Strategy with a Theme

Jim Arnold’s clever chess set designs

If not for a hurricane in the late 1990s, Jim Arnold’s career might have taken a different path. During a power outage in his home state of Florida, Jim’s wife pointed out that chisels don’t require electricity. Taking her advice, Jim got started and carved a chess set by candlelight.

Before he started carving full time, Jim spent many years as a charter boat captain, sailing and teaching scuba diving.

Combining his love of both woodworking and the ocean, Jim’s first themed chess set was titled Atlantis. He has developed dozens of specialized chess sets, but Atlantis is still the most popular.

The theme ideas come from a variety of sources. Jim says the easiest way to develop a concept is to think of the different sides in terms of natural antagonists. Sets like The Hippies versus The Establishment and The Civil War are good examples. Private commissions often dictate the subject matter and have inspired sets such as Duck Hunting and The Firefighter’s Chess Set.

“I like for my work to tell a story,” Jim said. “I can cover a subject thoroughly, because of all the pieces involved in the game. What’s really fun is how the theme overtakes you in mid-game when the pieces are spread out all over the board interacting with each other.”

While Atlantis was Jim’s start in the world of themed sets, it wasn’t his first experience creating a hand-carved chess set. “I had spent several months at my mother’s home, helping her through an illness,” Jim explained “While in her garage, I found some rusty bench chisels and a couple of power tools that had belonged to my father. I cleaned up the chisels and decided to recreate the old family chess set that I learned to play on. I only made the set because it reminded me of my Dad; I had no intention of making a second. I still see my father in every one I make.”

Jim starts each new project by researching the theme. Then he makes sketches for the front and side views of each piece. he cuts the pieces with a band saw, then shapes them with chisels and gouges. “I don’t use knives, rotary power carvers, or CNC machinery,” Jim explained. His sets are hand carved from walnut, poplar, and maple. Several coats of lacquer protect them for years of playing.

Over the years the theme has found its way onto the chessboard as well. The DJ Chess Set incorporates an equalizer into the base of the board. Jim feels customizing the board adds interest to the set and helps to tell the story

Jim sells his chess sets on the Internet and at local art shows. Prices range from $175 to $1,500 depending on size and the level of detail.

CLICK HERE to read more great articles from Woodcarving Illustrated Summer 2008 (Issue 43). 

Comments are closed.