The Technology Behind the Puzzles: A Video Interview

I am pleased to have been interviewed by WGBH this spring for their Auction In An Hour series.  Every year I donate a puzzle to their auction. This year I donated Jungle Scene and was pleased to be asked to do an interview with Chris Voss. He brought a film crew to my Altier in Marblehead and I demonstrated my machine on camera. I hope you enjoy it!


A Very Hard Wooden Jigsaw Puzzle

A client asked me to make a difficult puzzle for his wife on their fifth anniversary. He comissioned a painting and asked me to make a 16 x 20 puzzle of it. Furthermore he asked that all edge pieces be taken away. For the hell of it I made two copies. His wife liked the puzzle and did it in about two weeks. The second copy is below. Luckily, a waterjet puzzle is not made by jigsaw. When it is finished, it comes off the machine cut, wet and together. I have never taken it apart. I don’t dare to.

Wooden Jigsaw Puzzles – The machine


Witt Mann watching the waterjet cutting Koran Cover

The photo below shows the entire machine. On the right is the hydraulic pump. Water at 50,000 psi flows to the left and down through a diamond nozzle to cut the puzzle.  The machine control on the right controles the two servos that move the table and the puzzle under the jet. The table is shown in the loading position with an uncut puzzle on it.

I have been asked if cutting a wooden jigsaw puzzle with a waterjet is akin to swatting a fly with a sledgehammer. Well, maybe, but it gets me out of the house, keeps me off the streets and out of the bars. The main thing is it makes marvelous wooden jugsaw puzzles.

Wooden Jigsaw Puzzles – Hand vs. Waterjet cut.

I have been cutting wooden jigsaw puzzles since 1986. I think it is high time to contrast waterjet cutting to hand cutting. Each has its advantages.

I think the most obvious advantage waterjet cutting has is price. Cutting a puzzle by hand takes skill and time. Good hand-cut puzzles are more expensive. The biggest advantage that a hand cutter has over a waterjet is the ability to relate the cut to the picture. I wish my machine had that ability but obviously it just does not see the picture. Almost all my puzzles are regular shapes, rectangles and ovals, that conform to the length and width of the picture. I cannot make a cut along a horizon or the outline of a tree.


Here are two pair of pieces pictured front and back. The hand-cut ones on the left are very smooth. The waterjet-cut ones are smooth only at the top where the jet enters the cut at the picture. The cut is progressively rougher toward the back. This is not a disadvantage. The rough edges hold the pieces together so the puzzle will stay together until it is taken apart.  I think you can see that the waterjet cut is a bit thinner than the hand cut. I am amazed that the jigsaw cuts are as fine as they are. That’s a tribute to the skill of the cutter and the quality of the blade. But the hand-cut puzzle is a little looser, has more visible cuts and the pieces slide around because they are so smooth. 

This is a picture of several pieces that make up a centaur weathervane. It is part of the design of many of my bigger puzzles. I show it here to illustrate the amount of detail I can put into my figure pieses. The jet stream is like a tiny round jigsaw blade, in this case .007 inches dia. It can cut in all directions. I take advantage of this to put a lot of figure pieces into a puzzle.  Also this allows me more freedom to add drop-out letters and numbers to custom puzzles.

Figure Pieces

I try to fill my puzzles with figure pieces. One of the advantages of cutting with a water jet is that I can cut much more intricate detail than is possible with a jigsaw. Generally, figure pieces make a puzzle easier to put together so there is a practical limit. One of my designs for an 11×14 puzzle has a total of 326 pieces. Of those pieces, 29 are single-piece figures and there are three figures made of two pieces each.figure_pieces1

The cat at right was from an Albert Dubout cartoon of her leading her kittens across a war-torn Paris street. That figure piece is in almost all of my puzzles and is the one I sign and date.  The date is the first time the puzzle is taken apart for packaging and shipping. Next to the cat is a demure young lady I call Jane Bond. Lower left is my only nude. At lower right is a figure few know though she used to flittingly appear about once a week on public television. I will show some more figure pieces in future editions of this blog.

Difficult puzzles

I try to design difficult puzzles. I assume that is what my customers want me to do. I don’t think anyone who buys a good wooden puzzle would like it to be easy. I want my customers to work to overcome all the tricks that I can throw at them. On the other hand, I can’t stand boring puzzles. I have heard of a puzzle called “Little Red Riding Hood’s Hood”.  No picture – just solid red.

The difficulty of a puzzle is affected by three things (1)  the size and number of pieces (2) the image and (3) the cut design.  Big puzzles with more pieces are naturally more difficult than small ones. Complicated images make for difficult puzzles. Most puzzles are bought for gifts to others so, usually, the person putting the puzzle together does not know what the picture is. My waterjet allows me to design much more complicated cuts than can be made by hand with a scroll saw. This adds a little more difficulty.

My largest puzzle is “Forest at Fontainebleau”. It is a reproduction of a magnificent impressionistic painting by Leon Kroll. I can still see it hanging over a fireplace in a friend’s house. Together the puzzle is beautiful but apart all it is is a pile of green and brown pieces and few clues.

My most difficult puzzle must be “The Ceiling of the Debre Berhan Selassi Chapel”.  The chapel ceiling is covered with angels that are represented only as faces with wings. It took me a long time to finish that one the first time and I have not done it again.

The Ceiling of the Debre Berhan Selassi Chapel

The Ceiling of the Debre Berhan Selassi Chapel

Cutting puzzles by machine

Waterjet for cutting jigsaw puzzles

Waterjet for cutting jigsaw puzzles

In order to automate the process, I thought that a machine that could move in two axes – up,down,right,left – would work. Manually, a puzzle cutter is continually turning part of an uncut puzzle into a scroll saw blade. The blade has a thickness and a width and can cut in only one direction. For my machine to work the “blade” had to cut in all directions. I knew of two – a wire saw and a laser. A wire saw, using a slurry of diamond dust, cut precisely but very slowly. A laser was more promising. I tried one, a machine that was normally used to cut patterns for boots and shoes. But the laser burned the wood, leaving charred edges.

Finally, I heard of a waterjet and choose to work with Flow Industries, who built the water jet. The water under very high pressure is forced through a diamond nozzle .007 inches in diameter. The water has enough velocity to cut through the puzzle easily. The width of cut is just about right. Not too loose and not too tight. My first table was built by Tony Coco of Coco Engineering. He built the two-axis table which moves the puzzle under the jet. It was up and running by the end of 1986.

How it all began — a gamesmen at heart

My mother’s father was a gamesman. She said he put himself through Princeton with his poker winnings. Summers we used to play golf after we picked him up from the Cannonball Express Friday evenings. Part of the Maidstone Club’s short course was over a stile at the edge of our lawn. We could play three holes in a triangle bringing us back to the stile in time for dinner. Grandpa had three clubs – a wood for driving, a putter and a club with a face that could change angle from, I suppose, a two iron to a nine iron. He rented wooden jigsaw puzzles from our local library. We put them together. The time was 1940.