Thursday, March 13, 2008

Apple #303: Jigsaw Puzzles

Well, I'm back from my trip to Florida. It was very relaxing and enjoyable in so many ways. But of course while I was sampling Florida's various delights, I also encountered a few questions, some puzzlements, and some just plain intriguing things that I wanted to learn more about once I got home. So let's get to it, shall we?

The first item, jigsaw puzzles, may not seem all that thrilling to you. But that's exactly what's good about jigsaw puzzles -- they present a bit of a challenge, but most of them are not so difficult that you want to tear out your hair or pummel your neighbor over them. Though I know that some jigsaw puzzles are designed to be very challenging.

I used to put together jigsaw puzzles quite a lot when I was but a Pre-Appleteen. So when my friends and I purchased a used jigsaw puzzle from the local Florida library, it was something of a pleasant journey back to my younger days as we put the thing together, together.

This is the puzzle we put together. We got it for $1, used, and there was a piece missing. Anyway, it's called Nantucket Breeze by Charles Wysocki. It was pretty decent, as puzzles go. The sky was the hardest part, as usual.
(Photo by Jarred Wilson)

Really, there's no satisfaction quite like finding the piece you've been looking for and then pressing it neatly into place. Ah.

  • The first jigsaw puzzle is generally believed to have been made by a mapmaker named John Spilsbury, in 1760. He mounted one of his maps on a piece of hardwood and used a saw to cut around the borders of the countries. The puzzle of countries was intended to teach British children geography.
  • Jigsaw puzzles continued to be made of maps and other educational images, and primarily for children.
  • Through the 1800s, manufacturers used different types of wood for the backing and different methods of cutting the boards into shapes.
  • By the early 1900s, puzzle makers had just started using cardboard as the backing, though wooden puzzles were still the ones sold most often.
  • Puzzle-assemblers today would find these early puzzles a bit frustrating. The pieces did not interlock but instead were laid next to each other. A mis-timed sneeze or an inopportune jostling of the table could send the entire thing into disarray.

This puzzle, made in 1898, is an example of one of the early techniques of making jigsaw puzzles, called color line cutting. The pieces were cut along the lines where the colors of the image changed. They did not interlock but lay against one another.
(Image from Bob Armstrong's article on Earliest Use of Special Techniques for Making Adult Jigsaw Puzzles)

  • Also around this time, puzzle makers began to use metal dies to cut the pieces. The dies were made by taking thin strips of sharp metal, curving them in various shapes, and attaching the strips to a plate so the edges stuck out on one side. The plate with the edges sticking out would then be pressed into the cardboard so that all the pieces would be cut at once.
  • This method made puzzle-making a whole lot cheaper and easier, as did the use of cardboard. By the 1920s and 1930s, several companies were turning out cardboard jigsaw puzzles all over the place. What's more, they weren't all of the educational variety anymore, but also included lots of images of trains and steam engines as well sentimental depictions of ladies in love and puppies and so on. Furthermore, the puzzle makers started designing the puzzles to be more difficult, so they'd be more appealing to adults.
  • Unlike most products sold in the United States during the 1930s, sales of jigsaw puzzles soared during the Depression. They were very inexpensive -- most cardboard puzzles sold for 25 cents -- and they could be used and enjoyed by one person or several people at a time without having to go anywhere special.

This puzzle, called Checkers, was made around 1932. You probably can't tell from this picture, but the pieces are especially curvy and strange. The image is "It's Your Move" by Norman Rockwell.
(Photo from Bob Armstrong's Old Jigsaw Puzzles, which is a wealth of images and information)

  • Companies were giving them away, free, with things like toothbrushes. Libraries were lending jigsaw puzzles for three to ten cents per day, depending on the size. In 1933, when puzzle makers started producing weekly jigsaw puzzles, people were buying jigsaw puzzles at a rate of 10 million per week. Jigsaw puzzles were the bee's knees.
  • Since the Depression, jigsaw puzzles' popularity has waxed and waned a few times. Wooden jigsaw puzzles got too expensive to make on as large a scale as the cardboard ones, but you can still find a wooden puzzle here and there.

This is a very modern version of the earliest jigsaw puzzles: made of wood, geographic image, educational in nature.
(Photo from, which sells this Learning Journey puzzle for $11.80)

  • Now, with the advent of online jigsaw puzzles, the concept is very popular once more. Online jigsaw puzzles are free, they don't require that you have a huge empty table, and it's very easy to switch puzzles, find a new one, and test your assembling skills against others.

  • Basically, the way to put together a jigsaw puzzle is to organize the pieces. It's really that simple. There's no way you can assemble all the pieces at once, so you have to group them in smaller categories that you can handle.
  • Some basic techniques in putting together a puzzle include:
      • Start with the border. Look for the pieces with flat edges first and assemble those.
      • Separate the pieces with lots of detail and contrast, like dark letters against a light-colored background, and assemble those first.
      • Sort the pieces by general color categories or major areas of the final image, like the grass or the sky.
      • Sort the pieces by shape -- all the two knobs at either end together, or all the double flares together, or the flares + knobs together, etc.

Reading left to right, two knobs at either end, double flares, and a flare + knob. I have no idea what other people call these shapes. This is just the terminology that I made up in my head.
(Images from Jigsaw Jungle's Jigsaw Puzzle Tips)

  • Obviously, you don't have to use any of these techniques if you don't want to. But they can help to make the task more manageable, especially if you're working with one of the larger-sized puzzles.

  • Most adults find puzzles of 1,000 to 2,000 pieces to be challenging without being too taxing.

This is the kind of puzzle I used to put together a lot when I was younger. About 1,000 pieces, fairly colorful image, looks a little daunting at first but when you get into it, you soon discover that all the variations in color actually make it pretty easy. Springbok is a good source for this level of puzzles.
(Lucky Roll, 1,000 pieces, from Springbok, available for $14.50)

  • At about 3,000 pieces and up, they're more appropriate for adults with more puzzle-assembly experience.
  • Some of the largest puzzles available weigh in at a hefty 13,200 pieces. Assembled, they measure 9.5 feet by 4.4 feet.

One of Clementoni's 13,200-piece puzzles. This one uses a reproduction of a painting by Tiziano Vecellio called Sacred and Profane Love. Other 13,200-piece puzzles sold by Clementoni include The Last Supper, and a more modern underwater scene called Lahaina Visions by Christian Lassen. Puzzles of this size sell for around $140.
(Image from Missouri Puzzle, where you can also order this and other jigsaw puzzles)

  • An even larger puzzle, with 18,000 pieces, is also available. But some puzzle purists don't count this one as the largest because it is made up of four panels which, due to the difficulty of printing across such a large area, don't match up color-wise too well. So you probably end up assembling the four panels individually.

Tropical Impressions, one of the 18,000-piece puzzles made by Ravensburger. The four panel dividers allow the printer to hide any printing incontinuities. This one is available from Compleat Gamester for $150.

  • In the case of these enormous puzzles, the pieces are packaged in separate plastic bags, with each bag corresponding to a section of the puzzle. So a puzzle-doer could open each bag one at a time and assemble its contents before opening the next bag. But some puzzle purists call this "cheating" and open all the bags at once.
  • I also came across another puzzle that's larger still. This one is 24,000 pieces, measures about 14 ft x 5 ft, and sells for a mere $300. It is not divided into panels. Judging by the image, I'm guessing this one is digitally produced.

Life, the Greatest Puzzle, with 24,000 pieces is available from Compleat Gamester for $299.95.

  • Puzzles whose images use only a few colors or an image that repeats over an over again can also be quite difficult. Sometimes, though, it's possible to find very subtle differences among the repeating images. Or you have to go by where the shading and gradations in color occur relative to each other.

This Dalmatians puzzle not only uses just two colors and repeating shapes, but the same picture is also printed on both sides. In addition, the manufacturer has cut the pieces in such a way that the only way to tell if you have the piece right-side up is if the pieces fit together smoothly. So you're pretty much assembling this thing by feel. This level of challenge would give me the hairy fits.
(Photo from the Jigsaw Club, where you can buy this puzzle for $17.95)

  • There are also three-dimensional jigsaw puzzles. I have never put one of these together, though some friends of mine who were very good at math used to get 3D puzzles for Christmas and they'd put them together with their families. So I'm assuming they're harder than the average puzzle.

3-D jigsaw puzzle of the Notre Dame Cathedral, made by Wrebbit
(Image from Jigboxx, which sells this puzzle for $25.20)

If you really like puzzles and are always looking for new and challenging puzzles, check out Passion for Puzzles. Some of the puzzles are online games, and some are various types of jigsaw or 3D puzzles.

Anne D. Williams, Jigsaw Puzzles - A Brief History, reprinted at MGC Puzzles
History of Jigsaw Puzzles and World's Largest Jigsaw Puzzle, American Jigsaw Puzzle Society
20th Century Jigsaw Puzzles, Elliott Avedon Museum & Archive of Games, University of Waterloo, Belgium
Jigsaw Jungle puzzle tips
Hints, Tips, and Choosing a Puzzle that's Right for You, Puzzles on Parade


  1. Excellent blog. I like the way that you worked "Bees Knees" into it!

  2. Holy !@#$

    My name.... ?Im apple303

  3. Jigsaw jungles Puzzle tips page has moved to

    Also the company puzzlesonparadise copied Jigsaw jungles websites puzzle tips page and do not own the original images or the original work.

  4. Very useful information and We were recently sent the
    wooden puzzles for adults


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