Wooden jigsaw puzzles: what was old is new again

I’ve mentioned this before: I love assembling jigsaw puzzles.

Some of my enjoyment of puzzles relates to fond memories of doing them with my mother when I was growing up.

Another element is the sense of well-being I get from assembling all kinds of things. I also like putting together furniture from IKEA, and building Lego sets.

There’s a reason I worked in software quality assurance (QA) for a number of years. I get satisfaction from methodically completing a series of steps, confirming every expectation has been met. I’m weird like that.

So one of my favorite pastimes is completing a jigsaw puzzle.

After almost forty years of doing puzzles, I was amazed to discover a new frontier in this relatively straightforward hobby.

The wooden jigsaw puzzle difference

wooden jigsaw puzzlesI started collecting wooden jigsaw puzzles.

According to Wikipedia, commercial jigsaw puzzles date back to around 1760. I think I’ve always been vaguely aware that originally, puzzles were all made out of wood. Paper as a cheap commodity is a modern condition courtesy of the Industrial Revolution and the Fourdrinier Machine.

Giving the matter a moment of thought, it was obvious that puzzles were once cut by hand with a jigsaw. Their name is a dead giveaway of the fact.

Like most modern puzzlers, I hadn’t assembled a wooden model since I outgrew the early childhood version. Modern puzzles for older children and adults are typically made of cardboard and cut by machines. This is a result of mass production methods, and has kept costs affordable for a popular family hobby.

I can pick up a standard 1000 piece Springbok at Target for under $20 at full retail price, and they’re often much cheaper on sale or via Amazon ($10-12.) Even high quality—but still mass market—Ravensburger puzzles are readily available in this price range. I’ve gotten new, unopened cardboard puzzles at Goodwill for 25¢.

Wooden puzzles today start at around $20 for very small models of around 50-70 pieces. When I say small, I mean postcard sized. An Artifact puzzle the size of a sheet of notebook paper retails for $45 and has only 219 pieces. I would finish that in about an hour.

My smallest Artifact puzzle—and the first one I purchased for about $25—takes me only 15 minutes to assemble.

wooden jigsaw puzzle Artifact small shapes

Shaped wooden pieces tie in with the nautical image as pictured on the Artifact box

At first, it was a hard pill to swallow these prices for quickly completed, tiny new toys.

I do build and re-build my puzzles, so it isn’t completely ridiculous to pay somewhat more for nicer quality versions I’ll enjoy for many years.

I’ve also discovered that a tiny yet sturdy puzzle is more portable, and easier to assemble without taking over a large table. I can do these puzzles more often, and in more places, than typical modern cardboard ones.

Brands like Artifact and Liberty are actually more affordable than they would have been just a few decades ago. Modern, computer guided laser cutting machines have brought down the difficulty and expense of crafting specialty puzzles from wood.

Perhaps the most illustrious of the wooden puzzle makers in America, Stave Puzzles, are all crafted by hand in Norwich, Vermont. They start at $195 for tiny puzzles (≅5″ x 5″ and 50 pieces) called Tidbits. Barbara Bush gives a testimonial on their website, and I’d say these are priced for former Presidents and their ilk.

I haven’t tried a Stave puzzle, but I’d love to get my hands on one. They are way out of my price range, however, no matter how many times I thought I’d rebuild one. I keep dreaming that one day, I’ll find one at a garage sale or thrift shop…

Why try a wooden puzzle?

What prompted me to try wooden puzzles, in spite of their higher costs, was my frustration with cheaper mass market puzzles poorly cut from thin cardboard. Almost everything I find relaxing and enjoyable about puzzling comes from the quality of the pieces.

Assembling a thin puzzle with pieces that don’t interconnect properly is an exercise in frustration. No matter how much I might like the image on the puzzle, I can’t enjoy it if its all askew and made me angry putting it together. If I accidentally bring home an inferior puzzle, I assemble it once (with lots of cursing), then donate it as soon as possible after completion.

Life’s too short to do low quality jigsaw puzzles.

I started out Googling for opinions about which were highest quality puzzle brands. I found good advice online from other puzzlers, and I tried some decent new brands. Now, in addition to Ravensburger, I can recommend PomegranateClementoni, Trefl, SunsOut, and White Mountain as “not too frustrating to enjoy.”

But, if I’m really honest, I’ll tell you that wooden puzzles are still so much better. If you like puzzles, you must try a wooden one as soon as you can.

Wooden puzzles make me focus more on shape

I’ve found that I actually do a wooden puzzle differently. The mental experience of assembling the pieces becomes much more about the shape in my hands, and less about matching elements from the picture. With wooden puzzles only, I find myself ignoring the box and its image, and I assemble based upon piece shape alone.

I think this is a new—and excellent—exercise for my aging brain.

I’ve heard of people who flip over their jigsaw puzzles and assemble them face down to increase the challenge of the task. I would find that boring and unsatisfying with a cardboard puzzle, but might make the attempt with a wooden one.

Wooden puzzle pieces feel good in the hand & allow for whimsy

There is also a tactile pleasure to working with the wooden pieces. They are thicker and markedly sturdier than even the best cardboard pieces. They interlock in a viscerally satisfying way.

wooden jigsaw puzzle Liberty piece

Detail of back side of a Liberty Puzzles whimsy piece shaped like their logo (printed in white on the navy blue box) and embossed with their logo

The nature of the wooden piece also allows for a great deal of whimsy. Many Artifact and Liberty puzzles have custom cut pieces that tie in with the puzzle image’s theme. The Viking boat sailing on the ocean pictured earlier in this post includes whimsy pieces shaped like dolphins, ducks, and a ship’s anchor. One of my Liberty Puzzles has an image of a garden, and whimsy pieces are shaped like carrots, beets, and bunnies.

The first time I complete one of these puzzles is full of the joy of many little discoveries as I discover each whimsy. Subsequent assemblies include greeting a host of little whimsy friends.

Wooden pieces are sturdier than cardboard

While I have owned lots of jigsaw puzzles for many years, and most remain serviceable, I have complete confidence that all of my wooden puzzles will outlast the very best of the cardboard ones.

Even mid-range cardboard puzzles often have little flaps of paper dangling on some of the “outies.” Best practice is to carefully glue those little bits back to the piece. My usual practice is to nip off the loose flap and keep building my puzzle.

I have yet to see the tiniest sliver of loose cedar or plywood on any of my wooden puzzles, and I never expect to.

Could I break a piece?

Yes, I’m pretty clumsy. But I really don’t think I will wear out these toys.

The deeper third dimension of a wooden piece over a cardboard one also makes these much easier to find when dropped on carpet!

Buying American; buying quality

There are cardboard puzzles made in the USA. White Mountain puzzles is one domestic manufacturer I like. Having said that, all of the wooden puzzle brands I’ve tried offer  products that are just more special. It’s fair to describe them as artisan products produced with extra care.

One easy difference to point out is the packaging. Each type of wooden puzzle comes in a different style of box, but every box is sturdier and more elegant than those of any cardboard puzzle I’ve seen.

wooden jigsaw puzzle Artifact boxArtifact puzzles come in heavy cardboard boxes with magnetic closures (my favorite box style ever!) or wooden boxes with sliding lids.

wooden jigsaw puzzle Liberty in boxLiberty puzzles use a more traditional design for a puzzle box with a lid that lifts off to allow viewing the image while storing loose pieces in the bottom. The navy blue boxes have an elegant, traditional look, and the heavy (paperboard?) material is thicker than, say, a Ravensburger puzzle box.

Sibbett Studio puzzles come in Patent Pending wooden boxes that appear to be some kind of assembled puzzle in and of themselves. The Sibbett Studio puzzles are also cut from recycled cedar planks instead of plywood.

Recommended makers of wooden puzzles

I personally own and enjoy wooden jigsaw puzzles by the following brands:

Liberty Puzzles Manufactured in Boulder, Colorado, USA, and sold via catalog and website.

Artifact Puzzles Made in the USA (formerly Seattle, now California) and sold via Amazon.

Sibbett Studio Puzzles, Tacoma, WA (bought for me by my husband while on a business trip to Lopez Island, WA.)

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