How Jigsaw Puzzles are Made
The earliest Jigsaw puzzle was made by the engraver and mapmaker John Spilsbury around 1767. He made the puzzle by mouthing a map onto a sheet of hardwood and cutting around the national boundaries, by using a marquetry saw. The puzzle was then given to a local school, by John Spilsbury, to assistthe children with their geography lessons. The story of, what were to eventually
be called, jigsaw puzzles, had begun.
John Spilsbury created the first jigsaw puzzle by mounting a map to hardwood and then cut around the borders of individual countries.
Following on from this, the early jigsaw puzzles, actually called "dissected puzzles" or "dissected maps", since the jigsaw tool was yet to be invented, were made by painting or pasting a picture onto a flat rectangular sheet of wood, then cutting the picture into small pieces.
Cardboard jigsaw puzzles started to appear during the late 1800s, due to the invention of the jigsaw tool, but they were slow to replace the wooden jigsaw puzzle owing to the manufacturers feeling that cardboard puzzles would be seen as being of poor quality, plus the manufacturers felt that profit margins would not be as high as with the wooden jigsaw puzzles.
After the end of World War 2, sales of the wooden puzzle fell due to rising wages making the wooden puzzles more expensive. In addition, the improvements in manufacturing methods with the lithography and die cutting, made manufacturing the cardboard and paperboard puzzle more attractive.
Today, most modern jigsaw puzzles are made out of cardboard/paperboard using die cutting equipment, since they are easier to mass produce and therefore cheaper than wooden versions.
Almost any artwork or photograph can be used for puzzle making with most puzzle manufactures using lithography prints for high quality and because they can be mass produced. Most puzzles you see on the market are from photographs, paintings or artwork, some of them famous pieces, and these days some custom puzzle makers invite the customer to supply their own design or photograph, for their own customised puzzle.
These days almost any artwork or photograph can be used for puzzle making and this is a very good example of a fine art jigsaw puzzle
Once the desired image is on the construction paper, a check is made to make sure the colour matches that of the original print.
The enlarged photograph or printed reproduction of a painting, or artwork is glued onto the cardboard, by machine before cutting. Just the correct amount of glue is very important.
Once the artwork is selected it is usually printed by lithography. Lithography uses a plate which is treated to absorb either water or oil. The portion, or part, of the plate which is not to be printed will be wet while the printable portions are coated with grease which attracts the oil based ink.
When ink is applied to the plate, it sticks only to the grease coated image. Then as the plate comes into contact with the paper, the image is transferred. Many puzzles pictures/artwork may be prepared on the same lithography sheet to save both paper and reduce the press time. After printing, the litho sheets are laminated onto the cardboard.
The sheets will be left to dry for two or three days before they are sent to the die cut press.
At the same time, workers construct cutting dies that will create the jigsaw cuts. A die cutting press uses a sharp, flat metal ribbon to stamp out the individual pieces.
A jigsaw puzzle cutting die
It is extremely important that each piece of the puzzle is unique, to do this the manufacturers are continually working to optimise the cutting die.
The aim is to get the cutting die to interlock with the relevant press, to get it to adhere to it, so that when when everything is completed, the puzzle s nice and flat and the pieces fit perfectly with one another. So the form of the cutting die and the opposing press are decisive in this respect.
An artist will design the drawings of the cuts and this design will then be worked on by experts who bend extremely sharp steel rules into the shape of the puzzle pieces. These steel rules are then pounded into a wood mounted die. One side is fixed in a wooden block and when the block is pressed, under great force, onto the softer cardboard backing, stamping out the puzzle pieces, the backing surface will be cut as desired.
The force used to press cut is extremely strong and a 1000 piece puzzle can require a press that can generate upwards of 700 tons of force to push the blades of the puzzle die through the board.
It can take up to 400 hours to make a die for a 500 piece puzzle.
After leaving the die press, the cut sheets go through a breaker which breaks up the sheets into the puzzle pieces and deposits them into a plastic bag which is then dropped into a cardboard box for final shrink wrapping and shipping.
It is estimated that to produce a puzzle with the designing of the artwork, preparing and then cutting the pieces, printing and packaging the finished product, can take up to 12 months and up to 2,000 hours.
However, in spite of this, there are still wooden puzzles being produced, particularly by custom puzzle makers. Whether it's a wooden or cardboard puzzle you buy, the artwork will have been bonded to the backing material with adhesive.
Customised puzzles these days are likely to have been made with a jigsaw/scroll saw. These saws have a vertical blade that goes up and down in it's cutting motion. Some of you may have seen the cut out for sinks on a kitchen worktop cut in a similar way. The puzzle sheet is guided through the blades by hand to cut out the puzzle pieces. These blades are very fine thereby allowing complex or complicated cuts to be made without cutting away too much of the wood, so that the cut pieces will fit snugly. If you have a modern wooden jigsaw puzzle you will note how smooth the pieces are.
Wooden jigsaw puzzle showing the smooth cut edges
The design of puzzles depends on the artwork and style of the puzzle. Artists will hand draw the design of the cuts so you will not get two puzzles the same. Puzzle artists are very careful that when they design the cuts, they do not cut through important feature of the artwork since this can easily spoil the finished effect. The artist can vary the number of pieces and obviously the more pieces then the more difficultly in making the puzzle.
Some puzzles are made more difficult to assemble if the puzzle has no straight edges on the borders.
Modern technology has seen the introduction of laser cutting for both wooden and acrylic jigsaw puzzles with the advantage being that the puzzle can be custom cut into any shape and size, with any amount of pieces.
Not all puzzles are made in the same way. Some artists continue to use traditional methods to create wooden jigsaw puzzles, while others use special knives to create custom cardboard/paperboard puzzles. Some are made using laser cutting technology to ensure that no two pieces are the same.
The artwork used in jigsaw puzzles is always changing since, like most industries, puzzle manufactures track the consumers tastes. Wooden puzzles are gaining in popularity, particularly those that are custom made or personalised.
Three dimensional (3D) puzzles have also been introduced and are gaining popularity, particularly those of well known landmarks, some examples being, Tower Bridge, Statue of Liberty and famous football stadiums etc.
So, it will be interesting to see where this all leads, with the making of and styles used in the future.