Chessboard maker finds his endgame
Grandson of WWI-era business owner revives family tradition in small woodworking shop.
William “Bill” F. Drueke III and his father and grandfather never played chess. But that didn’t stop the family from becoming a globally known maker of chess sets from World War I to the 1980s.
William F. Drueke & Company was founded in 1914 by William Francis Drueke, a card box salesman who caught his lucky break when a toy buyer at Marshall Field’s in Chicago informed him the Great War had cut off the store’s supply of chess pieces from France.
Drueke Sr. saw an opportunity and launched a business in his home city of Grand Rapids. It went on to sell chessboards and pieces, novelties and toys on and off for the next 70 years.
As the founder’s sons, Bill Drueke Jr. and Joe Drueke, looked to exit the business in 1986, they opted to sell it to investors rather than to the next generation, Bill Drueke III — much to his disappointment.
“(My dad and uncle) sold it to these people thinking they were the best choice. They were not. They didn’t make a success of it; they made some mistakes, and they had to sell it in 1992,” Bill Drueke III said.
Ludington-based Carrom Company was the buyer, and moved the business to Ludington and closed the iconic Drueke Building — in the family since 1940 — at 601 Third St. NW in Grand Rapids. The renovated building has housed tech firm Open Systems Technologies (OST) since 2009.
Carrom stopped making the Drueke chessboards and gradually sold off the company’s inventory.
Twenty years later, after spending his middle years as a salesperson, Bill Drueke III decided since Carrom had long since destroyed the historic dies and molds used to make the chessboards, it was time to take his years of knowledge and start his own company.
Drueke Games was born in 2012 and continues to operate in a small commercial manufacturing space at 3222 Jefferson Ave. SE in Kentwood.
Bill Drueke III — now 75 — said he is the first of the three generations to make the products with his own two hands. He had learned the skill as a young man at William F. Drueke & Company during his father and uncle’s ownership.
“My first job there was to take a chessboard, a brand-new one at the factory, and if it had a broken corner, my job was to make it brand new,” he said. “I would cut a groove, glue a piece of wood in the crack and reshape it to make it new.”
This entailed picking pieces that fit into the pattern and direction of the wood grain, as well as operating the saws and using glues.
To this day, he understands the importance of keeping a smooth, harmonious look to the alternating light and dark squares.
“To my knowledge, I’m the only William Drueke who ever physically made the boards — and none of us have ever played chess,” he said with a laugh.
But he reads about it. He takes a keen interest in what is going on in the chess world — including what is going on in the 90,000-member U.S. Chess Federation, what the players are talking about online and what they want in a chess set.
Back in its heyday, William F. Drueke & Company’s largest customer of boards and pieces was the U.S. Chess Federation, which meant Drueke was a well-known brand among chess players.
“When the (Carrom) company sold the Drueke dies for scrap metal, the chess players were sick because they could no longer get that chessboard,” Bill Drueke III said. “That’s why I’ve gone ‘mini-viral’ on Facebook with the chess community.”
At the time of its sale in 1986, the family company employed about 40 people and pulled in about $1 million in annual sales.
Now, it’s a lean operation — just Bill Drueke III and his two children.
His daughter, Diane Drueke Tobias, has an eagle eye for detail and makes sure the boards they produce are perfect before being packed up for sale. His son, Bill “Billy” Drueke IV, runs the company’s website and social media pages.
They do much of their business on eBay — selling “onesies,” or single sales, Bill Drueke III said — but they also have netted two dealers, one of which is ChessUSA.com in Long Island, New York.
The boards cost about $300 apiece due to the painstaking labor involved.
“By myself, I could make 10 boards in a week,” Bill Drueke III said. “But I have help.”
He noted the largest order he’s gotten is for 25 boards at a time.
If he kept up the pace of 10 boards a week all year, he could do about $156,000 in sales per year. But he sells different sizes of boards at different price points, so the sales vary.
“The small boards with no frames are easier to make and sell for less money. But people just love the good boards,” he said.
Bill Drueke III said he still is surprised by compliments.
“I’ve never considered myself a finished carpenter, so I’m humbled when people tell me I’m an artist,” he said. “I never thought of myself that way.”
He pulled out a printout of an email with a pair of photographs of a chess table he made. The eBay buyer was so excited about the table after it arrived that he emailed the pictures and shared his thanks.
“When this guy said, ‘I’m satisfied, no I’m MORE than satisfied,’ that made me feel proud,” Bill Drueke III said.
Another customer shared he was a woodworker, and his wife bought him a Drueke chess set for his birthday.
“He said, ‘Mr. Drueke, I’m a woodworker, and this chessboard is beautiful.’ Those kinds of things will make you want to make another one.”