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SocietyJune 7, 2021

In praise of jigsaw puzzling


A lifelong puzzler on why jigsaw puzzles can be so much more than a lockdown pastime. 

The Covid-19 pandemic led to a puzzling boom. With people across the world cooped up inside over the past year, puzzle manufacturers in the UK have reported a 38% increase in jigsaw sales since the beginning of 2020. Cosy cottages, bustling pubs are the big sellers, as well as birds, animals and nature scenes. I am hardly surprised to see that people have been embracing the slow, tactile, soothing hobby. The benefits of the pastime are many and varied, but here are 10 things I love the most.

1) You get to call yourself a dissectologist

Jigsaw puzzles have been around since the early 18th Century and were originally called “dissects” – dissected maps to teach children geography. Early hand-made dissects were expensive, however, and only available to the monied classes. A recent early dissect sold in England for £5,000 at Christies.

The name “jigsaw” came about around 1880, when fretsaws became the tool of choice for cutting the shapes. Cardboard jigsaw puzzles appeared in the late 1800s, but it wasn’t until the 1930s that people discovered the benefits of puzzling as a pastime. I think we can all agree that a dissectologist sounds far more intriguing than a jigsaw puzzler. 

2) Jigsaws are a therapeutic tool to combat stress

In this chaotic, Covid-19-affected world, jigsaws offer a positive opportunity to control an environment. Your puzzle can and will be solved. The stresses of the world are shut out as the process of finding the right pieces takes over. You are in charge of the speed at which you solve it and your strategy for doing so. 

Along the way, as you sort and place and complete tasks, you are rewarded. There is pleasure in completing the frame, finishing a particularly difficult element or just finding that pesky piece you have been looking for. Like reading a good book or watching a movie, the humble jigsaw puzzle offers an alternative reality to totally absorb the brain.

3) Jigsaws can enhance your relationships

I was brought up in Scotland, the youngest of a family of six.  At Christmas, we always got a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle to share. Completing a large puzzle was a wonderful social way of passing long winters with everyone chipping in. During the most recent lockdowns, I enticed my partner into doing a 1000-piece puzzle with me called “Postcard From Amsterdam”. It was his first proper foray into puzzling, and he was unsure about giving up his time to such a “meaningless” activity.

Postcards from Amsterdam. Photo: Cathy Casey

The joy of shared puzzling is partly the hilarious conversation that accompanies it. A good team sorts out who does what and what the plan of attack for the puzzle is. We quickly developed a shared puzzle language including “fancy” pieces and “bog standard” pieces. We both know what is meant by looking for a piece with “a thin left arm” or “a fat right foot”. Once we get stuck in, we are definitely the tortoise and the hare – he is slow and methodical and I prefer quick wins.

Over 50 puzzles later, I can definitely say ours is a puzzle marriage made in heaven!

4) Jigsaws are cheap to buy

In our household, almost all of the puzzles that have been completed are recycled. Part of the joy of op-shopping is looking for a suitable 1000-piecer, or sifting through the big online second-hand market for individual puzzles. Most puzzlers only do a jigsaw once and then sell them on at a fraction of the cost. We have bought individual puzzles for between $1 and $10. 

We have also recently bought used jigsaws in bulk. Our last big online purchase took us out to Kumeu to pick up 27, 1000-piece puzzles for $39. Most of the bulk buys on offer are parents cleaning up the empty nest after children have left home. When you can’t guarantee all the pieces are there, jigsaws are hard to sell unless in bulk. It suits us just fine. 

5) All you need to puzzle is a clear a table top 

The least you need to do a puzzle is a tabletop or board. It helps to have a white background so I use an old piece of corflute on the kitchen table and plastic takeaway containers to sort different colours into. Of course, if you want to go upmarket and fancy, there are any manner of aides and gizmos that profess to assist you with your puzzling. Promotional leaflets for these are often inserted into the puzzle box by the manufacturer.

A no-frills puzzling set-up. Photo: Cathy Casey

6) Jigsaws are recyclable and sustainable

No-one in our household minds if on solving a recycled puzzle, there are bits missing. Some op-shops check the jigsaws before sale and will adjust the price to reflect whether the puzzle is complete or not. If you don’t mind missing pieces, you can pick up a bargain 1000-piecer for a couple of dollars. The most I have paid for a complete puzzle is $10. There is often a sticker on the box to guide you.

Before we recycle our completed puzzles, we usually put a sticker on the box saying how many pieces are missing. To date, we have given all our used puzzles away. On a recent holiday in Northland we also discovered jigsaws at the library, a free and sustainable way to try out a few puzzles that you might not ordinarily think about doing.

7) Jigsaw puzzles can be very meaningful

With international travel has been halted, we have enjoyed doing international landscapes or icons more than anything. A 1000-piece Clementoni “Taj Mahal” is currently our favourite. For the puzzlers in our household, there are several treasured jigsaws that won’t be recycled. My favourite is a TradeMe bargain – a 1000-piece puzzle of Robert Burns in The Octagon, Dunedin. My partner is still attached to “Postcard From Amsterdam”, his first proper foray into puzzling.

Perhaps the most meaningful puzzle that we have done is “Puzzlers of Mt Albert”, the 1000-piecer that my daughter had made for a recent birthday milestone. A wonderful gift, but the most difficult puzzle that we have ever done. It was so hard that we are never doing it again, ensuring it stays intact by gluing it down and hanging it. Never again. 

Never again. Photo: Cathy Casey

8) You can enter jigsaw puzzle competitions

If you’re good enough, there’s the World Jigsaw Puzzle Federation (WJPF). It was the WJPF that organised the  first World Jigsaw Puzzle Championship in Spain in 2019. The championship included three events: team, pairs and individual, with more than 1000 competitors from 40 countries. To gain the title of world individual champion, you have to complete an unseen 500-piece puzzle within the two hours allowed. The winner solved the puzzle in 46 minutes and 35 seconds.

Competitive puzzling debuted in New Zealand at the Masters Games in Whanganui earlier this year. The Jigsaw Puzzle Race saw ten competitors complete the same 1000-piece puzzle within the nine hours allocated. The gold medal went to Jane Wayne, who solved the puzzle in 3 hours 51 minutes. Competitive puzzlers say you should always puzzle against the clock, but I do puzzles to step out of the rat race. 

9) You can go bigger and better

We once completed a 1500 piece puzzle, before quickly deciding that’s as far as we will go. It was too big and took too long to complete but, if you’ve got the patience, doing a bigger puzzle is only limited by the size of your tabletop and your bank balance. If you buy new, the average price of a giant puzzle is: 1500 pieces  ($50+), 2000 pieces  ($100+) 10000 pieces ($200+), 18000 pieces ($500+). 

There are puzzle experts worldwide who delight in completing giant puzzles. Currently, the biggest commercially produced puzzle is made by Ravensburger. It has 40,320 pieces and weighs 65 kilograms. Guinness World Record holder Canadian Maxine took nine days off work and completed it in 150 hours. It’s truly worth a look to see how she did it. 

10) Jigsaws can strengthen your resolve

One of the beauties of buying second-hand puzzles, or borrowing them from a library, is that you can test the limits of your patience and current puzzling capabilities. Your technique really does improve, the more jigsaws you complete, but there will be puzzles that you just can’t get your head around. 

I immediately am reminded of a puzzle depicting a very dark Renaissance painting. It was too hard for us to even complete the frame. Similarly, a monochromatic Escher 1000-piece puzzle looked good on the box, but the pieces were indistinguishable and we never even started it.  Finally, our worst nightmare – a gifted photomosaic puzzle of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” where “thousands of miniature photographs combine to make one awesome portrait”. 

Too hard basket. Photo: Cathy Casey

All completely out of our league, but I am more than happy to pass on to the next enthusiastic puzzler. Sorry, dissectologist. 

Keep going!