Quick Links: What is a jigsaw puzzle? | How are puzzles made today? | One size fits all? | Puzzle Pieces
Jigsaw puzzles were originally created by painting a picture on a flat, rectangular piece of wood, and then cutting that picture into small pieces with a jigsaw, hence the name. John Spilsbury, a London cartographer and engraver, is credited with commercializing jigsaw puzzles around 1760 using a marquetry saw (it is believed that he invented the very first puzzle in 1767). In the early 1900's, puzzles for adults came on-the-scene and they became extremely popular. Puzzles who were once predominantly produced for children, quickly became a challenging hobby for grown-ups. First puzzles were extremely difficult because the pieces did not interlock; they were simply straight lines and the front of the box did not have an image to guide the puzzler - talk about a challenge!
Whether manufactured in Europe, North America, China or elsewhere, jigsaw puzzles have since grown to entice people of all ages, and are now made primarily of cardboard and vegetable-based inks, with spectacularly colourful, high-quality, images - a much more cost-effective and environmentally friendly option than before.
What is a jigsaw puzzle?
A jigsaw puzzle is a tiling puzzle that requires the assembly of often oddly shaped interlocking and tessellating pieces. Each piece usually has a small part of a picture on it; when complete, a jigsaw puzzle produces a complete picture. In some cases more advanced types have appeared on the market, such as spherical jigsaws, 3D jigsaws, 4D jigsaws, puzzles showing holographic images or optical illusions and even color-your-own puzzles!
Whether your considering a Ravensburger, White Mountain, Clementoni, Educa, Eurographics, Trefl, SunsOut, Springbok, Cobble Hill, D-Toys, Lafayette, Buffalo, Falcon, Jumbo, Piatnik, Anatolian, NYPC, Pomegranate, 4D, Wrebbit, Ceaco, Danawares, Gibsons, or any other popular puzzle brand, typical images found on jigsaw puzzles include scenes from nature, buildings, famous paintings, vacation spots, Disney and other animated characters, fun collages, delicious foods, planes, trains, automobiles, other repetitive designs and so much more. Any kind of picture can be used to make a jigsaw puzzle and some companies even offer to turn personal photographs into customized jigsaw puzzles. Completed puzzles can also glued and/or attached to a backing with adhesive to be used as artwork or framed.
A range of jigsaw puzzle accessories including boards, cases, frames and roll-up mats are available to assist jigsaw puzzle enthusiasts.
Early jigsaws, known as dissections, were produced by mounting maps on sheets of hardwood and cutting along national boundaries, creating a puzzle useful mainly for the teaching of geography. Such "dissected maps", were used to teach the children of King George III and Queen Charlotte by royal governess Lady Charlotte Finch.
The name "jigsaw" came to be associated with the puzzle around 1880 when fretsaws became the tool of choice for cutting the shapes. Since fretsaws are distinct from jigsaws, the name appears to be a misnomer. Cardboard jigsaw puzzles started appearing during the late 1800s, but were slow to replace the wooden jigsaw due to the manufacturer's belief that cardboard puzzles would be perceived as being of low quality, and the fact that profit margins on wooden jigsaws were significantly larger.
Jigsaw puzzles soared in popularity during the Great Depression, as they provided a cheap, long-lasting, recyclable form of entertainment. It was around this time that jigsaws evolved to become more complex and more appealing to adults. In some instances, they were given away in product promotions, and used in advertising, with customers completing an image of the product being promoted.
Sales of wooden jigsaw puzzles fell drastically after World War II wages led to considerable increase in manufacturing costs and ultimately price increases. Improvements in manufacturing processes also made cardboard jigsaws more attractive.
Doing jigsaw puzzles is one of many activities that can help keep the brain active and may contribute to reducing the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease, according to the Alzheimer Society of Canada and many other organizations who have studied the health benefits of puzzles.
How are puzzles made today?
Most modern jigsaw puzzles are made out of paperboard since they are easier and cheaper to mass-produce than the original wooden models. An enlarged photograph or printed reproduction of a painting or other two-dimensional artwork is glued onto the cardboard before cutting. This board is then fed into a press. The press forces a set of hardened steel blades (hand-cut) of the desired shape through the board until it is fully cut. This procedure is similar to making shaped cookies with a cookie cutter. The forces involved, however, are tremendously greater and a typical 1000-piece puzzle requires a press that can generate upwards of 700 tons of force to push the knives of the puzzle die through the board. A puzzle die is a flat board, often made from plywood, which has slots cut or burned in the same shape as the knives that are used. These knives are set into the slots and covered in a compressible material, typically foam rubber, which serves to eject the cut puzzle pieces.
As of the 1930s, jigsaw puzzles were cut using large hydraulic presses which now cost in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. The cuts gave a very snug fit, but the cost limited jigsaw puzzle manufacture only to large corporations. Recent roller press design achieve the same effect, at a lower cost. By the early 1960s, Tower Press was the world's largest maker of jigsaw puzzles, acquired by Waddingtons in 1969. Today, there are a wide variety of brands and numerous large puzzle manufacturing plants throughout the world.
New technology has enabled laser-cutting of wooden or acrylic jigsaw puzzles. The advantage of cutting with a laser is that the puzzle can be custom cut into any size, any shape, with any size (or any number) of pieces. Many museums have laser cut acrylic puzzles made of some of their more important pieces of art so that children visiting the museum can see the original piece and then assemble a jigsaw puzzle of the image that is also in the same shape as the piece of art. Acrylic is used because the pieces are very durable, waterproof, and can withstand continued use without the image fading, or the pieces wearing out, or becoming frayed. Also, because the print and cut patterns are computer based, lost pieces can be manufactured without remaking the entire puzzle.
One size Fits All?
Jigsaw puzzles come in a variety of sizes. Smaller puzzles are often considered to be those of 100, 200, 300, 400, 500, 550, 700 and 750 pieces. More sophisticated, but still common, jigsaw puzzles come in sizes of 1000, 1500, 2000, 3000, 5000 and 6000 pieces. There are also smaller jigsaw puzzles that are geared towards children, and are rated by the number of pieces they contain. The largest commercial puzzle was 32,256 pieces, designed by American artist Keith Haring and produced by Ravensburger, spans 544 cm by 192 cm (approximately 18 feet long by 6.5 feet high), but has since been surpassed by the astonishingly enormous 33,600 piece Wildlife puzzle, by Educa.
There are also Family Puzzles, which come in 275, 350 and 400 pieces with three different sized pieces from large to small. The pieces are placed from large to small going in one direction or towards the middle of the puzzle. This allows a family of puzzlers of different skill levels and different size hands to work on the puzzle at the same time. Companies likeSpringbok, Cobble Hil, Ravensburger, and are some of the companies who are known for producing this type of specialty puzzle.
There are also three-dimensional (3D) and four-dimensional (4D) jigsaw puzzles, like those produced by Wrebbit 3D, Masterpieces, Ravensburger, Unicorn, D-Toys, Danawares, Greenlight and 4D Cityscape to name a few. Many of these are made of wood, plastic resins, or styrofoam and require the puzzle to be solved in a certain order; some pieces will not fit in if others are already in place. Another type of jigsaw puzzle, which is considered a 3-D puzzle, is a puzzle globe or sphere. Like a 2-D puzzle, a globe puzzle is often made of plastic and the assembled pieces form a single layer. But the final form is a three-dimensional shape. Most globe and sphere puzzles have designs representing spherical shapes such as the Earth, the Moon, and historical globes of the Earth, but many others featuring your favourite scenes exist as well.
Online e-versions of jigsaw puzzles are a newer concept, which have the advantages of requiring zero cleanup as well as no risk of losing any pieces. Many computer-based jigsaw puzzles do not allow pieces to be rotated, so all pieces are displayed in their correct orientation, making it much less challenging for the puzzler than a physical jigsaw puzzle with the same number of pieces. A computer puzzle website can allow users to choose their own puzzle size, cut design, and image, or upload their own images to use as puzzles, allowing the puzzler considerable options for play.
Jigsaw puzzles can vary greatly in price depending on the complexity, number of pieces, and brand. Children's puzzles can cost as little as $5.00, while larger puzzles can be sold for approximately $500.00. The most expensive puzzle to date was sold for $27,000 in 2005 at a charitable auction for The Golden Retriever Foundation.
Many manufacturers produce puzzles with "fully interlocking" pieces. This means that adjacent pieces are connected in such a way that if one piece is moved horizontally, the other pieces move with it, preserving the connection - very exciting for the puzzler! Sometimes the connection is tight enough to pick up a solved part by holding one piece.
Some fully interlocking puzzles have pieces all of a similar shape, with rounded tabs out on opposite ends, with corresponding blanks cut into the intervening sides to receive the tabs of adjacent pieces. Other fully interlocking puzzles may have tabs and blanks variously arranged on each piece, but they usually have four sides, and the numbers of tabs and blanks thus add up to four. The uniform-shaped fully interlocking puzzles, sometimes called "Japanese Style", are the most difficult, because the differences in shapes between pieces can be very subtle.
Some puzzles also have pieces with non-interlocking sides that are usually slightly curved in complex curves. These are actually the easiest puzzles to solve, since fewer other pieces are potential candidates for mating.
Jjigsaw puzzles are most commonly square, rectangular, or round, with edge pieces that have one side that is either straight or smoothly curved to create this shape, plus four corner pieces if the puzzle is square or rectangular. Some jigsaw puzzles have edge pieces that are cut just like all the rest of the interlocking pieces, with no smooth edge, to make them more challenging.