How to Choose the Best Jigsaw Puzzle? My Unique Insider's Guide

 

“What is the best jigsaw puzzle?” I asked  … “One that tells a story”.
I will never forget this learning from my previous boss and puzzle legend, Michael Gibson of Gibsons Games.

I’m Geoff, former Director of Product Development at Gibsons Games with over 20 years of experience in Jigsaw Puzzles.
Welcome to my personal ‘insiders’ guide on what is the Best Jigsaw Puzzle—whether you are buying for yourself, as a gift, a retailer of a puzzle shop, or even, dare I say it, working for a jigsaw puzzle company!

how to choose the best puzzle

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how to choose the best puzzle

What is the best jigsaw puzzle for you?

There is a jigsaw puzzle for everybody.
There is no such thing as the best jigsaw puzzle.
There is only the best jigsaw puzzle for YOU.

What are you looking for in a jigsaw puzzle?

When choosing a jigsaw puzzle, there are certain ‘filters’ that people have before even looking at the box.
These aren’t subjective opinions but practical facts.
If a jigsaw puzzle doesn’t meet these criteria, then it doesn’t even get on your shortlist of ‘The Best.’

Flat 2D or 3D jigsaw puzzles?

The first choice is between a flat puzzle you assemble on a table or board and a 3D plastic puzzle which will eventually resemble a solid object.
A 2D puzzle could be a painting of two cats sitting in a garden printed onto cardboard or wood.
A 3D puzzle could be a world globe or the Empire State Building made from plastic.

Wooden vs Cardboard?

The first choice is which material?
Do you prefer wooden or cardboard?
If you are unsure, then choose a cardboard puzzle first.
They are much cheaper, and there are many more choices.

If you choose wooden, you are likely already a jigsaw puzzle connoisseur and want the finest things in life!
Wooden jigsaw puzzles have great, unusually shaped pieces called whimseys.

The best Wooden jigsaw puzzles

If the best puzzle for you is a wooden puzzle, I have written an article on Choosing the Best Wooden Puzzle here. There are some great manufacturers to choose from and some beautiful puzzles.
Do have a look.

Choosing the best Cardboard puzzles

If the best puzzle for you is a cardboard puzzle, you still have choices to make before you can even look at the picture on the box.
What size of puzzle piece, how many pieces and which brand?

Adult or kids puzzles

We are fortunate that there is plenty of choice of jigsaw puzzles for adults and children ages three and upwards. However, be careful of puzzles for children under three, as they can be tempting to put in the mouth.
I was involved in product testing children’s puzzles at Gibsons to ensure that individual puzzle pieces didn’t have weak points that could easily be twisted or bitten off.
If you are buying for children, make sure you buy from a reputable manufacturer for puzzles that have gone through this safety testing, which also covers the use of dangerous inks and glues.
I will be covering the best kids’ puzzles later this year.

Size of the puzzle piece

For adults, there are also different puzzle piece sizes.
Some of us need to consider how easy the puzzle pieces are to handle.

The size of a puzzle piece tends to be standard amongst all puzzle manufacturers for adult puzzles of 500 pieces or over. Fortunately, manufacturers now make large-piece puzzles where the individual pieces are twice or even four times the size of a traditional puzzle piece.

100-piece and 250-piece puzzles with ‘Extra large’ pieces could be suitable for adults with handling difficulties.

Number of pieces

Adult puzzles tend to start from 100 pieces and above.
500 piece puzzles have a ‘standard’ sized piece and are a good starting point.
1000 piece puzzles are the most popular and outsell 500 piece puzzles by a factor of 4 to 1.
Therefore, if a puzzle company has a great puzzle image, they will likely publish this as a 1000 piece puzzle.
1000 piece puzzles, therefore, tend to have the best artwork.

Puzzle brand

So, maybe you have decided on an adult puzzle with 1000 pieces?
The next question could be which brand of puzzle?
Buying a car, some people will have their favorite brand and only choose a Toyota, BMW or Mercedes.

The same applies to many puzzlers—they will stick with their favourite brand, whether that is Ravensburger White Mountain or Gibsons for cardboard puzzles or Liberty, Wentworth, or Nautilus for wooden puzzles.

There are many reasons for sticking with the same brand. They may like the type of puzzle image, puzzle quality or customer service.

Puzzle board quality

The puzzle quality does vary across brands, and it depends on primarily on the puzzle thickness.
Most brands will use a special puzzle board. This board, however, can vary in thickness and quality. It can be the cheaper 1mm greyboard, or the thickest 100% FSC recycled 2.25mm blueboard.

Puzzle shapes & cut quality

Once the printed paper is ready, it can be glued to the puzzle board before cutting.
Puzzle cutting is both a science and an art.

The puzzle ‘cutter’ design is important. Some companies will have a regular pattern where each individual puzzle piece can look exactly the same. This is easier and cheaper to produce but disadvantages the puzzler because any piece can fit anywhere in a puzzle. 

Other companies will vary the design so each piece can have one, two or three ‘lugs’ or ‘holes’. So, every piece is actually different and can, in theory, only fit in one place (although sometimes the difference is very small, so you could squeeze it into the wrong place if you wanted).

The greater the variation of puzzle shape, the better the jigsaw puzzle.

Print quality

Once the type of puzzle board is chosen, a sheet of paper is selected to print on, which is then glued to the board.
The print quality is a significant factor.

The paper should be as white as possible, as it is the background upon which the colours can show brightly.
The paper must also be coated with a special surface so the ink stays on top and isn’t absorbed too much into the paper itself. If it does, the print’s colour and detail will be poor.
If you have tried printing on grey recycled plain paper at home, you will see how flat the colours can be compared to specialist white-coated paper.

Paper and ink are important, and so are printing companies. They control how much ink goes onto the paper, and I have been lucky enough to oversee this process many times – making sure the colours are accurately reproduced with the best saturation and contrast. Every print is different, even for the same image and printing machine—it all depends on the skill of the printer who has to juggle the settings of the giant ink jet nozzles!

Original image quality

The print quality is important, but the stage before is equally important.
If the image is poor-quality to start with, it will become a poor-quality puzzle, no matter how good the printer is.

It all starts with the artist (or photographer). If the artist paints on a tiny 7 x 5cm canvas and the printer has to enlarge that to a 70 x 50cm puzzle, the detail will not be sharp, and the texture of the canvas will also show through – creating a wavy effect in the final puzzle.
I always encouraged the painter to paint on as large a canvas as they could. Trevor Mitchell is a great example of a painter who knows exactly how important that is.

The painting then needs to be photographed or scanned. Again, the better the photographic equipment is at taking the highest original resolution pictures, the better the finished quality—sharper details and more accurate colours true to the actual painting. Just a note to any potential puzzle photographers—any image can be enlarged to be high-resolution, but it is the resolution of the original image that counts.

Puzzle subject

So, now we have the best painter with the largest canvas photographed by the best photographer with the best camera,  printed by the best printer on the best coated paper with the best ink.
It’s still, however, not the best puzzle for YOU. Why?

The puzzle shows the wrong picture!

Only you can determine which pictures you like; nobody else can tell you otherwise.
You may only like cats, so the best puzzle for you would not be a puzzle about dogs.
You may like peaceful country scenes of nature, so a busy street scene in New York is not for you.

Luckily, that is why thousands of puzzles exist on hundreds of different subjects.

Puzzle Artist

Now we have the perfectly printed puzzle about your favorite subject.
Let’s pretend the puzzle features cats.
But you still don’t like the puzzle!

Different artists have different styles.
You may like photography or comic scenes as opposed to paintings?

You may like brightly colored puzzles but the artist of the puzzle may have  painted in watercolour with its muted colors and broad brush strokes. You would have preferred an artist who paints with oil or gauache.

Puzzle composition

Now we have the perfect puzzle painted by your favourite artist on cats, but you still don’t like it!

Puzzle composition.

The composition of a painting (or photograph) for a puzzle is how the different elements of the painting are arranged and, importantly, how many there are. A measure of the composition is whether a puzzler knows where that puzzle piece should go in the puzzle.

 

For example,  a puzzle about cats would have one miniature painting of a black cat on a white background.
Some puzzlers may enjoy the challenge of having 90% of the puzzle pieces just show white, but it would be too much for the rest of us—this would be a tough composition.

An easier, more interesting puzzle composition would be to have lots of different breeds of differently coloured cats and kittens playing with balls of coloured wool in a kitchen with lots of pots and pans in the background. Every puzzle piece would contain details of the painting, and the different colours would also help the puzzler know where that piece fits in the puzzle.

Another example of a hard composition would be having lots of plain blue sky covering the top half of the puzzle.
An easier composition of the sky would be to have it covering only a quarter of the puzzle and also to include lots of different clouds, flying birds, and maybe a branch of a tree covering the corner with its blossom.

The more interesting the composition of a puzzle, the better the puzzle (for most puzzlers!)

Finally ... does it tell a story?

 

Nearly there … we have the perfect puzzle – excellent quality, artist and composition.
What makes a puzzler pick that particular puzzle from the shelves of dozens?

A Great Puzzle tells a story – Michael Gibson.

What did Michael mean? Michael talks about an emotional connection with the puzzler.
The best puzzles go beyond colours & composition. They say to a puzzler

Do you remember when …
… you used to visit this sweet shop?
… you went to this seaside town?
… you spent time in the garden with your grandparents?
… you played with your cats in the kitchen?

Now you have the best puzzle for YOU!

I hope you enjoyed my unique guide to choosing the best puzzle

If you liked this article, find out my thoughts on

The Most Interesting Jigsaw Puzzle for Adults,
a Perfect Puzzle for Grandpa
How to become a Jigsaw Puzzle Artist
and a visit to a Jigsaw Festival!

 

Geoff Lee