Every day I’m puzzlin’

September 30, 2021 — by Jonny Luo
Photo by Anjali Pai

Just a year ago, the walls of my bedroom were empty: sky blue paint and a Chinese vocabulary sheet were my only decorations. Now, however, jigsaw puzzles of picturesque sunsets and rustic farm life line my walls with color, bringing my previously dull room to life. 

I started puzzling at the beginning of quarantine because, like many others, I had too much time on my hands. My first puzzle was a 1,000-piece illustration of the solar system, with the planets all (very unscientifically) arranged on the image. At first, seeing 1,000 little jigsaw pieces strewn haphazardly across the floor was overwhelming. I didn’t know how I would even begin; every piece looked the same, and I couldn’t imagine how they would fit together. 

Slowly, however, I began to tackle it, and piece by piece, I soon learned to enjoy the process. I’d work on the puzzle after dinner or during boring Zoom classes in April when teachers first started puzzling out online learning (get it?). Assembling puzzles was something I could do while listening to an audiobook or enjoying music, and finding the right puzzle piece and setting it into place just felt so satisfying

I sometimes find myself falling into a trance while puzzling; hours can go by before I realize just how long I’ve spent sitting hunched over the floor. I’m probably going to have back problems at 20, but as the saying goes, you only live once.

Despite common belief, puzzling isn’t just a guessing game; there’s a methodical way I like to approach them with. First, I’ll sort out the edge pieces. Then, I assemble the edges and organize the remaining puzzle pieces by colors and their images. After that, I just have to fill in the rest. 

I’m always paranoid that I’ll lose a piece. I typically assemble puzzles on the floor of my bedroom so that no one can accidentally disturb my puzzle. Thankfully, I haven’t lost a piece yet — although I hope I’m not jinxing myself by saying that. 

My first puzzle was quite difficult, and it ended up taking over two weeks to complete. Puzzle difficulty generally increases with size and homogeneity. This puzzle satisfied both of these difficult conditions, with large swaths of dark, starry sky and one thousand pieces. Fortunately, this puzzle included a guide on the back, with letters demarcating the general area where each piece should be placed.

I’ve done over ten puzzles since — almost all 1,000 pieces — and I’ve enjoyed every single one of them. Most were landscapes, although some had images from TV shows or books I particularly enjoyed. I bought a Mandalorian puzzle after finishing the second season and a Harry Potter puzzle after re-reading the series. Doing puzzles helps me feel more connected to a series, and it’s a great way to recap a series you finished. When I’m out of content to watch, there’s always a puzzle that I can do. 

The puzzles I think I’ll want to do again get disassembled and put back into their boxes. It’s counter-intuitive, but this process of destroying all your hard-work, knowing that you’ll be able to enjoy it again later, is often the most enjoyable part of puzzling.

The ones that I think look especially beautiful get hung up in my room. I cover the surface with a thin layer of Elmer’s school glue and, once it dries, apply loops of tape to the back and stick it to my wall (frames are too expensive). So far, my stinginess has been rewarded: none of my puzzles have yet to fall.

Shopping for puzzles is also a unique experience. Much like shopping for clothes, there seems to be an infinitely large selection from both smaller, boutique brands and larger, “chain-store” brands. 

When I buy a puzzle, I usually consider two things: the image and the puzzle-cut. The image, to me, is the most important part of the puzzle — a bad image leads to a bad puzzling experience. I generally prefer to do landscapes because I can hang them up afterwards, but I also have a few collages, which have busier designs and are easier to complete. 

Puzzle pieces come in two different cuts, or shapes — the standard cut, the kind you likely imagine when you think about a jigsaw puzzle, and the random cut, which, as the name implies, is cut into random shapes. I prefer random cut because it’s more of a surprise to see where the pieces fit. 

I normally shop for my puzzles online because of the larger selection, but sometimes I go in person, either to Target or Barnes & Noble, to peruse the limited puzzle section. It’s unfortunate that puzzling is too niche a hobby to have dedicated stores nearby, so there’s always a trade-off between the feeling of shopping in person with a smaller selection and trading the in-person experience for a larger, online catalogue. 

Through my frequent purchases, I’ve also discovered which brands offer quality puzzle pieces, and which brands have mushy cardboard pieces with peeling images. Springbok, I’m talking about you. 

If you want to get into puzzling, a good budget brand is Buffalo games, but if you’re willing to splurge, go for Ravensburger or Cobble Hill. 

I’ve also discovered the niche section of YouTube for puzzle enthusiasts, and I’ve become a fan of one particular channel called Karen Puzzles (she’s not a Karen, by the way). She’s YouTube’s resident puzzle expert: She can do puzzles without looking at the image, complete solid-colored puzzles and finish a 1,000-piece puzzle in a matter of hours. In a couple weeks, I’ve watched all 122 videos about her experience doing specific puzzles and timelapses of her solving them.

  I like to think that all the time I spend puzzling — usually 15 hours per puzzle — actually offers some academic benefit to my life. Completing jigsaw puzzles is purported to improve cognition and short-term memory, which is great for cram-studying the day before tests. 

Even if this isn’t the case, I’ll still keep puzzling so that when I’m old and have a broken back, I can sit myself down in a squeaky rocking chair in my room lined with puzzles and dazzle kids with the story of a teenage puzzling master.