Lesson from a 2,000 Piece Jigsaw Puzzle

How to put the pieces together

The Backstory

The mental retreat of putting together jigsaw puzzles intrigued me enough to write my origin story with jigsaw puzzles. I explained why I started, why I do them, and why I save them like trophies.

But, something was missing from the story— I only shared the “why.” I didn’t show the critical thinking and analysis that takes place when puzzling.

I need to show my work.

I was inspired and motivated when I got the new Buffalo GamesStar Wars: Rogue One — “Rebellions are Built on Hope” 2,000 piece jigsaw puzzle. I moved passed the “WHY” and started to pay attention to the “HOW.”

The Object

These pieces have a similar cut shape.

I never really thought about how the pieces come together.

How do I choose the puzzle? What do I do first after I open the box? How do I approach the build… by piece count, picture type, or cut quality?

That’s the tip of the iceberg. So, let’s take a dive into “how” I attack a puzzle and what leads to a successful puzzle build.

HOW TO BUILD A JIGSAW PUZZLE

It seems simple enough… buy the puzzle, open the box, dump the pieces out, and start putting them together. WRONG! That’s the equivalent of dumping all the wood and tools you need to build a house into a pile in the front yard and then starting.

Time spent organizing upfront will result in a faster and mentally satisfying build.

So, don’t go too fast in the beginning. Take your time going through steps one and two. Going too fast will cause more anxiety and make you feel less productive later… and puzzling will feel like a chore.

Step 1 — Location Quality

The old business saying of “location, location, location” applies to puzzles too.

  • Puzzle in a place with limited distractions, curious fingers, and flying toys. If possible, it’s best to allocate a space for puzzling, instead of investing in rigs to pack up, in order to maintain progress.
  • While there are a lot of surfaces to puzzle on, I prefer glass tabletops. It’s smooth, easy to clean, doesn’t distract from puzzle colors or designs, and seeing through the glass creates a comforting visual depth.
  • Lighting makes a difference in the ability to see intricacies in puzzle prints. To avoid too much glare, have a light that floods the space and dimmable with warm-glow color.

Step 2 — Identity Sorting

With the Star Wars puzzle, the quality of the print was amazing, and faces were the first to come together… this happens almost every time.

  • Take time to sort pieces. I evaluate the picture and determine major color themes and arrange them around the edge of the table near wear they go.
  • I used to grab a handful of pieces and sort the colors, but I’ve evolved to using the “sifting” method. I casually stir the pieces in the box and pull out what color theme I’ve trained my eye to catch.
  • During the sift, I pull out the edge pieces, color themes, and shades that stand out or exist in pockets. The trick is to begin placement and fitting of pieces that go together, because you’re already working the patterns.

Step 3 — Grouping

So now, the pieces are either all laid out, or the pieces in the box are mostly a theme by itself. With the Star Wars puzzle, the dark clothing of the rebels and the dark brown hues of Vader’s helmet were all that was left in the box.

  • Start with easily identifiable pieces like eyes, faces, bright spaces, and unique lines. Most of these are probably already done through the sift method, so you can connect the shades that are near them. It made sense to focus on the Death Star first, and it got those pieces out of the way.
  • Focus on the patterns and gradients, and the colors that have the fewest pieces. Clusters will emerge and can be connected, while they are arranged inside the puzzle frame in their relative position.
  • Get into a rhythm with piece focus and “non-piece blindness” (ignoring pieces that you aren’t looking for). Picking out the “needle in a haystack” becomes easier, when your eyes are trained to focus on a color or print style. Rotate areas to maintain freshness.

Step 4 — Micro-Alignment

By now, the Star Wars puzzle is taking shape and is becoming more difficult. The pieces left at this point can still be separate; however, the overlap is greater. From here, focus shifts to smaller areas of interest.

  • At this point, perform the same “sifting” exercise just on a smaller scale. Lighter shades can be filtered down even further; dark pieces can be filtered by stars type and density; and pieces can be moved around the puzzle to be in proximity position.

Step 5 — Balance Build

The universe has been put together, but the subtleties remain. The 
“next size up” themed areas are complete, with the dark and light skies put together. Now, it’s crunch time!

  • A fresh mind works wonders. It amazes me that when I sit down to spend a few minutes, I immediately find a fitting a piece each time. Maybe it’s the sub-conscience working, but the point is… take a break!
  • Move from group to group managing the micro-alignment. Don’t spend too long any one area.

Step 6 — Seeing the Unseen

All of those dark pieces that looked like they didn’t have a patterned print or location… all of sudden did. I saw the patterns on the rebels’ uniforms and the angles around Vader’s eyes because that’s what was left to focus on.

Puzzle pieces that didn’t stand out before, stand out now.
  • Once the smaller themes are put together, what’s left has the opportunity to stand out. Focus on the smaller details of color and pattern.
  • Puzzle piece cut becomes even more important here. Along the way, getting through the areas like space with stars was possible by arranging the puzzle cuts by similar shape. This is most effective inside difficult themed groups, because the distractions have been removed.

Step 7 — Finish the Build

With the Star Wars puzzle, I ended up doing the Imperial troopers last, which was interesting, because I thought it was going to end with the rebel uniforms based on color and shade density. The angles and similarities of the pattern made the troopers area the least attractive to pay attention to.

And you’re done! … almost.

Step 8 — Preservation

This is one of my favorite activities… making the puzzle last. As I wrote about in my “why I puzzle” story, I can’t bear the thought of tearing up something I spent hours and hours putting together. This is a trophy!

A 2,000 piece puzzle is relatively big and almost impossible to flip upside down without destroying it. This is where I found Press’n’Seal wrap to be incredibly effective, and it doesn’t damage the puzzle print.

Now, flip the puzzle…

then… duct tape it! Yes, you read that right. It’s easy and works. The durability is remarkable and immediate, and I don’t worry about it coming apart. Avoid cheap duct tape, because the pieces won’t stick long-term. I recommend Gorilla Tape or Duck Brand duct tape.

I don’t like to use glues and laminates, because for me, the risk of ruining the print is too high — the original quality of the image may degrade.

From here, the puzzle can be framed, mounted and hung, or stored to be cherished again later.

The Lesson

There are usually many ways to tackle a task, and puzzles are no exception. Everyone has their own environment, tastes, and viewpoint, so take what tips and approaches best match your build style.

To that end, there are several articles featuring others’ jigsaw puzzle approaches. Some are better than others:

If you actually click through and read the resource links, you’ll notice A LOT of the same steps. While puzzles and personal approaches very, people tend to focus and attack them in very similar ways. So, maybe we have more in common than we initially thought.

The Take-aways:

  • The environment and tools matter, if you want a job done right and on schedule.
  • To increase productivity speed, start big and then drill down your focus
  • Organizing chaos takes planning, time, and technique.
  • The unseen can become seen, eventually.

I am drawn back to my earlier statement… “puzzle pieces that didn’t stand out before, stand out now.”

I think you can apply this theme to inspire and motivate. Most people and their work go unseen and unnoticed, yet one day, each and every one of them can stand out and pay it forward.

#IAMAPUZZLER #PUZZLEON

GIF animation at 550 milliseconds from start to finish

Written by Shaun Holloway.