These are difficult times. I know this because every second commercial on TV mentions ‘these difficult times’ (TDT). They are so difficult, in fact, that I just want to punch the next person who says ‘these difficult times’.

But that’s not my topic. Since most of us are spending way too much time inside during TDT, I thought I’d share some thoughts on a pleasant time-waster that, if you play your cards right, could become a lifelong hobby, or even a dangerous addiction. Either way, it’s a win-win!

I’m speaking of jigsaw puzzles.

I’ve been doing jigsaw puzzles for a couple of years or so, and I find them alternately relaxing and infuriating, aggravating and satisfying. If you’re looking for a time-waster during TDT, jigsaw puzzles are worth considering; they are the very definition of a time-waster. You can do them by yourself, or with another person. You can do a puzzle for hours or minutes, or do it for days or forget about it for weeks, and it’s still there. And when it’s done, you’ve got a strange feeling of accomplishment.

For those of you who have never done a jigsaw puzzle and are looking for something to fill the trillions of idle hours, I’d like to share with you some thoughts on the hobby, or whatever you call doing jigsaw puzzles.

Size matters

Jigsaw puzzles come in various numbers of pieces, beginning at 100 (kid’s stuff) all the way up to 5,000 (madman’s stuff) and beyond. The most popular number of pieces is 1,000, but take it from me, 1,000 pieces is a LOT of pieces. If you’ve never done a puzzle, start with something more reasonable, say 300 or 500 pieces. Starting at 1,000 pieces is a little like riding a motorcycle when you’ve never even been on a bicycle. Also, some puzzles come in very small pieces. Being a junior-senior, I like puzzles with bigger pieces; easier on the eyes and arthritic fingers.

The big picture

Beatles album cover puzzle – the early years

There are thousands of jigsaw puzzle pictures to puzzle over. I find the best puzzles are of things that interest me on a personal level. As a Beatles fan, I loved doing the Beatles-themed puzzles shown here, so much so that I framed them (which is another benefit of jigsaw puzzles – hangable art). They look great, but before you run out to the store to buy a Beatles puzzle, forget it – they are very difficult to find.

Beatles album cover puzzle – the later years

Scenes from nature are likely the most common, but I find them both boring and frustrating. I steer away from any puzzle that has a large swath of one colour – say, a green field, or an ocean – because piecing together a puzzle that is all the same colour is a prescription for madness. For example, take a look at the Beatles album cover puzzle at the left. Which part of it was most difficult? Yep, the White Album. Large swaths of one colour gives you no clue as to where a piece might go, so you just end of doing hours of trial and error. Very frustrating, and just the kind of thing that will make you quit doing puzzles.

All puzzles are not created equal

A lot of companies make jigsaw puzzles, some better than others. I think the Cadillac of jigsaw companies is Ravensburger. The artwork is great, the pieces solid, and cut with precision. Cobble Hill also makes a quality puzzle, as do White Mountain and Eurographics. A typical 1,000 piece puzzle will set you back between $20 and $25.

You may ask, why does it matter who makes the puzzle? Let me explain.

Pretty good for only four bucks.

In desperation one time, I bought a couple of puzzles from a dollar store for $2 a puzzle. I liked the images (a collage of Star Wars and Marvel Superheroes, even though I’m not a fan of either), but the pieces were shoddy and tiny and don’t lock together well. That being said, cheap puzzles are not all bad. In a different dollar store recently week, I found a series of puzzles, at $4 a piece, that depict various Kellogg’s products (left). The pieces were big, held together well, and the end product looks great, although I found myself strangely hungry after a long puzzle session.

How to get started

So you’ve bought a puzzle. Welcome to the club, or cult.

First thing to do is find an appropriate space. Since you might be working on your puzzle for weeks, do not lay it out on your dinner or dining room table. Puzzles cannot be moved once you start the build, so put it somewhere it will not be disturbed. Make sure you’ve got lots of room.

The first steps are the most tedious – all of the pieces have to be placed face up. This is easily the worst part of puzzle solving; it doesn’t take long, but it’s a pain. The second worst part is finding the all-important edges and corner pieces – the starting point of any puzzle. (By the way, when you’re building the edges, you will inevitably believe that there are pieces missing. In all the puzzles I’ve built, I have never found all of the edge pieces on the first try.)

Strategies

Yes, there are strategies. The best starting point is to separate the pieces by colour, or design, or words, or any similarity. You might like to concentrate on one corner of the puzzle, or one specific graphic. I like puzzles (like the puzzles mentioned above), that are really a series of smaller puzzles. You’ll develop your own strategy, but whatever you do, resist the urge to quit.

Missing pieces

In every puzzle I’ve ever done, I was convinced that there were pieces missing. I’ve only done one puzzle that actually did have a piece missing, and it was the least satisfying moment of my life when I was deprived of that moment of triumph when you pop the last piece into place. Your best bet is that a piece has fallen on the floor or between a cushion or something. All bets are off, however, if you get a used puzzle from a friend or a garage sale. You get what you pay for. (By the way, in the unlikely event that you buy a new puzzle with a missing piece, a quality company like Ravensburger will send you a new one if you ask.)

Ups and downs

You will have times when the pieces fall into place like rain, and other times when you’ll stare at the puzzle for hours and put one or two pieces in place. This is the nature of the puzzle. You may also invite someone to help you, and they will almost immediately find a piece that you’ve been puzzling over for days. They will assume that puzzling is a piece of cake, and walk away triumphant. Just grit your teeth and say thanks, even if it aggravates you to no end.

And as ridiculous as this sounds, puzzling can extract a physical toll. You can suffer shoulder and neck pain after hours of being hunched over a puzzle. This is the price we pay.

Satisfaction

As frustrating as puzzles are, there is a wonderful moment of triumph when you put that last piece into place. I like to run my hands over the puzzle, savoring the moment. Then there is that little letdown moment, when you ask yourself why you just spend hours and hours putting something together, only to take it apart again. But that will pass.

And finally, if this overlong blog convinces you to give puzzles a try, the best place to buy a puzzle in Edmonton is River City Games. Here’s a story I wrote for Edmonton Prime Times about this locally-owned retailer.

Enjoy … maybe.

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