November 6, 2009

Sandfield's Salt and Pepper Shakers

I had noticed Sandfield's Salt and Pepper Shakers puzzles a number of times in my online wanderings: on PuzzleWorld.org, on Jeff's MagicPuzzles Blog, and when I was perusing the entries in the 2003 International Puzzle Party Design Competition. Each time I saw them, I always thought that they sounded like really interesting puzzles.

The Salt and Pepper Shakers were introduced as the 2002 IPP Exchange gifts of Norman and Robert Sandfield, respectively, and built by Perry McDaniel (250 were made). However, while they were exchanged as separate puzzles in the exchange, the tricky thing about them is that both are required to fully solve either one!

As you proceed through the puzzle, you gradually discover tools that allow you to continue. This is referred to as "sequential discovery" (check out the link for more examples). I really like this type of puzzle, so I was psyched to find out that Norman still had some available for purchase and decided to get a pair.

The puzzles arrived a few days later and I couldn't wait to give it a try. They were remarkably well made with an absolutely perfect finish. In fact, it looked like the dovetails were glued in place, that's how nicely they lined up. I guess one thing I should mention in case you haven't seen it before, these dovetails are a common theme in Sandfield's work and are kind of an impossible object. How could there be two dovetail joints at right angles?

After admiring them briefly, I sat down at my kitchen table and started to work on them. The first step was a bit tricky since I didn't really know where to start, so it took a few minutes of fiddling before I found the first step. The second step was cool but wasn't too tricky, but then I got stumped. I poked, prodded and shook both of them and couldn't figure out what the third step was.

Finally, after about a half hour of puzzling, I discovered the next move, which is really quite cool and unexpected. I didn't do it quite like it was intended to be done, but my method worked. The fourth and final step was what I expected it to be: I actually discovered it when I was seeking the 3rd step but didn't have the necessary tools to do it. I thought this was a nice touch, since I knew the final move was just out of my reach.

When I finished the puzzle, I was amused to discover that there is actually some salt and pepper inside, though oddly both are contained within the salt shaker. In total, I think it took me about 45 minutes to solve them, which was just right. I like it to be hard enough that I hit a road block and get a bit frustrated, since it adds to the satisfaction when you finally solve it, but if I am stuck for too long it can get tedious.

There were only two minor issues I had with these puzzles. First, it was quite easy to chip the sharp wood corners on the dovetail joints: twice I brushed the edge with my finger inadvertently and a small splinter came off. However, this is more of a limitation of the wood, I think, so it isn't really Perry's fault. This would make me somewhat more hesitant to let other folks play with it though.

The second point is fairly minor: it is possible to close the puzzle in such a way that you can't open it (easily) again, which is a bit dangerous. If you leave a piece out when reassembling the puzzle, you will be unable to release one of the locks without jerry-rigging another tool, so be careful to put things back before you close it up. This didn't happen to me and, of course, the observant puzzler will notice this and not run into trouble, but I thought I should point it out.

Overall, I think this is currently my favorite puzzle in my collection! It is a very cool puzzle with some unique qualities, and it looks great too. I showed it to my girlfriend and she also thought it was very clever. All around, a great puzzle!

Tomorrow, I'll write about a puzzle that I just got today: Matthew Dawson's Pagoda Puzzle Box.

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