Last year when I resumed posting on the blog after a two month hiatus, I mentioned that I had stumbled upon a new hobby. In the course of searching for ways to stem pandemic-induced anxiety, I ordered a jigsaw puzzle online. It turned out to be an excellent decision, but like most new recreational activities, there was a learning curve. Now that I have quite a few puzzles under my belt, I thought I’d share some of the things I’ve discovered along the way.
Pandemic Puzzle Availability
Apparently pandemics create puzzlers which leads to severe puzzle shortages. That was certainly an astonishing revelation. People were gravitating to jigsaw puzzles in huge numbers in the spring of 2020. Puzzle manufacturers were reporting major increased sales and couldn’t keep up with the demand. Online retailers were often out of stock or had very limited inventory.
I bought my first puzzle from Indigo and at the time there were only two in stock for online orders. Amazon inventory was decimated as well and any newly available puzzles were quickly snapped up.
The puzzle scarcity situation has improved dramatically since then and you should be able to find one you like without too much searching. And as a result of last year’s rush on puzzles, you can usually pick up a few cheaply on Kijiji.
So Many Stores Sell Puzzles
First you should familiarize yourself with the wide array of puzzle purveyors. I was surprised to discover just how many stores sell puzzles beyond the obvious ones like Indigo, Amazon, Walmart etc. They range from specialty puzzle shops to drugstores and outdoor equipment retailers.
Here is a non-exhaustive list of stores from which you can buy jigsaw puzzles online:
Wellwise by Shoppers
Bass Pro Shops/Cabela’s
Remember when you’re buying online from Indigo that it’s one of the only stores where gift cards qualify to earn Air Miles through airmilesshops.ca. So if you know you’ll buy a puzzle from them in the future, you can more easily capitalize on airmilesshops.ca promotions.
It’s important to shop around before you make a purchase. Some stores are pretty consistent with pricing like Indigo where all the 1000 piece Eurographics puzzles cost the same – $19.99. But when buying from Amazon (not a third party seller) the prices are much more variable.
Also keep an eye on the Facebook pages of local stores in your area that sell puzzles. For example, back in January the Antigonish Five to a Dollar had a buy one, get one half off sale on Cobble Hill. If you’re a senior, you can also take advantage of periodic discounts at drugstores that sell puzzles such as Pharmasave.
So far, in-store at Walmart has been the best source of puzzles at a good price. A 1500 piece Ravensburger was only $24.99 versus $32.99 at other stores. Another bonus is that you might run across a discontinued one that’s hard to find. That was the case with a 2017 release called “Bedroom View” which was probably my favourite puzzle.
It’s important to be aware of the variation in quality among puzzle brands. If you embark on your puzzling journey with a lower end puzzle you might ditch this hobby before you’ve even given it a real chance.
The higher end puzzle brands such as Ravensburger use thicker cardboard and the sturdier pieces make for a more enjoyable puzzling experience. It’s great when the piece locks into place with a faint clicking sound giving you no doubt that it’s the right one. Those with thinner, flimsier pieces like Sure-Lox can still be fun but you’ll definitely notice the difference. It’s like a fast-food burger versus a steak if you get my drift – both have their role.
Despite the range in quality, I suspect that a considerable percentage of people choose a puzzle based entirely on the image. You have to be careful with this approach, however, because a nice picture doesn’t always lead to pleasant puzzling.
When the puzzle image has too much of the same colour it can result in frustratingly slow progress which might make you regret your choice. I learned this while working on Back to the Barn by Cobble Hill. This was the only puzzle I gave up on without finishing.
I like an image with several distinct areas of colour. Some folks prefer more of a challenge and and opt for really tough ones in order to test their puzzling prowess. Others like to glue the puzzle when they’re finished so it has to be a picture they really love.
Speaking of images you love, if you’re not already into puzzles you might be quite surprised at just how varied and interesting the images can be. Whatever you’re into, you can surely find a puzzle image you like that reflects that interest. It’s definitely not all bucolic landscapes and famous paintings.
More Pieces = More Difficulty?
The most popular puzzles tend to be 500 and 1000 pieces since those are the most readily available sizes. Some puzzle brands don’t even make any larger than 1000 pieces.
It’s a natural assumption that a puzzle with more pieces will be harder to complete. Having now finished 750, 1000, 1500, 2000 and 3000 piece puzzles, I’m not sure I agree. It think image composition is a bigger factor in the level of difficulty. As I mentioned above, you can really get stuck on a 1000 piece puzzle.
It’s just more time consuming to complete a larger puzzle. It takes longer to sort all the pieces and there are a lot more pieces to scan to find the correct one. But I don’t really consider that as making the puzzle more difficult. If the image has a decent amount of variation, you’ll still proceed at a reasonable pace.
Obviously when you get into territory like Ravensburger’s 9000 piece Bombardment of Algiers, the difficulty factor shoots way up. In contrast, my 3000 piece 99 VW Campervan Moments was sort of like doing 99 little puzzles.
One issue when doing the larger puzzles is simply finding sufficient table space to devote to it. The pieces are typically not any smaller in the larger puzzles so you need a good sized surface. I don’t know where I’d do a puzzle bigger than 3000 pieces.
Be careful reading reviews of puzzles. You’ll come across comments by people who did not personally complete the puzzle but instead gifted the puzzle and then enthusiastically report how pleased the recipient was – not much meaningful insight there. I recommend you check out the Jigsaw Puzzles forum on Reddit or various YouTube channels that review puzzles.
Of the puzzle brands I’ve tried so far, I’d rank them in this order:
- Buffalo Games
- Cobble Hill
- Sure-Lox and Karmin International (tie)
Ravensburger is a popular brand out of Germany and most puzzlers would rank it highly. After that, opinions will vary since Cobble Hill has many fans as well. Some people like puzzles that include a poster you can use as a guide. Others prefer random cut pieces over ribbon cut. And there are those who care little about the particulars and will happily take on any puzzle of any size, type, brand etc.
Ribbon Cut versus Random Cut Pieces
Before I bought my first puzzle, I was not familiar with the different types of piece shape or cut used by puzzle companies. I thought puzzle pieces were puzzle pieces.
There are generally two kinds of puzzle cuts: random and ribbon.
Ribbon cut is the term for traditional puzzle pieces that most people recognize. They come in standard shapes and are cut in a grid pattern where the corners of the pieces line up perfectly.
In contrast, random cut pieces are irregular and come in lots of odd shapes and sizes.
Some ribbon cut puzzles actually include only a single shape (as pictured below) and if you’re accustomed to the ones with all six shapes, or the random cut puzzles with the wacky shapes, you might find these puzzles a little less appealing. You can’t sort the pieces by shape which can be a handy strategy for images with a lot of one colour as you can with a regular ribbon cut puzzle.
Piece shape examples from three different puzzles:
Of the three, my preference is ribbon cut with the six standard shapes although I like to do a random cut puzzle now and then.
As you’re just about to finish the puzzle and closing in on those last remaining open spots, you discover to your horror that you’re in fact missing a piece or maybe even more than one. If you’re lucky, after scouring the floor you manage to locate the missing piece and triumphantly stick the rogue little bastard in its place. But you won’t always be that lucky.
Unfortunately, the industrial manufacturing of jigsaw puzzles is not perfect. Occasionally there will be pieces with defects like hanging chads (remember all the talk of hanging chads during the 2000 presidential election recount?) or pieces that are not fully detached from each other. However, the worst is when there is a piece missing. I’ve also read reports of duplicate pieces and I guess it sort of makes sense. That missing piece presumably finds its way into another puzzle.
This has only happened to me once and it was the 3000 piece puzzle I mentioned above. I had been super careful with the pieces and looked absolutely everywhere to no avail. So I emailed Ravensburger and they very kindly offered to replace the puzzle. I have since purchased another 3000 piece puzzle from the same company and hopefully it will have no such issue.
Is a cheaper, lower quality puzzle with a challenging image actually a better value if the puzzle takes you longer to complete (without causing undue angst) than a more expensive higher quality puzzle with an easy image that you finish in no time?
What about the likelihood of doing a puzzle again? If you found a certain puzzle fun and easy, are you more apt to do that one again in the future? Or does a more difficult puzzle that gives you a real sense of accomplishment for finishing it have a higher value even though you’ll probably never tackle it again?
The answer is somewhere in the middle I think. The best value puzzle in my opinion is one that isn’t so tough that you have sessions with no progress but not so easy that you’re breezing through and can finish it relatively quickly. With a couple of exceptions, I plan to put together most of my puzzles again eventually. Others I might sell, give away or trade.
Jigsaw Puzzles and Mental Health
As mentioned in the intro paragraph, the impetus to try a jigsaw puzzle was my search for something to help quell anxiety brought on by the early days of the pandemic. I genuinely did not expect it to work as effectively as it did. Actually, I figured it could be an exercise in tedium and frustration. Fortunately, I was mistaken.
The first puzzle I bought was Mediterranean Windows by Eurographics. It was a fairly easy one and a really good choice for a beginner.
I discovered that when the brain is focused on a puzzle, it tends to push worries aside. It’s a truly immersive exercise, something akin to meditation. It provides that brief escape you need. I say this as someone who has battled depression and anxiety for nearly my entire adult life.
If you’re looking to try puzzling, I’ll emphasize again the importance of choosing carefully. Pick a high quality puzzle with several areas of colour in shades that you find appealing. For me, a dark and dreary image doesn’t lift my mood the way more pleasant colours do.
Try not to give too much consideration to how long it took you to finish a puzzle. What’s important is that you got some enjoyment or stress relief from working on it. On puzzle forums people often comment on how many hours an individual puzzle took them to complete. Who cares – it’s not a race.
Puzzles and Podcasts/Audiobooks
Some folks like to combine two pastimes into one and listen to their favourite podcast while working on a puzzle. I have not tried it myself because I like to be fully absorbed in the puzzle and I fear it wouldn’t be the same if I were multi-tasking. (Yet I’m typing this while listening to 80s music in my headphones so perhaps my brain could handle it…and maybe I should get The Eighties puzzle…)
I do not own a house cat so I don’t have personal experience with this phenomenon, but it’s widely reported among avid puzzlers that cats pose a legitimate threat to successful puzzling. Their interest in jigsaw puzzles tends to involve an entirely different objective than that of humans and does not include the uneventful assembly of the puzzle. Quite the opposite, unfortunately. So beware.
What About Travel?
How do puzzles relate to travelling? Well, I submit that puzzling is a hobby that can perhaps soothe your travel-deprived soul by choosing ones that play on this interest.
A few of my favourite puzzles have been of images of places I’ve visited in the past and would love to return to someday. For example, I did three of the “Then & Now” Ravensburger series: London, Paris and New York.
I would really love to do a puzzle of a map of the world.
I always thought that planning a budget trip – finding deals and earning/redeeming loyalty points for good value – was kind of like putting together a puzzle. It took effort but it was fun and in the end there was a sense of satisfaction. I look forward to doing more of that in the future as travel eventually becomes a reality again.
Puzzles and Points
When you’re buying puzzles you should try to earn points either through spending on a rewards credit card and/or through online shopping portals. Or, buy a gift card for a retailer from Sobeys with your Scotiabank Gold Amex or Cobalt Amex so you’ll get the extra points for grocery store spending.
If you want to use Cash Air Miles for puzzles, you can do that indirectly by redeeming them for everyday purchases and putting the savings toward feeding your puzzle habit.
I’ve tried doing puzzles online a couple of times and they are not my cup of tea. Puzzle assembly on a screen is just not the same as the tactile experience of working on a physical puzzle. You should definitely give it a try yourself though because you might feel differently.
We’re finally at the end of my puzzle post and I think I’ve exhausted all of my thoughts on the subject. A year ago I never dreamed I’d be writing a lengthy blog entry on jigsaw puzzles.
I’ll conclude by saying this: if you have a friend or family member who struggles with anxiety, consider getting them a nice colourful high quality puzzle to try. It’s not a big investment and it might provide that little mental escape they’re looking for.