Types of wood
Many different types of wood are used for chess sets, from rare hardwoods through to cheap pine. Over the years certain woods have become less and less common as de forestation and ecological issues have shortened supply. One classic example of this is Brazillian Rosewood, now illegal to harvest and seen as extremely valuable.
Wood for chess pieces
We begin with boxwood because this is without doubt the most common wood used to make chessmen. It’s a very dense wood with a clean grain and not too much variation in the colour. It is dense enough to be carved into immense detail. Boxwood is not an overly expensive wood however it’s still of a high enough grade to be used in the most expensive of chessmen. It comes from a tree aptly named ‘The Boxwood Tree’.
Ebony is a very dark, heavy and dense wood. When polished it can become jet black. This wood was used on the original Jacques chessmen in the mid 1800s. Since then it has become one of the main woods used in chessmen. These days it’s mostly used in Luxury chess sets due to it’s rising cost and value. Cheaper chess sets will often imitate ebony by a process called ebonising which is essentially dyed boxwood. Because it’s a dye and not a paint it allows the wood to be polished as if it were natural.
Rosewood is a rich brown colour with lovely reddish grains and hues. It’s not as hard as ebony but some would say a lot more attractive. Rosewood tends to be quite oily and is therefore difficult to lacquer, however it polishes up beautifully which makes it perfect for chessmen. Rapidly becoming a rare endangered wood, the price and value continues to rise considerably. Rosewood is used a lot in the manufacture of musical instruments. It is said to have rich tonal properties.
Sheesham, often referred to as Golden Rosewood is a dense hardwood that is available in abundance in India. It’s grains can be extremely attractive and it’s used to make chess boards as well as pieces. Due to it’s mass availability mass produced chess sets are made from this wood.
Red sandalwood goes by a few different names. One reason for this is that officially it’s export is restricted from certain countries so people will export it under a different name. Common names include bud rosewood, blood rosewood and redwood. Red sandalwood is a deep grained wood with stunning figuring and rich reddish tones. It’s hard and dense and makes beautiful chess pieces. Indeed many super luxury chessmen are made from this wood.