How Jigsaw Puzzles Were and Are Made

sliced puzzle

Because 18th century jigsaw puzzles had simple non-interlocking pieces, each puzzle had to be made by hand. However, some American puzzle makers attempted to lower manufacturing costs by using a European technique for horizontally cutting a picture into equal parts, called a Sliced Puzzle.

In the 19th century jigsaw puzzle manufacture began to change. Williams points out that while the intent of jigsaw puzzles has always been to form a pre-determined picture by assembling the traditional irregular shaped pieces of the puzzle into a specific pattern, use of a saw to make the pieces for a jigsaw puzzle by hand sawing no longer became a requirement. In some instances, pieces were still made the same way as in the past - a picture was glued to a piece of wood and cut one piece at a time along a picture's color lines. Eventually, thick cardboard rather than wood was used, and often pictures were not cut along color lines. a hand jig saw The photo at the left shows the process of manually cutting out irregular wooden jigsaw puzzle pieces with a jigsaw. Some contemporary speciality jigsaw puzzles and handmade wooden puzzles are still made in a similar manner.

When thick cardboard began to be used, it became possible to use a "cutting die" (photo below on the right) instead of a jigsaw. Williams tells us that "die-cut" cardboard jigsaw puzzles began to appear around 1890. This and other methods for making jigsaw puzzles opened the way for mass production of jigsaw puzzles in the 20th century.

Jigsaw Die

A jigsaw puzzle "cutting die" is a specially manufactured series of sharp steel lengths bent into a pattern, with the blunt end embedded into a block of hard wood. The pattern represents the shape of the puzzle pieces to be cut. According to Williams, at first, jigsaw "dies" were very simple, and the puzzle pieces tended not to interlock. A jigsaw puzzle "die" was put in a press, a piece of cardboard was then inserted into the press, and under pressure the picture was cut apart into pieces by the "die". This made it possible to cut all of the pieces of one puzzle at the same time. As jigsaw puzzles became more elaborate and larger, multiple "dies" might be used in the process. Williams indicates that there must have been some technological development in steel "dies" around 1920, because after that time, die-cutting grew by leaps and bounds in the jigsaw puzzle industry, and interlocking pieces became common place. Die-cutting proved to be the real cost saver for the industry, and sliced puzzles died out!

Francene & Louis Sabin, The One, The Only, The Original Jigsaw Puzzle Book, Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1977, p.10, offer a description of how jigsaw puzzles were made at that time: work is prepared, photographed, and readied for printing... as many puzzles as possible [are placed] on a single lithography sheet...artists hand draw the pattern that will be used for the die-cut, making sure no two pieces are alike...when... completed [a] die drawing... is sent to rule-bend experts who bend razor-sharp steel rules into the shape of the puzzle pieces, hammering them into a wood-mounted die... three or four different dies are made for puzzles of the same size and shape... When the litho sheets arrive, they are laminated to .087 inch-thick chipboard. After... [they] dry thoroughly, they are sent to the die-cut press. From there, the cut puzzles are moved to a "breaker" that separates the puzzle pieces and drops them into the puzzle box.

Handmade Jigsaw Puzzles

As with some traditional games, people still make their own versions, rather than buying commercial versions. In the case of jigsaw puzzles, sometimes these are made using a photo or drawing to recall an event or a trip, or to give as a gift. Sometime the maker is just fascinated by the picture, or the craft challenge! Here are photos of two handmade jigsaw puzzles which were donated to the Museum in 1983 by a jigsaw puzzle maker, a resident of southwestern Ontario.

Town of Mykonos Jigsaw Puzzle

Mykonos Jigsaw A magazine page illustrating a house on the Aegean Sea in the area of Mykonos, Greece, was glued to a piece of particle board.

The board was then cut by hand with a jigsaw into irregularly shaped interlocking pieces, each about 5cm x 5.8cm.

After finishing, the assembled puzzle measured 34cm long x 35.5cm wide. The puzzle was stored in a plain white box.

A Framed Jigsaw Puzzle

Mountain Goat JigsawUsing a somewhat different technique, this same jigsaw puzzle maker glued a magazine picture of two mountain goats beside a tree on a grassed mountain slope, to a piece of particle board.

The board was then cut into 16 interlocking pieces, each about 7.3cm x 6cm.

A second board 21cm long x 28.5cm wide x .8cm thick was then cut and prepared as a frame in which to assemble the puzzle pieces.

A Do It Yourself Reference

In a humorous vein, Francene & Louis Sabin, The One, The Only, The Original Jigsaw Puzzle Book, Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1977, in Chapter 10 discuss making jigsaw puzzles and then using them to make table tops and various household articles. A number of materials and techniques are suggested.

Williams also notes that some contemporary special order jigsaw puzzles are "custom-cut" and include puzzle pieces shaped as an owner's monogram or might includes special symbols cut into the puzzle at the request of the intended owner.

Having a Jigsaw Puzzle Made Just For You

Mark Cappitella Do you have a picture you'd like to have made into a jigsaw puzzle? Do you want a puzzle designed just for you?

Click Here to go to a Website illustrating the art and expertise of a contemporary maker of handmade wooden jigsaw puzzles. (Note: use your browser's BACK button to return to the Museum.)

Last update April 4, 2010