Haida-inspired Chess

I sure do like playing chess.

I’m not really any good though. But I love chess anyway and I wanted to make a wooden and leather board, and after living in Seattle for a bit I thought it would be cool to carve some wooden chessmen that borrowed formally from Native American art, including totem poles, and specifically the broad and bold stroke of the Haida. The process:

Stuff You Will Need: Leatherworking stuff for the chessboard. If you’re just going to build pieces with an exacto knife like I did, you’ll go through a whole lot of blades. The traditional carving tools are way better than exacto knives. It’s great to have one big-handled knife and one smaller one for the more detailed cuts. Sandpaper, of course. Small saw for the wood, a jigsaw would’ve made it easier for me. Pencils, paint, and thats about it. Obviously the usual rulers, newspaper, and cutting surfaces. My wood was inch-by-inch balsa wood stock, the kind they sell for airplanes. If you’re able to get some basswood, cedar, or another kind of carvable but heavier wood, I say go for it.

Pawns. The concept was Haida watchmen, who are often put on top of poles. The design had to be simple enough for me to get through 16 of them, and for them to still be cephalo-humanoid, like the staunton design of pawns. One side is standing, the other sitting with hands on ankles.

The pawns, in their humanoid-headedness, didn’t have their hats on! This was a disaster, unless another piece could have the very socially relevant hats that the Haida are known for wearing. Do the rooks have them? Sort of. Do they still look like towers? I think so. One side is more vaguely humanoid than the other, as their notches are differently-spaced. This piece was one of the more fun to carve because of the unique 3D curve of the hat.

Being one of the more prominent and important figures in carving and storytelling, Raven was fit to be a king. However, I liked him a lot, and wanted to have more of him. His role as a trickster makes him a good candidate for knighthood, I think.

These bishops are bears. Well, they didn’t come as close to the Native American ideal of bear as I’d planned, but that’s okay. One side holds coppers, one holds salmon. Bears love salmon.


The Queens are Dzoonkwa, arguably the creepiest figure ever. That’s fitting, because she was used to scare Haida kids, and they probably informed the modern myth of Sasquatch. I’m happy with how they came out. The kings are less dynamic bear-human-children, which are actually pretty common in Native stories. One side holds coppers, both sides are mounted on little mounds to give them a bit more stature.

Here’s a very early shot of the chessboard. I got a nice birchwood platform for the board, I think 12″ square. I cut a 10″ square of 6oz veg-tanned leather, then, before marking, cutting, or casing the leather, I cemented it and tacked the edges with upholstering tacks. That way, when I cased and cut the leather, it didn’t warp all over the place.

The board in progress. The next one I make would wind up being being more intricate – this one was kind of easy, because I aimed for simple – this was my first leather chessboard. I traced 1″ squares, and carved the lines very carefully with a swivel knife and a straightedge. Then I gave the black squares a few coats of dye, let it dry, and applied antique brown finish and ‘tan-kote’ matte laquer.

Oh man, carving wood is messy. That’s why most people do it on the porch, I suppose – you could get a lot of free gerbil bedding this way. I carved the first half of the pieces very quickly, and had a blast doing them. But the second half was slower, as I just wasn’t excited about it any more. I took a lot of breaks to work on the board and eventually forced myself to finish, but I guess I learned something about wood carving.

Painted pieces. Traditionally, Haida poles aren’t painted very much – some color on some details, but mostly bare wood. I used colors as close to the traditional ones as I could find. Sort of a sea green and a deep brickish red. You’ll find those colors in a lot of Northwest native art, but I don’t have hex or Pantone codes, sorry. So there they are, a lot of that and a lot of bare wood. It took a couple coats to get the colors right and as nervous as it made me not to use acrylic finish, I didn’t want to mess with the raw texture of wood and paint. So I hope the pieces will decay naturally. (I wound up giving this set to my parents.)

Shot of the whole thing finished. It was a lot of fun to make. I will probably make more chessboards soon, but 32 pieces is a lot of three to five inch chessmen to carve. The board was more fun per hour. Make sure you really, really want to carve a whole set of 32 before you start. If I could change one thing about the whole project, I would make the pieces heavier. There’s a reason the really nice sets have weighted pieces, and I don’t know exactly what it is, but I think it’s nice to have a little mass on them. Next time…