Puzzle Parrrrrr-ty: Sea Chest by Jesse Born

Sea Chest

Jesse Born, 2020,
Wenge, Holly, Katalox, Bocote, Mahogany, Bloodwood and Copper

Avast ye mine puzzlers, thar be fine puzzlin’ on the horizon for those that be wantin’ of it… Dragons there may be, but the risk be worth takin’ for such a fine piece o’ work as this here box!

Captain Woodbeard of the Puzzler’s Revenge

A few days ago I got notice from Jesse that my copy of Sea Chest was ready – as one of the first to be lucky enough to get on the list, I soon received what is number 6 of an overall release of 100 copies. Sea Chest is the first in the three-box “Voyager” series; the next (named SunDial) has apparently been mostly designed (in collaboration with a certain other amazing puzzle designer), and I expect we shall learn more in a few months, once the other 94 Sea Chests have all made it to their various X-marks-the-spots. The third and final box in the series is named Alien and is fittingly otherwise unidentified.

Here There Be Puzzlin’

My copy arrived quickly, as is typically the case when crossing the state or two between me and Jesse’s workshop. I dug through the brown wrapping paper as I unearthed my newest acquisition. The box is a great size: about 8″ x 4.5″ x 3.5″ and somewhere between Slammed Car and SDBBM (or First Box and Pachinko) in weight, making it feel good and solid in your hands.

The box is both meticulously detailed and delightfully distressed: the top is a precise carving of two ships at sea, while the back features a medallion that rotates in a frame that appears to have been worn down in its time buried underground. Copper handles are affixed to the sides and a copper compass rose adorns its front. On either side of the compass/medallion, there are a total of 4 wooden pistons that pass through the body of the box. These are quite amazing when examined closely: the red wood moving in and out of the darker frame as they are pushed and pulled, held together with wooden pins at their base. There’s an unexpected feature to the bar that connects the pistons passing through the box, with gilded numbers appearing and disappearing as the pistons are moved.

Every aspect of the box is thematically consistent, down to the ample serifs used to make the numbers recognizable to the puzzle pirate inside all of us. Numerous details adorn the design, some surely there to serve as clues, implying that perhaps this puzzle is both treasure map and chest in one (as I’ve not yet solved it, this may well not be the case – just speculating here, so no spoilers my seafaring friend). It even comes with a folded sheet of “parchment”, with a wax seal identifying it as the solution.

The overall look is pretty awesome – the pistons remind me of the rows of oars of an ancient ship, emerging from port and starboard as your crew struggles to make your way to your final destination. While I do not think we will see sirens or cyclops on this journey, the Argonauts on board may yet be waiting a while to reach dryland as the solution is most definitely not obvious (to me, anyway).

Which leads us to why we are really on this journey: the puzzling. First off, it is not entirely clear what our destination will be – I know the puzzle will open, but my initial assumptions on where and how may well be incorrect. I have already had a great aha moment and have made additional discoveries that tell me what likely needs to happen, without showing me how how to actually do it. This is that type of box where the journey is at least as good as the destination, allowing me to be in no great hurry to get there. I couldn’t wait to solve this before sharing it, as it is just too darn pretty.

Captain SPH Sits Atop His Treasure

Jesse has once again produced a puzzle that is both striking and fun: Sea Chest has a thematically distressed aesthetic that seamlessly blends potential clues and red herrings with meticulously designed details, hiding whatever puzzling intricacies lay buried within.

(Past reviews of Jesse’s Jack in the Box and Secretum Cista)
Sealed Solution Sheet and Certificate of Authenticity

Captain’s Grade: Ye Olde 5 Sinatras


Check out Jesse’s Website and his Facebook page!

Lucky Number 13

Stickman #13: Chopsticks

Robert Yarger, 2007

Robert Yarger’s 13th puzzle box is as fun as it is pretty. After re-solving it today, it occurred to me that some folks might want to know more about it, and so here I am: telling some folks more about it, in case you might want to know.

This is one of the rare puzzle boxes with a practical use: in addition to being a fun puzzle, it is a case for a lovely pair of chopsticks. Now, I wouldn’t personally carry this around to eat with, because I don’t typically put hard-to-come-by puzzles in my mouth (I don’t put easy-to-come-by puzzles in my mouth either, but you get the point). However, it would be pretty cool to bust these out at dinner, nonchalantly puzzling my way to dinner…. ok perhaps most people would not think this was cool, but those people are probably not reading this, so who cares what they think…

The box is smaller than most of Robert’s puzzles at 10″ x 1″ x 1” and uses puzzle box tricks to solve what is, in some ways, a 4×3 voxel packing puzzle. The steps are wonderfully smooth, and there are some really cool movements that I suppose are spoilery enough that I won’t share them (feel free to ask, though, if you’re curious) – apparently, Robert had been playing with the mechanism and realized it would make for a great puzzle (which it does).

Interestingly, there were two runs of the puzzle, using slightly different woods; the first was in 2007, with the second not too long after, in collaboration with excellent OG puzzle-maker, John Devost (the biggest upgrade: they are no longer lacquered bloodwood, but rather waxed purpleheart and leopardwood (I think), lending them their practical edge).

I got my copy about two years ago: as the first box by Mr. Yarger to come my way, I suppose it may have some added sentimentality, but this is truly a beautiful and fun box. The movements are wonderfully smooth; the puzzling is ingenious, even if not terribly difficult, with the chopsticks themselves integrated into the mechanism. The box feels solid in your hands; while narrow, its overall size is nonetheless substantial. More importantly, it has a look that is memorable, a cool mix of contrasting wood that demands to be picked up and handled. Its shape adds something special to the puzzle, standing apart from other boxes, making you wonder just what is inside (assuming you didn’t already know the name).

Needless to say, if you have a chance to pick up a copy, I do not think that you will be disappointed. And if you ever see me grabbing some sushi, perhaps you’ll get a chance to try it for yourself.

The 13th Stickman puzzle is a totally unique and oddly practical box, with a lovely mix of woods and chopsticks so perfectly balanced that I am tempted to use them; normally, I wouldn’t seriously consider it, but I suppose I can make an exception for Hiroshi Iwahara’s Sushi…
My Stickman logo has unfortunately faded a bit due to numerous and frequent solves – the box nonetheless works perfectly.

Overall Grade: 5 Sinatras

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)

Puzzling by the Dashboard Light

Pair O’Dice

Tye Stahly, 3D Printed 2.5″ Cubes (2), Sequential Discovery

Recently, I was fortunate enough to solve an early edition of Tye Stahly’s excellent puzzle debut, Pair O’ Dice (hereinafter POD), kindly custom-crafted in red and yellow in a nod to one of my favorite board games (future copies will likely be a classic white with black pips). POD consists of two 2.5″ plastic dice, their pips featuring either a square, circle, or dollar sign, seemingly at random. The dice are linked together by a (removable) metal loop on which hangs the instructions along with a very cool title design by none other than Jared Petersen (Etsy’s CoreMods, creator of Unstable Eggs (reviewed by me here) as well as a number of other, excellent puzzles).

From the complexity and fun of the puzzle, you would not know that this is Tye’s first design; he has clearly poured a lot of time and energy into it, taking pride in his work and displaying the kind of connection to his design that any artist will recognize, that mixture of pride and anxiety in seeing something personal, something over which you have stressed and sweat, going out into the world to be judged by those for whom it was intended.

And I have to say: I really liked it. Despite how seriously he may take his work, his sense of humor nonetheless keeps things light, pervading the experience, which manages to exude more than a little playfulness (as evidenced by the slightly silly and thoroughly thematic instructions).

These must have taken quite a bit of time to print and build as they contain a large number of parts. The build quality is quite good – I didn’t find anything to be wonky or to do anything but what was intended (except for one now-fixed design issue that Tye discovered before I did, quickly sending out an entire replacement die before I had even realized there might be a problem – he even added in a free puzzle, which just shows his respect for puzzlers getting a copy from him).

The puzzling is even better, solidly falling into the much lauded sequential discovery category. I found the experience and difficulty to be somewhat akin to Juno’s Ring Case (albeit quite a bit longer): first, there are a good amount of pieces and tools that you are able to discover relatively quickly, amassing a considerable pile of stuff while causing you to wonder whether you will be able to keep a clear sense of what you will need to do to reset it properly (which is great as this will only add to the experience with resetting becoming a bit of its own challenge). Second, while some phases of the puzzle are not crazy difficult, nor are they simple and, perhaps more importantly, all are quite a bit of fun; significantly, there are a couple parts that had me stuck for quite a while, with one being particularly sneaky. Next, it follows a path that is mostly linear but feels like you have meandered far and wide to come back to a point of focus. Finally, POD also features two main challenges (which makes sense, considering there are two dice): first you must find the tiny dice, followed by a hidden coin.

These separate challenges also serve as a clear indication of when you have solved each die, quite helpfully providing some clarity and helping prevent you from getting lost as you move through the puzzle’s controlled chaos. Although you don’t know which die is which when starting out, the design does a good job of focusing you where you need to be, with plenty of misdirection to keep you on your toes (particularly challenging when you hit a nice wall midway through the puzzle, which hid perhaps my favorite of several aha moments).

Tye will be releasing more copies of POD; it is not clear yet whether these will be a limited run or not, and if you are interested you should reach out soon lest they all be gone (there is most assuredly a list already). The price is representative of the design’s complexity and the significant amount of puzzling it contains and is not at all unreasonable. You can reach him by emailing Thinkingfin@gmail.com (you may already know him by this same name if you frequent some of our online puzzler haunts). He is also planning on opening an Etsy store (this link may still work once the store is open).

Hopefully, you will get a chance to experience Pair O’ Dice; I am already psyched to see whatever he will come up with next – I anticipate it taking some time, as he put a lot of time into this design and I expect there will be a good number of puzzlers wanting one, but I also know he is not the type to let his mind sit idle. Regardless, good puzzles come to those who wait…


Fun and Challenging Debut Grade: Four and a Half Sinatras

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

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)

I couldn’t think of a witty title for this post but the box is still super cool.

Kakoi

Shiro Tajima, 2016, Monarch Birch, Black Walnut and Japanese Cherry, 4” x 4” x 4”

Shiro Tajima was creating puzzle boxes with the Karakuri Group until a few years ago; his Hermit Crab and Goblet boxes are probably the most recognized of his boxes, as they have been produced in larger numbers. I reviewed his Uroboros box a few months ago (with one of the few solution vids I’ve done, as it was requested by a fellow puzzler). Kakoi is quite different, not only from Uroboros but from any box I’ve seen or done.

Kakoi consistently gets listed in community polls as being among puzzlers’ favorite boxes; in fact, it won the 2017 Nob Yoshigahara Puzzle Design Competition Jury Grand Prize, which is basically a long way of saying it’s a damn good puzzle. The only reason it likely doesn’t get an even better showing is simply due to its rarity.

It is a bit bigger than your typical Karakuri box and eschews the traditional panels for a look that is anything but traditional (or a panel). Your first impulse is pretty clear from looking at it and it does in fact lead to some success, or at least it seems to: this is one of those puzzles where movement early on doesn’t necessarily give you much info on how to proceed from there. While I have chosen not to post pics that display these early movements, a simple search will let you see some slight spoilers for said steps.

After futzing with it for a while, essentially just poking the same few things back and forth, I began to get a sense of what might be possible and started experimenting. This is one of those puzzles where things have to be juuuust right before you’re able to proceed, and it’s not so easy to see what that is until things are, in fact, just right, a tautological conundrum that helps to build the aha into something truly satisfactory.

One you find that perfect setting and the move it permits, the main movement is quite elegant and unique. Having accomplished this, it doesn’t take much to find the final steps, allowing you to access a total of four(!) hidden compartments.

Opening the compartments makes the puzzle impossible to close and it is pretty easy to get turned around such that knowing how to close it and actually doing so are not quite the same thing, at least for a few moments. This forces you to really look at how everything works together to first prevent and then permit the main movement. Once again you need to find the exact right arrangement before you can reverse the main step; when closing it you can really appreciate the close tolerances, a bit of a vacuum is even created, with the displaced air acting as excellent evidence of this precision.

Resetting the box is quite satisfying: enough so that Kakoi is among the puzzles that I have a tendency to re-solve most frequently. There is something about that main movement that I find to be so pleasant to do; the fine adjustments never seem to get easier, such that a moment of confusion feels inevitable with each run-through.

Shiro Tajima’s Kakoi is an excellent example of the uniqueness of Karakuri boxes; its aesthetic and movement stand apart from other boxes and offer an elegant and fun solution that relies on high levels of precision that others might sometimes struggle to obtain. If you happen to see this one available somewhere, I’d recommend considering it – it certainly sits comfortably amongst my favorite Karakuri.


Overall Grade: 5 Sinatras

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

Time to Read

Art Deco Clock Box, Book Puzzle Box (Volumes 1, 3, & 4)

Bill Sheckels

Bill Sheckels (blackdogpuzzleworks on Etsy) has been making custom, fine furniture since the 70’s and it shows in the amazing craftsmanship of his puzzles. I had seen some of his work around and when I saw his Art Deco Clock Box I quickly reached out to see if any of his boxes might be available. Since that time, I have happily collected a few pieces and look forward to growing my library of book boxes (so my bookshelves will actually get to hold some books….. sort of).

When I first got in contact with Bill, he had recently sold the last of 25 copies of his Art Deco Box and offered the Artist Proof copy at a discount; the only difference is that the back panel juts out a couple mm from the back (it is otherwise the same in terms of aesthetics and mechanics) and so I jumped at the chance. I love the idea of a puzzle clock and was quite pleased to be able to get a copy. The puzzle is a good size: 9.5″ x 2″ x 6″, and looks absolutely great on the shelf. In fact, its beautiful, dark wood and lovely Art Deco style was sufficient to earn it a place Downstairs, where only the most worthy of puzzles are permitted. Sitting down to work on it, it took me a while to find anything that did anything; I was eventually pleasantly surprised to find that the 5 or 6 steps required to access the hidden compartment included some elements of sequential discovery. The solution is tricky but not overly difficult and uses a couple steps that I, at least, have not seen used anywhere else. Aside from it being beautiful and a cool puzzle, I just love having a functional object that is also secretly a puzzle box – I can’t help but smile to myself almost daily as I walk through the Living Room. A puzzle box with an actual function is an oddly rare concept, and this is an elegant and attractive example of such a concept.

Around the same time, he had copies of the third volume of his book boxes available. He generally offers multiple wood options, and I was lucky enough to get my first choice: Figured Makore with a Walnut spine, Ash pages, and Cherry inlay. The pictures really do not do it justice: it is a gorgeous piece, the two-tone spine contrasting wonderfully with the figured front and back; the ash is carefully cut so that the natural wood grains mimic paper quite well, and the overall look is simultaneously artistic and convincing. It is a decent sized box at 6″ x 1.5″ x 7.25″ and is certainly an excellent example of woodworking, but how is it as a puzzle? It was hard enough that the solution eluded me for quite some time: the drawer is unlocked in one step and then another is required to open it. Although I would not say that it was overly difficult, I do enjoy the final unlocking and opening of the hidden drawer. As an added bonus, I was quite pleased to find a copy of his Three Piece Dilemma (available on Etsy) inside; this consists of three different flat shapes that must somehow be combined into the shape of a kite and a triangle – both challenges are much harder than one would think, although this kind of spatial reasoning is far from being my strong suit.

A couple months later, I heard from Bill that he was remaking his original Book Box in 6 different woods; I acted quickly but even still my first choice (Walnut Burl) was gone. Fortunately, all of the options were beautiful, and I got my second choice: a two-toned Bubinga frame using a black spine to set off the reddish-brown covers, the light-colored wood “pages” again featuring natural grain to subtly mimic the pages of the book. This box is significantly larger, coming in at 9″ x 1.75″ x 7.5″. I was able to solve this one a bit quicker, primarily as it has some features in common with another puzzle I had recently solved. The mechanics also share some similarities with the Art Deco Clock Box: a similar nod to sequential discovery albeit with fewer steps. The compartment is accessed in a pretty unique way for a book box, with some unexpected moves that I found quite enjoyable. Overall, I enjoyed the mechanics more than Vol. 3, although Vol. 3’s figured covers are hard to beat.

Flashforward a few more months, and Bill emails to say that he has designed a fourth book box: obviously, I jump on it quickly, managing to get my preferred wood choice: Figured Bubinga with a Walnut spine, Red Oak pages, and a Bubinga inlay. Although it shares the primary wood with the previous book box, it looks significantly different: the figuring makes the covers have ample texture that contrasts nicely with the more minimalist (and larger) original Book Box. Its spine features matching Bubinga in a few asymmetric rectangular shapes that help to create its rather convincing bookish appearance. It is a bit smaller than Vol. 3 at 5.5″ x 1.3″ x 5.5″. I’d like to tell you about the puzzling but, to be honest, I have still not managed to solve it! I have figured out a couple things without making any actual progress. I count this as being a good thing, obviously, as I will continue to pick it up and spend some time futzing with it until I can find my way through to the solution. I am guessing that it features a drawer, similar to the third Book Box, but this assumption could certainly prove to be incorrect.

Basically, Bill’s Book Boxes are absolutely beautiful: they feel solid and smooth and his 40+ years of fine woodworking is quite clear from the moment you see them. Book Boxes have a tendency to not be the most difficult of puzzles, but these are not what I would call easy – both the craftsmanship and the clever mechanisms are more than enough for me to hope to see him remake the second Book Box (because completism runs strong in me), as well as future designs. The Clock Box will continue to play its double role as an actual clock, amusing me with the secret it contains unbeknownst to passersby (who probably wouldn’t really care, but it’s still fun for me), although once the secret door to my puzzle room (slash home office) is done, I plan on keeping it there rather than downstairs (likely alongside its Book Box brethren).

Bill has several puzzles available on his Etsy store; the boxes tend to sell out before they have a chance to make it there, although I believe some copies of the Art Deco Clock Boxes were sold there at some point. However, he sells a number of interlocking, burr, and packing puzzles that are of equal craftsmanship and good price points; the selection changes over time, so be sure to favorite the store as something you like will likely pop up before too long.

Bill has submitted some very cool puzzles to IPP competitions over the years, none of which have I had the pleasure of solving, something that I hope to someday remedy. His Caged Coin and Packed Pyramid are of particular interest to me, and I hope to find them at auction one day (ideally at a reasonable price), or perhaps remade and available at his store (hint hint). Until then, I will continue to keep an eye out for Bill’s Book Boxes, which share a common aesthetic while managing to be quite unique from one another, both in terms of style and mechanics.


Craftsmanship Grade: 5 Sinatras

When EWE Need a Sheep Alternative to Puzzle Boxes

EWE UFO

Kel Snache, 5.5″ x 5.5″ x 5.5″, 2020

“In what can only be described as a freaky fluffy encounter of the 5th kind, an apparent rag tag group of crafty and clever ewe’s mellifluously stormed the gates of Area 51. Witnesses say they saw what must have been their larcenous leader take command of not one, but 17 super secret flying machines!

As [we] have come to understand things from [the Captain’s] view, they don’t all enjoy being shorn. So apparently a small group hell bent herbivores decided to tell the freaky farmer to ram it, and ran!

Somehow, whether it be the grindage grazing or the foreseeable fact that they don’t have pockets, but they lost any comprehensible clue as to what they were. [We are] afraid that you all will have to sort your way through their retrofitting of this ubiquitous UFO…”

– EWE UFO Back Story (excerpt)

Kel Snache has yet again made a puzzle that is not only challenging, but also wildly unique and fun. Last year’s Puzzleduck Pastures was awesome and he has further outdone himself with a puzzle that is even more complex and satisfyingly silly than was helping Lil’ Miss Fairy Pants unlock her door. Kel has created a backstory about four sheep determined to make a break for it (and one forced to come along): the intrepid Captain Fran, and her crew of Fern, Flo, Fanni and the sheep-napped Wee Fae. The story is told in facebook posts (reproduced in 13 pages alongside pictures of his progress taken over the course of several months): the “Fluffy Five” have built a ship and we have the rare opportunity to explore it, if we can find our way inside.

EWE UFO is not quite a puzzle box – as Kel says, it is “disguised to look like one [but] there is no internal space to store tiny objects de jour.” It would be more accurate to describe it as a sequential discovery take-apart puzzle, as it will ultimately break down into 23 separate pieces after successfully navigating 32 steps (plus an additional four steps to fully disassemble it), revealing tools and red herrings along the way. The craftsmanship is excellent, with a build quality that feels like it will stay strong over time and aesthetic details that add to the sense of wonder that the puzzle brings.

EWE is a cube made of a variety of woods that seems to float a few cm above whatever surface it is on, due to the placement of the escape hatch on the bottom. All four sides are identical, except for a little acrylic portholes giving us a view of the sheep crew as they cook pizza, take a bath, extinguish a fire, and look back at us with X-Ray glasses; all except for Wee Fae, desperately reaching up to us as we look down the fifth porthole on top of the ship. Our goal: “Be the noble hero and join the quest to remove Wee Fae from the top of the craft. She just wants to go home before the others resume their zoom into space.”

Some of the portholes spin freely, while others do not. Other than this, there appears to be no way in or out. As we work out way through “six sides of play,” we must navigate through (as it says in the instructions) “a Trap Door, A Guillotine and a Four Finger Force Field,” before we can do a bit of post-solution disassembly for a “full visual tour of the Inner Core.”

The instructions at the front of a 14-page packet, which also includes detailed solution steps with accompanying pictures), informs us that there is no need for tapping and no tricky magnets. You will instead enjoy a journey through diverse mehanical mechanisms that meanders along an otherwise linear path to success. Steps build upon one another; pieces removed may serve multiple purposes or none at all; things sometimes move only to confuse us; and our assumptions will be used against us.

Escape Hatch

Throughout the puzzle, we find pieces and mechanisms that are so instantly recognizable as being from Kel; while the puzzle is totally original and quite different from any other piece of his that I have had the pleasure of working on, it also manages to have an aesthetic and method that is uniquely his.

The rhythm is exactly what I love in a puzzle: I am pulled into the experience with some early success, which pays off with some tools and moving parts that provide unknown opportunities to do…. something (maybe). From there, I hit a series of walls as I proceed through the puzzle, steps discovered in fits and starts, forcing me to backtrack and explore and question what I’ve done and what I am trying to do. Things that seem like they must do something, actually do nothing (nothing useful anyway); other things that seem to fade into the background, end up being essential to my continued progress.

After a few hours spread out over several days, I manage to remove the top porthole, liberating Wee Fae from her wooden, spacefaring prison, and finding Kel’s snake mark burned into the piece. The open porthole, as indicated in the instructions, allows me to peer into the internal mechanisms at the core of the puzzle (with the aid of a flashlight). The “further disassembly” referred to earlier, essentially consists of removing the four brass nuts in the top corners of the puzzle, allowing me to lift it off, exposing the “Inner Core,” and showing the copy’s edition number (mine is #12/17).

At this point, I was able to slide the central cube out, allowing me to see how all the varied mechanisms fit together. While not exactly a fusion drive, there is a lot going on in there! Mostly wooden pieces (with a few metal parts) are stacked and organized, with sufficient room to allow for the movement necessary to solve it. I went through the steps again, watching the internal machinations of the puzzle and appreciating it all the more for it. Reassembly was mostly straightforward, a matter of following the steps backwards. I was proudly admiring my brilliance until I noticed a piece that I had somehow left out – so I was treated to another run through the majority of the puzzle, until I found where it should go, acting as another lock on an otherwise locked piece, yet another step along the way.

From the wacky story, to the beautiful craftsmanship and complex mechanisms, and, finally, to the eventual full disassembly and exposure of the puzzle’s inner workings, EWE UFO stands among the best puzzles I have had the pleasure of working on: it is playful without being easy, challenging without being impossible, tricky without being annoying, and very unique.

(SPOILERS: click here to see some pics of the puzzle totally disassembled, including the outside and inside of the inner core, where the majority of the puzzling occurs)

Overall Grade: 5 Sinatras

No, I Don’t Think He is Dead

He Can Not Get the Ball!

Yoh Kakuda and Yasuaki Kikuchi

He Can Not Get the Ball! is a winner of the 11th Annual Karakuri Idea Contest. This box was built by Yoh Kakuda and Yasuaki Kikuchi out of oak and cherry, based on an original idea by Masaki Ohnishi,

The puzzle depicts a moment in which most people have found themselves on at least one occasion – arm stretched out under a dresser, cheek pressed to the floor, face turned so you can get as far in as possible, fingers just brushing the elusive item, still just a bit too far out of reach. Fortunately, the artisans have left us an unattached baseball bat and broom to help us in our quest.

Perhaps the best detail in this puzzle is the tiny baseball that can be seen deep under the dresser – but only if you get your eyes level with the bottom of the dresser. This “hidden” feature really makes this puzzle for me, as it puts the puzzler in the place of the child.

You will notice that the child’s eyes are X’ed out. I am not sure why this is, except perhaps to imply that this poor child died while struggling to regain his lost ball. A tragic end to a common situation. But while we may be too late to save this tiny wooden person, we can at least get his ball! Well, no, actually we can’t…… but we can open his dresser! This is, after all, a puzzle box, albeit a rather simple one.

As with many Karakuri (but certainly not all), the solution is rather straightforward, fitting thematically into the concept of the puzzle, easily deduced from the situation being depicted. However, this collector’s piece is exquisitely made and is surprisingly fun to solve.

The video features the solution following a short spoiler break. As with my last post, this may not be a puzzle that will appeal to a pure solver, but it is one that looks wonderful in my collection – if you are a collector, I definitely recommend getting one of these, if you have the chance.

The Tail of the Uroboros Puzzle Box

Uroboros

Shiro Tajima

Check out the Uroboros box from Shiro Tajima of the Karakuri Creation Group, made in 2012. This is my first video that includes me solving the puzzle.

It is not an overly difficult box, but it has a couple tricky-ish steps that utilize some cool movements. As with many Karakuri boxes, the beauty of the piece itself is as important as the mechanisms, and this box does not disappoint.

The video includes a spoiler break halfway through, so if you do not want to see me solve it, make sure to close it out at the break.

I went back and forth on whether I should post videos of my solving puzzles – I generally do not watch solves unless it is a box I have already solved. Early on, I watched some videos of puzzles I thought I might never get, only to find myself with the opportunity to get it or to solve it. However, if you are purely a Solver focused on puzzling time per $ spent, then this may not be something that will appeal to you.

For collectors out there, on the other hand, this is a really nice box, and a welcome addition to my own collection.

The Uroboros is a snake that is forever eating its own tail – it is a symbol of regeneration and renewal that dates back to Ancient Egypt and was adopted by the Ancient Greeks and, eventually, the Gnostics and alchemists. Tajima made this when he was doing a series of puzzles to reflect the Chinese Zodiac – this was made ahead of 2013, the Year of the Snake, following up on his Dragon Wing box.

Hope you enjoy the video!