January 27, 2010

John Devost Hex Stick Puzzles

Back in November on the RenegadePuzzlers.ca forum, I was engaging in a lively debate about whether or not Robert "Stickman" Yarger should consider having one of his designs mass produced by Bits and Pieces. Being a cheapskate, I was advocating that he should in order to allow more people to appreciate his brilliant designs. Of course, the opposing point of view is that the quality of their puzzles is quite terrible, and it would be unfortunate to butcher such a nice design.

John Devost was commenting on the sloppy precision of their version of Stewart Coffin's Four Color Hexsticks, which they sold under the name Starbust Puzzle. As you can see from the picture (and as John pointed out), the gaps are quite large.

I replied that for $10 this was fine with me, but John said not waste my money on it and offered to loan me his copy of Four Color Hexsticks as well as three other hex-stock puzzles he had built! Well, of course this was an offer that I couldn't refuse!

When I received them, I decided to try Four Color Hexsticks first. This puzzle is described here in Stewart Coffin's book The Puzzling World of Polyhedral Dissections (online for free here). There are two types of pieces in this twelve-piece puzzle: nine with two notches and three with three notches. These pieces can be assembled into an interlocking structure in three different ways.

As Coffin notes, when constructed out of four different colors of wood such that the three notch pieces are all the same color, two of the three solutions can have an interesting color symmetry. In the first solution the colors are rotationally symmetrical and in the second solution pieces of the same color are parallel.

I had a lot of fun playing around with this puzzle and the craftsmanship is superb. It is made out of Benge, Wenge, Purpleheart, and Lacewood and looks gorgeous (photo by John). John Devost has a "triple-buffing" process that gives the pieces a great shine and durability. The fit was perfect! I could definitely see how the Bits and Pieces version could make you shudder when you are striving for this level of perfection!

As a puzzle, this is great because the three solutions are of varying levels of difficulty. The first one I found without too much trouble. It was the first thing I could think of to try and it ended up working.

The second solution was a bit more difficult, but due to Coffin's note about the pieces of the same color being parallel in this solution, it was quite a bit easier than I think it would have been otherwise. The third solution eluded me for a little while, but after playing with the other puzzles that John sent me, I was able to figure it out as well. Overall, a fun puzzle!

The next one I tried was Gamex, which John said was one of the easier of the four. It was made out of wenge, which is a beautiful dark wood (photo by John). It is a Bill Cutler design.

I didn't find it too challenging after having done Four Color Hexsticks: the pieces are quite similar with one minor difference that restricts it to only one solution. Unlike Four Color Hexsticks, Gamex has no redundant notches, so the final assembly is solid.

Next, I attempted Hextasy which is a design by Ronald Kint-Bruynseels. I was a bit confused by this one at first, since the prior two puzzles came apart into twelve notched sticks I assumed that the pieces must have gotten stuck together accidently.

I tried to pull them apart for a bit before I realized that they were supposed to be glued together (I'm sure John is cringing reading this). Oops! Fortunately they were very well glued!

It is a nice looking puzzle made out of African Avodire and comes apart into six pieces (photo by John). There are three pairs of identical pieces. Interestingly, all of the twelve sticks that make up the pieces are identical. One pair contains just one stick each, one pair contains two sticks each, and one pair contains three sticks each. A very elegant design!

I didn't have too much trouble solving this one, and ended up discovering two solutions that are slightly different. I think it took me about 10-15 minutes, but I was getting the hang of these puzzles due to my experience with Four-color Hexsticks and Gamex. As Ronald said, this puzzle is a "demonstration of the fact that the good old familiar puzzles still have some things hidden inside."  This was his 2009 entry into the Puzzle Design Competition.

Finally, I attempted the hardest of the bunch, Hectix Revisited, by Bill Cutler. It is made out of lacewood and like all of these puzzles made by John, the construction and fit is superb! (photo by John)

Since I wanted to solve this difficult puzzle with no additional information, I had my girlfriend disassemble it for me. It indeed quite difficult and was designed to be so! Bill mentions on his website that he looked for a set of pieces that would satisfy the following conditions:
  1. Use as many different pieces as possible
  2. Only one solution
  3. Many assemblies
  4. As difficult to disassemble as possible
Of these conditions, I think #1 and #2 were the biggest factors in making it difficult, since there were so many different options for the placement of a given piece, only one of which was correct.

I played around with this one for many hours, probably approaching 10 or so. I kept going around in circles and couldn't figure out what to do with one piece that was particularly tricky to place. (I just noticed now that this is the same piece that makes up all of the pieces in Hextasy, I wish I had noticed this before!) I had a hypothesis for how it needed to assemble, but I couldn't quite figure it out.

Eventually I yielded and asked John for a hint. When giving me the hint, John mentioned that he and Stewart Coffin also needed a hint from Bill, so I didn't feel too bad. After getting the hint, I could see that I was pretty close. Due to the many hours I had already spent on it I was able to finish it up in about 10 minutes with this additional info. Phew! It was quite a relief to finally have this one back together.

Of the four, I think Hectix Revisited was my favorite. Four-color Hexsticks is a close second, I really like the multiple solutions, but it doesn't come together quite as nicely because there are three redundant notches in the design to facilitate the multiple solutions. Hectix Revisited has exactly as many notches as are necessary, which gives it a snugness that I liked. Plus, it was a real challenge!

A big thanks to John Devost for loaning me these puzzles, I had a great time with them. He is an excellent craftsman!


  1. Thanks for the correction, Anonymous! This has been fixed and your comment deleted to save my embarassment :)

  2. You have motivated me to look again at my Four-Color Hexsticks. I have now found the second solution. Now for the third!!??

  3. Nicely done Brian...thanks for the kind words:)

  4. Thanks George! That's great that you found the 2nd solution. The 3rd one is a bit tricky! Let me know when you figure it out.

    You're welcome John! It was a pleasure seeing your work.


Please don't post spoilers! Thanks for commenting!

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