The Miniature World of Allan Boardman

“My career as a puzzle designer and maker is very closely tied to my lifelong interest in woodworking,” Allan Boardman wrote in an email interview conducted in June 2014. “The marriage of these two passions came about when my father introduced me to mechanical puzzles when I was five or six years old. I was already an avid model builder, wannabe woodworker, miniature enthusiast, and very early I saw the wonderful possibilities of making my own puzzles.”

Allan Boardman (Photo courtesy Allan Boardman)

Allan Boardman

Allan is known in the mechanical puzzle community for his work producing micro or miniature puzzles, which have been made almost exclusively from wood. The smallest mechanical puzzle he ever made was a 1.5mm three-piece burr but his all-time smallest puzzle was a crossword.

“A number of years ago, I made ‘The World’s Smallest Puzzle’ for Martin Gardener – it was a two-by-two crossword puzzle etched on a very small portion of the head of a common straight pin. It could not be viewed by naked eye nor any optical microscope, only by using a scanning electron microscope – truly ridiculous.”

Allan was born in New Brunswick, New Jersey on 18 May 1934 and he received his first puzzles at an early age when his father gave him key chain puzzles, the ‘T’ puzzle, and a six piece burr. From time to time his father would bring him to a puzzle shop located in a mall below Rockefeller Centre in New York City.

“One day when we were there, a gentleman approached my father and asked about my interests. He said that he makes puzzles and would be happy to send one to me. I waited eagerly for the parcel to arrive. It turned out to be a wood and wicker version of the ‘Gordian Knot.’ Being a cocky seven or eight year old who never met a puzzle he couldn’t solve, I immediately threw away the solution sheet that came with it. I wore out the string numerous times in vain attempts to solve it.

Boardman - toothpicks 2-p1901b2ia51ij01pvtpkr6h216qs“Years later, at MIT, I hunted down a prominent topologist and asked him to tell me if there really was a solution. After he examined it and said it was solvable, I solved it in a few hours.

“Through my school and college years, most of my attention turned toward school work but I never missed an opportunity to buy or make a puzzle if my time and available resources permitted. My limited woodworking activity in those days included carving chains and working pliers from toothpicks to win bets and amuse friends.”

After graduating from MIT in 1955 with a degree in aeronautical engineering, Allan held several journeyman jobs leading to a career in Space Systems Engineering at The Aerospace Corporation. During this period his woodworking efforts were family and home oriented, making patios, cabinetry, furniture, toys and gifts for his kids. But “the puzzle interest was always bubbling under the surface.”

Asked if his work in the aerospace industry impacted his approach to puzzle making, Allan said “the connection between my career interests and hobby interests revolves around my natural curiosity about how mechanical things work and a love of problem solving. Puzzle design poses one set of problems, puzzle solving another, and puzzle making still another. Also, many mechanical puzzles only work because of precision manufacture, and I really enjoy designing and setting up jigs and fixtures in my shop to assure that the puzzle parts go together with just the right amount of friction – often complicated by the anisotropic properties of wood and its fundamental dimensional sensitivity to variations in humidity. All these factors are well within the concern envelop of the engineering mind.”

The IPP Years

The history of the production of Allan’s first micro and miniature puzzles is closely tied with the history of the International Puzzle Party (IPP) – a yearly gathering of the world’s foremost puzzle collectors and designers.

IPP 1, April 1, 1978

Allan at IPP1 (Photo courtesy Jerry Slocum)

Allan recalled how he came to be invited to the first IPP – which was held at the Beverly Hills home of its founder Jerry Slocum on 1 April 1978. This set in motion work on his first miniature puzzle, an idea which Allan said “was probably hiding in my cranium since childhood” and in turn led to his inaugural production run for the first overseas IPP, which was held in Japan.

“In the mid-‘70s, I began to correspond with Fred Irvine in New Zealand – he put an ad in a woodworking magazine I subscribed to looking for wooden puzzle designs and ideas. Until I met him I didn’t really know anyone with a serious interest in mechanical puzzles. We remain friends to this day. Fred told me about a gentleman, Jerry Slocum, in Beverly Hills, not more than 30 minutes from my home, who was about to hold a gathering for puzzle enthusiasts.

“I called Jerry, explained the circumstances of this long-distance introduction, and told him of my interests – he invited me to join him and a dozen others at his home for the puzzle party he was planning. Wanting to bring him a gift, but afraid of bringing him something he already had, I made a very small ‘Three Piece Burr,’ perhaps ¼ inch across. It was well received. This was really the beginning of my miniature puzzle making activity.”

When the first overseas puzzle party was held in Japan, a formal exchange event was organised. The exchange required all IPP participants to bring around a hundred copies of a new puzzle to be exchanged with other participants for around a hundred different puzzles. Using Turkish Boxwood, Allan made the simplest burr he could find. It had three-pieces and the disassembly required the key piece to be rotated as the first move.

“I thought it would be nice to make small burrs to exchange, lightening my travel load and combining my strong interests in small things, puzzles, and woodworking. They were well received and I simply continued making them, more often than not using the brilliant designs of others like Bill Cutler, Nob Yoshigahara, Stewart Coffin, etc. In all honesty, while the small size of the puzzles did in fact ease the travel problem, I chose to make the miniatures more because of the ‘shock and awe’ effect they had on collectors.

“I made other wooden miniatures before producing the three piece burr for Jerry Slocum’s first Puzzle Party. I was well familiar with the basic techniques and already had the tools to work at this scale. So, really, the only challenge posed by the Japanese IPP was to tool up for a production run of about 150 so that the total manufacturing time would be reasonable and the parts and notches would all be precise and interchangeable. Packaging also posed a slight problem until I found a source of small plastic boxes.

Mosaic portrait of Allan composed of his tiny puzzles made by computer graphics pioneer and  mosaic portraitist Ken Knowlton. (Copyright Ken Knowlton)

Mosaic portrait of Allan composed of his tiny puzzles made by computer graphics pioneer and mosaic portraitist Ken Knowlton. (Copyright Ken Knowlton)

“For the next 20 years, although very busy with work and family, I attended all the annual International Puzzle Parties and corresponded with many collectors around the world. Even though my hobby time was severely restricted, I began making a few small puzzles to give to friends and developed many of the manufacturing techniques that I employ today.

“The hardest part of the manufacturing process is probably getting every detail worked out ahead of time so that the sequence of steps will result in the desired product. These puzzles, in lots of one or two hundred, represent an investment of many hours and sometimes I really don’t know how well they will turn out until I am finished, or nearly finished with the project.

Pegassus, a wonderful take-apart puzzle designed by Tad Muroi is a good example. I made several hundred of these in preparation for the Australian Puzzle Party some years ago. My version was rendered in, roughly, one-third scale. Probably most woodworkers would cut out the pieces using a scroll saw – I thought that would be too slow, and imprecise, so I decided to use one of my small table (circular) saws. There were more than 200 saw cuts required for each puzzle and dozens of small glue joints because of the methods I chose. And because there were so many set-ups required which couldn’t be dismantled sensibly until all of each part was complete, the first time I could assemble and check out a finished puzzle was after all that cutting and gluing of every individual part. The tension built for several months!”

When asked if he knew that the puzzles he made for the early IPPs would turn into a lifetime of producing micro and miniature puzzles Allan said, “This (sub) lifetime period began when I was about 40 years old and, looking back, the various seeds had definitely been planted along the way to my 40th year. From the mid-70’s to the present, the ideas, the inspirations, the motivations, the construction techniques, and the interest within the puzzle collecting community all seemed to grow organically, with few milestones to mark critical events. Retirement set the stage for the garden to blossom.”

Retirement

It wasn’t until his retirement from The Aerospace Corporation in 1996 that Allan expanded his list of puzzle projects and turned his pastime into a “tiny business”.

Allan explained, “I ‘formalized’ my work by establishing a small, one-man, hobby business. I even printed up some small business cards and coined a term for my specialty – ‘microxylometagrobologist’, small wooden puzzle maker, and began to produce more miniatures, some full size puzzles, and puzzles on commission from other puzzle designers and collectors.”

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These pictures accompanied a lecture that Allan gave on making small puzzles at IPP22 which took place in Antwerp in August 2002. (Many thanks to Bernhard Schweitzer for helping me to locate these photos)

These pictures accompanied a lecture that Allan gave on making small puzzles at IPP22 which took place in Antwerp in August 2002. (Many thanks to Bernhard Schweitzer for helping me to locate these photos)

To subsidize his hobby, Allan printed a product list and began to charge for his puzzles at a labour rate calculated at one-half of what his plumber charges. There are about 50 puzzles on Allan’s list and nearly all of them are smaller than what you would find in most collections or puzzles stores.

“Most of my puzzles were designed by others, living or dead, known or unknown. I wanted them to be a kind of homage to the genius of the human mind, carefully made with precision and of fine materials. Examples of puzzles I actually designed include a few trick opening boxes and several assembly puzzles such as ‘Cherry Pi,’ though the latter is no more than a variation on the ‘T’ puzzle theme.”

According to Allan, about 30 of his puzzles are ‘large’ enough to be safely played with and enjoyed for their clever design.

“The others can also be played with if one seeks both the challenge of manipulation on a tiny scale and the challenge of the intrinsic design. Most puzzlers have many full size puzzles in their collections that, once solved, become displayed artifacts, getting dusted more frequently than getting solved. Since all of my miniatures are scaled down replicas of known designs, solving the full size models satisfies the enjoyment of the design challenge, and the display of the puzzle, large and/or small, is just a matter of how much shelf or cabinet space is taken. I am happy when someone actually disassembles and assembles one of my miniatures, but equally happy when they are simply enjoyed on display.

“Although all are ‘functional,’ the scale of many of them makes them too small for most solvers or collectors to play with, (nonetheless, several puzzlers have). The small size was only to add a ‘wow’ factor which many collectors seem to enjoy – and I, of course, enjoyed the special challenges and uniqueness of miniaturization.”

By 2010, health issues got in the way and these days Allan spends more time thinking about puzzles than actually making them, slowly selling off his inventory of puzzles.

The ‘Gramps’ legacy box (Photo courtesy Allan Boardman)

The ‘Gramps’ legacy box

“Collectors still write to ask for my list of available models, (I have most of my puzzles in stock but a few are sold out or nearly so), though the frequency of these requests is slowly diminishing. Fortunately, the decline in the frequency of inquiries is matched by my declining ability and energy. One of my most recent projects was making six boxes, one for each of my grandchildren, each containing one of nearly every small and miniature puzzle I have made in the past three decades – a ‘Gramps’ legacy box.’”

He does, however, still produce some puzzles, small boxes and other items. “I suppose that I have given up making puzzles in ‘production,’” Allan said, “that is, in lots of more than a dozen or so. Also, I stopped making very tiny puzzles as my eyes no longer permit such work. But I still make puzzles when I get the inspiration – encounter a new design or a new idea, or receive a special request.”

Woodworking Techniques

Allan makes his puzzles with regular woodworking tools but over the years has designed special techniques and processes that allow him to work on such a small scale. I asked Allan to expound on what goes on in his workshop.

From the Antwerp lecture

From the Antwerp lecture

“I usually try to give a simple answer to those who ask me how I make my miniatures, but it is really a short question with a rather long answer. What I usually say is that there is nothing extraordinary about either my tools or methods – any woodworker walking into my shop would recognize everything in it and feel quite at home.

“But some of my tools are indeed small and designed and/or adapted to my work. For instance, I use small commercially made model maker’s table saws which allow me to make precision cuts safely. This is not practical with full size carpenter’s or cabinet maker’s table saws. I design and make many special jigs and fixtures to use with these small power saws to facilitate dimensional accuracy and assure interchangeability of the tiny parts.

“The term ‘special techniques’ also includes developing optimum sequences of operations, glue application, finishing methods, and many more elements of manufacture. I generally devise these methods by first carrying them out in my head, followed by a bit of trial and error – all this is an important part of why I enjoy doing what I do.”

Given the need for greater precision in cutting, fitting, glueing, joining and all other aspects of making miniature puzzles, what would Allan point to as the hardest part of the process?

“Precision fits are really important for quality wooden puzzles of any size, but the degree of precision needed for miniatures is somewhat greater than when making full size puzzles. When assembling a micro-burr, for instance, it is essential that as each piece is added, it stays in place with a slight amount of friction so that it doesn’t easily fall on the table or get blown away by the puzzler’s breath.

“This sort of friction fit requires tolerances in the 0.001 inch range – too loose and there is risk of the part falling off the growing assembly; too tight and there is danger of breaking the delicate parts. That ‘just right’ fit is challenging to achieve. On the other hand, because of wood’s expansion and contraction in response to changes in humidity, a full size puzzle that fits just right in Los Angeles may bind badly when shipped to a high humidity destination. This effect is nearly imperceptible with small puzzles because the dimensional change is proportional to the size of the piece and the tolerance requirements are far less so. Gluing small parts can be tricky, but the methods for doing this successfully are easily mastered with experience. In my book, ‘Puzzle Projects for Woodworkers,’ which is about making full size puzzles, I deal with many of these issues.”

So is making miniature puzzles more time-consuming than an identical puzzle in a larger size? “There probably isn’t a satisfying answer to this question. Sometimes yes, and sometimes no, depending on the design of the puzzle, I suppose.

“Frankly, I never gave the question much thought. I have made a number of puzzles in different sizes, for instance, Dessert Rose, Japanese Burr, and Pocoloco, but all sizes were smaller than full scale. I recall that gluing the parts of the micro Pocoloco took more time than did the larger sizes, but, in general, I doubt if there was much difference in the overall time required, and if there were a difference, I would guess that the smaller the puzzle, the more care and time it would take.

'Elves' employed by Allan to do the machining on his puzzles. (From the Antwerp lecture)

‘Elves’ employed by Allan to do the machining on his puzzles. (From the Antwerp lecture)

“I don’t really know what the physical limit of miniaturization might be, but for me, any puzzle that is too small to be appreciated by the naked eye of an individual with normal vision is too small, maybe one or two millimeters.”

I’d heard that Allan’s puzzles come with a lifetime guarantee against lost pieces and given their small size wondered how common an occurrence this was. “Lost puzzles are a bit more common than lost or broken pieces, but I can’t tell you if is a common occurrence – there are probably many more such events than I ever hear about. But, yes, I try to help out my friends and customers if such a mishap occurs, though I can only recall a few instances.

“My policy is not an iron clad warranty, but rather an implied promise which can only last as long as I do. A number of years ago, I sent a few puzzles to Ken Knowlton so that he could photograph them for the portrait of me that he was designing. When he sent them back, one was missing – a micro three piece burr measuring about 1/16 inch across. He was quite embarrassed and confessed that it fell into his living room carpet and couldn’t find it after hours of looking. Fortunately, most customers understand the perils of handling tiny things.”

So what is it about micro and miniature puzzles that Allan finds so fascinating? “The best answer I can offer is that these small objects represent the coming together of my love of puzzles, problem solving at multiple levels, woodworking, miniatures of all sorts, and interaction with people who share one or more of my interests. Also, I get a lift from individuals that look at my work and remark, ‘wow, you sure have a lot of patience – how did you make that?’ I usually respond that ‘patience’ in not required when doing something that you really love.”

(All photos courtesy Allan Boardman unless otherwise stated.)

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“Brass Treasure Chest” – Rocky Chiaro’s Puzzling Endeavour

Brass Treasure Chest

Brass Treasure Chest

Brass Treasure Chest is a small secret opening box from retired machinist-cum-puzzle designer Rocky Chiaro. Made from brass and requiring a complicated series of moves to manipulate the internal mechanism and free the lid, it is the result of a lifetime spent in metalwork coupled with a strong interest in mechanical objects.

The story of how Rocky made his first puzzle is an interesting one and explains why over the years he has continued to produce his puzzles in brass with a hand-fed milling machine.

It was 1950 and Rocky was stationed at the submarine base in Pearl Harbour as a Machinery Repairman with the Navy. As practice, he machined eight one-inch cubes, working on them till they fit together to make a single larger cube. Rocky explains, “I did not know until 30 years later that I could put a pin through it on a stand. Another 10 or 12 years later I ran across an ad in a magazine saying ‘Puzzles Wanted’. I sold the puzzle to the person and he wanted to know the name. I had made copies from Plexiglass so I called it Perplexity. I still make and sell it.”

Rocky was in the Navy from 1948 to 1952 and afterwards got a job as a machinist at the Colorado Fuel & Iron steel mill. He worked there until his retirement in 1995 at which point he devoted his time to making and selling his brass puzzles.

Brass Treasure Chest is one of a number of Rocky’s puzzles that have been mass-produced by Bits and Pieces. Others include The Golf Ball, Double Nut, Roc-key, ABL, Pool Table and JAX. Although Bits and Pieces has produced a number of secret opening boxes over the years, Brass Treasure Chest holds the distinction of being the only one it ever made in metal.

Brass Treasure Chest is the name given to this puzzle by Bits and Pieces. It was changed from Rocky’s original title – which as he explains below is linked to the date he completed it – for marketing reasons. Nancy Alliegro, the company’s Vice President of Merchandise explains that this was more suited to the average customer who is not a hardcore puzzle collector.

According to Nancy, the puzzle is not currently in their line-up as it became too costly to make in brass or even with alloys due to metal prices going up over the years – in addition to the fact that it is a very intricate puzzle to produce.

In July 2014, I spoke to Rocky via email to find out more about this puzzle’s history. (Editor’s note: the interview contains solution spoilers)

En-Deavor (Photo courtesy Rocky Chiaro)

En-Deavor (Photo courtesy Rocky Chiaro)

Saul Symonds: Most of your puzzles are made by yourself in your workshop, can you tell me about your collaboration with Bits and Pieces and how it came about?

Rocky Chiaro: The Puzzle that is on the market called Treasure Chest was designed and made by me. It is called En-Deavor. I finished it the day that the space program Endeavour was launched the first time. After En-Deavor was on the market Bits and Pieces contacted me and we signed a contract for them to make and market it. They called it Brass Treasure Chest.

SS: Before this puzzle was mass-produced were you selling it yourself?

RC: Yes

SS: This was in the early days of the Internet, did you already have an online site?

RC: No

SS: So what channels were you selling through?

RC: Mostly by word-of-mouth

SS: Why did you hyphenate the name between “En” and “Deavour”? You’ve done this with other puzzle box names such as Chic-Ago.

RC: Just to make the name unique to my style

SS: Can you walk me through the early steps of this puzzle’s creation. For example, did you start with the idea of making a trick opening box, or perhaps a sequence of locking moves?

RC: The design process I guess would be my hobby. When I decide to make a puzzle box or any other puzzle I think of what I want it to do. At this point I don’t how it will work or what it will look like. I knew that I wanted to make a box that had legs and a lid. For this puzzle I decided it has to have a leg that turns and a lid that will swing open. That is my problem to solve.

SS: How long did it take from setting the challenge of creating a box with a turning leg and swinging lid to having a finished prototype of the puzzle?

RC: It will take me as long as months to design a puzzle.

SS: Did you start with the sequence already in mind or did it develop over a number of prototypes?

RC: In solving my problem I had to work out the sequence of how to connect the leg to the lid. In this case it involves a ball bearing and three pins to get to the lid.

SS: Did you sketch it out on paper or just play with different parts from a design sequence you had in your head?

RC: Yes on paper and on the machine to find a way to make it. I make a lot of scrap trying things. The leg that turns does not turn till you turn the box upside down to move a pin, then to one end to move another pin so the ball will come out of the leg so the leg will turn a nut out of the lid so it will swing open.

SS: What were the considerations for determining the size of this puzzle? I am assuming the weight of the finished puzzle is one as it is milled from brass?

RC: The size of the puzzle has a lot to do with the size of stock that is on the market to fit what I want to make. And for size the smaller the better.

SS: What are the unique challenges or difficulties of producing brass puzzle boxes, compared to say brass trick bolts?

RC: I don’t find any different challenges between any puzzles in the design.

SS: What are the reasons you make your puzzles in brass instead of other metals, such as aluminium?

RC: Brass is so much easier to work with than aluminium. I love machine work and for my hobby brass machines easy, polishes great and is easy on my machining tools.

SS: You have made several other brass trick-opening boxes can you tell me about these?

RC: The first Box that I made was Lee-Box. It is an end over end to open and close. Bloom-Box is a manipulation thing. I made it for a French Magic performer Mane Gayton Bloom. My favourite is Chic-ago. In that one that you press a leg among other things.

SS: Do you remember the first puzzle you played with?

RC: The first puzzle that I remember is a nail puzzle that came from the Colorado Fuel & Iron steel mill.

SS: How old where you when you played with this puzzle?

RC: Six.

SS: Did you interests in puzzles immediately develop from the experience of playing with this nail puzzle?

RC: No, but it may have opened up my interest in mechanical things. I never was a puzzle person. My hobby is making a mechanical problem and then try to make it.

Brass Treasure Chest is still available for purchase from Canadian distributor Puzzle Master Inc.

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Disentangling Dick Hess’s “Pendulum”

PendulumWhen I approached Richard Hess about an interview for this blog I asked if there was a particular puzzle he wanted to discuss. One of his three suggestions was Pendulum, a disentanglement that he noted was an improvement on an older design of his. The improvement? The addition of a small wooden bead.

This seemingly innocuous addition – which serves to make it an even more difficult disentanglement – is something Dick found while exploring variations on the puzzle. This style of searching for new puzzles through an extensive examination of variations on basic disentanglement structures is characteristic of Dick’s modus operandi.

This can be clearly seen in his “Compendium of Disentanglement Puzzles”, which in its current edition catalogues over 10,500 of them arranged according to the structure of the puzzle and the solution method. His interest in disentanglements can also be seen in his enviable collection of over 30,000 mechanical puzzles in which disentanglements form a large part.

Dick was educated as a physicist (at BS Caltech and received his PhD from UC Berkeley) and spent his professional career at defence computer contractor Logicon, Inc, retiring some years back as a Vice President managing a unit of 300-400 people. Being an avid tennis fan and having played the game most his life he travels to grand slam and other tournaments every year. In between traveling, Dick took time out to answer some questions on Pendulum via email.

Saul Symonds: In your “Compendium” this puzzle appears with the name Improved Finnish obstacle. How did it get this name? (Editor’s note: the puzzle appears under the category “Type 1 Finnish Trapezes” with the alphanumeric handle “G558”.)

Richard Hess: A Finnish puzzler, Markku Vesala, first introduced me to the Finnish Trapeze structure and I added many embellishments from there.

SS: When did this happen? Was the Finnish Trapeze created by Vesala or does it have an older origin?

RH: This happened in the late 80’s. I don’t know if Markku invented it or got it from somewhere else.

SS: The solution to this puzzle involves two main “steps” or “movements”. When creating it did you start with the combination of these movements and create a form that embodied them or did you start with the finished shape?

RH: I started with the finished shape and managed to solve the puzzle.

SS: So you have to discover the solution to the puzzle in the same way as everyone else?

RH: Yes.

SS: How long does this first solve usually take you?

RH: From a few minutes to perhaps 30 minutes.

SS: And do all your wire puzzles follow a similar creation method?

RH: Normally, yes.

SS: Can you walk me through the process for creating the shape of the puzzle. Do you make sketches first or just start playing with wire shapes?

RH: Occasionally I make drawings but normally just build from wire straight away.

SS: Pendulum is a reworking of an earlier puzzle of yours, adding a green bead to one of the wire pieces. Can you explain how this complicated the solution process?

RH: The bead doesn’t fit through the slot so one has to figure out how to get the ring past the bead.

SS: You create wire puzzles that are very difficult to solve – is the difficultly of a finished puzzle something that you factor into the design/creation process?

RH: Yes.

SS: So how do you go about ensuring the required level of difficulty? Is it through adding more steps; sticking to moves that are counter-intuitive; finding new shapes for the puzzle; etc.?

RH: All of what you list can be involved. Often it’s tuning the sizes so that moves only barely can happen.

SS: You have an encyclopaedic knowledge of wire puzzles and the various ways of solving them, do you still come across ones that you find difficult to solve?

RH: From time to time, yes.

SS: What was the last one you found difficult?

RH: The last difficult one I produced is Keys to the Kingdom, which will be my exchange at IPP34.

SS: When creating disentanglements, how do you go about “disguising” the solution, so to speak, so that even an experienced puzzler will find it a challenge?

RH: Making the pathway for solution as small as possible increases the difficulty.

SS: A lot of your work with wire puzzles seems to be about exploring variations on a theme. For example, Five Keys shows how five handles, all with minor variations, are placed on the same puzzle in different ways. Do you find these variations through trial and error or do you have a more directed approach?

RH: Mostly by trial and error.

SS: In that puzzle you presented the solver with five “keys”, have you made other puzzles with more than one key but discarded them?

RH: No. I made the “Five Keys” from noting five different methods of putting a key on the trapeze shape.

SS: You have more than just a casual association with wire puzzles, as your compendium of over 10,000 of them clearly shows. How did this interest begin?

RH: My father had a collection of about 25 wire puzzles. As a 7-year old I was curious what they were and started with the bent nails, learning how to solve each until I could solve the Chinese Rings as a 10-year old. In high school I designed my first extension of a wire puzzle, which is A019, the Triple Compound Trapeze.

The collection of wire puzzles that first intrigued Dick Hess in a cigarette box (Photo courtesy Dick Hess)

The collection of wire puzzles that first intrigued Dick Hess in a cigarette box (Photo courtesy Dick Hess)

SS: In 2003 you published the seventh edition of your compendium. When did you publish the first edition and how did the idea start?

RH: The first edition came out in 1980 and was suggested by Jerry Slocum. By 1982 I had over 500 wire puzzles so a second edition came out then. Subsequent editions had 1400 (3rd), 2600 (4th), 7000 (5th and 6th) and 10500 (7th edition) puzzles.

A book that influenced me greatly was Wire Puzzle written by Yu Ch’ung-en in 1957. I have met his son and grandchildren, who were selling wire puzzles in Shanghai into the 21st century.

SS: Your compendium is interesting for the way it categorises wire puzzles according to both the parts of the puzzles and solution methods. How did you go about identifying and breaking down these categories?

RH: That was quite arbitrary.

SS: In Jerry Slocum’s puzzle classification system wire puzzles are just one category of disentanglement. What do you see as the major significant sub-categories of disentanglement?

RH: The subcategories of wire puzzles are quite arbitrary but I use the following:

4.2A Wire Sets Boxed
4.2B Wire series and Packaged Sets
4.2I Hard Wire and Bent Nail Type
4.2J and L Large Blacksmith, Tavern, Bortolazzo and the like
4.2K. 3D Wire Puzzles
4.2 M Chinese Rings
4.2 N Miscellaneous Wire Puzzles

SS: Are there types of solutions that you gravitate towards when creating wire puzzles?

RH: Not really. I look for as many varieties of solution technique as I can find.

Pendulum can be purchased directly from Dick Hess.

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