June 10, 2011

Always Empty Puzzle Box

I recently acquired this lovely box made by Phil Tomlinson of WolfAngel Studios. Phil is a very experienced woodworker with 35 years of experience in cabinet making and woodworking. I think this is the first puzzle box he has made for sale, so I was quite eager to check it out! It was made in a limited edition of 30. I was particularly curious about the name: how could it be "always empty"?

As you can see from the photo, the box is quite striking visually. The contrasting light and dark wood give it an interesting look, and the red inlay on the top catches the light beautifully. In the right light, it almost looks like it is hovering above the surface. (Photo by Phil)

It was quite a bit larger than I expected from the picture, about 5 inches long in the longest dimension. When I started looking at it, I was also struck by its weight: it felt quite dense, making me wonder what interesting stuff could be going on inside!

I actually had the puzzle shipped to Kellian's office, since packages have been stolen from my building before, so I was even happier to see her than usual when I picked her up that evening and she had a box waiting for me. We were headed to a swing dance, but we were a little early, so we sat in the car for a bit while I gave the box  try (and Kellian patiently read her book).

At first, I was quite stumped, I wasn't able to get anything to move! After about 5 minutes, I finally made some progress, but immediately hit a dead end again. After a bit more fiddling, I decided to give it a rest and go to the dance.

When we returned home, I started back at it, determined to figure it out before I went to bed. After a little while, in a flash of inspiration, I had an idea for how it might work and I ended up being correct. It is a cute move that I haven't seen before, though it is related in a way some other puzzles. It doesn't quite end there, there's one more move for a total of three, but I found this last move fairly quickly. The "always empty" aspect of the box is cute, though somewhat related to a classic idea. Sorry to be vague, but I don't want to go spoiling it for you!

I think it took me about 25-30 minutes to solve, which was perfect. I'm actually surprised that it took me that long, now that I know how it works I'm curious why I didn't stumble upon the solution earlier. In any case, I'm glad that I solved it the way I did, since it is much more satisfying to have an idea that proves to be correct rather than to simply succeed through random prodding and pulling.

One nit-picky note: the description of the puzzle describes it as having "a little coordinated motion", but, strictly speaking, I wouldn't describe it as coordinated motion. It does have something in common with coordinated motion puzzles, however, which is the aspect that Phil was probably referring to.

I tried this box out with my friend Clayton, who has gotten pretty good at solving puzzle boxes, and he opened it in about 5 minutes. He actually used a different method than I did, and I was surprised that I hadn't noticed it before. I was glad that I found the intended solution, since it is more fun than this alternative one.

In all, Always Empty Puzzle Box is a very nicely crafted box that I'm glad to have purchased! I'll definitely be buying more of Phil's work in the future if I can: this box sold out quickly so you'll have to move fast if you'd like to acquire his work. It will likely be sold at Puzzle Paradise, so make sure you're on the email list if you'd like to be notified when new puzzles are available there. A few other bloggers have written about this puzzle as well, so check out: Neil's Puzzle Blog and Jeff's Puzzle Blog to read more.

Phil has also created some magnificent puzzle cabinets for displaying your puzzles, and the cabinet is actually a puzzle as well! What an awesome idea. It has integrated lighting and temperature/humidity sensors. How cool is that? Check out this link for more great pictures of the cabinet. If you're interested and would like more information, contact me and I'll pass it along to Phil.


  1. Awesome blog Brian! ;)
    I really would love to take credit for Phil's outstanding photo but sadly cannot, it's all his doing....oh and you can see more of Phil's Puzzlers Cabinet here:


    All the best, john :)

  2. Having solved the puzzle myself, I'm curious about the "different method". Does it just involve switching the order of the first two moves?

    And I agree that you don't have "true" coordinate motion that only involves two pieces moving. I'm pretty sure Coffin says three or more pieces moving at the same time.

  3. Hi George,

    I'll send you an email so I don't give too much away. It doesn't involve switching the order of the moves.


Please don't post spoilers! Thanks for commenting!

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