of hardware that can be assembled to make the 6 chessmen. The difficulty arises when you realize that you have to be able to do that in two different colors--one for "white" and one for "black." You have three options at this point:

  1. Buy hardware with two different surface treatments, e.g. one side galvanized, one side powder-coated;
  2. Buy two sets of identical hardware and paint one side afterwards; and
  3. Buy hardware made out of two different contrasting materials throughout.

I opted for the third choice. Solid brass and stainless steel may be expensive, but they are durable, there are no coatings to abrade away with age, and neither will rust. The pieces can all be tossed into a cloth bag and carried around without worrying about the finish wearing off.

The first chess set I ever designed was an effort to bring Josef Hartwig's Bauhaus take on the chess set to its logical conclusion, that is, to make a set of chessmen for which each piece's move is readable from the design of the piece itself. The idea is for an absolutely naive player or observer to be able to look at the rook, for example, and see immediately that it can move to any space along its own rank or file. Tha main problem with Hartwig's set is that, although the shapes of the pieces do correspond to the shapes of their moves, the encoding is not so obvious as to be transparent. If you're going to have to spend time memorizing how the various pieces represent their respective moves, you might as well learn the moves of the traditional Staunton chessmen, neh?

My solution, which is very like Gene Zelazny's (cf. his "For You" link), is to put diagrams on the pieces themselves. Zelazny's diagrams are not as complete as they might be, however, and so I designed my own. A bit of thought reveals that the move of any chessman can be completely represented on a 5x5 grid, and I sized my pieces accordingly: A 1.25" square allows for a 5x5 grid of .25" squares, and the square shape is self-indexing to the squares of the chessboard.

Pawn movement diagram. Knight movement diagram. Bishop movement diagram. Rook movement diagram. Queen movement diagram. King movement diagram.

Each piece is represented by its standard notational letter in the center square of the 5x5 grid. Dark squares indicate squares that can be occupied in one move. Lines represent paths of movement. Lines terminating in arrows indicated unlimited movement, whereas lines terminating in dots represent discrete moves. Full lines represent standard moves, whereas dashed lines represent moves with special conditions:

When I contacted Gene Zelazny about his designs, he agreed to let me include his designs for "tile" chessmen on this page. Below are two sets of representative tiles, the first by Gene, and the second by a gentleman named Steve Serba, who developed these tiles in collaboration with Gene.

Designs for tile chessmen by Gene Zelazny.
Designs for tile chessmen by Steve Serba.

The chief advantage of having "functional" modernist chessmen like these is that they assist beginners in learning the game. One of the major drawbacks of both Hartwig's and Zelazny's designs, in this respect, is that they do not provide for the association of each piece's name with its shape and/or move. To incorporate this function, I have added a third dimension to the basic 2-D diagram approach taken by Zelazny:

Pawn side. Knight side. Bishop side. Rook side. Queen side. King side.

The pieces are rectangular prisms with a square cross section. Each side of each piece, except the pawn, includes both the written name of the piece and a standard notational symbol for the piece. The pawn, to indicate its directional bias, has its written name only on the side which faces its player during the game, and the notational symbol for pawn on the other three sides. Minor pieces have their names written horizontally, while major pieces have their names written vertically. A possible modification, not shown here, is to write the names of the minor pieces (except for their notational letter) in lower case characters. Thus, PAWN would become Pawn, KNIGHT would become kNight, etc. In addition to emphasizing the distinction between major and minor pieces, this modification would serve to emphasize the notational distinction between N for kNight and K for King.

Finally, note that the height of each piece is directly proportional to its point-value. A pawn, which is worth 1 point and is .5" high, is the unit. Thus a queen, which is worth 9 points or 9 pawns, is 4.5" high, a rook (worth 5 pawns) is 2.5" high, etc. If the players stack up their opponents pieces as they are captured, determining materiel advantage is as simple as comparing the heights of the stacks: Whoever has a higher stack has a materiel advantage.

The construction technique is simple enough: The side- and top-markings are printed on and cut out from sticker-paper and attached to square rectangular prisms of the appropriate lengths. While the top-stickers have to be cut out on all four sides, the stickers for the sides of the pieces can be cut singularly, as one long retangle, and wrapped around the base block. There are two pages of stickers for each set, for a total of four (two for white, two for black). Full-scale bitmap images of each page (at 300 dpi) can be downloaded by clicking on the appropriate thumbnail below.

First page of white piece stickers. Second page of white stickers, including tops.
First page of black stickers. Second page of black stickers, including tops.

The rectangular prisms themselves can be wood or metal. When I get around to actually making the set, I will probably order the prisms pre-cut in cold-rolled carbon steel from Online Metals. I will post a picture of the completed set here when it is finished.

'White' chessmen made from galvanized steel pipe fittings.

This is a representative set of chessmen made from pipe fittings commonly available at any hardware store. All standard pipe fittings are available in one of two finishes: Galvanized, which is used for the 'white' pieces pictured above, and 'black iron,' which is used for the 'black' pieces below. The king is 8.5" tall. The necessary bits are:

'Black' chessmen made from identical pipe fittings in black iron.

Scale drawing of a concept for chessman made from various firearm cartridges.

Here is a concept for a set of chessmen made from firearm cartridges of various makes and calibers. From right to left, they are:

  1. King - .600 Nitro Express
  2. Queen - .477-.450 Martini-Henry
  3. Rook - .430 JDJ
  4. Bishop - 3.6 x 36 mm Heckler & Koch
  5. Knight - .44-.40 Winchester
  6. Pawn - .45 ACP

It was inspired by a set appearing on p.137 of Gareth Williams' book Master Pieces, which was made in wartime England from spent cartridge cases glued together and painted. The rounds used for a set like this should be inert, of course. A significant problem is how to differentiate one side from the other. Apart from clumsy solutions like paint, the best option I have come up with is that one side's bullets (just the bullet, not the casing) should be jacketed or plated, and the other side's bare lead.