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African American chessboard

After many trials and tribulations, African leadwood and American ash come together to create a chessboard combining a glossy surface and a raw sawn timber look


By Gareth Greathead


The idea to make a chessboard began with a book review published in The Home Handyman on how to make one and how to turn wooden chess pieces. I didn’t read the book and only glanced over the illustrations; I like to use my own plans. Fortunately, the dimensions and how to put the pieces together weren’t a problem. That being said, I had many other problems and hope I can save you time and money by sharing the lessons I learnt.

The timber merchant

My journey began at a solid timber sawmill in the south of Johannesburg. I arrived and gave the salesperson a short description of what I wanted. The property there is large but there is no ‘warehouse’ and it isn’t your conventional timber yard. There were a lot of rare timbers, some outdoors and others stacked under roofs. I was adamant about using leadwood for the dark coloured blocks found on a chessboard. The use of leadwood was influenced by my visits to John Young’s (Young’s Woodworking and Antique Restoration), which resulted in John’s Woodworker’s Profile towards the end of last year. I couldn’t ignore the beauty of a novelty leadwood biltong cutter on display at his workshop – I literally fell in love.


The choice to use American ash for the light colours on the chessboard was more about selecting a half decent piece of lighter coloured timber. The salespeople there were extremely helpful and were happy to walk around with me in search of the timber needed.


As it is resilient to weathering, the merchant simply kept the leadwood outside. The small amount of weathering present on the exterior of the wood was actually a blessing and contributed to the unique character of the finished product.  The leadwood had been put through a saw and was approximately 1.5m x 80mm x 50mm. The piece of American ash was oddly shaped and tapered from one of the ends. Still, it had been roughly milled to approximately 50mm, the same as the leadwood.


Machining the raw timber

The next stop was milling the raw timber into usable form. I gave my mentor, Denis Lock (of Routing with Denis) a call and asked if he could help me plane and thickness the raw timber into 50mm strips, 400mm long. My plan was to produce a tournament board with 50mm (52mm would be exact) squares and assumed 20mm thick would be good.


Denis started by making an assessment of the timber. I asked him how I had done, and he responded with, “This is a bit worse than the raw timber normally available at merchants.” Also, Denis wasn’t entirely happy with my choice of timber. He believed walnut and maple would have worked better. These woods would have been easier to work with and kinder on machine blades. I agree that these may have been more appropriate and are beautiful in their own right but I had something in mind, which Denis did appreciate.


We went on to discuss the proportions and had a look at what we had to work with and agreed on the 50mm squares, but found that we would have to reduce the height to 18mm given the amount of material that needed to be trimmed off. Both Denis and I agree that publishing dimensions is academic and rarely works as planned.


We started with the larger piece of ash, cutting it in half lengthways. Thereafter, he placed it on a flat surface, and rocked it to determine the degree and direction of the ‘warp’ (cup, bow twist). With this known he placed a piece on his Hammer A3 thicknesser/ planer and planed away the ‘high’ spots on each end of the ash. Denis says doing this the other way round will only exacerbate the problem, leaving you with little wood to work with when finished.  The piece of leadwood wasn’t warped much at all but there were some imperfections.


Denis then passed the pieces on to Michael Sibanda to put through the bandsaw to cut to approximate proportions. Michael is a master with the bandsaw and I believe he could probably make a chessboard using only a bandsaw if that’s all he had. After planing the edges to an accurate 50mm, Michael set up the thicknesser at 18mm and sent the respective pieces through the thicknesser/planer.


Gluing the leadwood and ash strips to form a panel

I left Denis’s workshop with some extremely accurate and cleanly machined strips of 400mm (with a bit extra to allow for the crosscut to come after the strips are joined) x 50mm x 18mm. While at Denis’s workshop I questioned how I was to clamp the strips without sash clamps and only one G-clamp. He suggested the use of an appropriately sized piece of MDF with a parallel fence attached at each end.


The ‘clamp’ used in this configuration is a piece of MDF the same width as the surface of the board and another cut diagonally to make a wedge. After setting up the clamp by adjusting one of the parallel fences, glue was applied and the panels arranged. Thereafter, the diagonally cut board is placed in the space between the parallel fence and chessboard. From there it is given a few taps with a rubber mallet, clamping the panels together tightly.  


I decided to add another fence on the side of the MDF board to make alignment of the strips easier. When gluing strips together, they tend to slip and slide quite a lot and you don’t have all that much time (normally 10 minutes) to get things in place. I never ignore the importance of preparation and the individual panels were clamped side-on with a G-clamp and a sanding block fitted with 180-grit sandpaper was used to prepare the edges. After that, each piece was dusted off and then wiped with acetone to remove all traces of dust. Acetone is only used by some woodworkers and normally only with oily woods. Nevertheless I believe it is the best way to remove anything that may have made its way onto the gluing surface. 

I tried gluing four panels at first to get the hang of things and got a good enough result. With all eight together I decided to take a drive to Vermont Sales, where they have a training facility equipped with some of the products they distribute. I left the facility with another eight strips, this time multicoloured. With that done I prepared the panels the same as before and later glued those eight together but not as well as the first eight done in fours.



Due to my inaccuracies during gluing, this project required a lot of sanding to flatten the surface and things got worse with another blunder to come. The basic principle behind achieving a glossy finish is to start with 80-grit sandpaper and move upwards before finishing off with 400-grit cabinet paper. It is thought that the higher the grit you start with, the less work you will have to do because the scratches imparted on the wood will be shallower.


When panels are glued together or you have an unusually uneven surface, I recommend starting with 60- or even 40-grit sandpaper. I believe starting too high results in a lot of wasted time, not to mention sandpaper. In addition, starting too high will not remove high spots and these will become evident only when you have reached higher grades, and you will then have to go back.


It is important to sand the entire surface and not where you ‘think’ the high spots are. Don’t apply too much pressure, as you may make deeper than necessary scratches that may be difficult to remove later, and, more importantly, you will not only scratch away the high spots but the low spots too, meaning no progress.


By the time I was finished sanding the board it was thinner on one side than the other necessitating the addition of a base for the chessboard.


A board on the back

With the sanding done and one coat of sanding sealer applied, I was ready to reinforce the board with a piece of hardboard stuck to the back. This didn’t end well at all, admittedly I did apply too much glue, but there was also the major issue of using 3mm Masonite with solid timbers. I applied glue to both of the sides before work and came home to find the board had warped up at least 10mm on two of the sides. I was devastated but never thought of giving up – not once.


I took the chessboard to John Young and asked his advice. He asked his sons, who didn’t believe the board could be fixed, but John encouraged me not to give up. He suggested I find someone with a sanding table big enough to accommodate my board, but that was never found.  He attributed the mistake to inexperience and was kind enough to give me a length of 25mm Rhodesian teak for another base. We cut it to size, cut slots for biscuits and the boards were joined at home using my clamping jig. After the Rhodesian teak came together to form a panel I used a belt sander to sand away the ridges left after gluing.


After that I added weight in the way of a bucket of water placed on top of the Rhodesian teak, with the chessboard in-between and MDF below. The next day I noticed some improvement and that night I added my heaviest toolbox below the bucket on top. This time I heard a bit of a cracking noise but that’s what cyanoacrylate is for, it later worked perfectly to create a clear bond, filling the gap.


With the board straighter than it was and most of the hardboard sanded away, I proceeded to glue the Rhodesian teak panel to the underside of the board. Of course I couldn’t use wood glue because the panels were nowhere near tight fitting. Den Braven High Tack has good strength soon after the pieces come into contact. I applied some of this on the Rhodesian teak, placed the chessboard on top and brought out the toolbox and bucket of water again. It worked... and after lots and lots of sanding achieved as level a surface as possible.


The border

The original plan was to make a clean glossy border surrounding the chessboard, including mitre joints. When it came time to add the border, all I had left of the leadwood was a half-machined length with one side planed and the other still bearing saw markings from being put through a saw at the mill.


I began by removing the loose material from the length using a wire brush. Smaller cracks and weathered areas were cleaned using a very small wire wheel (used on multi-tools) able to get into the crevices. After the pieces were cut, sanding sealer was applied and the smaller wire brush was used to clear out the crevices again.


The decision to butt the raw timber together further added to the rough look on the sides. Again wood glue would not work to fill the gaps between the leadwood and the chessboard itself. After testing the adhesive power of Den Braven Woodflex Hard and finding it to have decent gluing strength, I thought it best to use this to secure the border to the chessboard. This is stretching the parameters of the product but worked perfectly for me.



Rustin’s Finishing Oil was applied to the surface using a Harris Wood specialist brush. The final step was to apply Howard wax to both the surface and border of the chessboard.






Cutting list

•  Four 450 x 50 x 18mm strips of leadwood

•  Four 450 x 50 x 18mm strips of American ash

•  Four 450 x 100 x 25mm pieces of Rhodesian teak

Tools & Materials

•   Thicknesser/planer

•   Table saw or circular saw with guide

•  Oscillating sander

•  Belt sander

•   60-400 grit cabinet paper

•  Wood glue

•  Cyanoacrylate

•   Sanding sealer

•  Finishing oil

•  Quality paintbrushes

•  Solvent-based cleaners

Project guide

Difficulty: Intermediate

Estimated time: Four weeks

Cost: ±R2 000
(hopefully less by avoiding my mistakes)

1: Denis and Michael feed the raw piece of ash through the bandsaw

11: A wire brush was used to remove loose timber from the rough timber

10: Once the chessboard was prepared finishing oil was applied with a brush before being wiped off with a cloth

2: Denis inspects the ash, already planed and thicknessed, while Michael trims the leadwood

3: The first stage of assembly required the gluing of individual strips to create a panel

4: Stephan used a SawStop table saw to make the crosscuts on the panel

9: The sanded chessboard with some of the materials used during finishing

8: Cyanoacrylate was used to fill a small gap created during straightening of the chessboard

7: Once most of the hardboard was removed with a belt sander it was exchanged for Rhodesian teak

6: The application of too much glue in addition to the blunder of attempting to glue Masonite to solid wood caused the board to warp

5: Visible here is the clamping jig and the prepared crosscut strips ready to be glued

12: Sanding sealer was applied to the roughly sawn timber and cleaned up with steel wood and a wire brush from a multi-tool set

13: The final step was to apply wax to both the surface of the board and the surrounding border

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