• Roger Waterhouse

Pathology, chess, and paying homage


It was probably in 2002 when the University of Derby had bought the Royal Devonshire Hospital (which includes the Dome) in Buxton and was in process of refurbishing it at great expense. I made one of my routine visits to inspect progress, accompanied by the Estates Manager. The builders had just ripped out the pathology lab, and dumped the contents in a skip. Except that one of the contents was the benching which was too big for the skip and was parked alongside. Knowing my passion for wood, Ian said, "You might be interested". I was.

There were several huge pieces of wood, three foot wide and nine or ten feet long and about an inch and a quarter thick. It was some sort of tropical hardwood which had probably been installed in the 1880s. It had been varnished, painted, used and stained, and (probably in the late forties) covered with formica. At various points there were nails, screws, and holes cut through for bunsen burners. But potentially a lot of usable pieces, albeit not too big. I said I would have it, and arranged transport.

I put it in my wood store, and more or less forgot about it, until I wanted to make a pencil box about 5 years ago. I was pleased with the box.


I have a habit of collecting old tools. I have tools that you wouldn't recognise, and some that even I don't know what they're for.

Last October, I was rooting around in an antique shop in Cromford and next to the woodworking tools I found an old chess set. The set was complete and beautifully turned, out of boxwood and ebony. I thought it was a bargain, and I bought it.

The pieces were not the Staunton pieces which have been the international standard since the 1830s. The kings were crowned, and the queens were a similar profile to the bishops, which had no mitre cut. The knights had well carved heads and glass eyes inserted. They really were rather magnificent.

A bit of research revealed that they were a French style, known as Regence, and probably produced between 1880 and 1910. The box they came in was made to hold them, almost certainly later, and certainly not by the same craftsman. It was machine made of thin beech, stained orange on the outside, fingerjointed at the corners with a traditional sliding lid. In the varnish of the lid was crudely scratched the name 'J Gowan". Not a French name.

Now I am not a chess afficionado. But I do enjoy a game from time to time. And in recent years my main opponent has been my ten year old grandson. He usually wins. He spent a day with us just before Christmas when the weather was bad, so we decided a game of chess was a good idea. I got out the French pieces, but they were unfamiliar, and he wanted to use the cheap Staunton pieces we know so well. But, horror of horrors, a black pawn was missing. We borrowed from the French set (and for once, I won!).

I had already decided that, if we were to use the French set, we needed a decent board - and had located one on the internet. The loss of the pawn convinced me that for once in my life I should own a decently made Staunton set. So I ordered one. It is really nice. Though it came in a cardboard box. The board hasn't come yet - though that's a different story.


I arranged the two sets on a shelf and admired them. That was when I decided that they both needed housing in decent boxes. I remembered the pencil box, but it was too small for either set. Then I remembered the wood from the pathology lab. So I unearthed the two pieces I had left.

Usually chess pieces are just put in box all jumbled up, which can't be good for them. I decided that if I made the boxes specifically to the sizes of the pieces in each set, they could be stood up in rows and the unlidded box could double as a display case. And that's what I set out to make.

First I had to cut the boards up into usable pieces and discard the more damaged ones.

Then I had to plane them to the half inch thicknesses I needed.

I decided to mitre the corners, mainly for appearance, but also because the joints were not going to be stressed.

The next step was to cut rebates for the base and the sliding lid. This I did on my ancient overarm router which I love using. I bought it in third hand from a joiners shop in Halstead in 1982,and I've never regretted it. They don't make them like this anymore.

Now we were ready for assembly.

And here it is.

And finished, with the pieces in the box...

This wasn't the most imaginative thing I ever made. but then, that's not what I set out to do.

Was paying homage to an unknown master craftsman, by framing his (?) work.

I'll make a box for the Staunton set later.

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