Making a unique wooden puzzle box - how to prepare?
February 8, 2010 9:03 AM   Subscribe

Making a unique wooden puzzle box - how to prepare?

I'm making a puzzle box as a present for my girlfriend later this year - I know this will take a long time, that's one thing I have - a lot of time.

I have - very basic tools (screw drivers / drill / saw etc). A backgarden no shed or sheltered area but plenty of space. A budget of up to £100. And a lot of time and energy.

I need to know all of your resources. (Which wood? Veneer? Card construction first?)
I need your unique ideas. (magnet locks/ ball bearing runs)
I need your clever locking mechanisms.
I need your schematics. (made one before?)
I need your youtube videos
I need your material reccomendations. (marquettry? Inlays? Paint? Wax?)
I need your luck and wishings of good will.

I will (hopefully) be running a little "making of" blog, or webpage or some sort of up date to show all you guys that helped me here the final piece and progress reports and pictures for everyone else on a how to.

Ideas currently: I love the lady bug walk and can only assume it's done with a ball bearing and a magnet and some kind of "marble run" set up exactly beneath the first veneer skin. I love the magnet locks (dont have link) where you touch a magnet to a certain area and with some crazy spring operated
posted by Cogentesque to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (16 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
A backgarden no shed or sheltered area but plenty of space.

How are you planning to keep the tools, materials and project dry and secret? Fine woodworking isn't going to be happy about radical temperature/humidity swings.
posted by DU at 9:10 AM on February 8, 2010

I'm just wondering where you're coming from in terms of skill level. The skills needed to pull off a puzzle box are not dissimilar to the kinds of skills needed to do cabinetmaking and other fine furniture.

For a beginner, even something straightforward like cutting a straight line can be really challenging, especially using hand tools (which are an order of magnitude more difficult to master than modern electrical workshop tools).

Temperature and humidity are the least of the obstacles ahead. But anyway, you have my best wishes for success.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 9:12 AM on February 8, 2010

This is pretty advanced woodworking you're talking about. It doesn't sound like you have anything to work with but the roughest of hand tools. You might be best off looking for a class to take, where you can have access to a coach and access to a well-equipped shop. You could easily spend several times your budget on tools.
posted by jon1270 at 9:13 AM on February 8, 2010

There's a page here about making puzzle boxes which has a short bibliography. It doesn't look like the sort of task to be undertaken lightly.
posted by permafrost at 9:13 AM on February 8, 2010

One of the best puzzles I had as a kid was called a Transogram (spoiler coming) which consisted of two interlocking halves containing four hidden metal cylinders (laid north, south, east, west) locking the halves together. The only way to get it apart was to orient the puzzle so the cylinders were horizontal and spin it like a top to throw all four outward simultaneously.

More hidden mechanisms.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 10:22 AM on February 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Well thanks very much for all your great advice.

How are you planning to keep the tools, materials and project dry and secret? Fine woodworking isn't going to be happy about radical temperature/humidity swings.
True - but as long as it is "something to boast about" at the end - I'm not planning on selling it or anything, just something nice to be proud of :). Im sure I can seccond a bit of lounge or some kitchen or half of the green house if needs be!

I totally agree with you that a selection of tools / workspace / coping saw / jigs / mounts / stands / a thousand clamps are all very good tools to have. But I believe that with the right ideas and ingenuity you can do most things with a lump of stone! - That's how we did it originally surely?

But fear not, if there is something vital, i will most definately buy it - hence the somewhat inflated budget of £100 - to get some pretty laminating wood / a thin sheet of mdf and a couple of lengths of inlays doesn't come close to £100.

-As far as experience that I have? At school I did lots of woodwork and loved it. Nothing really since then - as far as practical cabinet knowledge goes? Barely any! HUA

Hence the "I need help!" :D

I would much rather label this as a mammoth challenge as opposed to as lost cause. I mean, I was even thinking of using cardboard / styrofoam to create an interesting working prototype - in that case, "woodworking experience" is completely invalidated - I may even expand on this principle if it works.

I am (sufficiently) nerdy and recently made my own LARP swords that have since become artefacts within my system (eg - globally acknowledged) - The Great Camel Sword of Maurabian Justice (yes it has a camels head as a pomel!) And I had no experience there - you've got to get it from somewhere I suppose

Good advice on getting lessons / a course - but would most probably cost official time periods (eg every tuesday from 6 to 9) which would be tricky - and excess money. I was toying with the idea of renting / borrowing some workshop space from somewhere as well...

Thanks on the Una box - lovely ideas there, I'm going to map / disect that later.

Anyone have any ideas on novel / unique mechanisms that could do with exploring? (i love the spinning centripetal/fugal force thing btw)
posted by Cogentesque at 10:48 AM on February 8, 2010

Popular Woodworking just released this book on puzzle boxes. It looks like they aimed it at people with Bandsaws, but you could probably get by with a scroll saw, or if you have infinite patience—a coping saw.
posted by drezdn at 11:02 AM on February 8, 2010

check out 'antiques road show' from PBS...they quite often have desks and whatnot with secret compartments of all varieties (there was one i saw with a portable writing desk about the size of a large breadbox that had no less than 17 secret compartments(!)...all of them a complete surprise to the owner)...the false bottom drawer is pretty common, where the bottom panel of the drawer is made of a sandwich of layers, the middle one being either completely open (for hiding papers...or love letters) or drilled with circles (for concealing coins)...they generally work by removing the entire drawer, and having some release mechanism on the back that allows the bottom to slide out. maybe your girlfriend has a piece of furniture that could be modified in this way?

DO NOT use mdf...that's just dumb. use real wood or at least plywood.
posted by sexyrobot at 1:03 PM on February 8, 2010

There are plenty of wooden puzzles and boxes on this site, although few explanations. I have made a couple of things off that site. I also made a sliding-edge puzzle box that needed about 13 moves to open, and was very easy (I am certainly not a woodworking master!) If I find a link to the instructions I will post them.
posted by mjg123 at 4:00 PM on February 8, 2010

Best answer: Ahh, yes, it was "The Matchbox" (pdf) from Bruce Viney's page. You could knock up a working prototype to explore the mechanism in a day using plywood. I made it out of 3mm plywood, but real wood would have been nicer for the finished piece. One you get the idea of how the mechanism works, you could probably design one of your own. I recommend spending some of your money on Vernier Callipers to get a nice fit.
posted by mjg123 at 4:08 PM on February 8, 2010

I make wooden puzzles too. Very quickly I realized how my carpenter skills were in no way a ready preparation for the precision I would need for puzzles but I am finally getting better.

I find Lee Krasnow to be amazing, and a few minutes of searching his stuff will blow your mind. There is a video of him from a Maker's Fair where he shows off his 41 moves before the first piece can be removed...
posted by mearls at 6:59 PM on February 8, 2010

Response by poster: I just chanced upon a table scroll saw on the local classifieds for £25. Should I buy it for this project? Or if I were cutting things on 45 degree angles etcetera - would it be more worth to invest in a nice coping saw or mitre saw or some table jigs / clamps to get the cross cuts / angle cuts finer?

Thanks so much for all your help so far everyone :)
posted by Cogentesque at 2:52 AM on February 10, 2010

Best answer: Scroll saws are for cutting compex shapes from flat material - think jigsaw puzzles, decorative screens, wooden letters for signs - that sort of thing.

Mitre saws are (depending on type) used for door frames and skirting, or for picture framing, although they can do straight cuts as well. A mitre saw is more of a DIY/joinery tool than something to be used for precision work.

If you're looking for a good general-purpose saw for woodworking, the best thing to start with is the best used table saw you can afford. Age isn't important as long as you have the right blade and take the time to get the adjustments just right. They tend to be pretty bulky though.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 10:14 AM on February 10, 2010

Response by poster: Cool, thanks bea arthurs death!

- I will start looking for a cheap enough table saw with a fitting blade - would this suit cutting funky angles and things? For example some 45 degree cuts that I have seen splashed around a few manuals online - or would some kind of jig construction be suited better for this kind of cut? as in, the .. umm... roll angle (as opposed to pitch and yaw - only way I can describe it easily) ?

Thanks :)
posted by Cogentesque at 1:27 AM on February 11, 2010

Table saws usually have the ability to tilt the blade to the side (up to 45 degrees).
The advantage of a table saw is that you can cut a 45 degree bevel along an edge, whereas with a mitre saw you're limited to very short cuts. Watch a load of videos (I'm sure youTube has plenty) to see how people use them.

But taking a class would give you a much clearer understanding of what tools there are and how to use them.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 3:27 AM on February 11, 2010

Some information on using jigs to make angled cuts with table saws.

From The Puzzling World Of Polyhedral Dissection - a book about making wooden puzzles.
posted by mjg123 at 4:13 AM on February 18, 2010

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