Neil's Puzzle Building Blog
21Aug/120

IPP 32 – Day Zero

Over the weekend of the 9th to 12th August IPP 32 was held in Washington DC. I was lucky enough to be invited and as my first year attending IPP I've found it very difficult to write about it all. I have sat down several times over the last week to try to write about my experiences and have thrown away everything I wrote as rubbish. Hopefully this will be good enough, although I seriously doubt it!

IPP 32 logo

IPP 32 logo

To sum up the experience is really challenging. There were so many great people there, and so much happening, that I'm not sure I remember everything, nor could I describe half of it even if I could. It's a completely overwhelming experience, and something I will not forget. It's going to take a good few posts to cover all the events, so keep reading over the next few days and I'll try my best to share my experiences. ( I'll also note up front that I've avoided reading the posts from my fellow bloggers over the last week, just in case I repeat anything they've said!)

For anyone who doesn't know, IPP is the International Puzzle Party. An annual invitation only event which has been taking place for 32 years now, and was originally started by Jerry Slocum, where a small number of Puzzle enthusiasts were invited to his home to share their puzzles, trade and generally talk about puzzles and the like. Today, over 400 puzzle collectors attend the party and it alternates between locations in the USA, Asia and Europe. The party includes a puzzle design competition, a puzzle exchange and a sale of puzzles. I was fortunate to be able to take part in all of the above, so I'll talk about each and share some thoughts with you.

I arrived in DC with Jen on Tuesday fairly late on, around 10pm by the time we finally made it to the hotel. There were a few puzzle people hanging around the lobby playing with string but I didn't talk to anyone as we had luggage to get to the room, and we were both pretty hungry, so we headed out for some food. By the time we got back the place was deserted. Given that we were still on California time, and thinking it was still 7.30pm and not 11.30pm I was a little surprised that everyone had gone to bed so early!

Getting up reasonably early the next morning so Jen and I could do some sight seeing before the IPP really got under way, we headed down for breakfast, and on coming out of the elevator, I was greeted by Jim Strayer who I didn't recognise, but he recognised me from my blog and videos. He promptly introduced himself and his wife, and welcomed me to the IPP. I think that really set the tone for my weekend, where people were going to know me, and I was going to recognise the names, but not the faces! In fact it got better. I'm the only Scottish IPP'er. I'd be standing talking to someone and without anyone seeing my face, they'd know who I was. Sadly, Scotland didn't get a pin on the IPP map as I'm based in California now, so I'm considered a US attendee!

The Whitehouse, complete with snipers on the roof!

The Whitehouse, complete with snipers on the roof!

With the IPP registration not opening until later in the afternoon, Jen and I went off to do some sightseeing around DC. Walking through the lobby of the hotel to head to the tube, I spot a figure walking towards me, and am promptly given a great big hug (and a few strange looks from Jen!). Rox was in the lobby with her daughter and on spotting me had to say hello.

I've never really been to the east coast US, as all my business trips have been over in California, so I was looking forward to seeing some of DC. I'll not bore you with all the tourist pics, but I think the one above should be ok. I have no idea how far I walked that day, but I'll say this much... my feet were sore, and I was ready for a shower and a seat when I get back to the hotel. The weather in DC is hot and humid. The heat I'm used to from California, but the humidity is a killer! That said I had a great day with Jen and was ready to meet some puzzling people when I got back.

Once we were freshened up, we took the trip down to the registration room and after being stopped by one or two new faces who recognised me, where we were given badges, and had our photos taken. Each year there is a souvenir book produced which includes a photo of every attendee. With that sorted out, I wandered into the lobby where Jim Strayer once again said hello and introduced me to a few other puzzle names I knew, including a few I've worked with quite closely over the last few months including Rob Stegman (I'll get back to that though!).

A gift from Peter Wiltshire and the start of a new tradition?

A gift from Peter Wiltshire and the start of a new tradition?

I met Peter Wiltshire, Brett Kuehner, and I'm sure one or two others who happened to be standing around chatting, and making dinner plans. Peter who knew this was my first IPP, without even looking at my badge given discussions on the Renegades forums said he had something for me, that had a little story to go with it. It turns out that when Peter attended his first IPP, Ginda Fisher had given him a copy of a little puzzle he'd made as a gift for people at IPP. I'll not give away more that that other than to say that Peter told me that the info about the puzzle, the designer, and the name of the puzzle were all inside, and would probably help me open it.

Something of a welcome to IPP and a way to make the new guy feel welcome. So Peter tells me that he wants to give me a copy of his puzzle gift since it's my first IPP, and hopes that at some point in the future I'll be able to do the same. I'm quite flattered by the offer and think it's a great idea. Peter's puzzle is superb, as I find out later when he hands me the copy, and I hope that I'll be able to give someone else a puzzle of my own in the future!

With enough of a crowd gathered, we depart to the local mall for some food, and end up taking two tables to fit all of us in. I end up sitting at a table with Dor Tietz, Yael Meron and two other veteran IPPer's that I can't even remember now (it was nearly 2 weeks ago). We had a great chat over dinner about many things, not just puzzle related, and both Jen and I are made to feel very welcome. With appetites quenched, we returned to the hotel lobby and ended up standing around chatting with a few new faces who'd shown up.

As I stood there chatting a familiar name came up and introduced himself, having recognised my voice (I did say it was going to be a bit of a theme for me). Allard Walker tapped me on the shoulder and said hi. Little introduction was needed as I recognised him instantly, and we both introduced our respective other halves, who hit it off instantly. It seems that Gillian, Jen and Leslie (Peter's wife) all share similar interests, and started making their own plans, which meant I didn't feel as guilty spending so much time puzzling or talking about puzzles.

Amazing Card folding gift

Amazing Card folding gift

Allard hands me a small gift. One of Louis Coolen's impossible cards which you can read all about over here and I seriously suggest that you do. The card is superb. I'd seen some of Louis' early attempts at card folding, and I knew he was getting pretty good at this, but really nothing does the card justice. It's a work of art, and a truly beautiful item. I'm very happy to have added this to my collection, so thanks Allard and Louis!

Shortly thereafter Wil Strijbos appears and Allard who knows Wil quite well asks me "You know who this is don't you?" I have to reply that I don't (since Wil isn't wearing a name badge, and doesn't throughout the whole weekend). We're quickly introduced, and Wil hands Allard some metal rods asking for help. Apparently, customs took apart his peppermint twist puzzle, and Wil's not had time to put it back together. However knowing that Allard has a copy and has solved it, he just asks Allard to put it back together. Allard takes the pieces and sits down next to where we're standing and starts trying to put the pieces together. As I watch I ask if there's a trick to which I'm told yes and Allard shows us how to best go about putting it together. After a couple of minutes, Allard looks up and asks Wil if he's having him on. It seems that Wil is a bit of a joker, and Allard knows this! (As it happens, Wil is joking as he's already shown Peter and myself that fifth piece which is needed to put the puzzle together. Allard suspects something is up, but all Wil has in his hands is a small black kitten with glowing blue eyes which makes noise. Wil finally gives in after Allard concedes that the four pieces he has don't go together, and gives him the fifth piece. With the puzzle back together, Wil tries to give Allard the puzzle as a gift, but Allard isn't going to take it. I should probably have offered Wil some money for it, but really I wasn't thinking!

Finding a table in the hotel lobby Peter, Allard myself and our other halves sat and had a drink while the boys talked puzzles, and the girls talked about something else entirely less boring to them! Allard pulls out a copy of Louis' Amazing Box #3, which was great fun to play with, and I really look forward to seeing what else he produces, as he'll be making some great puzzles before long I assure you! I take a trip up to my room to get Allard his copy of the Hex Stair puzzle he'd ordered which is passed around the table (Rob Stegman and Jim Strayer have joined us by this point) and all have a shot of the Amazing box, and the Hex Stair which they seemed to enjoy. He also puzzled out a copy of Wil's Washer Cylinder which he handed to Peter and we taunted him as he explored that for a while.

As we're sitting Nick Baxter spots me and tells me that the competition room has been opened if I'm interested in looking at the design entries. Rather excitedly, I go back to the table and let the guys know, and we promptly decant to the puzzle room, since it's not officially opened till the Thursday, so we take the opportunity to get a first look at the puzzles. Jen and the ladies leave us to it, as we excitedly hurry to see new puzzles.

Playing with a cats cradle

Playing with a cats cradle

While in the puzzle room Brett Kuehner's father was wandering around and Brian, his wife Kellian and I ended up talking to him about the Cats Cradle. You'll remember that I mentioned the puzzlers playing with string when I arrived on the Tuesday night. Well it turns out this is why. Brett's dad was explaining that he'd sit in a shopping mall somewhere and play with a cradle in the hope that people would come up and ask him about it. Turns out that lots of people do, but mostly people his age who remember playing with one as children. He'd show them a few possible patterns, and learn one in return. His parting gift was to give them the string and ask them to then teach a child a few patterns. I didn't end up getting a string but I do remember playing with one as a child (although I was never very good) so perhaps I should pick one up again and learn once more. Here you can see Kellian getting to see how to check a heartbeat, with the string wrapped round your ears!

Brian Pletcher playing with "Ze House of Mouse Ze Duong"

Brian Pletcher playing with "Ze House of Mouse Ze Duong"

It's in the puzzle room as I'm looking for the next puzzle I want to play with that I spot Brian Pletcher sitting and introduce myself. I've followed Brian's blog for a long time, and recently worked with him on the Black Letter labs puzzles, so it was great to meet another of the puzzlers I knew but had never met in person.

I ended up sitting playing with puzzles until it was just Brian and I left in the room and we were sitting talking about a couple of the puzzles we'd played with. At 1.30 am we called it a night and Brian locked up the puzzle room. All in all a fantastic first day to my IPP, and only the start of a truly memorable weekend.

Next up, the Design Competition is officially started and IPP Day 1. I'll post more pics there I promise!

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6Aug/123

Hex Stair (Part 3) – Finishing

After the quick interlude as I prepare for IPP, here's the third part of the Hex Stair saga. Despite only having 11 puzzles made in the last month, it feels like I've been working on this project a fair bit longer. Still seeing all the puzzles finished and ready to go to IPP with me I'm really pleased with the results.

A Collection of Hex Stair's (and a couple of Domino Towers too)

A Collection of Hex Stair's (and a couple of Domino Towers too)

Another view of the set of puzzles finished and ready to go

Another view of the set of puzzles finished and ready to go

I'm not sure how anyone else views the finishing process, but for me it starts long before you ever get out a brush or some lacquer. Much of the look of a finished puzzle, or any wooden object really comes from the choices you make when you're putting it together. There are subtle details which really help to 'finish' a project. For the Hex Stair (and the Domino Tower) puzzles, adding the very slight 45 degree bevel to the edges of the pieces really adds to the overall look. Without it, the puzzle looks incomplete. So for me that's the first part in the finishing process. After each of the blocks are cut to size, I add a tiny bevel to each piece. It's a time consuming process, but without it the pieces just lack that little edge that they'd otherwise have.

The puzzles pre-finishing.  Here they are unsanded.

The puzzles pre-finishing. Here they are unsanded.

Getting ready, each of the puzzles are assembled, as I will be sanding only the outside of the pieces. The reason for this is that I send a lot of time ensuring that the pieces are all the exact same size, to ensure a tight fit on the assembled puzzle. If I were to sand the pieces, then I'd lose that fit, and the puzzle would become too loose, or not fit at all! You'll remember that I aim for one thousandth of an inch tolerance between pieces. Sanding will remove much more than that!

Each grit will be used from lowest to highest.

Each grit will be used from lowest to highest.

Given the finish I get from the blade of the saw, you could ask why sand the puzzle at all? The main reason is the feel of the puzzle in your hands when it's sanded. Although the puzzle if perfectly dimensioned, the feel of the wood can still be a little rough. By working up through the various grit of sandpaper, we'll take the wood to being silky smooth to the touch, and make it something that you'll want to hold. Given that I'm starting off with something which is close to a finished surface, I'll start sanding at 220 grit, then move up to 320, 400, and eventually 600 grit. The last two grits are more polishing the wood than removing imperfections, so very light passes are all that's required at that stage.

First pass sanding is done, and the dust needs cleaned off before continuing

First pass sanding is done, and the dust needs cleaned off before continuing

With each of the sides, and both top and bottom sanded, the puzzle is left coated in a fine sawdust. You'll notice that I'm working with the sandpaper attached to my granite block. I work the puzzle across the paper rather than take the paper in my hand and bring it to the puzzle. The former ensure that the surface is dead flat, and I don't over sand any particular area, where there latter, the different pressure from my fingers would lead to imperfections. Before moving to the next grit, the dust has to be taken off, otherwise it will be ground into the surface of the wood, and you will end up working harder to get the surface you're looking for. To do this I use two processes. First up, I have an air compressor with a fine nozzle on it. Using that at about 60 PSI, I blow most of the dust off the surface, taking care to ensure I get any dust out of the pores of the wood. On wood like the Paduak I'm using which has fairly deep pores, the air easily clears them out.

The Tacky Cloth used to remove dust from the surface.

The Tacky Cloth used to remove dust from the surface.

Once I've blown the dust and cobwebs away, I use a Tacky cloth to take care of anything that's left on the surface. The Tacky cloth is has an almost waxy feel to it, and does a great job of taking anything loose off the surface. With that done, I can continue up through the grit until I finally reach 600. All in all it takes about forty minutes per puzzle, but since I was working with all the puzzles, around 3 hours in total.

The puzzle sanded up to 600 grit.

The puzzle sanded up to 600 grit.

It may be a little hard to tell the difference from the photograph, but this is the puzzle sanded up to 600 grit. The real difference is in the feel of the wood. Now much smoother, the finish is almost like glass.

The Satin Laquer for finishing

The Satin Laquer for finishing

Watco Finishing Wax

Watco Finishing Wax

Next up in the process is to apply the finish. I use a three stage process currently. First up is to apply a couple of thin coats of lacquer. I mix the lacquer 50/50 with thinner, and apply two coats to the puzzle pieces. Working with the lacquer thinned like this, I have found I don't end up with runs or drips. Given the size of the pieces I'm working with I use a small brush to apply the finish which could leave brush stokes with a thicker mixture. Each coat is applied and allowed to dry overnight before adding the next coat in the morning.

End of day one in the finishing process

End of day one in the finishing process

It takes around 20 minutes per puzzle to apply a coat of finish, and then it's left to dry. I'll show side by side photos below, so you can see the difference after each stage. It will probably not be too obvious, however the before and after shot shows worlds of difference!

First coat applied, and the pieces left to dry

First coat applied, and the pieces left to dry

After the two coats of lacquer are applied, I take a good look at each of the pieces. Sometimes the wood absorbs the lacquer more in certain areas, and the finish can appear uneven. If that's the case, I'll go back and apply a third, or even fourth coat of lacquer until the wood has absorbed the lacquer evenly. After each coat, the lacquer is left to soak in for around thirty minutes, and then I'll come back and rub off any excess with a clean cloth. If the lacquer pools on the surface, it will dry hard and uneven, which can affect the fit of the puzzle, and certainly doesn't make it look any better!

Once I'm happy, I'll apply a liberal coat of the Watco finishing wax. This helps the pieces to slide past each other, and adds another layer of protection for the puzzle. After all these will be played with, so I want the wood to be protected. I leave the wax on the puzzle for around 15-20 minutes, then with another clean cloth, rub the excess off. Part of this process I also buff the pieces as I work the wax into the surface, but mostly I'm removing the excess.

Renaissance Wax is used to apply the final coat to the finish

Renaissance Wax is used to apply the final coat to the finish

The final part to the finishing process is to apply a coat of Renaissance Wax. This incredible substance (which is not cheap!) brings up an amazing shine on the wood. Applying it leaves the wood with a slightly tacky feel, and a finish which is less than mirror. I apply the wax as evenly as possible, and then let it sit for 20 minutes. After that I take a clean cloth and start buffing the surface. It takes about 20 minutes per puzzle, but the wax really polishes up the surface and starts to make the wood shine.


The Ren Wax gets inside the puzzle, and needs to be cleaned out

The Ren Wax gets inside the puzzle, and needs to be cleaned out

After the initial buffing, I take the puzzle apart, as the wax gets pushed into every little gap. This needs to be cleaned out before the puzzle is re-assembled and given another buffing. All told the process takes nearly 45 minutes per puzzle, but as you will see below, the results are worth every minute of it!

The finished finish, next to an unfinished piece

The finished finish, next to an unfinished piece

As you can see the difference from start to finish is dramatic. The surface ends up being quite reflective, and really brings out the grain in the wood. It may take ~4 hours per puzzle but the results speak for themselves.

The images below show each stage of the process compared with the unfinished puzzle. It may not be too easy to see the difference, as the changes are subtle.

Both coats of lacquer applied to the piece on the right

Both coats of lacquer applied to the piece on the right

The coat of wax applied to the piece on the right.

The coat of wax applied to the piece on the right.


I hope you've enjoyed the writeup of my finishing process. I freely admit that I'm no expert, and I'm learning as I go, however several of my readers have asked so hopefully this is useful to you. This is by no means the definitive guide to finishing, and certainly isn't appropriate for all applications, however it does work for me when finishing puzzles, and I'm happy with the results. From the feedback I've had from those who've bought my puzzles, they seem to agree that I'm doing something right!



3Aug/123

Twas the week before IPP

It's getting close ... something to make you all smile.

Twas the week before IPP

Twas the week before IPP, when all through the house,
Not a puzzle was stirring, not even a burr.
The puzzles were packed in the case with care,
In hopes an exchange would soon be here.

The puzzlers were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of puzzles danced in their heads.
And mamma in her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just engaged out brains after a long summer's nap.

When out on the table there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.
To the puzzle room I flew like a flash,
Tore open the door and saw Jenga toppled fast.

The moon on the top of the new-fallen blocks
Gave the lustre of mid-day to puzzles below.
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature coffin, and 30 design entries to play.

With a little packing problem, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be time.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name!

"Now Stickman! now, Keagen! now, Fuller and Rox!
On, Devost! On, Deventer! on, on Rolly and Chinny!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now design away! Design away! Design away all!"

As puzzle solvers that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, think 'my oh my".
So off to the puzzle room the coursers they flew,
With the room full of Toys, and Brian Pletcher too.

And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the floor
The prancing and pawing of each little piece.
As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Along came the solution from my mind did abound.

He was dressed all in black, from his head to his foot,
And his papers were all tarnished with puzzles and loot.
A bundle of Toys he had reviewed with his team,
And he looked like a judge, all bristling with gleam.

His eyes-how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up but no folly,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the holly.

The stalk of a trophy he held tight in his arms,
And the room it grew silent awaiting his charms.
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly!

He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself!
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,
Soon gave us to know the results were soon read.

He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And set all the trophies, then turned with a jerk.
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, to all he then spoke!

The winner this year, from all the puzzles so great,
Can go to one only, the greatest he said.
But then I awoke, and I know not the end,
"Another Puzzle Party, what else my friend!"

Filed under: Random Musings 3 Comments