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Supplies for making wooden jigsaw puzzles

The basic 'ingredients' needed to make a jigsaw puzzle are:


Lots of things make good pictures for a puzzle.

You'll have to experiment with different papers and image sources. Some just don't work very well, the most common problem being that the top of the paper lifts off from the adhered part, and the paper splits in two. Try futzing with the corner of a print, if you can easily get the paper to start separating, it won't work very well. For this reason, thinner papers often work better.

If you're going to print digital images with an inkjet, I've found that the normal Epson archival matte paper works pretty well. (Canon doesn't, the top of the paper lifts off the adhered part very easily). Try two or three coats of Krylon Kamar Varnish (from any art supply store) on top after you mount the image, it stops the print from smearing and protects it very well from stains, a little bit of water, dust, etc.

There are two types of inkjet printer ink, dye-based and pigment-based. Dye-based ink is typically used by the cheaper, standard inkjets. It prints beautifully, but will fade easily with age, sunlight, and other environmental conditions. Higher-end printers use pigments in the ink, which will last much longer.

Color laser prints also work. Just take your print to Kinko's and print it there: the paper used by lasers is cheap copy paper, unlike inkjet paper which is specially treated. The paper actually cuts very well and never separates from the wood since it is so thin. The major downside is that, because of the thinness, any tiny dust mote between the paper and the wood magnifies into a nasty zit, so make sure everything is clean before mounting.

If you're going to sell your works, you get to deal in the wild world of copyright issues. Maybe when I have a month with nothing to do I'll write out what I've learned, but the easiest way to get things you can sell is to know the artist and offer him a cut, 10% is common or sometimes just the price of the print. Taking some nice photographs is another good way, and you don't have to pay yourself anything (unless you want to).


The most common wood used for jigsaw puzzles is 1/4" thick 5-ply Baltic Birch plywood. It's the only thing I ever used, so I'll focus mainly on it. The five plies are all baltic birch, glued together so the grain changes direction with each layer. This allows puzzle pieces to be very resistant to breaking, even if the knob necks become very thin. Usually, breakage isn't a problem until it becomes thinner then 1/16" or 1/8".

Find the highest quality stuff you can, if possible free of any internal voids (unfilled knots on the inside plies that you won't know about until you cut there). If it has them, so be it - it doesn't ruin a puzzle unless it's really bad, just makes it a little less nice.

It's relatively cheap - I found a local supplier who orders 5'x5' sheets from a plywood distributor, and sells them to me for $14 a sheet (or about 50 cents a square foot). In smaller quantities, the price goes up a lot, but regardless, wood is just not that expensive in the quantities puzzlecutters use.

Baltic birch is the tree the wood comes from. You'll sometimes find Finland birch and Russian birch, these are made of Baltic birch from Finland or Russia, respectively. This is a good thing: those regions produce excellent plywood. Get it if you can. Some big cutters use custom-ordered plywood with four plies of birch and the bottom one of mahogany. The mahogany provides a nice dark finish, and it is harder so the back won't splinter as much. Some also use different thicknesses, but 1/4" is usually the best. Thinner and you lose some of the 'heft', and thicker is too hard to cut. Solid woods (rather than plywood) can be used too, but they can warp with age, and they're not nearly as strong in thin parts.

Mounting Supplies

There are two primary methods of mounting the image to the wood. Dry mounting, borrowed from the photography industry, uses a dry mounting press to join wood and paper. I've heard it works very well, but I never had a press and local mounting shops were wary of putting my plywood in their expensive machines. So I use spray adhesive, namely 3M Super 77. It works very consistently. I spent some time on the phone with their customer support, and they assured me that it would age well - as long as the solvents evaporated before you join paper and wood, nothing in there will should undue yellowing and the bond won't weaken with age. Super 77 comes in spray cans for about $10, and it will cover something like 25 square feet per can.

Scroll Saw

The scroll saw is the biggest (really, the only major) initial expense. If you've never seen one before, it's a tabletop shop tool with a table on which the piece rests, and a super-thin 5" blade suspended between two clamps that gets moved up and down really fast, 500 to 1500 oscillations per minute. All handmade jigsaw puzzles are made with one these days, so "jigsaw" is an anachronism - thank god we don't live in the stoneage anymore.

I started with a cheap Ryobi from Home Depot for under $100. It worked just fine until it broke but they let me return it for a full refund. If you plan to start small and you're a cheapskate (like me), go for it. After I scaled up and did some homework, I bought the DeWalt 20" neck, and it has been terrific. I have no major complaints with it.

The things you should look for are (i.e. the differences between the cheapo and the nice saws):

Besides the Ryobi (good entry level) and the DeWalt (mid-range, nice all-around, many people's favorite), which are the only ones I used extensively, common saws include the Excalibur, which makes a deep-necked saw, good for first-cuts on large puzzles, and the Hegner which is a popular high end German-made model. Delta also has some adherents.

Scroll Saw Blades

Scroll saw blades are pretty cheap, usually $1.50 to $3 per dozen. Depending on how fast and hard you cut, they'll break or dull relatively frequently (maybe every 10 or 15 minutes!) so it's a good thing they're cheap.

You need two types of blades for puzzles. The first step in cutting the puzzle is to trim off the excess wood and print from the mounted puzzle. For these (usually straight) cuts, the kerf (the swath of wood cut away by the blade) doesn't need to be thin, so thicker blades that provide more consistency and control are good. There's lots of choices in this category, and most regular blades are fine. Try the Olson Precision Ground Tooth 5R-PGT or the Flying Dutchman Polar FD-P No. 3. You can find similar blades in retail stores relatively easily.

The next step is to actually cut the pieces. Here, the kerf matters - if you used one of those, your pieces would be too loose and jiggly. For a smaller kerf, you need the smallest blades available. Try the Olson 3/0-ST or the Flying Dutchman Superior Puzzle Blade FD-SP, both of which are 0.008" thick. The Olson is a little wider so it's better for larger piece puzzles, and the Flying Dutchman is better for puzzles with tiny pieces. I never found anything nearly this small in stores, but thanks to the internet, they're just a URL and a credit card away. Try Sloan's Woodshop or Mike's Workshop, they're very nice to deal with, reasonably priced, and very reliable.

Don't bother with jeweler's blades. It's tempting because they come even thinner than the ones I mentioned, but they're made for metalwork, and they just don't cut wood very well.

Finishing Supplies

A few items are useful to finish off a jigsaw puzzle, depending on specifics of what you're cutting.

Summary of equipment and Startup Costs

It is relatively cheap to get started. The only required big outlay is for the scroll saw which should last you many years. The rest of the required items are consumables that are cheap if you can find the right suppliers. On the cheap, you can get started with these things:

That's enough supplies for dozens of puzzles. Not too bad! Notice I didn't include the hours you'll put in practicing with your new equipment. I'll let you cost that out yourself. If you have more money available to spend, get a nicer scroll saw. You won't regret the extra few hundred dollars, they do go a long way. Of course, if you get a cheap one first, you'll appreciate the upgrade that much more, knowing what you left behind...


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