The Process

The process of making a hand-cut wooden jigsaw puzzle isn't very complicated. You put the image on the wood and cut it into pieces.

I use 1/4” plywood. It's thick enough to produce a nice, sturdy puzzle while thin enough to cut well and not weigh too much. I make an archival print and then bond it to the wood with a protective layer over the top. My puzzles are made to last for generations and be played over and over again. The laminate protects the image both physically and from UV, but it's still not a good idea to leave a puzzle laying out in the sun. Too much sun will cause fading.

Scroll saws use very fine blades. The standard #5 blade is 0.38” thick with 12.5 teeth / inch (tpi). This is great for most things but makes far too loose a puzzle. Puzzle cutting blades are 0.008” thick, 33tpi – about twice as thick as a human hair. This gives you a nice, tight-fitting puzzle. An assembled wooden puzzle like I make fits together so well you can pick it up and turn it over. There's a bit of sag and sometimes the figurals can fall out since they may or may not lock in to the puzzle depending on their shape. Unlike the laser cut puzzles the outlines of the pieces on the back of the puzzle, while clear, are not at all prominent. And since the wood is cut rather than burned there's no smell of burned wood as sometimes happens with laser cut puzzles.

Once the image is on the wood I have a puzzle, but at one piece it's, shall we say, not too challenging. I start by cutting the puzzle into sections. The first cut splits it in half along the long edge. This is what controls how big a puzzle I can make because there's only so much room between the blade and the back of my saw. I'm also limited by the size of my printer. Right now the biggest I can make is 13x19” which, at my normal piece size is around 500-600+ pieces.

After the first split I keep cutting the sections down until they are around the size of my hand. Not only are these easier to work with, it reduces the amount of handling each piece takes. The puzzle pieces get more handling during cutting than they will in years of being played. After the puzzle is in sections I start cutting off the pieces. I sit with a table to my left where I have the whole puzzle. I take out a section and, as I cut it into pieces, I put the pieces back in place. That's the easiest way to keep from losing any of them during the process.

After the whole puzzle is cut I finish the back. A scroll saw leaves a little bit of roughness on the bottom of the cut and if you leave that on a puzzle the puzzle is harder to assemble until it wears off. A bit of light sanding leaves the back of the puzzle beautifully clean. I always pick a piece to sign. I put my little maker's mark on it and the date the puzzle was completed.

Then it's time to count it out and box it up. I get the box ready and then take the puzzle apart, counting the pieces into the box. I've learned it's best to stop periodically and check my work. Every 50 or 100 pieces (depending on the size of the puzzle) I re-count the pieces into a bag and set them aside.

All of my puzzles have an adhesive label for the top of the box that's the image, and a label on the end of the box with the name and other information. For my images I also include a little note about the image. To make things fun I normally don't put the picture on the box or write the name of the puzzle on the end label. Instead I wrap them inside a note and put them in the box. This way, if you want, you can do the puzzle the first time only knowing how many pieces there are, how many (if any) are figurals, and the date I completed the puzzle.

The different size puzzles take different size boxes, of course, and the label image is sized for the box.

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