Friday 22 May 2020

Vatican courier chess, part 1 - the chess pieces

The Lord of Ammersoyen playing with the courier chess set borrowed from the St. Thomasguild (and dreaming of his own chess set). Photo Copyright Ton Rothengatter 2019.

We decided to make a courier chess set based on the chess pieces depicted in manuscript ms. reg. lat. 430 from the Vatican library. The normal chess pieces have already been described in a previous blog-post. The manuscript dates from the mid-15th century and the chess characters shown next to the chess pieces have clothing in the style worn by the 'Woud der Verwachting', a Dutch re-enactment group for which the courier chess set is intended. The chess set is supposed to be owned by the lord of castle Ammerzoden (Ammersoyen, the Netherlands), so some luxury on the chess set is to be expected. For instance the Duke of Guelders himself owned a chess set made from silver and gold (or silver and gold-plated) 

The stock of holly and golden rain in the shed. The wood was provided by one of the members of 'het woud der verwachting', now completely dried but originally from their garden.

The chess pieces themselves are made from two types of wood: holly (Ilex aquifolium) and golden rain/golden chain (Laburnum anagyroides). Holly has a white, white-yellow coloured wood, which is often used for making chess pieces and was traditionally used for bagpipes as well. In folklore, holly is supposed to protect against lightning, demons and witches. Wood of the golden rain has a dark brown coloured centre while the sapwood is of whitish colour. Because of its dark colour it is sometimes referred to as false ebony. It is nowadays used for turning, but during medieval times it was also used for making bows.

Left: a piece of holly defined for 3 chess pieces. Right: holly and golden rain pieces prepared for turning. The middle golden rain piece still shows a little bit of white sapwood.

Some test pieces were made to calculate the size. My first pawn was too large, the next one too small, and the third one became the standard for the remaining pawns. Also the first king and bishop were too large to match with the pawns and each other. The knight piece needed some carving of the horse, which was also first tried on a pear test piece.

The new chess pieces

The fool


The jester or fool from the imaginary 'extended' Ms reg. lat. 430. This image is a typical representation of the north European medieval jester with ears on the head piece and scrotal bells elsewhere on his clothes.

On the board the fool stands next to the queen. Its movement is opposite of that of the queen. The design therefore slightly resembles that of the queen. Only the crown and the ring are missing, but also the fool is downsized to that of the bishop, knight and rook. The fools were turned on an electric lathe.

 The oiled holly an golden rain fools.

The sage



The sage in the 'extended' Ms reg. lat. 430. The medieval seneschal was chosen to represent the sage, as he is a close confidant of the king. Actually, the position of the sage is already represented by the rook in the Cessolis chess morals.

On the board the sage stands next to the king. Its movement is identical to that of the king. Also here it is appropriate if the design resembles that of the king. The crown and ring are removed here as well, and the sage is downsized to that of the bishop, knight and rook. The sage was turned on an electric lathe.

 The holly and golden rain sage

The courier



The courier in the 'extended' Ms reg. lat. 430. The medieval herald (of guelders) was chosen to represent the courier as he often performed diplomatic duties between political entities.

The courier moves opposite of that of the rook. In the painting by Lucas van Leyden, the courier is depicted as a drop-like model. The design therefore has a similar base as the rook, however round, with a drop-like piece on top of it. Also the couriers were turned on an electric lathe.

A turned courier attached to two other turned chess pieces. The holly and golden rain couriers.

Promotional pieces


A female is raised to queen status by crowing. The crown is placed upon her head either by  bishops or the king, as in this case.

A pawn can be promoted to a queen. Making additional queens just in case a pawn gets promoted is very laborious (additionally I would face a shortage of properly sized wood). The problem was solved by putting the pawn on a turned pedestal (like in the other courier game made by us). It is also very Jacopo Cessolis like, where in the chess morals the king and queen are reminded that they once were common people too.

 A holly pedestal and the pawn that has been promoted to a queen.

The common chess pieces



Clockwise: A stick with the markers for the size of the pawn and the decorative lines was used to make more or less identically sized pieces. Usually three pawns were turned at the same time, the lines here show the edges and the places used for diameter measurements. After sanding, the shavings were used to polish the chess pieces while the lathe was running. The end result, four slightly different pawns.

Pawns are easily turned pieces. Decorating lines were made with a scraping tool created from an old moulding plane chisel. This tool was used for the other chess pieces as well.
 The golden rain and holly pawns.



The image of the bishop or elephant chess piece in the manuscript is a bit curious and looks twisted. If one imagines the point to be tusks of an elephant the design becomes more clear. The elephant was first turned, after which a part was removed with help of a Dremel sanding drum.

Usually two of the major chess pieces were turned together. Here two bishops/elephants. The gap for the tusks was created afterwards with a sanding drum of a Dremel.

The golden rain and holly elephants/bishops.
 A holly bishop shown from all sides.



The knight piece consists of a carved horse head, with a turned base. First, the base was turned, and then the basic form of the horse head was sawn with a bandsaw. Then, the two side parts were sawn off. The middle part was then used to carve the horse head with help of carving chisels and knives as well as using dremel router bits and sanding tools.

The basic horse shape of the head was sawn first with a bandsaw, after which it was adjusted to width by removing a slice of wood from both sides. This working order provided the best stability for the chess piece during sawing.

A holly knight shown from all sides.

The golden rain and holly knights.



The rook is the only piece that is not turned. The basic shape was first drawn on the wood. Then the holes for the door in the tower were drilled using a drill press, after which the basic shape of the door was chiseled out and filed. Next, the parts of the tower were sawn in a specific order, to provide the best stability: first the V was sawn out, followed by the flat sides using a japanese saw. Then the curved sides were cut with a band saw, using some of the earlier cut off slices from the sides to stabilize the rook. Then the steps of the pedestal were sawn. When this basic shaping was ready, the form was smoothed using chisels, files and scrapers. This was followed by finishing the steep sides of the pedestal with a chisel. Finally, the floor of the door was chiselled to the same height as the pedestal.

Measurement plan of the rook piece. Drilling two holes for each door in the drill press.

The door is chiseled out to its basic shape. The V is sawn in 3 steps: first the centre cut, and then the two side cuts.

The flat sides are sawn off with a japanese saw. Also two small cuts are made for the curved sides.

The curved sides are formed with the band saw, using an earlier slice of wood for stabilazation. The square parts of the pedestal are sawn. Later the slopes are made with a chisel.

The different steps of construction and the test pear rook.

The holly and golden rain rooks.
The holly rook shown from all sides.

King and Queen


The king and queen are the largest (tallest) chess pieces of the set. They are turned in one piece, including the rings. A special turning tool exist for bowl making which is able to turn around the edge. More specific, it can only turn right around the edge. The problem is that if you wish to make a ring you need to go left around the edge as well. Thus I had to make the left counterpart of this turning tool myself from a 5 mm steel rod. It didn't stay sharp as long as the official tool, but it worked long enough to create the rings on the chess pieces. After the ring was loose, the inner knob of the chess piece could be turned. The inside of the ring was rough after it broke loose and had to be sanded smooth.

The first part to turn for the king and queen is the ring, as the crowns are thin and would not withstand the forces for turning the ring. Once the ring is loose, a bit of duct-tape was used to fix it to one side, making it possible to turn the knob underneath the ring.ttf

The Sorby 873H micro turning tool and its home-brew counterpart.

A hand vise clamped in a bench vise was used to hold the ring of the kings and queens, while still providing enough space for sanding. A linen sanding cloth was used for more flexibility.

The golden rain and holly kings, with gold and silver finished rings and crowns.

The kings and the queens next to each other.

The golden rain and holly queens, with gold and silver finished rings and crowns.

The royal chess pairs together.

Finalising the  chess pieces

All chess pieces were sanded and oiled with linseed oil, after which a red coloured felt was glued underneath using hare glue. However before oiling, the crown and ring of the golden rain king and queen were gilded with 23.75 kt gold leaf, while the holly king and queen received silver leaf. Gilding a loose ring on a chess piece is a horrible and tiresome process. The gesso, red and black bole and gilding glue should not touch the rest of the chess piece. (Of course it still does from time to time.) Thus you can only work on a small part of the ring at a time. Furthermore, the space on the inside of the ring is very limited, making the folding of the gold and silver leaf a cumbersome process. A few jigs were developed to make the process slightly less troublesome. Luckily, the gilding of the crowns proved easy. 

 Square pieces of red felt were glued to the chess pieces with hare-glue. Then the felt was cut to size with a 'kitchen' scissor.

The first gilding and gessoing jig allowed a relatively free access to a part of the inner side of the ring. To further reduce the spill-over a protective piece of plastic was taped over the diabolo shape.

Silver foil from Thailand was used for the holly king and queen; 
23.75K gold sheets from Thailand as well as from Norris (Germany) were used for the golden rain king and queen.

The holly king and queen with the silver foil being added. Between 2-5 layers of silver were added to the rings and crowns. A dark bole was used as basis for the 'silvering'.

For gilding the inner side the gilding jig was not ideal, so second jig was created where the chess piece would hang on the inner knob, and the ring would stably lie flat on a piece of thin triplex. Thus on one side the opening in the ring could be maximized.

Oiling was a 2-step process for the king and queen as the ring rests one one half of the chess piece. First the upper part was oiled, after which the chess piece was placed upside down in a piece of wood with a hole drilled in it. Then the lower part of the chess piece was oiled.

The complete courier chess set.

p.s. The medieval images from the imaginary 'Courier chess morals' by Jacopo Cessolis in Ms. Reg. Latin 430 have been heavily altered from the originals they were taken from.