Shatranj – Game (Board) of Kings

Though there are a couple dozen full and partial sets of Shatranj pieces scattered throughout museums worldwide, the boards for the game have not seemed to have survived equally well. That is, we ain’t got none.
Our best option to physically recreate a game set is to look at illuminations and pictorial references to find how the boards appear. Being there are more than a few “expert guides” extant from the middle ages, written descriptions are fairly abundant.

Detail of a 14th Century Persian Manuscript showing the game of Shatranj being played

Most of the images of shatranj boards depict the game surface very clearly, while the underside is ignored. The alternative thought then is that these boards were commonly not “boards” at all, but squares of cloth with the grid laid out on them. Being as I have a penchant for wood, I pulled from a later Indian depiction that had a little more structure to it.

Krishna and Radha playing chaturanga on an 8×8 Ashtāpada. 16th Century

A little more ornate than I wanted to go, but there is definitely a form to this board. Still note, as unlike Chess in Western Europe, there is no two-tone “checkerboard” pattern to the grid.

I happened to have a rather broad 5/4 Red Oak board in the stash. I think it is actually somewhere around 22″ wide and it is slowly shrinking in length. This was cut down to about 15 3/4″ by 16″. The grid was laid out by divider and square with a 1/4″ excess along the grain. Tenons were marked across the end grain. A couple quick crosscuts set the shoulders and a chisel roughed off most of the waste. A couple passes with a rabbet plane cleaned up the tongues.

Detail of the tenon on the end grain faces of the game board.

The off cuts from reducing the width were ripped to about 1 1/4″ wide and a dado was marked out from the tenons. I cut these through with a table saw and cleaned the bottoms with a little chisel work. Mating the end grain of the playing board with the long grain of the frame runners presents some challenges, but also some solutions. Most especially was the need to stabilize the end grain against cracking. This crossgrain construction helps keep things together. But, this can’t just be glued together. A board this wide will move (and it turns out quite a bit) so there needs to be some locking mechanism to keep things from falling apart. Hidden under the paint are three pegs on each end, creating a  breadboard.

Actually setting the grid into the game surface did present some challenges. I started with incising with a knife against a straight edge. A few more failed and ungainly tool use attempts resulted in kerfing the grid with a dovetail saw. Had I been thinking clearly at the time, this kind of job is perfect for a stairsaw. Grid cut in and pegs cut, the board was ready for assembly. I pulled out the hide glue for this one, and assembly was dead simple.

Following the depictions of 10-14th century boards, I painted this white with a casein paint and infilled with a red pigment mixed with an egg temper. The final bit was to coat everything with a bit of oil after burnishing the paint. That gave a nice sheen to everything and added one more layer to seal the finish.

The finishes board.

The finishes board.

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