… and that is indeed the question of this month’s Chessay! Just when does a vintage chess set qualify for an evening on the worktable with the stripper? Or more specifically, exactly which factors determine whether a set is eligible to be slathered in noxious chemicals and feel the wrath of the wire brush, sandpaper and steel wool? For many this may seem a torturous decision, but it needn’t be. Not if we bear in mind a few simple guidelines offered below. A little later on we’ll plunge into the ‘how to’ aspect of stripping, which is relatively straightforward, but first off let’s tackle the all-important issue of ‘when to’ strip off – because you want to get this crucial decision absolutely right!
There are numerous reasons for taking a set back to the bark, so to speak, but there are also many reasons for leaving the pieces the f#¢£ alone! You don’t want to blunder away many decades of a naturally aged finish just because you’re not keen on the colour or you’ve grown tired of their grungy, unkempt appearance. In fact the vast majority of vintage chess sets should quite rightfully be left untouched. As the deep, rich tones of natural corrosion and everyday wear and tear, known to discerning collectors as the patina, could actually add considerable value to your purchase. The unique feel, smell and viscosity of these various patinas will be the subject of a future Chessay, but for now let’s cut to the quick with a few examples of what I personally consider (and please note the italics) to be eligible candidates for a date with the stripper – and cue the burlesque background music, maestro!
We start with a no-brainer… STRIP IT OFF! IF … the set has been PREVIOUSLY PAINTED. You simply cannot go wrong here. A natural wood finish beats a poorly painted finish every day of the week, every hour of the day and every minute of that hour – don’t make me say that again! Most of these painted sets are the victims of an unfortunate decision by a previous owner who was oblivious to the fact that in future years their little playing pieces would become quite sought after and highly collectable. Over the years, I’ve personally peeled off gaudy ‘Simpson family’ yellows, radioactive oranges, pukey turquoise/blues and even what looked like khaki military paint on one WWII era set (which I actually worked with rather than against, SEE PICS 1, 2 & 3 BELOW), so don’t be afraid to get stuck in!
The smothered craftsmanship that lies beneath these multiple layers of old paint and varnish will be reward enough. And here, a word of caution: if you do decide to remove this old paint and lacquer it will more than likely be a lead-based product, the fine-dust and fumes of which can be irritating to the eyes and quite nauseating if inhaled for lengthy periods of time (believe me). Use a good quality ‘industrial grade’ mask, or failing that work outside or near an open window. I do a lot of stripping (yeah baby!!) and try to do as much as I can during the summer months (that’s July over here in Canada) and complete the pieces during the cooler eleven months of the year… Moving swiftly on.
STRIP IT OFF, IF … the set is TOTALLY UNPLAYABLE. Another common reason for a quick-lick-a-lead is that the original opposing colours were perhaps a little too close for comfort – deep purple vs. black, for instance (SEE PIC 4 LEFT) making it nigh impossible to tell which side is which in a complex middle-game scenario. Add to this several layers of nicotine, booze and grub stains over the years – collectively known as ‘finger-slime’ (ee-yuck!) and you can just imagine how difficult it would be to distinguish the opposing armies in murky, often smoke-laden households and gaming rooms back in the old days, especially if a player just so-happened to be short-sighted to boot! The bottom line here is if you can’t play with a set IT’S BAGGAGE! Bite the bullet and do yourself a huge favour. Dig it out from storage and give the pieces another stab at life by stripping them down and refinishing them in a lighter shade of playable. It’s a no-lose situation – and as we all perhaps have a little more time on our hands at the moment, now is as good a time as any!
Next up, STRIP IT OFF, IF … the FINISH SUCKS! Sounds simple, however this area is a veritable minefield as one man’s finger-slime is another’s sublime! But let’s be perfectly frank, not every patina is a to-die-for patina and quite understandably opinions differ considerably on the matter as it really boils down to one’s own personal taste. For instance, let’s examine these handsome octogenarians (SEE PICS 5 & 6 BELOW).
The same photos recently appeared on the popular facebook page Chess Collectors (May 3rd) and received a mixed reception, which I found surprising, but quite interesting (one good-humoured quip was: “patina is one thing, but these look down-right crusty!”) and I found myself asking a very familiar question; ‘Would I personally strip this set down?’ Gut instinct, absolutely not! But if I were purchasing the same set ‘sold as is’ it would certainly raise a few flags. First off, are the pieces sticky to the touch? Too many times I have found this ‘bubbling’ or ‘layered’ form of patina to be quite tacky, especially when exposed to hot and humid conditions (or an opponent’s nervous and clammy fingers!). For me, this is a definite red flag – IF IT’S TACKY, STRIP IT BACKY! Simple. The pieces are really unpleasant to play with for any length of time and often leave a lingering, rather unpleasant odor on the fingers (again, “eee-ew!”). Another factor to consider is that unlike other examples of historical eye-candy a set in this condition cannot be displayed as only a gluttonous Dyson rivals them for plucking dust particles and pet dander clean out of the air. Incidentally, I must mention that my fb friend, Lokahi Antonio (the lucky owner of the set in question) informed the group that it was manufactured the same year his father was born (1940) and shared these eloquent words in describing the general condition of the set; “… it is old, grimy, crusty, gnarly. It smells. The finials from the Kings and Queens are missing and the ears of the knights are chipped … overall, it would be considered a wreck. And I absolutely love it!” (quoted from Chuck Grau’s facebook group, Shakhmatnyye Kollektsionery: Soviet and Russian Chess Sets). The departing words are tremendously important, as here we have a perfect example of one man’s finger-slime being another man’s sublime, showing clearly that there’s a very thin and subjective line between a ‘stunning’ patina and a ‘so-so’ patina, heavily influenced by one’s own personal taste, any historical/monetary value – and as we have witnessed – great sentimental value, too.
Another example of what I consider a ‘so-so’ patina we see here on this Tsarist era Soviet set which was recently up for auction. The question was posed to the aforementioned group Shakhmatnyye Kollektsionery; “What is better: to restore these chess pieces or leave them as they are?” (SCROLL THROUGH PICS 7, 8 & 9 ABOVE) Rather than reply online I decided to address the question here (as I was plum in the middle of writing this piece anyhow). Online, my immediate answer would have been curt and very simple; an emphatic YES! And here’s why. Firstly, the knight’s muzzles: in my opinion, these should be restored. Just do it. I’ve played friends who have sets in this condition and I swear they drag them out of storage just to freakin’ irk me as my concentration is shattered – I stare intensely, like Tal, at the broken muzzle musing how I would approach the fix, then all of a sudden BOOM “mate!” I know, I know, there are well-known collectors who would live with this, but I want to squeeze every drop of enjoyment out my prized possession for as long as I can, and busted muzzles, headless bishops, or even an AWOL finial just bugs me rotten – get them fixed. Secondly, what struck me are the different shades of the patina. Examine the rooks on each side. One white rook looks like it has just jumped off the lathe, while on the black side one rook seems like it has been nominated as an ‘odds’ piece for most of its life! This isn’t so noticeable with the black bishops, but to me there is too much inconsistency between the two patinas and just doesn’t sit right to the eye. Speaking of which, the white bishops! Gadzooks! That’s what we call a ‘Scottish suntan’ in the UK. The queen’s bishop in particular looks as unfinished as the king’s rook, just not very pleasant on the eye as a ‘complete set.’ Luckily, the black king has retained its original finial – and a magnificent specimen it is too! Get it replicated, sharpish (in black), and give the king back his authority for heaven’s sake! The last photo shows damages. For me, there are attractive ‘battle scars’ and butt-ugly ones. The rook and white pawn fall into the latter category. Why? They look like fresh wounds and fresh raw wood is simply not attractive, it needs to look ‘healed’ over time – these chips could have occurred yesterday (or in transit). The middle pawn I can live with, and I do frequently leave minor damage like this on my own sets as I feel it adds to their overall character. If you want a brand spanking new ‘vintage’ set, go buy a repro, there’s plenty out there.
As mentioned, there are times, upon close examination, when it would be an absolute sacrilege to strip away the patina and here’s a perfect example. On first sight (see PIC 10 RIGHT) the ragged, lack-lustre look of this 1950s ‘Latvian’ set didn’t grab me at all – it’s inconsistent, all over the place, it’s baggage! My plan, therefore, was to strip the whole set down and start from scratch. As per usual I began by stripping the lighter pieces, but when it came down to the knights I just couldn’t do it.
At the time they were resting on my worktable when an errant ray of sunshine hit them (SEE PIC 11 LEFT) and I was overcome with a sudden pentiment (a haughty artistic term from the Latin pentimento, meaning to ‘repent’ or ‘have a sudden change of mind’) as their true beauty was illuminatingly revealed before me. The glowing, glazy marmalade patina of the knights was just too gorgeous to lose, so BOOM – pentimento!. The knights’ upper torsos were absolute keepers and the rest of the light pieces would just have to be colour-matched to them! The result of which, as you can see (PICS 12 & 13 BELOW) was a perfectly harmonious set of chessmen that kept the flavor of the original patina intact for posterity while being an absolute (and undistracting) joy to play with.
Another quick example (and I am not picking on the Soviet sets on purpose, it’s just what comes to mind) is this set (PIC 14 BELOW LEFT), again, a prime candidate for a date with the stripper. The patina is ‘so-so’ and quite uneven, but overall the pieces are in great shape. Here is the same set (PIC 15 BELOW RIGHT) after a thorough strip-down and having been restored/antiqued to near its original condition (with a few twists here and there, of course!).
Okey dokey. There is much more to be said on this expansive and subjective subject, but for the moment I’m going to leave it here as I feel I’m rattling on like an old baggus huricanii. I guess my parting point is to have some fun with these old pieces and don’t be too intimidated by them – the rewards of several hours of TLC is a set that can be enjoyed for many decades to come! In next month’s Chessay we’ll continue with this expansive topic and also pick up on any additional points you may wish to inject. Part Two will also discuss the best techniques, tools and products one can use to strip a set down and also some of the problems that sometimes arise along the way. So until next time all ye good chessayers – check you later!
All rights reserved by Alan W. Power (The Chess Schach), May/2020