Jim Arnold estimates he has made between 32,000 and 33,000 different chess set pieces. These days, operating out of a business portal on etsy.com, it’s what he does.
The carving began when Jim was about 10 years old. “My dad carved a squirrel, and I was just fascinated by that,” he said. “My response was to try to carve a boat.” Jim doesn’t know what happened to that boat (which he didn’t complete), but he is a lifelong sailor, who grew up to hold a merchant marine master’s license and hold a job as a charter boat captain.
He got into woodworking again “out of necessity by doing my own woodwork on the boat when I needed to repair it.” From there, he started doing carvings on his boat tillers — skulls, mermaids, etc.. People would see the carvings, and want some for themselves. “I had no shortage of work when I got done with my regular day job,” Jim said.
When his mom got sick in the 1990s and he needed to go back home and take care of her, Jim found his dad’s tools in the garage. He made his first chess set; friends and family saw it, and, “without even thinking about it, I had orders.”
At first, he had a certain style of set he regularly made, and he did the road show circuit of church basements and so forth, sometimes even setting up shop in an open space on the side of the road. Sales were pretty good, but around 2003 or 2004, Jim said, some competitors began copying his design. His response was to change his design, making it harder to copy — and leading to his current work, which includes custom ordered chess sets. All of them are hand carved.
“Most people use power carvers, but I’m a lot faster with hand tools than I would be with mechanical stuff,” Jim said. His go-to tools include bench chisels, utility knives or, sometimes, surgical scalpels. “I like using hand tools. I like the way it looks, the old-fashioned way,” he said. “It grabs people’s attention and works for what I do.”
While he frequently hears people tell him that his work seems tedious — he does, after all, have to carve 16 pawns that look the same for each chess set — Jim points out that his experience means “I can carve almost anything: any kind of animal, shape, anything.”
Among the things he’ve carved are chess sets with the themes of the lost sea city of Atlantis (sea god Neptune was the king), the Great Train Robbery, and the War of 1812. He particularly enjoyed that last one, even though it took him a year and a half altogether to make it, since he needed to work in his time around his commissions (which generally take between six to eight weeks for completion).
Jim’s wood choices are based not only on carving considerations, but on the desires of the chess community — most of whom want hardwoods, things like ebony or lignum vitae, Jim said. Currently, his work uses a lot of walnut, and a lot of pearwood — which was used historically in chess sets up until around the 1850s, and, he said, “is a great wood to carve.”
Jim does occasionally make things other than chess sets — walking sticks, picture frames, and, currently, carving a few different whales and dolphins onto a downed tree. “I do this other stuff to take a break, but it’s kind of crazy,” he said: “I’m still carving.”
Once, he said, a customer didn’t pick up a chess set order, and, remembering the prompting of his mom, who had elbowed him and told him to “make ’em one!” when watching an episode of As The WorldTurns in which two characters were using a chess set, Jim sent the set off to the actor. It was later used as a prop on the show. His sets have also appeared on the current Charlie’s Angels TV series, and as part of the Winchester brothers’ belongings on the TV show Supernatural.
He’s also been invited to display his work at the 2011 Southern Governors Conference, as one of four artists from the state of North Carolina, and as a vendor at a 2008 chess conference in Boca Raton, Florida, which also hosted the U.S. Senior Chess Open. Players such as Yuri Garanin attended, and “It was kind of fun to have those guys come over and talk to me in Russian with smiles on their faces and give me thumbs-up about my work,” Jim said.
Most of his customers, however, are “everyday people.” The purchase might be a Christmas present for the family, a birthday present, or a graduation gift. “It’s always about family,” Jim said, “and it is for me, too. As a kid, my dad took the time to teach me and my brothers and sister how to play. It’s kind of fun to think maybe I’ve got something to do with creating those kinds of moments for other people.
“It’s kind of like woodworking: it’s a generational thing, with people from one generation to the next. I’m glad to be a part of that.”