Best Wooden Chess Set
Updated 13th June 2020
Trying to find a quality wooden chess set takes time. This is especially true if you are on a budget. But check out this set in the picture below - not bad hey! And it doesn't cost the earth...
There are a whole heap of poor quality sets out there, and it can be hard to ascertain quality when every set has stunningly photo-shopped images. Of course if you have no budget, there are some amazing sets out there. This article presents budget choices that are a big step above the majority of offerings, and aren’t too far in terms of quality from the sets prices in the hundreds of dollars.
What do I consider a quality wooden chess set? I expect the set to be made from hardwood without any staining/painting, or plywood. It should be visually appealing. The board should lay perfectly flat. And the chess pieces should be appropriately sized for the board. Most importantly, the high quality build should result in a set that stands the test of time, and still function and look amazing after say 20 years of use.
All-round performer in a mid-size board
Before I get into more detail, be sure to check out this set - as pictured at the start of this page. This is a general purpose mid-size set that is sure to impress at its modest price. The board and pieces are separate items.
Let’s consider the features of this board. This is a mid-sized board – it is 13 inches in total, with a playing size of 12 inches. The border is minimal at ½ inch, and each square is 1.5 inches. Its construction is from solid wood (with the advert noting the wood is completely from US grown Eco-friendly sources.) It uses mahogany for the black squares, and maple for the white squares. The workmanship on the board impressive. The individual squares are cut and joined to perfection, and the playing surface is nicely finished, and dead flat. Flipping the board over reveals it’s solid construction with four felt squares in the corners to protect your playing table. If there were any detraction from this board, I would consider that some users may want rank and file markings – but personally I like the clean presentation without labelling.
This board has a 12 inch playing surfact. For a board of this size, standard tournament pieces will be too large. A 3 inch king set, as shown above is the sweet spot for this size board. These chess piece compliment the linked board nicely. The pieces are made from two separate hardwoods – hardwickia rosewood for the black pieces, and boxwood for white. This rosewood is a nice dark shade for ease of distinguishing the black and white pieces. These pieces have unique styling, and a fine level of detail. For example, the knights look amazing, and can be compared to sets costing multiple times the price of this set. The felt on the bottom of the pieces is cut and glued nicely. Importantly, these pieces are weighted, making the feel and stability far more desirable than unweighted pieces.
What about a folding chess set?
The typical folding board is two board halves joined together with hinges, with the halves designed to form a storage space for the chess pieces inside whilst closed with a clasp.
A folding board has a couple of advantages over a solid board, but also comes with disadvantages. Advantages are neat storage and portability. Disadvantages are that even the best folding board will always have some sort of ridge where the halves meet. The extent is dependent on the build and hinge quality. Additionally, a folding board will usually not lay completely flat, as the board will peak at the join to accommodate the hinge (and material covering the hinge to stop your table being scratched).
Trying to find a quality folding chess set really is a challenge. The main issue, in my opinion, is that when online shopping, set quality is not always obvious from photographs supplied. In fact, there are many sets advertised which actually show pictures of a quality wooden chess set, but the supplied item is then made of ply or poor quality softwood. The result is buyers wonder why they would pay a high amount for a quality set, when it is perceived a similar item is available at a quarter of the cost.
This House of Chess folding set is similar sized to the initial recommendation, with 1.5 inch squares. It has a 1 inch border. The golden acacia and maple board presents as a quality item. It has notation for the rank and file, and the velvet lined case holds the pieces in the box nicely. The chess pieces are again 3 inch, and made again from golden acacia for the black, and boxwood for white. In terms of presentation, these pieces are don’t have the detail of the set linked above, but the quality workmanship is still there. Unlike cheaper pieces, you can expect consistency of piece colours. Importantly, these chess pieces are weighted.
Understanding chess piece sizing for a board
Not all chess pieces fit all boards, which should not be surprising – different players have different preferences. But when purchasing pieces and a board separately, it is important to ensure that the pieces are appropriately sized. While there are several methods people consider to try and result in a good sizing of the pieces for a board (or the other way around), a simple rule that works well is to try and keep the diameter of the base of the king at around 75-80% of the size of a chess board square. For example, in the set linked above with separate board and pieces, the king has a base diameter of 1.1 inches, while each square is 1.5 inches. That results in the pieces being 73% of the size of a square – just the right size for this board. The king’s base does not always fully define the rest of the characteristics of the set. For example, the set discussed here has a trim base diameter in comparison to its height. What this does is allows for taller sized pieces on a mid-sized board – a nice feature.
Felted chess pieces
It sounds easy to glue felt on the bases on the chess pieces doesn’t it! Well the number of sets that do an awful job of this says otherwise! Felt is needed on the base on each chess piece to protect your board, and so the pieces glide smoothly when playing. Some sets have far too thick felt, which unbalances the pieces. Others have non-uniform felt, putting the pieces on a slant. There are those that do an awful job with a hot glue gun! Here is an example of the felting on the recommended ‘House of Chess’ pieces. House of Chess consistently does a quality job.
Many sets come with 32 pieces. A nice feature is the inclusion of two extra queens. Pawn promotion can be to a bishop, queen, knight or rook. But promotion to the most powerful piece – the queen – is most common. No more having to rely on an upturned rook to indicate a second queen!
If you have even played with non-weighted chess pieces, you will understand the need for weighting. Unweighted pieces topple accidentally with the slightest bump. Weighted pieces also have a secure feeling when moved. What the weighting does is move the centre of gravity of each piece lower, as the weights are inserted in the base of each piece. Here is an example of a weighted queen, coming in at 1.2 oz (34 grams). This queen takes a big bump to knock it over…