February 7, 2010

Stewart Coffin Visit

Today was the day that I got to visit the home of world famous puzzle designer and craftsman, Stewart Coffin! Stewart is a legend in the puzzle community, so I was thrilled when John Devost offered to introduce me to him. He only lives about 30 minutes away from me in Andover, MA, which is the town where I grew up.

When I arrived, I was greeted by his wife Mary waving at me through the window. I was welcomed by Stewart at the door where I shook his hand and I introduced myself. After taking off my coat, we all sat down at the kitchen table where I set down the box of puzzles that I had brought.

First, I pulled out three hexstick puzzles that I had borrowed from John, since I thought Stewart would get a kick out of seeing John's excellent work reproducing his design, Four-Color Hexsticks, as well as some variations, Hextasy and Hectix Revisited.

He played around a bit with each of them and was quite impressed by John's attention to detail. He loved the fine detail on the beveled ends of the pieces. After taking Hectix Revisited apart somewhat and putting it back together, he disassembled Hextasy to see the different pieces.

While he was looking at these puzzles, Stuart told me about about how he 3M mass produced Hectix many years ago. They had no trouble casting the parts very quickly, but the union labor to assemble the puzzles was costing them a fortune! He told them to send the parts to him and paid a bunch of kids 2 cents a puzzle to assemble them, which wasn't too bad for those days.

He proudly told me that one of his daughters could assemble four of them per minute, and got so good at it that she could do it by touch alone. In fact, he once did a live show on public access TV about puzzles and she assembled it with a blindfold on!

Next, I took out Bram Cohen's Pinwheel, made by Jerry McFarland. Mary was quite amused by this one and remarked that it was a nice looking puzzle. Stewart also seemed quite impressed by its appearance. He fiddled around with it for a little while, but confessed that he wasn't much of a solver, so I offered to show him the solution. He chuckled as it slid apart and marvelled at the intricate pieces. I explained as much as I could about the CNC process Jerry used to craft them.

As I was putting it back together, Stewart went over to his shelves and pulled out a few puzzles that he thought I might find interesting. First, he brought out a beautiful copy of Jupiter, designed by Stewart and made by Bart Buie. Mary told me how if you spun it in the air it would go flying apart, but that Stewart didn't let her do it because it took him a while to get it back together.

He carefully slid it apart and disassembled it far enough that I could see what one of the pieces looked like. Very cool! It would have been fun to take it apart, but I didn't want to risk leaving it in disarray, so we put it back together again.

As we were doing this, he told me about how he used to sell puzzles at crafts fairs, and that this design used to be the centerpiece of his booth. He used to show people how you could throw it up in the air to fling the pieces apart and told the audience that if anybody could put it back together, they could have it. The adults were reluctant to try, since they don't want to risk failure, and it is a tricky puzzle! The children didn't have much luck either.

Sometimes he would plant one of his daughters in the audience, and she would come up, assemble it quickly, and then walk off with it. I'm sure that was quite amusing for everybody involved. When I hear about him selling at crafts fairs, it always makes me hopeful that I'll find some brilliant puzzle craftsman at a craft show, but unfortunately I haven't seen one yet! Can you imagine running into a booth with such amazing puzzles?

Stewart also told me that Jupiter was quite difficult to glue together, and he actually needed a machinist friend of his to help make a jig to glue it together! Quite a process, eh? Here's a picture of me and Stuart, with him holding Jupiter. As you can see, it is a pretty large puzzle.

Next, I played around a bit with a puzzle he named Cruiser (#167 in his design numbering system), since he enjoys taking it on cruises to stump folks.

This one is deceptively tricky, since the right angles of the pieces don't fit into the corners, as you would expect. Even with this hint, I didn't have much luck with this one. I worked on it for a while and Mary chuckled each time I put a right angle in a corner and reminded me that it wouldn't work.

Eventually, I conceded defeat and he showed me where the first piece went. With that hint, it still took me a minute or two to finished it. I need more practice on these tray packing puzzles: they look so simple that it makes you feel foolish not to solve them quicker, but they can be pretty tough!

Speaking of tough packing puzzles, I also tried Four Fit (#217), which I also had a tough time with. Fortunately, before I started he told me that Martin Gardener (another big name in the puzzle world) concluded that it was impossible, so I didn't feel quite as bad. Unfortunately, I didn't remember to get a picture of this one, so this picture is of Tom Lensch's version (photo by Tom Lensch).

I ended up giving up on this one as well, since it didn't seem like I was going to be able to figure it out any time soon. (It is tricky making conversation and solving at the same time!) The solution is quite tricky: I think it could have taken me many days to figure this one out!

Another one that he showed me was design #242. It comes as is shown in the picture, and the goal is to figure out what to do with the extra pieces. It looked hard enough to get it to the state it was currently in, so I didn't have the guts to completely disassemble this one. It looks like an interesting puzzle though!

While I was working on this, Stewart played around with 4-Play by Bill Cutler, which I recently picked up from Eureka for John. He wasn't too interested in the 4 dimensional aspect of this puzzle, but he worked for quite a while on the 3 dimensional problem. If you are baffled by the 4D/3D thing, I'll be doing an entry on this puzzle at some point with more details.

After he got tired of working on this one, I showed him Cast Marble by Bram Cohen, which I thought he might enjoy since it is an interesting dissection. He got a real kick out of how this one came apart and laughed out loud when I showed it to him. An entry about this puzzle will be coming soon as well.

Finally, the part I'm sure many of you were waiting for: I took a bunch of pictures of the various puzzles he had on display. There are some very cool puzzles that I'm sure you'll recognize. Help me identify them in the comments if you'd like, and I'll add some captions to the pictures!

After taking a look at his collection, I pulled out Frand's Mind Bender from my box of puzzles, just to show him some of the work I had done. Of course, it isn't really a mechanical puzzle, but I think he still thought it was pretty neat.

Well, that's about it! I had a great time and I hope Stuart did as well. It was really an honor to meet a man who has contributed so much to the puzzle community. A big thanks to Stuart and Mary for welcoming me into their home, and thanks to John Devost for introducing us. I hope to return again soon!

10 comments:

  1. Very well done Brian...I'm glad you were able to meet Stewart ;)
    john

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  2. Brian:
    What a coincidence that such a well known puzzle designer lived where you grew up!
    It's wonderful that he took the time to meet wiht you. Did he discuss whether he is still designing puzzles, or what his "process" for developing new ideas was? Was puzzle design his occupation or done as a hobby? Very interesting blog. SDP

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  3. Thanks guys! Yes, he is still designing and making puzzles and he showed me a new puzzle he had produced. Pretty cool! He actually did built puzzles as his occupation for quite some time, I think.

    Brian

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  4. Hello Brian

    nice and interesting article about Stewart Coffin; BTW the 2 ball puzzles displaid were made by Josef Pelikan and we sent these pieces to Stewart as some gifts for his generousity;
    happy puzzling
    Bernhard

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  5. Thanks Bernhard! And thanks for the info!

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  6. Hi Brian,

    Thanks for the photos! In the the 3rd photo of Stewart's mantle, there is a star made of Padauk and Maple laminations - that is Stella's Good Cents which is one of a very few of my designs. This design is a modification of one of Stewart's designs, and I thought he might like a copy. Wow - I'm so honored to have that on Stewart's mantle!

    Thanks!

    Scott

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  7. Hi Scott,

    I love the look of your Stella's Good Cents! It is a testament to how cool it is that Stewart still has it after paring down his collection.

    Brian

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  8. How wonderful! I'd love to meet him, but short of that, I'd like to let him know how much I've enjoyed his puzzles over the years. I know he was unsatisfied with the plastic versions of his Ap-Art in the 1970s, but I still have my old Spirus, and it was an early inspiration for my lifelong love of geometrical puzzles. So I'm glad that those were available to puzzle fans at the time. And thanks for your blog!

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  9. Hi Thomas, glad you like the blog! Send me an email with the Contact Me link in the About Me section to the right, and I can put you in touch with him if you'd like!

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