PLAINS TWP. — Don Rash hasn’t played chess for years, couldn’t string three facts together about Thaddeus Kosciuszko and never visited the Revolutionary War hero’s native Poland or adopted Philadelphia home.
Yet when the National Parks Service craved a replica of the freedom fighter’s chess board, they hired the bookbinder with the gray beard and shop full of antique technology Kosciuszko would probably recognize.
So how does one recreate a 230-year-old chessboard that sits in Poland while never leaving Luzerne County? Let’s just say Rash doesn’t live up to his name; you don’t learn in a hurry the art of binding handmade paper in vegetable-tanned leather decorated with pressed gold leaf.
“I get people who say they’d like to learn this, and I ask, ‘What’s your boredom threshold?’ ” Rash quipped.
Rash worked from photos of the original, leather-backed board with a hand-made paper playing surface. “The weird thing was that, when they showed me the picture, it looked like it had been cut in half, and I didn’t know if it had been originally a folding board or just had been cut,” he said.
Putting the board together was relatively simple, Rash said. He painted black squares onto hand-made paper from England and wrapped paper and leather around a piece of cardboard. But as you might expect in recreating something so old, the devil was in the details.
Take the markings along the edges, designed to allow playing long distance. The rows and columns — “rank” and “file” — are marked with letters along one edge and numbers along the other, giving each square a unique alpha-numeric label that is universal. His board had such markings, in a “funky font with decorative elements that were very tiny and very rare.”
Savvy computer users know even basic word processing software can come with scores of fonts, but this was not one of them. “I had to reproduce them in a font-editing program,” Rash said. “I sent them to a company in Syracuse and had plastic plates made, then printed them on my letter press, just as they would have done on the original.”
Well, except for the plastic part.
Creating the fonts — and remember, he only needed letters “a” through “g” and numbers “1 through “8” — took longer than the rest of the project combined, Rash said.
The leather backing, which wrapped slightly around the edges to the top, also had a unique gold repeating pattern pressed into it. Rash sent a photo of the pattern “to a guy in England who makes book-binding tools. He ran it through a computer program, and made it onto a small brass roller.”
The gold-leaf adhesive is heat-activated, so the trick is to put it in the right place on the leather, heat the roller and press it along the leaf, leaving the gold only where the pattern from the roller presses into the leather.
How did Rash ever get into this arcane artistry? Almost entirely by accident, as he tells it.
A Delaware native who earned a liberal arts bachelor’s degree at the University of Delaware, he taught himself calligraphy and launched a career as “a failed art major” working in construction. He taught calligraphy on the side and hooked up with someone who knew someone willing to sell some old printing equipment, then learned that Haverford College outside Philadelphia was looking for a bookbinder in its library. He was hired, “knowing next to nothing,” full-time at $7,800 a year.
Rash said he learned basics on the job, and then had a chance to learn from someone who had studied under a true master in Germany. He migrated to Lake Harmony because his late wife’s parents had a cottage there, and pretty much never left the region.
The chess board job came courtesy of prior work with the National Parks Service. They knew his skill, and when they decided to add a replica of Kosciuszko’s chess board to his preserved Philadelphia home — a national memorial to a man who used his engineering skills on Revolutionary War fortifications — they turned to him.
They paid Rash “about $1,500, and close to half of that was spent on materials.” And, no, he didn’t think to put a few men on the board and snap a shot before it headed to Philadelphia. Nor has he visited the memorial to see it in place. Neither of which bothered him as much as his biggest missed opportunity.
“It occurred to me later that I should have said ‘Send me over there, I’ll look at the original and come back,’ ” Rash said, ruining a missed opportunity for an Eastern European excursion.