There are a number of different designs of chess sets available, in fact thousands, but the most common is the Staunton set. All sets contain 32 pieces, 16 white and 16 black. The pieces have different designs which indicate the different powers of the chessmen. Generally, taller pieces are more valuable, the exception being rooks which are more valuable than either knights or bishops despite being shorter.
The standard chess set is the Staunton design.
It is named after the great player Howard Staunton (1810 - 1874) but was registered by Nathaniel Cook. The sets were made in ivory and wood and were advocated by Staunton himself. Each set came in a box bearing his signature and he was paid a fee for each one sold. The popularity of this design grew
rapidly primarily because of the ease of identification of each piece. Now they are the only sets permitted in FIDE events. Here is a picture of a modern Staunton set, the kind you would be most likely to see if you played in a chess tournament.
One of the most famous chess sets is that composed of the Lewis chessmen. They are the largest group of of early chessmen to have survived. They were discovered on the south shore of Uig Bay on the Isle of Lewis in the outer Hebrides in 1831. Ninety three related
pieces are known today of which seventy eight are chessmen, and they are all carved from the ivory of walrus tusks. They are supposed by experts
to be the remains of four complete sets as the numbers of pieces seem to indicate; eight kings, eight queens, sixteen bishops, fifteen knights,
twelve rooks, and nineteen pawns. They are extremely detailed in design especially when considering that the tallest of them is only just over four inches high (ten and a half centimetres). Each piece is unique, an extremely unusual quality in a chess set! The pawns look like tombstones and the pieces are human representations with expressions varying from
gloom to anger. The actual date of creation is uncertain but the generally accepted one is around 1150 AD. The origin of the Lewis chessmen is also uncertain as various experts have claimed that they were created in one of Iceland, Britain, or Scandinavia.
The Levantine Chess Set
The chances are that you will never have heard of this one but I include it because it is one of the few modern examples of a hand crafted chess set with unique figures and a "deeper meaning" (!). Its forces are supposed to represent in a balanced way the present day conflict between Muslims and Isrealis. Each figure depicts a specific cultural or historical stereotype. The board too has depth, containing
elements of memorial, tiled tomb and commemorative mosaic. The Muslim forces include an Iraqi tank soldier, a suicide car bomber, and an Egyptian Mummy
terrorist. The western/Israeli forces on the other hand include an American tourist, a Biggles airman, and a crucified sheep (!!). The board itself
even has a series of names inscribed upon it as if to suggest a cenotaph. Although this particular set is of little value to a chess player who is used to having all his pawns the same shape it does serve as a powerful symbol of the tensions and military conflicts which exist in our world.
The Drinks Chess Set
For maximum entertainment value there is always the drinks chess set, the pieces of which are like glasses and can be filled with alcoholic beverages. Each time a piece is captured its contents must be consumed. I suppose the idea is to give the stronger player a handicap but in practice it's the person who can handle their drinks best who comes out on top. Bargain basement drinks sets are widely available but if you have 32 spare shots glasses and a board you can always just write the names of the pieces on the glasses!
St George Chessmen
This was the standard design in Britain
until the 1850's when it was almost universally replaced by the staunton sets. They were popular because they were cheap and easy to make as all
but the horses' heads could be turned on a lathe. They were mainly produced in France but were not used a great deal there. The main fault with this
design was the difficulty of identifying the pieces as they were all so similar. Only the Knights' heads were really distinctive.
Making your own chess pieces
The best way of making wooden chess pieces is on a lathe and the best design to use is the St George design or something similar. I'd suggest that it is best to distinguish between Bishops, Kings and Queens only by using differences in heights, and between Rooks, Pawns, and Knights using differences in design as well as differences in heights. Thus, the Kings should be the tallest, then the Queens, then the Bishops, then the Knights, then the Rooks, and then the Pawns. Pawns should have rounded tops. Rooks should be given flat tops. Knights should have non-lathed heads. Bishops, Queens, and Kings should have pointed tops. Obviously, it is best to use two different kinds of wood for the black and white pieces, though you could always use different shades of wood stains or varnishes.
Naturally, you can tinker with this blueprint to make your set look exactly the way you want it to. Adding highlights to the pieces is a popular way of making wooden sets more interesting (not that they are not interesting enough already!). Highlights are simply white bits on the black pieces and black bits on the white pieces. However, they are usually only added to the kings and queens; if all the pieces have highlights the set can begin to look rather odd. If you want to do this for a black king then you might lathe the body and base of the king from a piece of dark wood and the pointed top from a piece of light wood. If you give the pointed top a peg at the bottom and drill a small hole in the top of the king then you can simply slot the light wood top into the dark wood body. Obviously for a white king you would add a dark wood top to a light wood body and base. Using pegs also gives you the option of changing your mind later as you can always swap the top of the white king with that of the black king thereby removing the highlights!
Traditionally, high quality chess sets are weighted. This means that some heavy substance (like lead) is inserted into the base of each piece giving it more weight and a more solid 'feel'. The easiest way to do this is to make a recess in the base of each piece and to insert a heavy metal disc into it. Unless you are a very skilled woodworker you'll probably need to glue them in place. If you don't happen to have 32 lead discs on hand (!) then another way of weighting your pieces is to use heavy coins. Using foreign coins adds further character to your set.
Buying a chess set
Though most of the sets you see in the shops are based on the staunton pattern there is still a great deal of variety in the shapes and sizes of pieces. If you want a set for study and practice purposes then I recommend that you opt for a standard tournament set (as pictured further up this page) simply because it is easier for your brain to spot patterns when the pieces it is working with are familiar. If you study on a set of a particular design you will generally play best on sets of that same design. This is just common sense. If you want a set just for playing with friends and family at home then any set is fine, but I'd suggest that it's best to pick one in which all the pawns are the same shape. Different shaped pawns can be very off-putting and sometimes confusing: "is that really a bishop, I thought it was just a pawn!". If you want a set just for display purposes then try to spend some time thinking about what sort of a 'look' you want - modern, classical, eccentric, imposing, etc. Sets depicting armies are very popular and can add a dramatic element to any room. Remember; if your set looks like a toy, visiting children are likely to treat it as one!