A Box, a Burr, and a Ball walk into a bar…

Burr Puzzle (with Yosegi ball inside)

Yoshiyuki Ninomiya, 2013
Burr 116×116×116 ㎜
        Box 140×140×142 ㎜
Walnut, Senn (Castor Aralia), Yosegi

In case you’re not aware, Ninomiya’s boxes are awesome. While he unfortunately was not as prolific a creator as others at the Karakuri Group (I wrote more about the Group here, if you’re interested), he still managed to make some of the most beautiful boxes produced by them (which is saying a lot). Even more unfortunately, he is not producing puzzles anymore; other than the occasional yosegi bookmark (which are great), I am not aware that he is making anything else (which is rather unsurprising as he is now 91 years old and has pretty much retired after about 75 years as a woodworker).

Recently, I managed to acquire one of his last Karakuri creations – a piece that I have been hoping to see for some time now. The appropriately named “Burr puzzle (with Yosegi ball inside)” includes one of very few burrs released by the Karakuri Group, which in and of itself makes it pretty cool. However, Karakuri are puzzle box-makers, and so, sure enough, the burr is trapped inside a puzzle box! That’s cool, too. If it ended there, I’d be happy with the puzzle. But Ninomiya adds a nice touch, adding a yosegi ball trapped inside the burr, which is of course trapped inside the box (which is now kept on my shelf).

The puzzle is quite large: the box is about 5.75″ and the twelve-piece burr is about 4.5″ (the ball is about 2″). This was the first thing I noticed, followed quickly by the excellent (and expected) workmanship. This is the 4th Ninomiya box I’ve acquired (alongside a few bookmarks) and the quality of his work continues to blow me away.

The box has circular windows on each of its 4 sides, allowing you to see the center of the burr with the ball held inside, perfectly placed for said perspective to be possible. Atop the box, there is a short, wooden hashtag (a/k/a tic-tac-toe or ye olde number sign), comprised of contrasting woods and featuring a small yosegi square (delightfully tipped on a corner to offset the square center of the symbol in which it sits). The piece is able to spin and its dimensions clearly establish that it was designed to allow the burr to sit atop it, the outer squares placed at the exact dimensions of the four pillars of the burr; the spin allows you to view all sides of the burr, which is, again, pretty darn cool. This allows all aspects of the puzzle to be seen clearly when kept on the display platform (as I prefer to keep it).

The box isn’t overly difficult, with 3 or 4 steps to open; I found the burr to be quite original (although admittedly my experience with burrs is lacking when compared to many other puzzlers) and challenging enough to be fun but not so hard as to be frustrating. It has some unexpected moves to disassemble, and reassembly requires just the right amount of dexterity, focusing more on good old logic to get you back together. The ball is made with Japanese marquetry, with four “slices” of alternating woods, which brings the overall aesthetic together nicely, combining the light wood of the box with the dark wood of the burr. And of course, the ball also complicates reassembly of the burr, which must largely be constructed around it. Both the box and the burr feature Ninomiya’s hanko.

I’m quite pleased to have been fortunate enough to obtain a copy of this puzzle and have not been at all disappointed in finally getting my hands on one of my (admittedly many) Karakuri unicorns… now if I could just get a copy of my most unicorny of Ninomiya unicorns: Desk Diary (he said, blatantly promoting his own self-interest in the hopes that one of his fives of readers has a line on a copy).

Overall Grade: 5 Sinatras

(no hamsters were hurt in the making of this post)

Jerry Does It Again (and Again): Quadlock I & Burrlephant 3

Quadlock I & Burrlephant 3

Jerry McFarland

By now, you may have heard about the awesomeness that is Jerry McFarland’s Fidget Burr (you can check out my review here); since enjoying the pleasure of solving Fidget Burr, I have had the good fortune of obtaining and solving two more of Jerry’s puzzles: the older Quadlock I and the quite new Burrlephant 3. Both are excellent puzzles, offering unique takes on burrs by adding take-apart / trick box-type elements to the mix, with perhaps a dash of sequential discovery.

Quadlock 1

Quadlock 1 is a squashed cube made of 19 individual burr sticks, originally made by Jerry in 1992, and remade in 2008 and 2011 (possibly again since then). It is a 4 x 4 x 3 “cube” that measures 3.5″ x 2.6″ (after 2011, Jerry began making a slightly smaller version). It is made of Walnut, Mahogany, and Maple, although there are some versions made of alternate, exotic woods, as well. I have two copies of this excellent and quite challenging puzzle, which only goes to show that I truly think it is a great puzzle: they are both copies of the earlier, larger versions (one has the serial number “14 JM 94” and the other copy has “10 JM 92” – I am not certain if this means that they are from 1994 and 1992 but I will update once I ask Jerry about it).

If you have solved interlocking puzzles, you will know that many feature some sort of key piece, which must be discovered and moved before you can hope to progress. Quadlock 1 takes this a few steps further, with four pieces that work together to form a lock, preventing any further movement. After fumbling for some time, I found that it is better to approach this almost as I would an attempt at lock-picking, as I was better able to conceptualize how I might find my way past. As you are working on these early steps, you have no indication of what it might lead to: the other pieces permit no movement, whatsoever, forcing you to add some tension in various places as you struggle to find the correct movements and configuration of the four locking pieces (again, as one might a lock). You are unlikely to succeed early on without some amount of close observation, finding the correct moves step by step rather than all at once. It has only been a few weeks since I solved the puzzle for the second time, and I am already confused as to how I can repeat the process, showing the puzzle’s excellent replayability.

Once you find your way past this first wall, you are rewarded with some interesting movements, opening the puzzle up enough to permit the removal of some pieces. You are not done, of course, as you must now discover steps necessary to fully disassemble the puzzle, although you have now successfully navigated the main challenge. From this point, you will still need to think and explore as some of the next steps are certainly non-trivial, albeit perhaps not as difficult as the opening sequence of moves. Having found these next steps, the puzzle comes apart in a way that is conceptually similar to Fidget Burr, while consisting of totally different arrangements; at this point, disassembling it completely is pretty straightforward, leaving you with a nice pile of lumber.

My first time through, I chose to let the pieces sit for a day or two before returning to it for reassembly. I was able to reassemble the puzzle (mostly) without the assistance of burrtools or the instructions Jerry provided with the puzzle. His instructions are quite welcome, as they provide clear assistance without actually showing you specific the moves (as with burrtools); it will tell you which pieces need to be manipulated but leave it to you to find how this must be done (which at times is certainly not totally straightforward).

There were a couple particularly tricky aspects to reassembly – the main locks were actually not so difficult in reverse, but I found a couple steps midway that had me turned around, requiring more than a little Ikea-style mid-process disassembly; the pieces have enough non-uniformity to create the need for careful observation lest you find yourself painted into a corner.

I found this puzzle to be an excellent interlocking burr cube (squashed or otherwise) – the addition of a “trick” locking mechanism making it especially fun. I hope to eventually collect Quadlocks III and IV (II was essentially a 23-piece version of I, and very few copies were made, so my completist urges are that much more likely to go unfulfilled).

Burrlephant 3

I am clearly a fan of Jerry’s work – I have pieces he made for Bill Cutler that show his skills as a craftsman, and his own designs blow me away. Burrlephant 3 is another example of Jerry’s ingenuity as a puzzle designer, with multiple trick phases belying its playful exterior. First off, it is important to distinguish this from Don Closterman’s Elephant puzzle; I’ve not done that puzzle, but it appears to be a kumiki-like 3D assembly, and, as such, is nothing like Burrlephant in anything other than a cursory look at its appearance. Closterman’s Elephant could be an amazing puzzle, I’ve no idea, but I am mostly sure that it does not contain the mechanics of Jerry’s that separates his puzzles from most interlocking burrs.

Burrlephant 3, in case you’ve not noticed, looks like an Elephant, complete with trunk, tusks, eyes, and big ole ears. It is an interlocking figure, comprised of 27 interlocking pieces of Jatoba, Bloodwood, Bubinga, and Ebony, as well as a few additional magnets and metal pins. Not counting its ears or tusks, it is a sizable 4.4″ x 5.5″ x 2.2″, making it significantly larger than Quadlock 1 or Fidget Burr.

When I started working on it, I quickly found that there looks like there is at least one aspect that appears similar to Fidget Burr, which a halfway close inspection of the photos will show; however, the mechanisms are not at all similar: Fidget Burr has an easily accessible button that leads to instant action, whereas Burrlephant requires much more exploration to make any sort of progress. You are able to find some movement quickly, but this does not appear to do anything helpful.

Burrlephant 3 essentially consists of 4 challenges, some requiring several steps to complete. Only after solving the fourth challenge, which rewards you with the key piece containing the serial number, are you are able to fully disassemble the puzzle into its 29 distinct parts. The puzzle succeeded at misdirecting my focus for some time, before I was able to fall upon the first challenge, decidedly the easiest of the four as trial and error will most likely get you there before too long. The second challenge requires some thought, and develops a better understanding of certain aspects of the puzzle, before leaving you with a few pieces in your hands and no idea how to proceed.

This third challenge is my favorite and is the one on which I spent the most time (mostly doing the same few things over and over while incredulously shaking my head and wondering it it was broken – spoiler: it wasn’t). You must first use what you know about the puzzle to determine what needs to happen next before you can hope to do anything else. Once you have considered the what, the how is going to take even more thought; trial and error will help to eliminate your options, but I found I was only able to find my way through by engaging in some good old critical thinking. Having found the solution, I am impressed by how simple and elegant it is to do despite having been so difficult to figure out. This part of the puzzle is pretty ingenious and relies on some precise designing and craftsmanship to accomplish. I actually repeated the step a few times, just because it made me happy – always a sign of a good puzzle.

At this point, it is fairly clear what you need to do for the fourth challenge; accomplishing this task is a bit tricky, and I was able to figure it out before too long, some trial and error pointing me in the right direction and leading me to the removal of the key piece. Having removed most of the tricky parts of the puzzle in overcoming the various challenges, complete disassembly is now fairly straightforward.

The puzzle comes with Jerry’s description and solution, in text and pictures, and Jerry has again labelled some of the pieces to aid in reassembly; he stepped it up a bit from Fidget Burr, etching them into a few pieces that could easily get mixed up otherwise. Sitting back and looking at the rather enormous spread of pieces before me, I nonetheless felt confident that I would be able to reassemble it without too much frustration; there is one part that is a bit tricky, due to the necessary placement of some magnets, but a bit of dexterity gets me through, allowing me to return to reassembling the main challenges of the puzzle.

Overall, Burrlephant 3 is an excellent and super-fun burr puzzle with elements of sequential discovery and take-apart trickery that earns it the right to stand apart from other puzzles, unique in its cross-genre design and its slick and playful appearance. In many ways I prefer its quiet, contemplative rhythm to Fidget Burr’s in-your-face action; either way, it is just another example of Jerry’s craftsman-informed ingenuousness, which has me craving his next creation.

Overall Grade: 5 Sinatras

(click here for more information on the Sinatra Scaling System, (c) John Maynard Keynes, 1944)

Dr. PinkLady, or How I Learned to Stop Fidgeting and Solve the Burr

Fidget Burr (a/k/a Dollar Burr, a/k/a Chin Burr)

Jerry McFarland, 3.28″ x 3.28″ x 2.92″

Recently, I was lucky enough to get a copy of Jerry McFarland’s Fidget Burr (not to be confused with the puzzle of the same name designed by Tim Alkema and recently produced by Eric. Fuller of CubicDissection). It has quickly become one of my all-time favorite puzzles, with an extremely original design replete with fun and challenging nuances.

First off, the puzzle is beautiful, consisting of 23 wood pieces crafted from walnut, maple, mahogany, and bloodwood (with the keypiece possibly made in a different exotic wood, such as Bubinga, Santos Rosewood or Cocobolo), for a interestingly contrasting aesthetic. It feels soft, presumably waxed into a delightful sheen that allows the puzzle to stand out, adding to the temptation to play and fidget beyond one’s attempts at finding the solution.

But what really makes it stand out is the addition of 22 magnets integrated into the puzzle, adding layers of novelty, difficulty, and stability that makes it stand out from its (still excellent) burr cube brethren. And last but not least, a Lego minifig can be seen, trapped within a window on one piece of the puzzle’s frame, lending the puzzle a hint of puzzle box / take-apart puzzling.


NOTE: The following paragraph reveals details of the puzzle’s first move – I feel comfortable writing about it as this has been blogged about before and is not really a hidden feature of the puzzle, but for those purists out there who want to know absolutely nothing about a puzzle, I thought I would give you fair warning – it has been formatted to make it easy enough to skip:

iIt is readily apparent which piece offers the first move (being the only piece that can move) and, when you press it, you are rewarded with a chain of clacking, automatic movements as 4 pieces are released, magnets forcing them out. This chain will most certainly be repeated again and again, both in the search of its solution, as well as the sheer entertainment value.


Following this first step, I immediately hit a wall. Fortunately, this first step is more than fun enough to play with absent any further progress. However, after numerous attempts at exploring possibilities through trial and error, I explored that other method of puzzle solving: thought. With this, I was able to narrow down the possible next steps, more quickly finding my way past this wall. Soon, it is possible to remove some pieces of the puzzle.

However, this is not the end as one must deal with some (possibly less difficult, but still non-trivial) additional steps, revealing the reason for at least one of the puzzle’s aliases. As you continue through the puzzle, you find a number of added details, magnets, chamfers, clips, and pins that really show off Jerry’s expertise, as they allow for a more consistent and stable puzzling experience (these are detailed in the included instructions in a series of notes, which would be spoilers if shared). One such detail does double duty, causing me several minutes of confusion as I lost all momentum just as I thought I was about to free my Pink Lady. Moving past this, the lovely lady can be freed (and even her window frame reveals evidence of Jerry’s thoughtful and precise approach to puzzle-making, as it is designed in such a way as to make her intended orientation obvious when looking to cruelly force her back into her wooden prison).

The key piece has the puzzle’s “signature,” the maker’s initials, year of creation, and serial number etched into perfectly matched frames (as seen above).

Note that this picture is also no spoiler, as Jerry designed the puzzle such that one can view the signature without having solved the puzzle – yet another unique detail that demands appreciation.

Reassembly is not overly difficult: Jerry has thoughtfully marked some of the pieces to aid with the proper orientation, allowing you to reassemble the puzzle with pleasure rather than frustration. Burrtools is unnecessary, good considering my strong suspicion that it would not provide much (or perhaps any) assistance.

As mentioned, the puzzle comes with instructions and notes: 5 pages that includes solution descriptions assembly instructions with pictures and illustrations, as well as the aforementioned notes and a general explanation of the puzzle (the latter being graciously printed on the first page to avoid any accidental and unwanted spoilers).

Fidget Burr will be entered in the 2020 IPP40 Design competition, where I would be surprised if it did not earn some significant recognition. While 2020 seems it will be a banner year for puzzling, Fidget Burr will no doubt be amongst its top designs; it is certainly amongst my puzzle favorites overall (assuming my judgment is at all reliable), not least considering its atypical replay value.

Pushing All the Right Buttons

Push Button Burr

Designed by Ken Irvine
Built by Tom Lensch

Let me start by saying that, historically, I am not particularly good at interlocking solids. It is only in the last few months that I have begun to expand my puzzling horizons beyond boxes, SD and locks. My first burrs had me running to fellow puzzlers that I have inter-met for burrtools files (thanks MrMark!). I at least felt vindicated by Mr. Eyckman congratulating me for having “solved” his puzzles when I returned to him, tail between my legs, for help reassembling a couple of his pieces (even worse: these were some of his simpler ones!).

I feel no shame in saying this – at least no more than general. I say it to provide some context to my imaginary readers…

Not so long ago, I ordered a few puzzles from Tom Lensch – if you do not know who he is, look him up and buy whatever he will sell you. They came quickly (and were packed amazingly well!). One of my new acquisitions was Push Button Burr, an interlocking burr cube (a puzzle-fluid identity). Designed by Ken Irvine and built by Mr. Lensch, it arrived, much to my initial dismay, unassembled!

Me of little faith, I looked at the pieces and thought that I may as well crawl into the dark hole of failure in which my meaner puzzles prowl. I had read of the joy of disassembling this puzzle – I thought that perhaps I would be able to reassemble it (with the help of some tiny colored stickers and a roll or super skinny post-it tape) after I finished taking it apart.

But when my package arrived with several more balls of bubble wrap than expected, I realized that my assumption did not match that of the master Mr. Lensch who puts interlocking burr cubes together for breakfast.

Instead of a solid cube with little brown buttons, I had a few twisted crazy pieces of varying strange Seussian shapes, and five identical brown sort-of Z’s. What to do? Do I first work on some of the other puzzles that had arrived? No! Do I immediately give up and ask for the solution? Maybe! Do I stare at it stupidly for longer than I care to admit? Probably!

But if I were to assemble it based on instructions, I would kill the fun of disassembly (this works better the other way). So you know what I did? I did another puzzle.

Later, after getting myself in the right mindspace by failing to solve something else, I sat down with my dysmorphic cube pieces and figure I will at least try before probably failing.

And try I did – it took me a while, but I was able to build the frame; it made more sense to me than many such spatially demanding puzzles do – perhaps the disorder saw something in me and decided to give me a break. Eventually, however, build it I did! I was pretty satisfied with myself, until I remembered the five buttons still sitting there outside my almost-cube. The nature of this puzzle is such that it looked close to finished – absent a few holes (10 if you have not guessed), the cube was complete.

Now here is one of the things that makes this such a great puzzle: building it had required trial and error, memory, and, yes, a bit of thought. But getting these buttons in? Well, that is going to take a lot of thought! Not my strong suit, but let’s see if any of those brain cells survived my adolescence.

And so I thought before trialing. And then I thought some more after erroring. Slowly, a dance began to form. These would require a very specific order, back and forth, cube and button, button and cube; the cage was there but must be rebuilt with its prisoners present. And, eventually, I saw it: the right order, in the right way, and piece after piece slid into place, leaving my buttons ready to be pushed (unpushed?).

Declaring myself the smartest man in the world (or at least the room), I gleefully showed by wife, who, true to herself, didn’t really care but did afford me a brief “That’s nice, dear, now shut up” look. But I was too busy admiring my utter and complete brilliance: clearly it goes Albert Einstein, David Byrne, me, and then whoever invented the pop tart.

After doing my happy dance for an acceptable amount of time, I proceeded to do it for an uncomfortably longer time. I went to discord and bragged about something so many others can do more easily than I. And then I went back to push buttons and let the dance play out in reverse, appreciating the creativity it took to design this mashup and the skill that went into making it.

High on my own utter and complete genius, I went back to Stumbling Blocks and was quickly and absolutely humbled.

Oh well, it was good while it lasted.

Grade: Four and a Half Sinatras

Oh Schrat

My latest (meaning second) video takes a look at Schrat by Stephan Baumegger, an interlocking solid puzzle featuring 6 burr sticks in a wood cage. It is a beautiful puzzle of the high quality one should expect from Stephan’s work.

I have only started disassembling this piece and it is proving to be an accessible and fun solve. I have been getting better at these types of puzzles, having mostly collected boxes and other take apart puzzles in the past.

I generally find reassembling interlocking solids to be quite challenging. With practice (and some small, colored stickers), I am improving as I gain experience. In this case, I think I may have a chance at reassembly without resorting to burrtools (file to be begged off some other puzzler, because I am lazy and only semi-computer-literate).

This is a good-sized puzzle and it looks and feels great. I could say what woods are used, but I would be guessing and that is unlikely to be fair to the puzzle or to the maker. However, it is definitely a piece that shows well, with its corner joints an off-white color that plays well with the darker woods of the burr sticks, set within a frame that features lovely wood striations.

As with most of Stephan’s works, I think it is a great addition to my collection aesthetically, with a solve that feels fun (although I have only begun working on it).

Grade: Four Sinatras