Jigsaw Puzzles 101: Selecting the right one, where to buy them, and what to do once they're complete

This centuries-old pasttime is enjoying a newfound popularity. Here's how to get the most out of your puzzling

Published May 11, 2020 5:38PM (EDT)

Jigsaw Puzzle (Getty Images/Douglas Sacha)
Jigsaw Puzzle (Getty Images/Douglas Sacha)

It doesn't take long to run out of things to do in the great indoors. Maybe you've already tried baking sourdoughor gave up after a failed attempt. Maybe you've already made your way through your Netflix queue, movies that are streaming, and your 2020 reading list. If you're looking for other ways to spend time, I'd highly recommend getting into jigsaw puzzles. They're meditative and generally affordable — a great way to disconnect from screens, and the anxiety of the news. Puzzles also pair well with a favorite podcast or audiobook, giving you something to do with your hands as you sink into whatever story you're listening to.

As a longtime lover of jigsaw puzzles, I've written a guide that covers everything from how to pick the best one for the level of difficulty you prefer to how to buy a puzzle when they appear to be out of stock.

How to Pick the Right Puzzle and Where to Buy Them

First things first: Pick an image you'll enjoy assembling, because you might be working on it for a while. Or maybe it's an image you'd like to hang up and show off after you've finished it.

Second: Make sure you're purchasing from a retailer with a good reputation for the quality of its puzzles. Good quality puzzles mean that the image on the pieces aren't grainy, and won't peel off the tops of the pieces. The cardboard of the pieces should be durable enough not to rip at the sides. Legacy names like Ravensburger and Buffalo are trustworthy, but with so many newer brands on the market, you might want to scan reviews on the site, or check where they are stocked — if they're at larger retailers, their quality is usually up to snuff.

Though many puzzle retailers are currently out of stock or halting their orders, there are still lots of places to purchase a puzzle online. If you can't find what you're looking for at places like Amazon, Target, eBay, and Walmart, bookstores are an excellent place to shop. Bookshop.org is a great way to support independent bookstores through puzzle purchases — you can even search a specific bookstore to support or search the stock of. Barnes and Nobles and Etsy are also great places to look. It may also be worthwhile to search for a puzzle specifically, as it may be stocked at a smaller boutique that still offers shipping.

Beyond selecting an image you personally enjoy, picking the right puzzle also means paying attention to image composition and number of pieces. A larger piece count doesn't always mean a puzzle will be harder. A gradient puzzle, for example — or any image that repeats itself, or is predominantly a single indistinguishable color — can be challenging even at a lesser piece count. The difficulty of the image is more closely related to the frequency of a specific color or pattern in the image, as the assembling process usually involves sorting by color, pattern, or text. 

Poster puzzles, like Ridley's "Dog Lover" is a great example of this. The written captions are easier to put together because they're distinctive, and you can figure out very quickly if a set of pieces don't fit together, while the dogs themselves are harder to assemble due to similar-looking paws and fur colors. I've always loved this puzzle because I can pick which part I want to work on depending on how tired I am.

Here are some great choices for beginners that are also vivid, beautiful, and delightful to put together — and, most importantly, in stock at the time of writing this:

"Home" by Andrew Watch - Inner Piece
"Votes for Women" - eeBoo
"The History of Space Travel Puzzle" - POPCHART LABS
"Tree Dwelling Slowpokes" - Galison
"Bathing with Flowers" - Jiggy
"The Night Garden" - New York Puzzle Company
"Harry Potter Book Cover Collage" - New York Puzzle Company
Little Puzzle Things - Areaware
"Alice in Wonderland Mini Puzzle" - Out of Print
"SH*T Four-Letter Puzzle" - Knock Knock
"Yeah Four-Letter Puzzle" - Knock Knock

If you're looking for a challenge, an image with greater complexity in the 500+ or 1000+ piece range can be a great diversion. Some puzzles that seem intimidating are totally doable once you study the image for repeating colors and patterns. I find it meditative to slowly chip away at a puzzle that seems difficult on the surface. This is the case with Galison's "Houseplant Jungle" puzzle — it's all green houseplant leaves, but look closely and you'll notice each leaf has a very distinct pattern, thanks to dots on the leaves, or vibrant magenta veins.

Here are a few other challenging choices, that are also currently in stock:

"The World of Birds" by Charley Harper - Pomegranate
"Tutti-Frutti" - Piecework
"The Kiss" by Gustav Klimt - Pomegranate
"Paper Paradise" - Galison
"The Moon Jigsaw Puzzle" - Lindsay Stead
"Viva La Vida Frida Kahlo" - eeBoo
"Dusen Dusen Pattern Puzzle" - Areaware
"Rabble of Roses" - Hallmark
"Skating in the Park" - New York Puzzle Company
"Mushroom Boy" - New York Puzzle Company
"Moomin: A Dangerous Journey" - Flame Tree Publishing
"Dogs Make the World Go Round" - True South Co
"Pacific Crest Trail" - National Geographic

Tools of the Trade, aka Accessories to Consider

If you live in a shared or small space, you might want to do your puzzles on a surface that can be moved or stowed away. Retailers like Bits and Pieces sell professional puzzle boards and tables with specific functionalities — like drawers, covers, and the ability to rotate. Amazon also carries a number of these, and Etsy retailers also sell hand-crafted puzzle boards, though shipping takes a little longer, as they are often made to order.

I've found that a plain bulletin or memo board works just as well, as long as it has a raised lip, or frame, around the edges that will keep pieces from falling off the board. Boards can be found at numerous retailers, including Amazon, Home Depot, Office Depot, Office Max, Staples, Amazon, and eBay, and will only set you back around $20-$30. Just make sure to note the dimensions. Most 1,000 piece puzzles will fit on a board that is 2 x 3 feet. They're small enough that you can slide them under a bed or a sofa when they're not in use.

In addition to a puzzle board, I'd also recommend a set of sorting trays, to help you sort your puzzle pieces in a space efficient way. These can be found at general retailers like Amazon or Target, and don't necessarily have to be puzzle related; they just need to have a wide bottom and nest well, such as filing trays or drawer sorters. Crafting retailers like Michaels or JOANN Fabric also carry generic sorting trays that work well. 

Post-Puzzle: What to Do When You're Done

I prefer to do my puzzles over and over, so when I am done, I usually take a picture for my Instagram story, then disassemble it and put it away on my bookshelf. For this reason, I have a preference for puzzles with boxes that are aesthetic objects. Newer companies like Areaware, Inner Piece, and Pieceworks excel at this, with boxes you might choose to display on a coffee table, even if there's space to stow it away. 

You can also "recycle" puzzles by passing them on to friends and family. Online consignment shops like Thredup have been offering store credit for mailed in puzzles (in their original box), and reselling them on their site. Libraries often have puzzles out for the general public, and take donations as long as puzzles still have all of their pieces. 

There is also the option of showing off the completed puzzle in your home, which will require puzzle glue, a flat stable surface, and something protective to place between the puzzle and your work surface, like wax paper, or a large sheet of cardboard. Lots of beloved brands have glues specifically for puzzles, like Mod Podge Puzzle Saver and Elmer's Puzzle Glue. The key is to find something that applies white — so you can see where the glue is during the process — and dries clear, and to have some sort of straight edge (a durable business card can even work) that allows you to distribute the glue. 

After you've set down your puzzle and flattened out any bumps, you can squeeze the glue on top of the puzzle and use the straight edge to distribute it. Make sure all the pieces and spaces between them are covered, and try not to take any significant breaks midway through the process. (Newer brand Jiggy includes puzzle glue with their puzzle and has a helpful video for how to apply it.) If you have a brush or are using a glue with a brush included, like Mod Podge, you can use it to apply around the edges, sealing them in. Make sure you wait for the appropriate dry time before trying to move or hang the puzzle, or pieces might fall out.

After drying, you can frame your puzzle, or attach it to a backing board — even a foam presentation board from a craft store, cut to size, would work — and hang it with command strips or frame hardware.


By Nicole Clark

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