September 14, 2009

Popsicle Stick Puzzles

I was really psyched after solving those two Hanayama puzzles and went on the web to learn about the rest of the Hanayama series and plan my next purchase. I ended up stumbling upon Richard Whiting's site, which has lots of information on Hanayama puzzles. In the My Creations section of his site, I discovered what looked like a nice little puzzle called Stacked Sticks that he had made out of popsicle sticks.

Fortunately, I had been saving popsicle sticks for no apparent reason: I figured they could come in handy at some point and I was right! So I decided to make myself a copy of Stacked Sticks using the picture of Richard's version shown on the right. Unfortunately, I live in an apartment and don't have any saws at my disposal, so I had to improvise.

I tried using a sharp razor to score and then snap the pieces, but that was taking far too long. Next, I tried a set of wire cutters that actually worked pretty well, aside from flinging the stick across the room every now and then.

So, using wire clippers, a nail file, and some Elmer's glue, I created my very first puzzle! It took me about an hour and didn't look too pretty, but I was quite proud of my accomplishment. It was quite a task using a nail file to file all the imprecisely cut sticks down to the right length.

Stacked Sticks is a great little puzzle, too bad the designer is unknown. It has four pieces that are all different, though they all have a similar profile. Also, I liked how you needed to disassemble it into two halves before the halves could be divided into their smallest parts. As I would later discover, it was similar to a number of other puzzles in that you need to have your fingers in just the right position for it to pull apart.

The next day, I thought it would be fun to try to design a 5x5x5 version using the remainder of my popsicle sticks. It took me a while to figure it out, since I wanted to maintain the property that it needed to be separated into two halves and then disassembled from there.

I played around a bit with the different ways that the two halves could slide apart. Initially, I wanted alternating sticks to slide in opposite directions, but unfortunately this makes the resulting pieces and disassembly less interesting. So instead I ended up going with a design where the two sticks on the outside edge went one way and the three inner sticks went the other way.

I brought the completed puzzles in to school for my friends to play around with and learned some important lessons about glue: Elmer's just doesn't cut it when somebody is prying away at your creation. I got some real wood glue and it held up a lot better, but I still had to make sure to tell people that the pieces don't pry up: it slides apart.

So that was my first puzzle design experience. I was pretty bummed that I didn't have a table saw handy to start making some more interesting things, but thought that I could give that a try over Christmas break. For now, I wanted more puzzles to solve!

Coming up next: a chance encounter with another budding puzzle aficionado on the Boston subway.

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