Neil's Puzzle Building Blog
27Jul/123

Hex Stair (Part Two)

Following on from by first post on the Hex Stair (Part One), I'm moving from the initial copy which I made for myself and realised it was far too big, onto a smaller version, which I'll be making a small run of puzzles to sell. Making things smaller adds new challenges so read on to see what I had to do to overcome them.

The original and the new scaled down versions

The original and the new scaled down versions

As you can see above, I have seriously scaled down the size of the pieces, which makes for a much more manageable puzzle size. I am slightly torn in all honesty; I love the big solid chunky copy I made initially, but also appreciate that it's far too big for most people, and the more compact size is far easier to work with ... or is it?

Lots of cleanup required after milling the boards

Lots of cleanup required after milling the boards

Having decided on the dimensions for this smaller version, I cut and milled my stock, cutting what I hoped would be enough sticks to make a reasonable run of puzzles. The pile of sticks looks like a lot, but I have no doubt that I'll get through them pretty quickly. If you're interested, the woods are (from left to right) Paduak, Wenge, Curly Maple, Purpleheart (on top), Birdseye Maple, Red Palm, Paduak.

All the sticks cut and sized ready for making into blocks

All the sticks cut and sized ready for making into blocks

I didn't have paper handy so some curly maple left over from the rough cutting worked great

I didn't have paper handy so some curly maple left over from the rough cutting worked great

With everything setup, I started batching through the cutting of the pieces, and despite needing 42 pieces per puzzle, once everything is setup, this goes fairly quickly. I keep my digital calipers beside me and keep checking the cuts as I go to make sure I've not had any errors introduced, as the biggest reason I have found for a puzzle not fitting correctly is tiny differences in the tolerances of cuts. Anything more than about five thousands of an inch between pieces and the fit will not be good enough. Ok, five thousands is pretty small I hear you cry, but I try to get my pieces to less than two thousandths to make sure I don't have problems. Sadly I've learned from experience that even small margins like this make the world of difference and cause a lot of frustration when gluing pieces together in the type of puzzles I'm making.

Several puzzles worth of pieces cut and ready to be beveled.

Several puzzles worth of pieces cut and ready to be beveled.

Having batched out a good few pieces; enough to make a few puzzles; I take a break from cutting the pieces and move to the router to add the bevel to the edges of the pieces. I find that taking a break like this keeps me focused and alert, rather than becoming complacent as the motions get repetitive, and it's all too easy to lose focus ... and as I have already experienced, a tiny lapse can be very costly!

Bags of blocks beveled and counted out per puzzle.

Bags of blocks beveled and counted out per puzzle.

With all the pieces cut and beveled, it's time to start gluing the puzzles together. You'll remember the crude jig that I made for the initial puzzle, which worked pretty well. I found out though that with the smaller pieces, there's not a lot of gluing surface, and I made the pieces almost as tall as the are wide. (They're not perfectly square!) Because of this, it's easy for the pieces to get misaligned, so I felt I needed a better jig...

Hex Stair Speciality Jig

Hex Stair Speciality Jig

Speciality Jig showing piece in place

Speciality Jig showing piece in place

Speciality Jig showing piece completed

Speciality Jig showing piece completed


As you can see this jig is a little more advanced than the original, however the main drawback is that it will only work for this puzzle, and only for pieces cut to the exact sizes that I have used. While that may seem like something of a waste, for the most part, the jig is made from offcuts from the sticks I used so really it's putting small cuts which would otherwise be used in my fireplace to good use. The jig is a very snug fit for each piece, and as you can see each piece is well supported meaning that each completed piece I make in the jig will be identical and it's also very quick to use, since there's no way to misalign a piece. With this jig, it takes around 15 minutes to make each individual puzzle piece, meaning that I can make a complete puzzle in around 2 hours (allowing for the curing time of the glue). This as nearly 2.5 times faster than previously. While it may seem like it still takes a long time, I'd rather take my time than rush and end up with a useless pile of firewood. After all, a high quality puzzle doesn't get made in a minute.

With the jig doing all the hard work for me, it doesn't take too long to make a copy of the puzzle, to the point where the outside faces get sanded and then finish applied. In Part Three, I'll cover some of the finishing process.

One thing I noticed when assembling this version of the puzzle is that it's actually easier to put together than my original version. One of the reasons is that I've found a particular rotational move which allows the alignment of the pieces to happen much more easily. I didn't find this on my original version, I think partly because it is much more squat than the new dimensions. The extra height makes it easier to do this move (although I have gone back and found that it is also possible on the original copy).



25Jul/124

Hex Stair (Part One)

Not too long ago, I posted a few pictures of some of the puzzles I'd been making on Facebook. One of those was a copy of Oskar van Deventer's design "Oskar's Domino Tower". I'll write about that in another post, however when I did, my good friend Derek Bosch got in touch about a similar design he'd created called Hex Stair. To his knowledge, the design had never been made, and I decided that it would be a fun puzzle to try to build after seeing the design.

Hex Stair Solved

Hex Stair Solved

As you can see the design is based on a hexagon. So that means making cuts at a 60 degree angle. To do so repeatedly, I was going to need a new jig, specifically a cross cut sled setup for that angle. I've gone through the process to create a cross cut sled before, so I'm not going to go over that again here. I used the same basic MDF construction using 3/4" boards, and I cut myself some maple runners as guides for the sled. If you want more info about creating the sled, then have a look at my post about going From Square Sticks to Cubes. Clearly rather than a 90 degree angle on the sled I was looking for 60 degrees, and with a little tuning, and a few practice cuts, I had the sled producing perfect angles.

60 degree Crosscut Sled.

60 degree Crosscut Sled.

To do that, there's no point in measuring just one cut. Rather it's better to make 6 cuts, creating a hexagon frame, and bring those pieces together. If they come together with no gaps, then you're golden. If not then you need to adjust the angle of the backstop on the sled. Ed: The reason for doing this is that it multiplies any error in your sled by a factor of 6. I didn't get things perfect on my first attempt, so I adjusted slightly and then re-cut the test pieces. This time I was pretty close and didn't think I was going to get much better so I called it good. To make tiny adjustments, a strip of tape can be used to adjust the angle. Obviously I could create a sled with a variable back stop, and have screws to push or pull it for a perfect fit, but for now I'm not looking at spending too much time. If I find many puzzles which require 60 degree angles that I want to make, then I'll consider making a more advanced jig. Ed: What is it about us that we're never happy with what we have, we always want it to be better?

With the sled ready, I milled my stock, selecting some Paduak, Birdseye Maple and Red Palm that I'd had sitting for a while, and got to work on the new jig. There are 42 pieces required to make this puzzle and given that there are 7 layers, I decided to create a band in the centre of the puzzle. Since it's never been made before, I'm not biased by something someone else has done, and I thought it would look fairly good. You can be the judge, based on the photos! I got to work cutting 18 pieces each of the two main woods, and 6 pieces for the centre ring. With that done, I took the pieces to the router and added a very subtle bevel to the long edges. I quickly found out here that beveling the pointed edges can't be done on the router as there is nothing for the guide to reference off, and given the thin nature of the pieces, this would be a fairly dangerous cut, so I opted not to bother. I think in the finished puzzle, it works out very well, as it makes it look as though there's seven rings, rather than 42 individual pieces. Again it's all personal taste, but I'm happy with the results!

Gluing the pieces together into a finished puzzle presented me with a few interesting challenges. Firstly, it's not square, so my current gluing jigs are no use. Also the puzzle is fairly tall, with each individual piece of the puzzle having a very small footprint, making it unstable without a lot of support, so ensuring that everything is glued up perfectly alighted is an interesting challenge.

60 degree basic gluing jig

60 degree basic gluing jig

My first gluing jig was a pretty simple progression from my square corner gluing jig. Using the 60 degree crosscut sled I was able to create a simple base and walls at the correct angles, and re-inforced the centre angle with a couple of the equilateral triangles I'd cut when I was cutting the original pieces. The inner surface was waxed to prevent glue sticking to it (and hence sticking the pieces to the jig) while I was working. This worked pretty well, and I created the original puzzle using this jig, and the pieces I'd not glued in place to support and align the piece I was gluing.

Supporting the pieces while gluing

Supporting the pieces while gluing

Supporting the pieces while gluing

Supporting the pieces while gluing

All said it worked fairly well, and the end result was reasonable. I did find that there were a couple of pieces which hadn't lined up perfectly. But I used an interesting trick to fix that. With the six pieces of the puzzle together in the solution shape, I put the whole thing in the microwave for about a minute and a half on high. With my now warm puzzle, the glue is softened enough to allow the pieces to shift slightly if enough pressure is applied. By doing this I was able to re-align the couple of pieces I wasn't happy with and get a near perfect fit. Now I'm not suggesting that this is a solve all for bad initial gluing as it really isn't, bit in the few hundredths of an inch that I was misaligned on one or two pieces it can be corrected, rather than throwing away an entire piece.

Puzzles and Beer...

Puzzles and Beer...

Me holding the puzzle

Me holding the puzzle

Scale next to a soda can

Scale next to a soda can


Overall I'm pretty happy with the results, although the size is certainly an issue. As you can see it's a big puzzle, and not really realistic in terms of making them in a production run. It seems that I'm pretty good at forgetting how big a puzzle ends up when you glue all these 'small' pieces together. Part of the learning curve I'm on just now, but it's all valuable information.

In part two I'll look at making the puzzle in a more sensible size, and talk about the unique jig I built to help. Since I've had several requests, in part three I'll talk a little about finishing.



10Jul/122

The Opening Bat

The Opening Bat by Mr Puzzle is a pretty serious sequential discovery puzzle which was ten years in the making. When the puzzle was first released in 2010 I looked longingly at it, but had to resist the urge to buy one as I couldn't justify it at the time. A year later, and Brian still had a few copies available. Well the money was burning a hole in my pocket, and even though I'm not a huge cricket fan (despite playing in my youth) I'd heard a lot of good things about the puzzle, so took the plunge and ordered a copy.

The Opening Bat by Mr Puzzle

The Opening Bat by Mr Puzzle

A few weeks later, the puzzle arrived very carefully wrapped and I excitedly opened the box to find the bat, and wickets securely stowed along with a couple of other puzzles I'd ordered at the same time. To give you an idea of scale and the look and feel of the puzzle, I've put together the video below. Read on for my full thoughts, and a rather scary moment when I was solving the puzzle for the first time.

As you can see from the video, the puzzle is not small. The Bat measures 13.75" x 2.3" x 1.3", the Oval is 7.25" x 5" and the wickets stand 7.9" tall. Limited to just 50 copies, there's not too many of these around, so I'm pleased to have been able to get one. Brian tries to use local Australian woods wherever possible, and The Opening Bat is no exception. Normally cricket bats are made from willow, as it stands up well to the impacts from the hard cricket ball. Unfortunately it's not a great wood for making puzzles from. Brian uses Queensland Silver Ash for the blade of the bat in the puzzle. The handle is Tasmanian Blackwood and the Oval, Wickets and Bails are all Papua New Guinean Ebony. Overall it's a stunning looking puzzle, and given it's size certainly has a presence on my puzzle shelves. (Not to mention that I had to re-arrange the shelves somewhat to accommodate its height!) There is a small brass pin embedded in the base of the oval which matches with a similar hole in the bottom of the bat, which allows the bat to sit as though it is resting against the wickets. It's a nice touch and makes for a great display piece.

Sir Donald Bradman coin crowns the handle

Sir Donald Bradman coin crowns the handle

The final goal of the puzzle is to remove the Sir Donald Bradman coin from the top of the handle. There's no chance of prising the coin out of its current spot, and certainly not without damaging the handle, so I'll save you the trouble of thinking like that and tell you to forget that idea now. Besides, if you could get to the end of the puzzle without taking the journey then you'd really be missing out.

The coin itself is really the inspiration for the puzzle and according to Brian, the first ideas for the puzzle came around when the coin was released in 2001. From that point, it seems like Brian's mind went into overdrive and he continued to add elements to the puzzle. Now some people may disagree given the difficulty, but I for one am pretty happy with all the work Brian put into the puzzle. The size and shape of the bat has given Brian a lot of space to work with, and he's crammed a lot of steps into that space. The puzzle consists of three main puzzle locks, which must be solved to release the coin at the top of the handle. However there are many more steps along the way to find all the tools required to open each lock. In Brian's own words, "As far as sequential discovery puzzles go this one's on steroids!"

When it came to solving the puzzle, I'll admit it took around two months for me to solve the puzzle with probably around 5-6 hours of time actually spent working on the puzzle. Why so long? Well sadly work had been hectic and I simply didn't have the time to sit and play with puzzles. As a result there were long periods where the puzzle and the tools I'd found sat on a table taunting me with my lack of progress.

The first lock defeated

The first lock defeated

Nothing in the puzzle is quite what it seems. Brian has managed to conceal tools in every possible part of the puzzle, and some very close attention is required to be able to find everything you need. I was fairly lucky and found the first hidden tool fairly quickly, which also revealed the Baggy Green Cap. Another ten minutes or so, and I'd successfully navigated the first lock, and removed the bottom of the bat.

With the first piece of the bat removed, it can be set aside. There's nothing else useful in there. What you're presented with now is the head of two hex bolts and the lock from the first stage, neatly hiding in holes drilled into the main section of the bat. Now being a good puzzler, I know that external tools are not required, so I didn't go hunting in my tool box for a way to remove those bolts. Instead, more investigation of the puzzle is required. As it happens, I was remarkably lucky, and stumbled upon the tool I needed by pure luck.

I was sitting with the pieces of the puzzle on my table, and happened to have a folding knife sitting on the table. At one point I must have nudged one of the pieces, and it rolled across the table, un-noticed by me. After a while fiddling, I looked across and found that the piece was stuck to the blade of the knife!

Well Brian mentioned that there were lots of magnets used in the puzzle, and it seems I'd found one! As it happens this piece if the puzzle is so well disguised, I have no idea how long it would have taken me to find this tool had it not been for that piece of luck. I have to commend Brian here, as the grain matching, and fit of the particular piece is incredible!

So with a new tool found, I quickly removed the rods on either side of the second section of the bat, before hitting another dead end. I had no idea how to remove the central rod, but there is a small clue as to what you might need to help with that process. It took probably another half an hour, or more for me to find the well disguised tool needed and be able to remove the third rod. At this point I've now managed to discover the three extra wickets needed to play Cricket, but I'm still no closer to opening that second lock!

From here I sent several hours trying to combine the various tools I'd found up to this point, along with a torch to try to see to the bottom of those long holes in an attempt to open the second lock. I lost count of the number of combinations of things I'd tried, and none of them seemed to help. In a fit of desperation, I placed a particular tool I'd found into the hole, thread first, and then used a different tool to reach to the bottom of the hole, and turn it. Now, that was a pretty bad idea, as the first tool ended up stuck and I was pretty sure at this point that I'd gone wrong.

I sent an email to Brian who helped me confirm exactly what I'd done then gave me a few suggestions as to how to fix the problem, and the assurance that regardless of what I'd done, in the worst case, I could send it back to him and he'd fix it. Now I appreciate that I've been remarkably vague here, but I'm trying not to give anything away. As it happens Brian's suggestion worked, and I was back in business. If you want to see what I did, then click here. And if you have this puzzle yourself, don't drop anything down the holes that you can't reach to pull back out! as it turns out, I'm not the only person to have put something into the puzzle that wasn't intended... at least I used something that came with the puzzle.

The second lock defeated

The second lock defeated

So with my panic over, I was back on track to solve the puzzle, however I still hadn't opened the second lock. Fortunately, it didn't take too much more time to be able to remove the final piece holding that dovetail joint in place and I had the second lock open!

All that remained now was the handle of the bat, and the third lock. Now I already knew that the puzzle here was the same as the one contained in "Houdini’s Torture Cell" as Brian had noted that the reason he made the Torture cell was so that more people could have access to this little puzzle, however that didn't make solving it any easier. Unlike the Torture Cell where you can see what's going on, here everything is blind. That said, you can figure out what's going on fairly easily, and with a little luck, you'll have that coin rising out of the handle fairly quickly.

The puzzle fully solved

The puzzle fully solved

True to Brian's word, when you open the last lock, not only is the coin removed, but you'll find you have a second set of wickets (brass rods), the cricket ball (silver ball bearing) and at this point, you should be good for that game of cricket to win back the Urn containing the ashes, which is also there.

For the observant amongst the readers, you'll notice that I'm not really showing many of the tools in the pictures, and that is entirely deliberate. I don't want to give anything away, that might spoil the discovery should you get a chance to play with this puzzle yourself. I've also been very careful not to give any clues when it comes to how things are hidden in the puzzle. Really a huge part of this puzzle is the journey of discovery as you find each element, and I'd hate to spoil that. It's too good a puzzle to ruin it for you.

Overall, I really enjoyed the puzzle, and highly recommend it should you get the chance to own one, or if someone is willing to let you play with their copy, don't pass on the opportunity. Brian has done a great job and there's clearly a lot of time and care went into the puzzle. Hat's off to you sir, it's a great puzzle!

Allard and Brian have also reviewed the puzzle on their blogs, so if you want another opinion, then go read what they have to say.



7Jul/120

Vinco’s Double Desk Box

Most regular readers of my blog will be familiar with Vaclav Obsivac's work. The 'Vinco' puzzles are well known as being very high quality wooden puzzles at very affordable prices. One of my puzzle friends recently moved house, and I was round visiting just before he moved. As we wandered through his garage, stocked from floor to ceiling, and wall to wall with boxes, he pulled out Vinco's Double Desk Box, which was sitting unsolved, and handed it to me saying "See if you can put that back together for me". After a challenge like that I couldn't really say no now could I? That would ruin my reputation of being able to actually solve puzzles!

Double Desk Box by Vinco, solved.

Double Desk Box by Vinco, solved.

As you can see from the photo above, I was successfully able to put the puzzle back to its original solved state, so for now I'm probably safe.

The puzzle is a four piece co-ordinate motion puzzle. As you've heard me mention in the past, co-ordinate motion puzzles are something of a signature for Vinco's puzzles, and this is another great example. The mechanism is similar to those used in other co-ordinate motion puzzles, so it will not be a huge surprise to anyone familiar with some of Vinco's other offerings. Of course the challenge with all co-ordinate motion puzzles is figuring out where to put your fingers to be able to start separating the pieces without the puzzle flying apart, leaving you with no idea how to put it back together again!

Double Desk Box by Vinco, starting to open.

Double Desk Box by Vinco, starting to open.

The box starts off measuring 3.25" x 3.25" x 3.25", but as you start to open it, it expands to over 4" before the internal pieces are no longer touching and they fall into a heap. Unfortunately I'm not sure which woods were used for this puzzle as Vinco wasn't listing the woods when he produced these puzzles. The puzzle is available from Vinco directly, or from Puzzle Master

The four pieces of the Double Desk Box

The four pieces of the Double Desk Box

As you can see above, the four pieces of the puzzle are identical, making re-assembly 'easier'. Of course with any co-ordinate motion puzzle, assembling requires the puzzle to be expanded to the point of collapse, and then carefully aligning the pieces, while hoping that you don't move anything causing it to all collapse again. With only four pieces, this is one of the easier puzzles to assemble and disassemble, however there is a reasonable degree of dexterity required, since the tolerances are up to Vinco's usual standard. (Read, very well made, and darn tricky!)

This is a good looking puzzle and not too challenging to put together. Puzzle master rates this as 9/10 (Grueling), but if I'm honest I don't think that's fair. This is much more like a 6, in my opinion. Vinco himself rates it as a 3/5 (or 6 if you include his 5+ scale). All in all a fun puzzle, which is very well made, and great to hand to beginners since you'll get it back together fairly easily if they give up.



5Jul/121

Hinged Box

During the recent Baxterweb auctions I was fortunate enough to win a couple of puzzles. Hinged Box by Eric Fuller was one of those purchases.

Hinged Box - Eric Fuller

Hinged Box - Eric Fuller

This beautiful looking puzzle is made from figured Teak, and really stands out as a great looking box. Measuring 6" x 4.25" x 4.25" it's not a small box either, so it stands out on the puzzle shelves, despite being a fairly plain 'box'. The copy I have was listed as having a long scratch on it, but it took me quite some time to find it, and given that it's underneath the finish, I'm pretty sure it's been there since the box was made. Not that I'm complaining, it certainly doesn't take away from the beauty of the box at all. Eric made this box in several woods. Have a look in the Cubic Dissection Gallery to see all the combinations which were available originally.

So why is it called the "Hinged Box"? Well this photo of the back of the box should clear things up.

Hinged Box hinges - Eric Fuller

Hinged Box hinges - Eric Fuller

The back of the box shows two small brass hinges, and hint at the way the box will open. Of course, I've had puzzles before which have visible hinges at the back, and they were entirely red herrings, designed to throw you off. In this case however the hinges are real, and when you finally solve the puzzle, the lid swings open the way you'd expect.

I had this puzzle for several weeks before I solved it. My work schedule has been hectic (hence the lack of posts here) and as such I'd pick the puzzle up and play for a few minutes at night when I got home from work, but realise I was far too tired to apply logical thought to the box. As it turns out I found most of the solution fairly quickly. Some simple investigation will reveal a number of sliding panels, and a few panels which look like they should slide but don't. More poking and prodding will get the panels which didn't move freed up, and at that point I hit a dead end. I couldn't see any more forward progress, and as such went backward and forwards with the moves I had found for several days.

One evening a few weeks ago, I was having a fairly good night puzzle wise, and I can only attribute that to having had a Sunday off for the first time in weeks as I'd solved several puzzles that had been sitting on my unsolved table. I picked the Hinged Box back up and within a minute had found the move which was eluding me and had the box open.

Hinged Box opened- Eric Fuller

Hinged Box opened - Eric Fuller

I've been careful not to give anything away as to how the box opens in the photo above, but as you can see it opens the way you expect it to given the hinges. Overall, this is a really nice puzzle, and the final move is very well hidden, and in my opinion rather unexpected. Great puzzle Eric, and I'm glad to have one in my collection.