Puzzling Thoughts (by which I mean Thoughts About Puzzles)

We attempted (but did not complete) Hannah's Pink Floyd puzzle during a girls' overnight getaway.  11/13/2021

I have become a tad obsessed with jigsaw puzzles over the past decade.  It started casually enough--borrowing a puzzle from my in-laws as a diversion during our slower winter season--and then as the years went by I just kept going.  And going.  And going.  It is no longer seasonal.  I always have a puzzle in the works now.  That's not an exaggeration.  Always.  Often I will start a new puzzle immediately upon finishing the previous one.  I know a lot of people like to revel in the finished puzzle for a few days, soaking in the beauty of the image and the satisfaction of the process, but not me.  I just dive right back in.  

My godsister gave me this really swell Women of History puzzle. 10/12/2020

It has reached the point where I get puzzles for gifts now.  People are on to me.  They have realized that puzzles are one of "my things" these days.   I have preferences for particular brands, not to mention artistic styles.  I pack a puzzle when we rent a cabin or fire lookout.  It just about makes my day when other people want to do puzzles as a group activity, like when we had the Terrapin Flyer houseparty and I came downstairs to find a knot of boys doing the puzzle*.  Or that time Hannah came to town for Yonder**.  Or when I visit my mom.  Or we hang out with Josh and Joelle^. 

Matt pulls up a comfy chair when he's chatting with me at the puzzle table.  Johnny consistently wants to steal his seat.  So, one day he pulled up both of them.  She still wanted to steal Matt's chair, eyeballing him from the other (identical) chair.  It was hilarious.  He agreeably switched with her shortly after this photo and she curled up and promptly fell asleep.  1/4/2022

Matt likes puzzles just fine, but is far from being obsessed.  He probably puts together 10-15% of the puzzles that are completed at our house.  He hangs out and visits with me while I work them, especially during the winter months, but he's a much more casual puzzler than me.  In the summer he ceases puzzling all together because he's up to his ears in planting and weeding and harvesting and preserving.  I puzzle less in the summer, but since the basement is always nice and cool, find it a grand summer activity, too.

Matt enjoying a German-sized beer as he works a Wysocki puzzle. 1/2/2022

As I've puzzled with other people I started noticing things.  Everyone has their own style.  I started taking mental notes, asking questions, developing thoughts and observations about puzzles and how we work them.  I've found it pretty interesting.  There are a surprising amount of variations and opinions and techniques.  

Alli was visiting.  Matt made wontons and we did the puzzle together for a while.  Ginger is sneaking in from the right for a sniff of said wontons.  She's a terrible little beggar (and it's all my fault).  12/22/2021

The Picture on the Box
I think I'll jump right in with the most peculiar thing I've learned.  My friend Hannah considers looking at the picture on the box while putting the puzzle together "cheating."  I love to tell other puzzle people this one because it gets the strongest reactions.  Largely that Hannah is crazy.  I get a lot of "...but that's why they put the picture on the box!"  As someone who uses the picture for reference as I work, I agree with them.  However, I see what Hannah is up to as well.  She's a gal that likes a challenge.  She also has a really good memory.  She uses the picture on the box to decide what puzzle to do, but doesn't want or need it after that.  It is all the more of a puzzle for her that way.  I can see that (though don't desire that level of challenge personally).  

Screenshot from Ken Jennings' Twitter account.  I will also note that I love the phrase "...doing a jigsaw puzzle with the squad...".

In preparation for writing this post I did research on message boards and puzzle blogs about this picture vs no picture business.  I assumed Hannah would have a small minority of sympathizers.  As it happens, she's actually in pretty good company in her so-called craziness.   Users on Reddit and Quora were fairly split about it, maybe leaning a teensy bit toward the no-that-is-not-cheating camp.  Ken Jennings, of Jeopardy fame, was unequivocally on Hannah's side.  One manufacturer of old-fashioned wooden puzzles did a survey of their customers and found that only 53% looked at the picture when putting their puzzles together.  Barely more than half!?!  I certainly didn't expect that!  Of course, their customers might skew towards the "traditionalist" end of things since they're wooden puzzles and all.  Still I had to concede that, while it isn't common in my experience, Hannah isn't way out in left field.  Or she's at least not out there by herself.  

Working the puzzle with Mom's fuzzy teddybear of a cat, Simon, on my lap.  1/25/2022 

The Edges First Movement
Another facet of puzzling that I found elicits a passionate response concerns the outer frame or edge of the puzzle.  When I first started puzzling I would just flip all the pieces over and dive right in for the most colorful and/or cool part of the puzzle.  I didn't put the outer edge together first.  I didn't know any better, I guess.  I am not a very systematic or methodical thinker and so starting with the fun part just made the most sense to me.  Matt was baffled by this, coming as he does from a puzzling lineage that favors the You-Have-to-Put-the-Border-Together-First approach.  Over the years I've only met a couple of people who do it willy-nilly like I did.  Most recently I noticed that my friend Chantz didn't sort out edge pieces while he helped me flip over pieces on a new puzzle.  He just flipped them right along with the rest.  

Most people favor putting the edge pieces together as the first step though.  And by "favor" I mean they feel it is uncouth to start any other way.  Borderline barbaric.  It just isn't how it is done.  I went back to the puzzle websites and message boards and found that that seems to hold true almost universally.  A handful of people said they dive right in freestyle, but most find value in setting up the frame first.  Having done it both ways, I have to agree with them.  Having the frame in place makes it easier to start filling in the center, building out from the edges, and so on.  I've switched over.  Call it puzzle peer pressure, I guess.  ;)   

My puzzle table in the basement.  1/15/2022

Work Area Considerations
Work space seems to be a really important issue that, in turn, affects a person's puzzle technique. This is actually what prompted me to write this post.  I was starting a new puzzle with Matt's dad and he kept giving my directions, bringing my puzzle strategy into alignment with the one they've developed for their space.  See, I am blessed with a table that is more than ample for a 1,000 piece puzzle.  It is actually so ample that is serves as both puzzle table and sewing table^^.  I am an exception though, spoiled with room to work as I am.  Most people I know puzzle under considerably less spacious conditions.  My in-laws, Roger and Sharon, use a square card table for their puzzles.  This required the development of an "overflow" box for the pieces that don't fit on the table initially.  They have a huge, flat box with a very narrow lip--I believe it originally had something to do with x-ray film--that they use for this purpose.  They keep it perched on the piano bench beside the puzzle table until they've put enough pieces together for all of them to fit on the table.  It works quite well.  They have also fashioned a table extender for oversized puzzles that don't fit on their standard-sized card table.  It is very resourceful and clever.  

Sharon made me a festival holiday cocktail to enjoy while I worked on the Christmas puzzle at their house.  12/26/2021

Our friends Josh and Joelle use a coffee table for puzzles which I find downright impressive.  It is such a small workspace for a 1,000 piecer!  They make it happen though.  Since the table doesn't grant much room for spreading out the pieces they bought a set of little stacking trays for sorting their surplus pieces.  Josh says it works well and is a useful tool given their space constraints.  My stepmom and my grandma both have special little tables designed specifically for puzzling--the type that fold down and can be stashed behind the sofa until it is needed again.  We have a puzzle table at our library--a little relaxing study break for our students.  It is perfect for a 500 piece puzzle, but there isn't enough room to spread out all the pieces for a 1,000 piece.  People tend to group pieces as they flip making little heaps of "sky," and "cottage," and "grass," etc.  It feels a little cluttered to me, but then again I am spoiled, like I said.  It clearly works since several puzzles are completed every semester.  I don't participate much on the library puzzles though.  

If she thinks she's not getting enough attention Ginger will park herself right in the middle of the puzzle and there is no convincing her that she should move back to my lap instead.  This is when her tail swishing can become a menace.  11/9/2021

Pets, particularly cats, can be rather unique space-related challenge for puzzlers.  My cats mostly leave the puzzle table alone--thank heavens.  Ginger sometimes flicks a few pieces around with her swishing tail if she sits on the puzzle table--and there was one terrible incident involving the smoke detector that resulted in Ginger rocketing off the table and taking half the puzzle with her.  But, by and large, my cats don't impact my puzzle habit much.  Hannah cannot say the same and I have had other people tell me that their cats are the reason they can't do puzzles (or have houseplants, for that matter.)

Prince Hamburger seems to have a similar attention-getting approach when Hannah is working on a puzzle.  Photo credit to Hannah.  3/5/2022

Puzzle Art Preferences
Puzzle people are also fairly particular about the artwork style of the puzzles they do.  Everyone seems to have a favorite artist or type.  Josh and Joelle lean towards sparkly, magical puzzles with fairies and galaxies and glitter.  Roger and Sharon's favorites are Charles Wysocki puzzles that feature old-school Americana scenes with horses and main streets and farmstands and so on.  I enjoy them a lot myself and borrow loads of Wysockis from my in-laws' rather vast collection+.  My favorite style of puzzles though are a montage of smaller objects/images--road signs, retro food packages, beer bottles, national park patches, postage stamps, and so on.  The more words the better.  Matt recently observed that these puzzles are relatively easy and go together quickly because they're often feel like completing a series of 25 piece puzzles rather than a whole 1,000 piecer.  It seems so manageable, I guess.  Breaks it down into smaller chunks.  These are the sort of puzzles that initially got me into puzzling++.  Hannah gets most of her puzzles on loan from the public library (or from Little Free Libraries) so her style of preferred puzzle art is harder to pin down.  Matt's aunt, Bonita, digs mystery puzzles that come with clues and a story to follow instead of a picture on the box.  You solve the mystery along with the puzzle.  I think Hannah might enjoy that, given her stance on looking at the picture.  

A Christmas Wysocki.  12/23/2020

Puzzle preferences aren't all about the art though.  Alli tells me that her husband is fond of 750 piece puzzles, perhaps simply because they are an uncommonly novel size.  How well the pieces lock together is another thing puzzle people will comment on in regards to what makes a good puzzle.  Some brands lock together so securely that a person can pick up a completed section and move it into place as one unit.  Other brands don't lock together hardly at all and if one tries to move a completed section it just falls apart again.  I find that very frustrating and, as it turns out, I am not alone.  I've heard nearly all of my puzzle pals complain about this problem.  The newer Wysocki puzzles are produced by Buffalo and are superior in color quality and lockability to the older ones made by Milton Bradley or Hasbro.  I guess they should stick to board games and leave the puzzles to Buffalo, Ravensburger, or Springbok.

Matt prefers puzzles that come with a poster to refer to instead of just the picture on the box.  Including a poster along with the puzzle is an increasingly common puzzle trend, I've noticed.  This stands in sharp contrast to Hannah's stance on looking at the picture.  Matt prefers an oversized picture to look at!  Lots of people must!  I love that.  It highlights, in a rather trivial way, the reality that it takes all kinds in this world.  Different strokes for different folks.  Our brains all work so differently.  Sometimes Roger and Sharon will find a puzzle easy enough and when I borrow it I find it decidedly challenging--and vice versa.  

This is pretty much my puzzle ideal.  Lots of small, colorful sections that contain a lot of words.  In this case the art is a selection of American "classic" books to boot.  2/27/2022

Shapes and Details
I feel that my years of birdwatching have set me up with a natural advantage when it comes to puzzling.  My eyes have been trained for parsing subtle visual differences.  At a glance all the remaining pieces might appear to be the same color, but in reality they're distinct shades and textures.  The brown of the trees versus the brown of the horses versus the brown of the path versus the brown of the rooftops for example. This serves me particularly well when I reach a point where all the colorful, easy bits have been put together and all that's left is a lot of the same sorta thing.  Matt is particularly good at this, too.  Sometimes I enlist his help at the end just because he's so fast even when they "all look the same."

I remember the first time I realized that I could use the shape of the pieces to determine their location, not just the color/pattern.  It happened when Matt said he was looking for a piece with a "spade shaped" post... 

Terminology Sidebar:  In my head--and occasionally out loud--I call the interlocking parts of a puzzle piece the Posts and the Holes.  Perhaps this fence post motif is my Montana roots shining through.   Josh says he usually goes with Outtie and Innie or Male and Female.  Hannah uses either Knobs or Prongs paired with Holes.  When I was doing my online research I also saw them referred to as Tabs and Blanks or Keys and Locks.  I find the latter simply adorable.

 ...I had never paid much attention to the shapes of the pieces before that, I guess.  It had been all about the color and texture.  Once Matt pointed it out to me though it became a valuable tool in my puzzle-building repertoire.  The silhouette of the piece can be tremendously helpful in determining placement.  Does it have two posts or three?  Are there any irregular shapes?  On that note, Matt's dad calls a piece that has four posts a "star."  I find that terminology pretty fantastic, too.   

One of the grooviest puzzles in my collection--a shaped wooden puzzle that Josh gave us for Christmas.  1/3/2021

Not all puzzles are created equal when it comes to piece shape either.  Some puzzles are cut so that, aside from the edge pieces, they're all shaped exactly the same.  Most of my puzzle friends do not care for this homogenous style.  Hannah and Val both have complained to me about it this year.  I am with them.  It is a lot more boring.

I also am not alone in my dislike for puzzles that have "trick" edge pieces.  Sometimes the straight side of the edge pieces is so small and/or the piece is so oddly shaped that it doesn't look like an edge piece.  That makes putting the border together trickier and a lot of the edge pieces get missed during the flip.  Aside from edge pieces though I quite enjoy puzzles with irregular shaped pieces.  One I recently borrowed from my in-laws had unusual double pieces.  Josh bought us a wooden puzzle where most of the pieces were shaped like animals.  That one is really cool.  There are also puzzles that themselves are oddly shaped (i.e. not rectangular).  I have two owl puzzles that are shaped like the owls, say, and Hannah has one shaped like a butterfly.  I think the curved edge of a shaped puzzle usually ups the challenge compared to a standard rectangular puzzle.  My puzzle pals seem a bit mixed on whether they enjoy a shaped puzzle.  Some do, some don't--and a few have never tried one.  

I completed two puzzles (one 500 piece and one 750 piece) when we rented this cabin in southeast Montana for a week.  5/30/2020
In closing, I'd like to give a special shout out to Josh, Hannah, Bonita, Matt, and Sharon for answering my out of the blue puzzle-related questions over the past three months.  I'll also extend a huge note of gratitude to Sharon and Roger for loaning me boatloads of puzzles over the years.  I wouldn't be the puzzle fan I am without them.  Lastly, I'm grateful for all my puzzle pals, including-but-not-limited-to those specifically mentioned in this post.  Here's to many more years of low-tech, high-enjoyment fun together!

Chantz had a layover on his holiday travels back home so we got to have a lovely dinner catch up...and worked a little puzzle action, too, of course.  12/28/2021

*Noell stayed until he had finished piecing together that pumpkin patch in fact.

**Hannah came down for the Yonder Mountain String Band concert in January.  After the show a bunch of our friends were going to a bar downtown and another was having an afterparty at her house.  They all encouraged us to join them. In the end Matt, Hannah, and I were all privately hoping that the other two would just want to go back to our place for a more mellow hang.  We were pleased to realize we were all on the same page.  So we went home and had a blast talking and hanging, listening to music and working the puzzle together.  Hannah really is a gal after my own heart.  No wonder she's my bestie.

^Josh and Joelle (mostly Joelle) helped me set my speed record for a 1,000 piece puzzle.  We finished a 1,000 piece puzzle in less than 24 hours...on the teeniest little side table when we rented a cabin together last year.  

^^I can flip over all the pieces of a 1,000 piece puzzle and leave room in the middle to put it together and still have 1/3 of the table for my cutting mat.  If I need the whole table to lay out a project I have a Dritz Foldable Superboard that Sharon gave me to place overtop the puzzle.  This allows me to switch between sewing and puzzling whenever I want.

+I keep a record of the puzzles I borrow from them because sometimes those Wysocki's look awfully similar.  Butternut Farms versus Pumpkin Hollow, say.

++Once upon a time I claimed to "hate" jigsaw puzzles.  My 5th grade teacher, Mr. Shell, used to let people work on puzzles in his classroom when they finished classwork early.  At the time I saw this as more of a punishment than a reward.  :)

There is a puzzle under that Superboard.  The cats might mostly leave my puzzle alone, but the same can NOT be said for my sewing projects.  10/27/2021
(Also:  I find it noteworthy that there are three different orange cats featured in these photos.)


  1. Hi Beth,
    ...this is a fascinating post...we do love a good puzzle around here too...but we don't always have one in the works...I'm missing it now though that we've finished the pretty Bird one a few weeks ago...we too always took a puzzle on vacation...and I remember one time at the beach we did a Wysocki one...maybe the exact same one you did...love that...and I too would give the Man about a 10-15% completion rate...but he will sit and chat with me as I 'work'...haha...and occasionally pick up a piece...my older brother did some puzzle competitions back in the day...I don't think they use the box/picture either...but I think I remember him saying that they were pretty much just blocks of colour or geometric shapes...some competition puzzles are just 2 colours...can you imagine?...or black and white...or sometimes a super busy psychedelic one with a bajillion of colours...I think I prefer to just play at it...
    ~Have a lovely day!

  2. My mom and a few of my aunts are the only puzzlers I know! Except for my kids who do kids' puzzles occasionally. Last time I helped with a puzzle it was definitely not my thing - that was years ago. Your post is inspiring! Maybe I will try again.


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