Amber, otherwise known as ‘Russian Gold’ (Latin electrum, from Ancient Greek elektron speaking of a ‘beaming sun’).
Some time a while back (the weeks and months all roll into one these days) I was very kindly gifted an excellent little-known tome from the well-respected U.S. chess aficionado, Chuck Grau. The wonderfully illustrated (and for me, very inspirational) book was Dr. Isaac Linder’s The Art of Chess Pieces (Moscow 1994) and amongst the many historical Soviet and Russian chess pieces that caught my eye was this explosively vibrant “plastic” chess set pictured above. Many of you may have such a set in your collection, as many of them were produced (around 120,000 units) during the mid-to-late 1970s for “presentation” purposes during the heavily boycotted Moscow Summer Olympics of 1980 – as you may recall, the Soviet-Afghan War had just kicked off a year earlier. But politics aside (because we’ve all had enough of politicians right now, eh?), Dr. Linder vaguely uses the term “plastic” for these pieces, but they are actually made from a by-product of a commodity that’s almost as valuable as gold these days, Russia’s famous ‘Baltic amber’ and its close German cousin, ambroid.
Historically, the Baltic coastline of west Konigsberg has been the planet’s main source of amber dating back to the twelfth-century – over 150 years prior to the emergence of gold on the European continent. This ancient city of Konigsberg (or ‘King’s Mountain’ in Old Prussian) sandwiched precariously between Poland and Lithuania was only renamed Kaliningrad by the Soviets just after WWII (see map, below left), but early forms of ambroid had actually been manufactured here since the early 1880s, albeit in an experimental form. In 1947, the old Konigsberg Amber Factory (below right, the factory today) came under Soviet ownership and was renamed the Kaliningrad Amber Combine (read: Gulag), who swiftly switched the workforce to forced-labour; men in the amber mines, women on the factory floor, mainly producing vomit-inducing varnishes, lacquers and enamel paints (perhaps for use on chess sets?) until the welcome death of Stalin on March 5th, 1953.
In 1976, due to hydraulic mining, the original quarry was depleted and a new quarry called the ‘Primorsky Open Pit’ was commissioned, which even today produces 90% of the world’s amber supply (below, amber workers today) and is most definitely the original source for the amber found in your set and mine – if you so kindly pardon the pun!
Righto, now we have touched on the history of these pieces, both murky and colourful, the question now begs; WHAT THE DEVIL IS THIS DAMNED ELUSIVE AMBROID?
Well, without turning this discussion into a scientific yawn-fest, it can simply be called ‘faux amber’ consisting mainly of fragments and crumbs of actual Baltic amber, sometimes mixed with other resins (below left), which are finely ground and then heavily compressed into moulded forms using heat. When this raw amber dust is heated above 200°C (392°F) it decomposes, yielding what is called ‘oil of amber’ or ‘pitch.’ When this is dissolved in linseed oil, or alternatively, oil of turpentine, it forms ‘amber varnish’ or ‘lac.’ Today, as in the past, many types of ‘modern’ plastic resin products (and we’ll explore these later) use the same basic methods for their sealers and lacquers, which along with shellac (an insect based product) are mainly responsible for the glistening, honey-glazed varnishes found on many of the vintage chess pieces we so cherish today. That said, we now have a pretty good idea of what we are handling when owning one of these vintage 1980 Olympic sets. But after four decades of wear and tear even this durable resin product can show signs of wear and tear – and not always in a good way!
Unfortunately, ambroid doesn’t age gracefully like vintage wooden chess pieces. Actually, it looks pretty much exactly the same as it did in 1980. Not a bad thing at all, I hear you cry! Except that most sets I’ve encountered have gained miniscule ‘chitter’ marks around their bases and collars (as can be seen if you zoom in on the photo at the head of this Chessay) and much more obviously here with this dark queen (above right). However, these unsightly and distracting chitter-chatter marks (they are often sharp to the touch) can be eliminated with some gentle sanding, returning them almost to their original condition with the aid of a few ‘tricks’ (below) using some modern plastic-resin products that mimic (quite remarkably) the original finish of yesteryear – the result being a FORTY YEAR OLD set that feels like a VIRGIN!
The key to this unusual restoration project is PATIENCE. Take it slow, as we don’t want to sand any more than necessary. In fact, you’ll be relying on the sense of touch more than anything else. Your fingertips will tell you when the task is complete. Our go-to in this resto is top drawer, fine-grade sandpaper. I use Norton WetSand black sandpaper, starting with 400 grit and finishing with the 600. This product is perfect for wet or dry sanding of any sealers, varnishes, lacquers or enamel and we’ll be employing exactly the same method I use when restoring old cabinetry or furniture. It’s what’s called the ‘final pass’ prior to polishing and buffing. But before we arrive at the sanding stage we have some basic prep work to do, beginning with the removal of the original black felt – and there are a couple of reasons why I feel it’s necessary to do this. First and foremost, the black felt on the bottom of the yellow pieces is just wrong – what were they thinking back in the 70’s? You can clearly see the black felt through the translucent base. Fine for the dark pieces, disaster for the light as you can see in this ‘before’ snap of the rook (see below).
The dark padding simply kills the colour. Once this eye-sore is removed we also have to deal with the glue/felt residue, sand this off with 220 grit paper then give it a once-over with the WetSand 400 grit (we’ll be using this wet soon, but here it can be used dry).
Now you should be looking at a crystal (or ambroid!) clear base as we see here (watch the progression from before to after below). And now we are ready to tackle the chitter-chatters…
Cut a few sheets of the 400 grit into manageable pieces and fill a small container with some water (we eat a lot of tuna JUST FOR THE CANS! see right). Wet the 400 sandpaper and gently run your fingers around the edge of the piece.
Now using soft, smooth strokes gently sand down any chitters you feel, remembering to keep the 400 wet at all times (this eliminates any scratching). Take it easy and go through the light side until you can’t feel any imperfections with your fingers. It’s as simple as that. Once satisfied, cut up some 600 grit, wet it, then give the bases a general light sand all over and repeat this process with the dark pieces. Now the bases are sanded and you’ve got the hang of things, it’s time for trouble-shooting. Examine each piece and tackle any chits around the collars and other outer edges gently sanding them down using the same method. With this particular set, the merlons of the rooks and the crest of the knight’s mane have taken some flack over the decades, so spend some time in these areas until it looks good on the eye (see below). Note; when sanding this dark ambroid it will turn a light greyish colour, as you can see, which we’ll deal with momentarily, not a problem, worry yourself not.
At this stage, after surprisingly discovering a shallow hollow in the base of each piece, a fortunate aftermath of the moulding process, I decided to add a little extra weight – and why not? This is completely optional, of course, but the hole has to be filled anyhow, so I just popped in a few flattened pieces of bird-shot I had lying around and Bob’s your uncle (see below). Here’s a quick tip – if you do end up following this same path, paint the inside yellow or white first, so as whatever weight you chose will not be visible through the top of the base – because that will spoil the whole kaa-doodle!!
Let’s move on to the most important stage then, perfectly refinishing everything we have sanded back. For uniformity we will be refinishing THE WHOLE BASE, not just the sanded areas, and the same applies to the collars and turrets of the rooks (the small crest of the knight’s mane can easily be touched up using a small artist’s brush). For the yellow ambroid I have discovered a product called Spar Varnish Clear Finish, an Armour Coat product (below left) that I was introduced to here in Canada a while back during a camping trip and is widely used for canoe and boat repair. It states “clear” on the can, but in fact it’s an extremely tough amber based plastic resin, much like ambroid itself. It is also very thick and self-leveling making it perfect for this project. Using a small, flat-topped natural bristle brush (buy a nice one from an art shop) coat the bases being very careful not to touch the bulb above. Give them one even coat and leave to dry overnight. In the morning, once dry, this can be lightly sanded back using the wet 400 and 600 grit paper repeating the same method as before. Apply a second coat and leave overnight. Repeat the 400/600 sanding method for the second coat and we are now ready to apply a finish coat. The finish coat is quick and easy – but once again, take your time – as we have plenty of that on our hands at the moment anyhow!
For the final stage we’ll be using another very versatile wood-restoration product, Howard’s Restor-a-Finish (above right) mainly used for repairing tiny scratches, but has multiple uses. This is brushed on then wiped off the light ambroid surface IMMEDIATELY.
Treat one piece at a time. DO NOT LET IT SIT on the Spar Varnish otherwise it will penetrate, leading to discolouration. Just brush on wholly covering the surface then wipe off the residue sharpish using a CLEAN paper kitchen towel or soft cloth and we should end up with something that looks like this (left).
Basically, it should look like it has never been applied, we just want to lose any tiny scratches the 600 may have left (here, the left side is finished; the right is awaiting restoration). Simply repeat this process with the upper torso of the pieces and the light side is as done as dinner!
But don’t be putting away that walnut Restor-a-Finish just yet! This is exactly what we’ll be using to colour the dark ambroid, letting it sink in just a tad longer so as to mask any trace of the sanding process – and this couldn’t be easier. Just brush on evenly, wait a minute or two, wipe off and buff with a clean soft cloth or paper towel – the product does all the work. If you think it looks like it needs another coat just wait a few hours and reapply as I did with this queen (see below), as she was the most ‘chittered’ of all the dark pieces and as the background says – the result is quite ‘beautiful!’
Finally, as a finishing touch I chose to complete the project by using complementary vibrant yellow felt for the light pieces and stuck with the traditional black felt for the dark side. Now the new yellow felt feels like it belongs to the pieces as a whole – like they were just meant to be together! (below left, before; below right, after).
I believe that little details like this really make all the difference in bringing a set together. You may have also noticed that I swapped around the finial colours of the queens, too, this also ‘just felt right’ and sways slightly away from tradition, which I’m fond of … I simply sanded out the plastic ‘knit lines’ and custom-matched the original boring black and white plastic finials to their respective ambroid colours, making the set look and feel harmonious and an absolute joy to play with – especially outside! on a lovely autumn day under a ‘beaming sun.’
Until next time – check you later! N.B. There is a decision pending, whether I am allowed to keep this set or whether it joins our other listings in the gallery – my wife, Angie, believes that every set is like a newborn puppy to me – very hard to let go of … time will tell.
All rights reserved: Alan W. Power (The Chess Schach), Oct/2020