Mr. Knight's passion, of course, is for chess BALTIMORE CITY

February 10, 1993|By Robert Hilson Jr. | Robert Hilson Jr.,Staff Writer

At night, when the telephone ringer is turned off and the door bell goes unanswered, Lee Knight quietly molds chess pieces with a patient hand and a careful eye.

He gently sands the chessmen on the dining room table of his West Baltimore rowhouse. He sands until the plaster is smooth -- smooth enough to rub along his cheek. Then he sands some more. Several coats of paint are next.

For the past decade, Mr. Knight has been making intricate, handsome and often unusual chess sets in his home in the 1100 block of N. Stricker St. His sets have 23 different themes, including the reign of Louis XIV, the Mikado, ancient Egypt, the Medieval era and American folklore.

He's eager to create a new set of chess pieces built around Shaka, the famed African king. But he's concerned that the set would violate the copyright for "Shaka Zulu," a television movie about the warrior-chief.

Mr. Knight says he's also had requests for sets with rather unusual themes involving sex and religion.

"I've had people ask me about making a sexual chess set, but I'm not sure about that one," he said. Mr. Knight says he's considering requests for a Jesus Christ chess set and one using the devil as a theme.

His kitchen, living and dining rooms are lined with kings and queens -- some as tall as 8 inches and weighing 2 pounds. Bishops, knights, pawns and rooks are displayed like trophies.

Some residents in his neighborhood have dubbed him the "Chess man of West Baltimore," but Mr. Knight, 60, prefers the "Chess man of Baltimore."

"A lot of people know what I'm doing and that they can buy sets," said Mr. Knight.

"Some people buy my sets and then they don't want anyone to know where they got it from. One guy bought a set and then told his friends that it came from Paris. They think you couldn't find a set this nice in West Baltimore."

Another man came to his house with a wad of money in hand.

"He had a roll of money that could physically choke a horse," Mr. Knight said. "He said that he wanted to buy a chess set that no one else in the world had. He wanted me to throw away the mold after I made it for him."

It takes him about three hours to mold a complete set of 32 pieces. Then he puts the figures away for about four to six weeks so they can harden and dry.

"You've got to spend a lot of time reading chess books so you can see all of the different types of sets there might be," Mr. Knight said. "You can't rush through. People want to match the color with their living rooms when they buy a set. I tell them to give me three months to work on it."

At the moment, he's working on several sets that have been purchased as graduation gifts for seniors in high school and college. His sets sell from $90 to $400.

Mr. Knight says he works at night because of the tranquillity and the coolness. The temperature is important because the plaster material he uses for the chessmen dries quickly after it's mixed with water.

"I don't have much time to play around when I'm doing this," he said. "But I also work at night because there are fewer distractions. And when I start to make these chess pieces I've got to hurry up."

Mr. Knight is an Army veteran who suffered a severe back injury during the Korean War. He earned a Silver Star and Purple Heart for his bravery in combat. While recuperating from his third operation, he noticed a neighbor's chess pieces and decided to make his own.

"It became a hobby, something to do," he said. "I couldn't get used to just sitting around watching 'Love of Life' or 'As The World Turns' or any of them shows."

In the decade that he's been making chess sets, he has had only one returned because it broke.

"I sold it to a woman who hit her old man upside the head with it," Mr. Knight said.

With all of the exposure to the world of chess, you might think that Mr. Knight plays fairly well.

"I can't play at all," he said. "I've got books and books about chess, but I've never played. I don't know how. I know that the knight moves because that's my last name. I know it moves like an L because my first name begins with an L.

"But I don't have the time to learn to play. I'm too busy making chess sets."

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