Ebony and Padauk are the most exotic woods used in making chess. Though these woods are said to be the best in manufacturing chess pieces, some collectors discovered a serious and insidious issue affecting all ebony and padauk chessmen: hairline cracks.
Wood is a hygroscopic material, which means it swells in humid conditions and shrinks in the dry conditions. Though the woods are properly treated, pressed before turning it on a lathe machine, however, it still is prone to cracks depending on its exposure to the weather conditions.
To prevent cracking, the House of Staunton recommends storing chessmen according to the following criteria:
- Winter: 35%-45% relative humidity (RH)
- Summer: 55%-65% relative humidity (RH)
Unfortunately, there isn’t much available information detailing exactly how to manage humidity levels. Usually, the cracks emerge from the grain of the chessmen. Since this problem is common among museums or collectors all over the world, there are some precautions we can take to prevent the wood from cracking.
- Storing chess pieces in a wooden box.
- By placing Silica beads in the coffer box
- Purchasing a humidor tube.
- Storing the humidor tube in the coffer
- By getting humidity sensor and display unit
Why do wood crack
Wood is a living thing. By living thing, we mean that wood is not exactly a living thing but a hygroscopic, which means it absorbs moisture from the air. Before becoming a wood log, the tree’s main source of nutrition is water. The water travels through the grains and maintains the moisture it requires to stay tall. When the tree becomes a wood log, it still maintains the moisture through the grains.
Generally, the wood cracks when it expands or it shrinks. When it’s more humid, the wood grains absorb the moisture from the air causing expanding of the wood. The swelling occurs mainly across the width.
When the humidity is less the wood fibers release the extra moisture causing shrinking of the wood. The shrinking has enough force to cause the split or crack from the joints.
If we follow the above points and understand our woods better, we can prevent the cracking of the wood, however, since the weather and humidity is not in our control, we can’t guarantee that the above technique can work 100%.
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