“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 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.
“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.
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.
“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.”
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.”
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.
“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.”
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.
“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.
“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.)