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Quagmire Puzzle Boxes - The puzzle box craft! What's involved in making puzzle boxes? Ever wanted to build your own puzzle box, here's a little information that you might find interesting!
The Art of

Making Puzzle Boxes
By: Randal Gatewood
Puzzle box inventor, builder and artisan.

      From time to time, I am asked how to make puzzle boxes.  Some individuals have even asked me to give them instructions on how to build a puzzle box or secret box. "Where do you get the ideas?", is a common question that I get. These are indeed very difficult questions to answer. Of course I can't give someone the instructions to build one of my own designs. Explaining my own creative process of inventing a new puzzle box design or how to build them would require a very lengthy complex discussion. I contemplated writing a more detailed "How to" page on this subject but the fact is inventing and building puzzle boxes would require... well,   a book. So instead of writing a book here, I will try to explain what you would need to get into building puzzle boxes or even small secret boxes. I have yet to find any books that really detail making puzzle boxes specifically. There are a number of books on the subject of making wooden puzzles. Some are listed at the bottom of this page.

    If you are really wanting to make puzzle boxes, there are a few things that you really must have.  First you really need a natural knack and some experience with wood working. You will also need a real good understanding of the dynamics of the different woods that you will be using. Of course you must have the necessary tools and equipment with the knowledge of how to use them properly. Whether your making one box or making a bunch of boxes, if you don't have the proper tools you simply cannot achieve favorable results.  Lets be honest, if your "all thumbs" or you are not skilled with wood working or even how to use the tools, you will certainly have to learn this before you can successfully proceed. This will take a lot of reading and practice. Perfection is achieved through repetition!

    After having completed numerous designs and building over 300 boxes, I wrote the following to provide a first hand perspective on making puzzle boxes....

   The art of puzzle box designing and building is truly unique as compared to any other type of woodworking that you might attempt. I've tried my hand at many phases of wood working over the years including: custom furniture, wood turnings, guitar restoration to building custom aircraft cabinets (a previous profession). Nothing really compares to making puzzle boxes. It is more like being a wood machinist in the sense that a lot of the Checking a part for accuracy!measuring tools and techniques used by machinist will apply here also. Tools such as dial (or digital) calipers, machinist straight edges and micrometers, to name a few, must be used to maintain the tight tolerances that are required. I try to keep a tolerance finer than a human hair (about .005" - five thousands of an inch) with my puzzle boxes. In fact, maintaining cuts within a few thousands of an inch is not common in wood working nor is it easy to do. If you fully understand the dynamics of wood as a material than you know how difficult it can be to achieve such tolerances with conventional wood working tools.

    What you will definitely need is your basic shop equipment and hand tools. The most basic equipment you will need will be a table saw, board planer especially for joinery, a band saw that you can re-saw your wood on, router table, drill press and a table top belt sander. I would say that this would be the minimum equipment needed to build a simple wood puzzle box. A jointer and a compound miter saw can certainly make things easier but, you can make a decent box without them. There are simply too many hand tools to attempt listing here. You will also need some tools that you normally would not see in a wood shop such as the machinist measuring tools as previously mentioned.  And, we don't want to forget those tools that you just can't buy - anywhere.  Those you will have to hand make yourself. Sleds, braces, jigs... what ever it takes to handle those special tasks for which there are no such tools available. I have constructed more of these tools in one year of puzzle box building than I ever had in over 25 years of wood working.  Everything is focused on achieving the one goal of absolute accuracy. In the Quagmire Puzzle Box shop, it is old school wood working all the way.
 

Checking the table saw for blade accuracy w/ dial indicator!    Building a puzzle box with small intricate parts requires a great deal more accuracy than building a piece of furniture forexample. I don't think you will ever see someone checking the accuracy of their parts for a wood table with dial calipers. So I can't emphasize enough that building quality mechanical puzzles requires making extremely accurate parts. This requires the craftsman to really know their tools intimately. (Easy there!)  What I mean is, you must know each piece of equipment - as the cliché goes, "...like the back of your hand."  We're talking about things like, knowing every imperfection in the top of your table saw or how far out of true, to the thousands of an inch, that the blade is on the saw's arbor in relation to the miter slots. You must also  know how to correct the imperfections.  The better your setup, the smoother and cleaner your cuts, the better your accuracy will be. And for the record, just because someone has a shop full of fancy tools, doesn't mean that their a skilled craftsman by any means. It simply means that they had the money to buy some fancy tools. My table saw, jointer, radial arm saw, one of my scroll saws and even most of my hand planes are all much older than I am. (And I don't mean all of them collectively either!) It is the end product that comes from knowing the tools that is the "tell all" to what kind of craftsman is operating them.
         
    I love new tools as much as the next guy. But take it from a guy who has restored a few pieces of shop equipment over the years, not all new stuff is good. Whether old or new, it takes time to get fully acquainted with any tool in order to be efficient with it and that can only be gained from really using it. But just because something is new doesn’t make it good, nor does old make it bad. Lets take table saws for example. Over the years, I've used new "brand name" table saws of which I've found everything from inaccurate scales, play in the arbors to even warped table tops. In fact, I have seen a brand new table saw with a top concaved over .040”. I've had my table saw for many years and I have it setup truer than any other saw that I have used. It's about as old as I am (it is classified as vintage) and I've had the machine down to its arbor bearings a number of times and back together. I've spent hours using machinist straight edges, checking and adjusting the trueness of the surface of the top. It doesn't get much more intimate than that. And though it certainly has its idiosyncrasies, I know each one and how to work with them. I really wouldn't trade that old saw for a new one. The point here is simple; evaluate what you do have before you spend all of your lunch money on new tools. You may find a really great deal on some good used equipment that just needs minor repairs. You would be amazed at how far a little ingenuity will get you by with fantastic results.

        Designing these intricate puzzles is a whole other story that involves hours of contemplation, imagination, sketching, fabricating, jig building, and prototyping. And once that's been done, you must be able to put the whole process together in order to make more of your new creation - if that is your goal. As with inventing my Double Crossed puzzle box, I made three partial prototypes (one is pictured at left) before finally achieving a good working model which became my master for all of the boxes. In the  process, I was left with a small pile of hand tooled wooden parts; all representing many hours of hard work invested in the attempt of the perfect parts. 

        Once I had all of my master pieces, I still had to make 31 mini-jigs and a number of sleds specifically for the purpose of reproducing the intricate precision cuts needed for the Double Crossed puzzle box design. I must admit that this seems rather excessive, especially since all of the mini-jigs are completely proprietary to the Double Crossed box limited edition design. But once committed, it was just a matter of doing what ever it took to get it done. If your planning to build a complex puzzle box, you should really be prepared to put in a lot of time. Just remember that if its worth doing then it's worth doing right or there's really no need to do it at all. If you approach any project with that meaning, you'll be on the road to succeeding.
 

Making & Building Puzzle Boxes

      As with any design, once the test prototype is done you will still need to make a complete prototype of the final box using the actual woods to be sure the design as a whole really works. Pictured at left is my first puzzle box prototype (#000). Puzzle box designing and building can be a very tedious process that requires a great deal of patience. And even though I may say tedious, I do enjoy the challenge that the process gives me.
Making & Building Puzzle Boxes
      For me it really is all about the creative process; producing high quality, completely original puzzle boxes that are as attractive as they are intriguing and enjoyable to play with. I very much consider inventing new puzzle box designs like creating a work of art - working art. I not only invent the art but, I also invent new tools to complete the art process. Creating something that no one has ever seen before is nothing less than rewarding in itself. So I can say that the artist in me hopes that others will receive the concept of my artistic gesture. The craftsman in me hopes that the art will be touched and accomplished. What's better than art that gives you a challenge?

       If you are searching to learn how to build a puzzle box or even want to invent and make puzzle boxes of your own design, be ready for a little adventure. Even if your an experienced woodworker, you're bound to find the experience to be very challenging and tasking, especially if your planning to make your own design from scratch. There is only a hand full of American puzzle box builders... maybe you could add yourself to this short list of talented craftsman!

    Here is a link to a site that has instructions on building a Japanese style puzzle box - <Amateur Woodworker >. There are few good books on building puzzles but, as mentioned previously, non of them provide any real detailed instructions on puzzle boxes specifically. Most plans are really written for those with the knowledge and equipment to execute the instructions successfully and therefore, a great amount of details are not provided. But, these might still be a good place to start with to "get the feel" of puzzle building. Cleverwood.com sells some puzzle related books that you can look at here - <Cleverwood>.  If building puzzles or puzzle boxes turns out not to be for you, there are always my own Original Quagmire Puzzle Boxes available for your enjoyment!

REFERENCES:
Here are a view books of interest from the real writers. Some may be out of print by the time of this reading but may possibly be found through online book stores:

  • Wonders in Wood by: Edwin M. Wyatt - 46 Puzzles and other novelties to makeand solve.
  • Puzzles Old & New by: Jerry Slocum & Jack Botermans - How to Make and Solve Them
  • New Book of Puzzles by: Slocum and Botermans - 101 Classic and Modern Puzzles to Make and Solve
  • New Wood Puzzle Designs by: James W. Follette - A guide to the construction of both new and historic puzzles
  • Making Working Wooden Locks by: Tim Detweiler
  • Creative Puzzles of the World by: Pieter van Delft and Jack Botermans - Over 1000 puzzles to solve / craft projects to make.
  • Here is another very interesting read: Puzzle Craft by Stewart Coffin - This is a 1992 version and is available for download FREE! (.pdf format: 3.4 M) at G4G4 links page.

    This article was first written 09/04. Revised on 08/08



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