Chess sets come in a variety of exotic substrates - brass, glass, jade, marble, ivory, clay, pewter, camel bone, and soapstone...to name just a few. But the two most commonly used substrates by far, are wood and plastic.
While plastic sets are less expensive, hence more widely used by hundreds of thousands of beginners and casuals, wood is the substrate of choice for most serious players, and painstakingly turned and hand-carved wooden chess sets are highly treasured for their durability, playability, and artistic value.
Woods Used in Crafting Chess Sets
There are several types of wood that may be used to craft Chess sets. Boxwood, a highly versatile, light-colored wood with just the desired levels of density, hardness, turnability, and curability, is perhaps the most ideally suited, and certainly the most commonly used substrate for chess pieces.
In their natural hue, they are ideal for light-colored chess pieces, but Boxwood can easily be lacquer-painted, stained, or ebonized - to create dark-colored pieces too. Some light-colored alternatives to Boxwood that are occasionally - but not very frequently used - are certain varieties of Aspen, Birch, Pine, Maple, and Sycamore.
There are also several varieties of dark-colored woods that are used in making chess pieces. The most commonly used varieties include Rosewood, Sheesham or Golden Rosewood, Bud Rosewood, and Ebony. But there are many others too that are in use - such as Mahogany, Teak, Walnut, Wenge, and Purpleheart.
Some of the most popular combinations of woods used by present-day chess set makers - particularly when they create reproductions of exquisite and timeless classics from various regions of the world and across different eras in the game’s history, are:
- Boxwood - Rosewood
- Boxwood - Golden Rosewood
- Boxwood - Ebony
- Boxwood - Ebonized Boxwood
The Great Debate
When it comes to natural and untreated woods, Ebony is the closest one can get to a jet-black color with a rich, glossy, and luxuriant sheen to it.
It is for this reason that the Boxwood - Ebony combination is probably considered amongst the most premium combination of woods used in a chess set.
It is without the shadow of a doubt, the most highly sought-after combination by professional players, chess aficionados, and die-hard collectors of chess memorabilia alike. There is only one other combination that comes close to rivaling the look and feel of the Boxwood - Ebony combination - and that is the Boxwood - Ebonized Boxwood combination.
So which is better - Ebony or Ebonized Boxwood? Well, both have their backers - and viewed objectively, both have their fair share of pros and cons.
Pros and Cons of Ebony vs Ebonized Boxwood Sets
Look and feel
To a layperson, both look and indeed even feel virtually identical. But those acknowledged to have a discerning eye in such matters, tend to swear by the unmatched feel, heft, and sheen of natural Ebony.
3.9" CRAFTSMAN SERIES STAUNTON CHESS PIECES ONLY
|Ebonized Boxwood||Ebony Wood|
While Ebony wood board is significantly harder it is more easily affected by fluctuating temperature and humidity (or lack thereof) and is particularly susceptible to developing cracks in dry weather.
Ebonized Boxwood by contrast is less sensitive to climatic conditions but mechanical wear-and-tear over years may chip away at the ebonized coating on Ebonized Boxwood.
Minor cracks that develop on natural Ebony may be partially repaired and covered up, but the overall look of the set will certainly be compromised to some extent.
Boxwood can be easily re-ebonized and restored to its original state - and this is a relatively inexpensive process.
There is no good or bad, right or wrong. One’s preference for one over the other depends entirely on one’s individual tastes and priorities.
If your romantic or aesthetic sensibilities outweigh your sense of pragmatism, or if you are a serious collector who likes to flaunt ‘genuine’ and ‘authentic’ acquisitions you’ve accumulated over years, go with Natural Ebony.
If you are the more practical type and favor durable and low-maintenance chess sets that you can use for years - if you’re more interested in playing with - rather than gloating over - your chess set, Ebonized Boxwood is for you. So, the next time you are forced to choose between these two options - just be clear about what you really want out of your chess set, and you can’t go wrong!