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Guest commentary: Did COVID turn you into a puzzler? Here are some tips for your obsession

Stuart McCarthy works on "Great Small Music Venues of the U.S." from Point Loma's Ends of the Earth Puzzles & Maps.
Stuart McCarthy of Bailey, Colo., works on “Great Small Music Venues of the U.S.” from Point Loma puzzle maker Ends of the Earth Puzzles & Maps.
(Courtesy of Elizabeth McAllister)

The past couple of years while we were locked down and shut away, the popularity of jigsaw puzzles soared. Puzzles flew off shelves and landed on doorsteps everywhere. Here was a pastime to relieve stress and step away from ever-present screens — an antidote to the weird situation in which we all found ourselves.

Time magazine reported in 2020 that puzzle sales tripled over the year before. Large puzzle manufacturer Ravensburger reported a jump in sales of 370 percent at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. And it’s no wonder. Jigsaw puzzles are designed to challenge, intrigue and ultimately make you feel good.

Flat puzzles began in the mid-18th century, sometimes as a tool to teach children geography. A hundred years later, puzzles for adults were developed when a foot treadle jigsaw made them easier to produce, with smaller pieces cut from images printed by a press. Another boost in sales came during World War II, when there was a shortage of other entertainment.

People found they got a little dopamine rush every time they locked a piece into place, and some actually get a little hooked. If you are into it, don’t worry, your puzzle obsession is normal.

Here are some fun facts, tips and links to help you get the most out of your addiction:

Something for everyone

Of course there are the ubiquitous cat, dog, landscape and candy bar wrapper scenes. But fine-art reproductions also abound, as well as images for every taste and temptation, from food to film to fantasy. There are puzzles for adults with anywhere from 150 to 30,000 pieces. Most opt for 750 to 2,000 pieces.

Crafty puzzle makers challenge more advanced customers with swaths of like colors, lots of similarity within the image and even trick pieces that appear to fit but must be reworked later when the puzzler becomes stumped. There’s usually nothing on the box that will indicate there are trick pieces inside, so you are pretty much at their mercy.

A whimsical puzzle by StumpCraft.
(Courtesy of Elizabeth McAllister)

Some puzzles contain “whimsy” pieces cut in shapes of people or objects. If you like models, you may enjoy a 3D puzzle. There are double-sided and custom photo puzzles. Some are simply all one color — no thanks!

A certain skill set helps: focus, patience, a good visual memory. Folks have reported puzzling as a bit similar to meditation. Anxiety evaporates. Aside from the mental benefit, you also may put down the potato chips for a while — it’s hard to puzzle while munching.

Where to get them

Jigsaw enthusiasts can look in places other than Target or Amazon. La Playa Books in Point Loma has a nice selection. Also, you may find discount codes if you go straight to the manufacturer.

Prices vary widely. At the low end they are about $15, more commonly around $23 or $24, with wooden puzzles usually double that or more and frequently $60 to $100-plus. Collectible puzzles can be in the hundreds or even thousand-dollar range.

A puzzle from the Buffalo brand.
(Courtesy of Elizabeth McAllister)

Good, trusted manufacturers include Buffalo, Pomegranate, Cobble Hill and Galison. Also look at puzzlewarehouse.com, the world’s largest puzzle company.

Smaller cool companies include Artifact Puzzles and Antelope Puzzles. Check the Facebook group jigsawpuzzlelovers for ideas. Also, you may want to see if there are any at the local library or thrift shop, although there might be a missing piece or two.

How to handle them

First, be aware that the number of pieces printed on the box is usually not exact; it’s just an approximation. Some people have offered tips: Never vacuum while you have a puzzle going (and the point is to relax and have fun anyway, right?); try natural light to avoid glare; step away and come back if you are at an impasse. A nice glass of wine also helps.

There’s no right or wrong. Everyone’s organizational style is different. Some sort by shape, which helps as you near the end of the process. It doesn’t matter; that’s the beauty. It’s not a contest. (Although, for the truly daring, there are timed competitions and Vegas-style tournaments. See Pacific Puzzlers in San Diego on meetup.com.)

Curious pets sometimes want to get in the act, so you may want to do your puzzle on a bulletin board and store it under a bed when not in action.

If your puzzle doesn’t come with a poster and the box image is small, take a photo with your phone so you can zoom in on spots that are particularly tough.

People have reported neck and back issues when they are really into puzzling. Experts suggest taking frequent breaks, looking up at the ceiling and stretching once in a while, as well as getting a swivel and/or tilting puzzle board. Some tables have sorting holders, but you can just as easily use small bins or food containers.

What to do with them when you’re done

You don’t have to collect them, and you’ll have fans if you pass them on. There are trade groups, or you can donate them to a retirement village.

If you’re really proud of your work or the image, try framing it. Don’t use glue. Just put some plastic food wrap on the front, flip it, tape the back with wide packaging tape and then remove the plastic wrap from the front.

If puzzle mania has hit you, good luck and remember to stretch!

Elizabeth McAllister is a Point Loman who designs map puzzles along with Murphy McAllister and puzzle maker/business partner/musician Corey McCormick at Ends of the Earth Puzzles & Maps.


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