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Manufacturing Jigsaw Puzzles

We will look in turn at the various systems used to make jigsaws and the advantages/disadvantages of each method but first a few words about something that is common to all jigsaw puzzles...

The Picture

Each individual jigsaw starts life as one solid sheet of either cardboard or plywood. Although it would be technically possible to print directly onto the chosen material, the jigsaw makers almost always elect to glue a paper print onto it. This ensures a quality finish without having to worry about blemishes in the material distorting the picture. Large-scale jigsaw makers use special glues, presses and thermal machinery and the technology is so good that you hardly ever find a modern jigsaw piece where the print is separating from the material.

Wooden Jigsaw Puzzles – Traditional Cut

During the first 170 years of jigsaw history this was the only method by which to make jigsaws. It was not until the 1930's that the combination of cardboard and die cutting paved the way for much cheaper, less durable puzzles.

A quality puzzle relies upon a good saw and considerable skill. Saws have progressed from hand held fretsaws through to treadle (foot peddle) operated saws to modern electrically driven saws. But through the years the amount of skill required has not diminished. The jigsaw maker does not work to a pre-defined pattern and each individual piece of the jigsaw is configured ‘off the cuff'.

Some of the most beautiful jigsaws in the world are painstakingly cut one piece at a time using electric saws. Sara White (right) was a fine British exponent of this art form.Sara White Cutting a Wooden Puzzle

The disadvantage of making jigsaws this way is that it requires a great deal of skilled labour for each puzzle. A competent cutter will make a maximum of 100 pieces per hour, so a 1,000 piece puzzle requires a full day - and some overtime! However, the advantages are considerable:

  • The maker can incorporate special 'Whimsies' into the design that have special significance to either the puzzle or the ultimate owner.
  • Fiendishly difficult shapes can be cut that often follow the exact line of a division of color and this adds an extra dimension of intrigue.
  • Each maker can develop his/her own recognizable style along the same lines that artists do with painting. This, combined with the fact that each puzzle is unique, will ensure that these are the puzzles that appreciate most in value.

Wooden Jigsaw Puzzles – Laser Cut

Lasers are a wonder of the late 20th century and can be used to cut through solid steel with astounding precision, so a sheet of hardwood prevents no difficulty for them. In essence a laser is a concentration of light – you will glean that this is not a simple process from the fact that the laser machines cost up to £100,000 each. The laser is mounted close to the surface of the developing jigsaw and complex computer programming controls its movements. It darts backwards and forwards making pieces at up to 100 times faster than a person can.

Jigsaw Puzzle Cutting by LaserThe photograph on the left shows the laser in the top left hand corner about to start cutting this jigsaw. Lasers make excellent quality puzzles extremely quickly.

Although it's very quick there is still the matter of the £100,000 machine to pay for – that's a lot of jigsaws! In consequence the cost of laser cut puzzles is somewhere between cardboard and traditionally cut wooden ones. You get the benefits of wood (more durable and a better family heirloom) and intricate shapes that often include whimsies but you miss out on the individual charm of a unique traditionally cut puzzle.

Wooden Jigsaw Puzzles – Cut by Water Jet

A tiny nozzle is mounted above the jigsaw that squirts out water at over 1,500 miles per hour! The force is so great that the water cuts straight through the image and the wood like a knife through butter. The cutting head is computer controlled in a similar fashion to laser cutting heads. The result can be a beautiful jigsaw with amazingly complex pieces.

The undisputed master of this art form is a gentleman called Bob Ayer from America. He makes jigsaws with pieces more finely cut than any others.

Cardboard Jigsaw Puzzles – Die Cut

Unless you have seen this type of machinery in use you will find it difficult to believe how it works! Imagine a giant pastry cutter that is extremely strong and segregated into 1,000 jigsaw size pieces. Now imagine the power required to force the entire pastry cutter through 2 millimetres of solid cardboard. Every cut must be clean and even to ensure that the intricate shapes are not damaged. This is the basis of cardboard jigsaw die cutting.

It is possible for the dies to be fashioned to make jigsaw pieces of virtually any shape but most manufacturers do not make full use of this. The more intricate the shapes, the more difficult the jigsaw becomes to put back together again – particularly if some of the pieces are made so that they are not fully interlocking.

The great advantage of die cutting is that it is an extremely quick way to make jigsaws and therefore the production process is cheap. Manufacturers can make a jigsaw for something like 10% the cost of a comparable sized wooden puzzle. On the downside it might be argued that if you make a jigsaw from cardboard you must expect that it will not be as durable as wood.

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