A New Look at a Classic Pastime…
Wooden jigsaw puzzles, for most people, first appear when they are a toddler. You may have assembled a brightly colored animal from cutout shapes. Later, in preschool or kindergarten you may have owned a map with cutout shapes of states or countries.
The first such puzzles were created over 200 years ago to teach children geography. Modern childrens’ puzzles, of course, go beyond that by also teaching colors, shapes and dexterity.
However, there are also jigsaw puzzles meant for adults. Now that activities are somewhat restricted by COVID-19, many have discovered or rediscovered this amusement, and puzzle sales are booming.
This is a three-part blog. Today’s installment describes the puzzles available today, their makers and their prices. The next part describes the personalities of today’s puzzle makers. Finally, the third portion is a photo essay showing the assembly of a puzzle in detail.
Adult puzzles offer both joys and benefits. Read on for some fun!
Puzzles, from $10 to $10,000
Adult jigsaw puzzles sell for one of the widest price ranges of any product. You can pay as little as $10 including shipping for a cardboard puzzle with hundreds of pieces. Or you can spend $10,000 (actually, $9,995) for a 1000-piece hand cut wooden puzzle.
What could possibly justify a thousand-to-one range in the price of an adult toy whose most obvious function is to consume idle time? The best way to answer that question is to describe the three price ranges of puzzles:
Lowest Price: Die-Cut Cardboard
From their invention until about 1950, jigsaw puzzles were made of wood or plywood sheets, cut using a fretsaw. (The fretsaw resembles a jigsaw but has a deeper frame and a shorter blade.) However, after World War II, wages rose and the cost of making hand cut puzzles soared. Customers were not willing to pay the higher price, but they still wanted puzzles.
Puzzle makers responded by using metal dies to mass-produce puzzles. The stamping process would have splintered a wood backing, so puzzle images were printed on cardboard instead, which was easily cut by the die. As a result, modern manufacturing created a product with rock-bottom prices.
The typical adult cardboard jigsaw puzzle sold today has anywhere from 100 to 1000 pieces, sometimes more. Its price is typically $0.02 to $0.03 per puzzle piece. A personalized puzzle, made from your own photo, costs about twice as much.
Highest Price: Hand Cut Wood
At the other end of the price scale are wooden jigsaw puzzles cut by hand. This style of puzzle was popularized in the early 1900s with the Pastime puzzles sold by Parker Brothers. In the 1930s the Par Company became famous for personalized puzzles. For example, a buyer could order a puzzle whose pieces included the buyer’s initials, an important date, and outlines of items appropriate to the owner’s interests. These figure pieces or “whimsies” were popular with puzzle buyers and became a desired feature of new puzzles.
Today, puzzles are generally hand cut using an electric scroll saw rather than a fretsaw. Cutters use very thin blades, as thin as 0.007″. Hand cut puzzles command prices ranging from about $0.80 per piece (Turtleteasers) to $1.25 per piece (for puzzles by Conrad Armstrong and Jardin Puzzles) to $7.00 to $9.00 per piece for Stave Puzzles. A number of other hand cut puzzle makers are referenced on these website pages:
- Conrad Armstrong’s Links
- Jack-in-the-Box Custom Wooden Jigsaw Puzzles – Links
- Turtleteasers (click the Links button)
Why Those Prices for Wooden Jigsaw Puzzles?
Do these multi-dollar-per-piece prices sound outrageously expensive? Well, let’s see how the price has changed through the years. Puzzle historian Anne D. Williams reports that in 1908 a 500-piece puzzle cost $5.00. This price of $0.01 per piece was expensive for the time, since the average worker earned $50 per month.
However, now consider the effect of inflation. I like to use the rule of thumb offered by fund manager Ron Baron, that inflation doubles prices every 14 years. From 1908 to 2020 the price would double exactly 8 times, so the original price of $0.01 per piece would grow to $2.56 per piece, right in the middle of what puzzle makers charge today!
This suggests that the price of hand cut puzzles today is fair, considering history. However, context matters. If you are a collector who treasures the uniqueness and hand crafting of a hand cut puzzle, you may be willing to pay the artisan a fair wage for his or her time. And that fair wage would be over $1000 for a medium-size 500-piece puzzle.
But there are other kinds of puzzle buyers. Many puzzle lovers acquire puzzles for personal or family entertainment. And once having solved a puzzle, they probably won’t work it again until time has passed. If jigsaw puzzles are a regular family activity, you probably want to own several of them, perhaps even more. However, if they cost a thousand dollars each, there are other forms of entertainment that would cost you a lot less!
Why Wooden Jigsaw Puzzles are Irresistible
When wooden jigsaw puzzles cost a thousand times as much as cardboard ones, why would anyone buy even one of them? Because they are really fun to put together! Consider the following:
- Wooden jigsaw puzzles often contain one or more “whimsy” figures that relate to the theme of the puzzle. Putting the puzzle together is fun because you can see the image emerging as you go. However, finding, recognizing and then fitting the figure pieces into the puzzle makes this process even more fun.
- Cardboard puzzles have repetitive pieces. If you were to turn a finished puzzle over, every piece would look very much like the one next to it. Even if the puzzle has small differences making every piece unique (as Ravensburger advertises for its Softclick puzzles), the similar shapes of the pieces are, let’s be frank, boring. However, wooden puzzles have distinct pieces, every piece has a unique shape. (There are exceptions: some wood puzzles have a grid pattern cut or repeating shapes, to make them astronomically difficult to assemble.)
- Wooden jigsaw puzzles have tight-fitting pieces. When you put two pieces together, they “snap” into place, giving tactile confirmation that you have made a perfect join. The tightness of the fit comes thanks to the wood: the wood is thick, and the kerf (the portion of wood removed) is very narrow. This combination is very satisfying to the puzzle assembler.
- Moreover, wooden puzzles often have creative cuts. Puzzle cutters glory in inventing new ways to join puzzles together. Thus one puzzle joins with knobs and cups; another uses heart-shaped protuberances and sockets; another uses curls, or foot shapes, or triangles. Sometimes the cuts are so complex that they defy easy classification.
I predict that if you work a wooden jigsaw puzzle or two, you will be forever spoiled. Cardboard puzzles will suddenly seem like a shoddy alternative, not worth even their low price.
The Happy Midpoint: Laser Cut Wooden Jigsaw Puzzles
The huge price of hand cut puzzles derives from the fact that creating each piece requires deft handling of a saw by a skillful cutter. However, technology has come to the rescue. Several enterprising puzzle lovers have founded companies to manufacture wooden jigsaw puzzles via computer-controlled laser cutting.
Laser cut puzzles are much more affordable than hand cut puzzles. Most laser cut puzzles sell for around $0.20 per piece or $100 for a 500-piece puzzle. A few companies charge more, up to twice as much.
Below are brief profiles of three companies that make and sell laser cut puzzles; their prices are at the lower end of the range just given.
Wentworth was founded in 1991 by Kevin Wentworth Preston on an old dairy farm in Pinckney, UK. Preston says that his key business innovation was how to laser cut puzzles rapidly. It took him two and a half years to develop a proprietary process. (An engineer, he says, could have done it in six months.)
Material: Wentworth makes its puzzles on wood board from sustainable forests. The board is 3 mm (0.12 inches ~ 1/8 inch) thick.
Available Puzzles: Wentworth currently displays 196 different puzzle images on its website. Almost every image is available in many different sizes of puzzle, typically four sizes ranging between 40 and 1000 pieces. Thus the online catalog offers about 800 different puzzles, not counting personalized puzzles using the customer’s own image. Each puzzle contains whimsies, chosen to fit the puzzle theme. The piece counts given are round numbers (250, 500, etc.) and are only approximate. Their images include classical art and contemporary photographs, including National Trust properties in U.K.
Replacements: Wentworth will not replace lost puzzle pieces. They say that they cannot exactly register the laser cutter with the puzzle image, so if they were to cut a replacement piece it would not exactly fit into the image. If a piece is missing from a newly shipped puzzle (which is rare) they will simply ship you a new puzzle.
Liberty is remarkable in packing a large number of whimsies into each puzzle – sometimes as many as 20% of the pieces are whimsies or portions of whimsies. They tell the exact number of pieces in each puzzle and these numbers are widely different from one another; moreover, Liberty’s website shows an image of the actual cut. Therefore, it’s easy for the customer to see that each puzzle has a unique cut pattern, different from all other puzzles.
Material: Liberty fabricates its puzzles on maple plywood. They describe the plywood as ¼ inch thick, which is an approximation. Its actual measure is 5.2 mm = 0.205 inches ~ 1/5 inch.
Available Puzzles: Liberty’s website currently offers 476 different puzzles. With only a few exceptions, each puzzle is available in only one piece count. Their images include classical art, historical posters and contemporary artists. There’s an engaging five-minute interview with founder Wirth on YouTube, conducted by Elizabeth Lock of the University of Colorado.
Replacements: Liberty may be the only puzzle maker who will exactly replace a lost puzzle piece. They do this by cutting a brand new puzzle and giving you the piece from that puzzle that you are missing. They then store the remainder of the puzzle with which to supply pieces to other customers who lose them. (The corner of their factory has tall racks of these spare puzzles!) We have had occasion to request replacement pieces, and they are exact duplicates of the lost one. Therefore they do not have the registration problem that Wentworth seems to experience.
A personal digression: Nola’s daughter Jamie was working one of our Liberty puzzles and her dog Brodie ate one of the pieces. Help! Emergency! She phoned Liberty and they asked her to send them a picture showing the pieces surrounding the missing piece, plus a photo of the dog. They then mailed her the replacement piece. And why did Liberty want Brodie’s photo? Because Liberty has a “Wall of Shame” featuring photos of all the pets who have eaten or chewed on a puzzle piece! When we visited Liberty Nola and I saw this wall, with well over 500 photos of guilty-looking pets, usually dogs but also birds and even a goldfish (!). We took a photo, and sure enough, Jamie was able to find Brodie’s mug shot in the crowd. You may see the Wall of Shame if you read the PDF enclosed with part 3 of this blog.
Artifact Puzzles was founded 2009 by Prof. Maya Gupta, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Washington. The company began in Seattle, Washington and currently operates in Menlo Park, California. They also sell puzzles under the name Ecru Puzzles.
Material: Artifact fabricates its puzzles on plywood. They describe their plywood as ¼ inch thick, which is approximate. Its actual measure is 5.08 mm = 0.20 inches = 1/5 inch.
Available Puzzles: Artifact’s website lists 338 different puzzles, however I saw only 12 of them currently in stock. They emphasize the work of contemporary artists. Artifact does not seem to care for large piece counts. Their website lists only 12 puzzles with more than 500 pieces, and 5 of these are diptychs or other puzzles which have multiple parts.
Replacements: Artifact is another puzzle maker who will replace a lost piece. However, they do not exactly reproduce the piece. You send them a photo of the completed puzzle, missing its piece, and they will “try to re-create the piece for you as best we can.” This process currently takes three months.
Other Laser Cut Puzzle Makers
There are many more makers of laser cut wooden puzzles, and I don’t mean to disrespect them by leaving any of them out! But at least I can offer you some additional laser cut websites that you may wish to visit:
- Dowdle Folk Art
- Nautilus Puzzles
- Nervous System Puzzles
- Peaceful Wooden Puzzles
- Whimsy Wood Puzzles
- Zen Art & Design
This completes our survey of jigsaw puzzles, with all you need to know about wooden jigsaw puzzles. Modern laser cut jigsaw puzzles give great entertainment at a reasonable price. The following blog describes the personalities of puzzle companies, after which we will work a sample puzzle in detail. Stay tuned for some fun!
Credits: Three images by Art Chester. Many thanks to Jamie Wire for lending me the Artifact/Ecru puzzle described above and to Nola for much happy puzzling!