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

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

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

You Deserve a Brake Today…

Snack Brake from Daniel Alterman (DanielScottWoodworks on Etsy) hit the puzzling scene from out of nowhere. It helped that a certain famous youtuber did a vid on it (you know, where someone manages to solve IMPOSSIBLE puzzles all the time – somewhat counter-intuitive, but I digress) – but mostly, it is just a unique looking puzzle with a fun design that just makes it stand out from the crowd.

First off, it’s fun to have a puzzle box (which I’d say this is, more than anything else) with a bit of a story: it’s a vending machine, and you got to get your snack out, right? But alas no coin slot! What shall I do? Well, it took me quite a while to figure out how to get my wooden snacks to drop down to the vending slot. Even then, more surprises await, a welcome double solve!

Snack Brake is a pretty big piece – it weighs a good amount, and comes with a viewing window on the front, behind which you can see your wooden snack, colorful tubes extending upwards; the panel is locked and you can see a key in a little vial on the same shelf as your snack.

The whole thing is pretty colorful, and has a good, nostalgic and playful feel to it; especially when you plug it in and use the handy remote to, that’s right, light up the back! Puzzle Party over heeere!

Like I said, the puzzle has some good challenges – the opening sequence of moves was something I’ve never seen before. I especially appreciated getting a good look at the build (eventually), which was even more original than I’d thought.

It’s also rare to have a puzzle with some electronics built in, and it made for a nice aesthetic addition to my collection.

Finally, Dan is a super nice guy – easy to get in touch with, and happy to provide some direction or just chat about the experience. He has since released his Toasted puzzle, which also looks fun and keeps with the theme of eating one’s wooden puzzle solutions, and who doesn’t love the thematic consistency of tongue splinters!

Seriously though, I think Dan is someone to watch, as he brings something of an outsider mindset to his puzzles, leading to mechanisms and themes that are unexpected and deviate significantly from many other emerging works.

Make sure to follow his shop on Etsy as his puzzles seem to fly off the cyber shelf…. maybe I shouldn’t say that as it only means more competition, but he’s just that nice! Besides, Ramsay may have already driven one or two more people than this blog.

Packing It In 2: Pack Harder

While Gretel remained unsolved (the first time), I became aware of how many excellent packing puzzles there are out there – and, unsurprisingly, Cubic Dissection held several excellent examples of my newfound delight.

I decided to take a few steps back, opting for a couple “easier” packers; mostly, I think, so I could show myself that, yes, I am actually capable of putting things into something else.

Pin Block Case is wonderfully made, as one would expect from anything from CubicDissection, with perfect dimensions that allow its pieces to juuuuust fit. True, it is not perhaps as challenging as some of its noteworthy cousins, but it does not change the fact that the solution is elegant and satisfying. Designed by Hajime Katsumoto, CubicDissection had released it as a part of their (unfortunately discontinued) Artisan series.

It is a pretty straightforward puzzle: 4 blocks with small metal pins on one side and a slot running down another must fit into a cube with one corner open. This is made much more difficult by the fact that the slots do not run the length of the block; the perfect fit into the cube creates a challenge in fitting them in despite the pins’ best efforts to the contrary.

I think that this is an excellent introduction to packing puzzles, and to wood puzzling generally; it shows how something that seems simple is not necessarily easy. What’s more, trial and error may help you to see what not to do, but the solution is best found by stepping back and, well, thinking.

Suddenly, the necessary angles and orders became clear, and they slipped in perfectly and elegantly, as though I should have known all along that is how they were meant to go. And an excellent final detail: unlike many packing puzzles, Pin Block may be displayed and shared solved without spoiling anything – all one sees are 4, apparently plain, same-sized blocks resting comfortably behind the quarter cut hole. Removing them offers the same challenge in reverse, although it should of course first be approached unsolved, as with packing puzzles generally.

Not being the most difficult puzzle is an attribute of this lovely piece; the satisfaction of the graceful solve is not lost in such relative simplicity, quickly adding packing puzzles to my addiction while putting a happily stupid grin on my face.