Updated on 01.24.11

Some Thoughts on Jigsaw Puzzles

Trent Hamm

One feature you’ll find in our home, particularly during the winter months, is a card table in the family room which features an ongoing jigsaw puzzle. My wife and I both work on it here and there and our oldest child will occasionally do a bit of sorting pieces by color.

Last night, I started a 1,000 piece puzzle of Georges Seurat’s famous painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. Just as I was starting to fit the border of the puzzle together, I had a revelation.

This is a really frugal activity. I should write about it on The Simple Dollar.

Jigsaw puzzle

I’ve been a jigsaw puzzle solver since I was very young, watching my father put them together when I was three or four years old. A big part of winter for me is getting the card table out and assembling a few puzzles, since the peak of winter usually involves darkness descending by about 4:30 PM and temperatures below zero. It’s a perfect evening activity.

There are several big things that jigsaws have going for them.

They’re inexpensive. If you finish a jigsaw puzzle that you bought new, you’ve spent about $0.50 per hour of entertainment. That’s based on the typical price of new jigsaws and my typical speed at solving them.

If you add on top of that the ability to trade them to others once you’ve finished one (and taken the requisite digital picture of the completed puzzle), then the cost gets much lower per hour of entertainment.

They help me to appreciate art. My favorite puzzles are those of great paintings because the nature of the jigsaw puzzle forces you to examine the art very closely, noticing and appreciating little details that you might never notice without such an intense focus. This is why, for example, I am doing Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte – I’m learning a great deal about some of the technical elements of pointillism as an art style.

They teach me patience. A large puzzle with 1,000 or more pieces is an exercise in patience. Sorting the pieces, finding matches, and slowly building the image takes a great deal of time. A person can sit there for an hour and only get a piece or two. Completing such a puzzle requires significant diligence. It also forces you to slow down and focus, a skill that’s becoming increasingly valuable in a distraction-filled world.

They give me opportunities to teach my children about art – and about patience. A puzzle is a great learning opportunity. Not only am I helping my children to learn about pattern matching, sorting, and other such skills, I can also teach them about art. Along the way, they’re also learning patience and learning that something worthwhile doesn’t have to be done in a few minutes.

It’s worthwhile to note that I often use the same exact setup to play solo games and puzzles. Several of the board games I own also function quite well as solitaire games, plus there are countless solitaire games that can be played with a pack of cards. In both of these cases, I’m simply squeezing more value from something I already have on hand while also stretching my mind.

Start a jigsaw puzzle this weekend. Challenge yourself to finish it. See if you can put some pieces together without getting distracted. Exercising your focus will help you in all kinds of life avenues, plus you just might find that you’re entertained as well.

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  1. Money Beagle says:

    I’ve gotten into jigsaw puzzle kicks over the years. My biggest problem the last few times I tried were the cats. I have two cats that think that the puzzle pieces are toys, so mysteriously pieces will disappear and end up scattered around the house. Finding a totally cat-free and now toddler-free room is increasingly difficult. Eventually, when my son gets older, it’ll be fun to introduce him to puzzles.

  2. Robert says:

    Jigsaw puzzles can be a lot of fun. Every so often my wife and I will get out a puzzle and spend a few days putting it together.

  3. LeahGG says:

    How do you get your kids not to mess with them? not to mention that the only surface we have that could be used for a puzzle is our dining room table… the downside to small living space.

  4. Jamie says:

    I am with Money Beagle. My family enjoys jigsaw puzzles as well! I don’t have toddlers, I have teenagers….BUT I do have two cats :) And we have put together one puzzle that has a piece missing which we are PRETTY sure is due to a cat. We keep thinking it will turn up one day! But the jigsaw puzzle is a great tip!

  5. Maureen says:

    One caution about buying used puzzles: it is extremely frustrating to put a lot of effort into a puzzle only to find there are pieces missing!

  6. HebsFarm says:

    We use the dining room table for jigsaws by putting the puzzle directly on the table, and then covering it with a heavy tablecloth for meals. After the meal, we roll the tablecloth back and resume working on the puzzle. We also use a sheet of clear vinyl over the tablecloth so it just wipes clean without having to wash the cloth all the time.

  7. Paul says:

    I haven’t commented in a long time but, upon seeing this post, I thought I would mention another tip about puzzles. Buy them at the dollar store! I am a puzzle fanatic (people get them for me for Christmas and my birthday) and I currently have at least a dozen that are from the dollar store. I find the quality to be as good as the more expensive ones from Target.

  8. AD says:

    I think this is a very good idea. In a project that I worked in there was a guy who used to have puzzles that anyone in the project could solve. Basically we were working in a large hall that could seat 70 – 80 people and anyone could walk upto the puzzle and spend a few minutes solving it, it was a good break from the hectic workday.

  9. Jonathan says:

    I love that painting in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off! Cameron was mesmerized by that little girl’s face!

    Puzzles are indeed a great frugal activity, as are cards – we have family card game nights all the time.

  10. Cheryl says:

    RE: small space. Get one of those roll up puzzle mats, or the box kind that will slide under the bed while you’re eating at the table.

    We live in our RV, so space for puzzles is zero. Most places we park have a community room with one or more puzzles going. It’s fun to work on them with other people and get acquainted.

  11. Steven says:

    I love this post. Surprisingly (or not surprisingly….) jigsaw puzzles were a mainstay in the early parts of my marriage, when we didn’t have money for cable, going out to eat, etc… Perhaps I should take that to heart and again realize that having a great time with my spouse doesn’t require spending a lot of money..

  12. Money Beagle,

    I solved my cat/puzzle problem with a roll up puzzle mat. It’s great, and since I don’t have a card table, it keeps the dining room table free.

    My husband found it for a really good price at Michael’s.

  13. Karen says:

    I have a 1000 piece puzzle going right now. They are a lot of fun. I had to put out a long piece of tin foil over the puzzle when I wasn’t working on it to keep our cat from messing with it.

  14. I love puzzle, but space and little children are limiting factors right now. Maybe I will get back into them once my children are a little older. My youngest is up to 100 piece puzzles already.

    The one puzzle that really intrigues me is this beautiful 24,000 piece puzzle. The picture is great and the challenge would be awesome.

    Life, 24,000 piece puzzle</a?

  15. Brit says:

    Speaking of roll-up puzzle mats, does anyone have a recommendation for a good one? I have two kittens and love puzzles, but all the reviews are so mixed and I don’t want to waste my money!!

  16. Julie says:

    My husband and I do jigsaw puzzles all the time. We get them at the thrift store and don’t care if they’re missing a piece or two. We still have lots of fun. He and I approach putting them together in two entirely different ways so we can work along side each other and not interfere with the other’s train of thought. The last one we got was 3000 pieces and totally flummoxed us, though. We had to give up on that one. We found it too difficult even for us. Another good post!

  17. Mel says:

    I haven’t done any puzzles for ages, but quite a few years ago I spent about 6 months doing one after another. My absolute favourites were Wasgij (now, there’s a puzzle in itself!). The picture on the box is *not* the picture on the puzzle, but it’s a clue to the picture (eg on the box is a person taking a picture, the puzzle is what the photographer is seeing).

  18. Jules says:

    I cannot have jigsaw puzzles anywhere near me. What starts as fun turns into a compulsion. I once spent 18 hours straight doing a jigsaw puzzle. I literally couldn´t stop.

  19. Rebecca says:

    Roll up mats are great. We did lots of puzzles as kids with our parents. I like to get them at goodwill because they are super cheap, but there is no way to tell if a 2500 piece puzzle has all the pieces. As kids we used to make guesses as to how many pieces each puzzle was missing, before we started. The winner, or closest there of got a small prize, like not having to wash dishes or something. It was kind of fun that way.

  20. Ellisa says:

    Do you have any experience with gluing the puzzle together and hanging it as actual artwork in your house? Growing up, one of my neighbors did this and I always thought it was neat, but I wasn’t sure how to go about it.

  21. Amy says:

    Another great thing about jigsaw puzzles is that, while it engages the mind and hand, it still allows for conversation with others, unlike movies and videogames. In the past, I’ve also listened to audiobooks while working on puzzles.

  22. I love my puzzle mat. A Ravensburger 1000 piece puzzle, when complete will fit in one of the larger glass frames that Ikea puts out. I have several puzzles by Pauline Paquin that form my art gallery. No glue required, so if I want to, in the future, I can do them again. I use the empty puzzle boxes to store my christmas ornaments! It is a good family activity.

  23. Kevin Wilson says:

    Our family did jigsaw puzzles over the Christmas holidays this year. We got them for 50c or $1 each at the thrift store, and returned them there afterwards.

    I do have a bit of the compulsive problem too, once started I tend to keep going till finished – so a 500 or 750 piece one is better than a very challenging bigger one that will keep me up till 3am !

  24. Dorothy says:

    Regarding the mats/covers: A piece of felt from the fabric store serves the same purpose and can often be had for a couple bucks.

  25. Kestra says:

    Love jigsaw puzzles. Did many as a kid. I always had the card table up then too, and sometimes we’d do them together. Too bad I’m too busy this winter to do one, not enough room and DH isn’t interested.

  26. CW says:

    Great timing! I’m on my 3rd jigsaw puzzle in a week. We’ve worked them over the years and have one completed (but not sealed) under our bed! ;) I never thought of taking a picture of them when completed. What do you do with the picture?

  27. CW says:

    p.s. Buy them at thrift stores!! I bought two for $.25 each yesterday, a 550 piece one and the 1,000 piece one that I’m currently working on. I gave two to a friend who happened to mention that he and his girlfriend had begun working jigsaw puzzles. Great fun!

  28. Guillaume says:

    Regarding the theme of your current jigsaw (A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte), you may find interestant to know that this island is nowadays a place to be. Indeed there is there now big houses of hign income people. There was there the house of M. SARKOSY. And there is nomore a beautiful landscape like the one in your jigsaw

  29. joyce says:

    During a snow storm one year when the kids were out of school for an extended period of time, I started a puzzle. At our house I was the “Kool-aid” Mom so there were always lots of kids coming in and out. I noticed that nearly everyone that came in had to sit at that puzzle and try to find pieces to fit.

  30. Joan says:

    My daughter does puzzles at work. She is a customer service representive and is on the phone all day. If she has time between calls, she works on her puzzle. Co-workers ask her to put puzzles together for them. She also gives many of the finished puzzles to co-workers. Sometimes a co-worker or supervisior will put a couple pieces in the puzzle. I never thought of trading puzzles,largely because of all the work putting a puzzle together and then toward the last finding one or more pieces missing. Incidently, most puzzle companies will replace missing pieces when you buy a new puzzle and one or more pieces are missing. Sometimes they send a whole new puzzle to replace the one with missing pieces. We also buy new unopened puzzles from garage sales. Thank you for this post. Funny how one can be doing something they love and never consider it as being frugal.

  31. Jean says:

    After you have finished one of the art puzzles, build a frame for it. We buy a large poster frame and cut the heavy plastic down to fit over the puzzle in the frame – makes beautiful wall art and interesting conversation pieces.

  32. KarenB says:

    Great idea! My husband and I have been missing our walks lately since we have had so much snow in New England and it is getting dangerous to walk on the side of the road. Plus, it has been very cold lately – we hit -9 the other night. A puzzle is a great idea for the winter when you can’t get outside as much. It’s been years since we did a puzzle together. Thanks for the idea.

  33. Carrie says:

    Another “plus” to doing puzzles is that it gives people who might not be otherwise inclined to sociability an opportunity to be part of the group without having to talk all the time. We had a friend of my father’s (going through a bad divorce) one year for Christmas, and he only said about three things all day, but he was right there with us, enjoying the puzzle.

    Kestra: my DH started out not ‘getting’ the point of puzzles (“you just take them apart after!”) but we (kids, grandparents, aunts and uncles) kept working on them and he has come around nicely. :)

    We do find that there is a great deal of pleasure in the “Springbok” and “Ravensburg” brands; the pieces fit together beautifully and stay together, so I look particularly hard for those on sale/clearance/at thrift stores. (No cardboard dust!) We give a lot of our puzzles as gifts, too – there isn’t the same stigma with giving a used puzzle as there would be in giving something else used.

  34. Cindy says:

    As Dorothy said, you can make your own storage mat. Get a large piece of felt and a large mailing tube. Put the puzzle together on the mat. Start rolling the mat around the tube and then around the puzzle. Secure the roll with a couple straps of velcro.

  35. Nikki says:

    I used to sit with my grandmother for hours and work on jigsaw puzzles, I loved it! The only reason I don’t do it any more is because she got a cat and I can’t stay at her house very long (I have an allergy to cats – after about 20 minutes I start itching and wheezing).

    Great idea for all ages!

  36. diane says:

    My Mom would put together puzzles that I bought for her at thrift shops, garage sales, etc. Once together, she would put on a coat of modge podge. Then my Dad would make a backing and a frame in his wood working shop. I now have many lovely “pictures” as a remembrance of both of them. Before my Mom passed away, she was in a nursing home. When she found out there was a puzzle to put together in the activity room, she was right out there but was terribly disappointed when the puzzle was put back in the box after completion. She was envisioning another picture in a frame.

  37. GayleRN says:

    We keep puzzles in our waiting room at the hospital. They are constantly being worked on by all sorts of people who find it a great stress reliever in difficult circumstances. They always seem to be different ones, so I am guessing that they are donated in some way that I am not privy to. They may be a great thing to donate to nursing homes too.

  38. Susan says:

    I have only been a subscriber for about a year; I’m surprised you haven’t written about this subject before because it is an extremely frugal form of entertainment.
    I used to have a card table set up in my bedroom when I was a child/teenager. I would often wake up “too early” and it gave me something quiet to do that made time fly! Not to mention the brain benefit!
    I bought a “puzzle tote” years ago…it is made of cardboard and has a handle…I found that the pieces would fall out, however. The roll-up type described by other readers seems to be a better option.
    Great comments on this post!

  39. MARY says:

    When my motherinlaw was in an assisted-living facility, they always had 1 or 2 puzzles going. My son who was about 5 or 6 at the time loved to help her with a puzzle and it got her out of her room to socialize a bit more. We donated a few puzzle there.

  40. nancy says:

    Jigsaw puzzles are torture.

  41. Diane says:

    I work in the library at a large high school in California. We keep a jigsaw puzzle going all the time. Many teens really like to work on it and it is a nice break from all the technology teens are surrounded with. Right now we have a 1000 piece dragon themed puzzle going which is actually in the shape of a dragon.

  42. Maggie says:

    There are puzzlers and non-puzzlers in my family. My dad and I loved them and would work on them for HOURS. No one else in my family would do them. Now, all grown up, my husband and son and I love them. My daughter is not interested. My son always has a puzzle going at his house and keeps it on the back of an old bulletin board. Can put it under his bed when not working on it. I just put ours on the dining room table and eat on tv trays in the living room. :) I love puzzles!!!

  43. Jake says:

    Very timely post Trent, I am in the beginnings of a small 500 pce. puzzle, that is driving me crazy. I usually have a jigsaw puzzle going, low cost, keeps your brain ticking over, what’s not to love. I second the “Springbok” brand, must try the other one. I also recycle my puzzles when they are finished.

  44. Tungane Bishop says:

    Thankyou for sharing. Very informative. I am going to try it on my family as they are always watching TV. This is something which will benefit the whole family like spending time together.

  45. Ann says:

    When my kids were young and off for Christmas break they would often get bored after a few days. I started buying a large puzzle for us to work on as a family. It was a lot of fun. As the kids got bigger I sort of let that slide. This year during Christmas break my son (20 years old) was home from college and my daughter, a high school senior (18 years old), must have both been getting bored. I came home from work one evening to find my son working on a puzzle we had. The next day my daughter bought a new puzzle to work on. It gave me warm fuzzies to know that the tradition might live on. Funny what things they end up liking and doing on their own.

  46. Priswell says:

    >>Surprisingly (or not surprisingly….) jigsaw puzzles were a mainstay in the early parts of my marriage, when we didn’t have money for cable, going out to eat<<

    The same for us, many years ago. We didn't even have a TV back then, and we'd find cheap, interesting puzzles to do and just let it live on the kitchen table. Visitors to our small apartment would always be drawn to the puzzle-of-the-moment enough to spend some time contributing a few pieces (fresh eyes always helped). Then when they were done, we'd use some découpage to glue it together, and when dry, we'd hang it on our walls for art.

  47. the duchess says:

    This post is SO timely – It’s been a very long and harsh winter here in SW Ontario – we went down to minus 22 the other day!!! – so I have been recently doing crosswords, cards and other such games in the evenings when it’s too cold to venture out. I had just been thinking about getting out some puzzles that I bought years ago – some still unopened! I am trying find alternatives to just watching the TV in the evenings. Trent, I would be very interested in more posts on card games etc., and other forms of old-fashioned entertainment (anyone out there remember ‘charades’?) especially ones you can do solitaire or with just one other person.

  48. Alice says:

    Trent, thanks so much for reminding me about jugsaw puzzles. I have 2 on a shelf in the closet that I can work on right away. This brings back so many memories of when the children were still all at home and we had some time on our hands during the winter.

    A good way to wind down in the evening before going to bed is to put a few pieces into place. It relaxes us after a hard day at work or an evening at the computer. It takes us away from so much of the high tech of todays world.

    I’m now looking for a round jigsaw puzzle to work on before the end of the winter. It is a new challenge for me. I worked on one a few years ago, at my father in law’s house and I’d like to have one of my own.

    I sometimes glue and frame a puzzle that is interesting on that compliments a room in my house. I then hang it in that room for a while and it gets replaced by a newer one I like too. Then if one of my children like it I can give it to them right off the wall still framed.

  49. Jo says:

    Totally agree about learning about art! I’ve found a lot of really cool paintings that I’d never otherwise see just from doing jigsaw puzzles. My other favorites are pictures of food for whatever reason.

    Jigsaw Puzzles can be a form a therapy, too. I get so focused on finding pieces and working through them that I forget about other things that may be stressing me out. It’s nice.

    @Carrie: Springbok are the best! And my sister and I joke about getting “puzzle lung” when we’re older, on account of all the puzzle dust. (We probably do too many puzzles.)

    I find 90% of mine at Goodwill for about 2-3 bucks each. And, based on the last few years of doing literally hundreds of puzzles I’ve found that about 75% of them are complete. Not bad. But yeah, it’s a bummer when there are pieces missing (which is why I like to write on the back of the box to warn the next person).

  50. Brittany says:

    Eww… I hate jigsaw puzzles. Give me different mental stimulation and frugal activities any day.

  51. Emma says:

    For years I coordinated international home-stay programs that would bring groups of young people from all over the world to my homogeneous little community. One of the suggestions I always made to the host families was to have a jigsaw puzzle started, so that the new “family member” would have a way to interact that didn’t require anyone to have fluency in a foreign language. It’s surprising how people’s personalities play out in their puzzle strategies, and also how the shared goal of solving helps people bond. After a few years, one of the reps from a college in Japan started sending the students with beautiful jigsaw puzzles as “hostess gifts.” Now we have an international collection of puzzles along with our good memories of the people who solved them with us. I pull one out at Thanksgiving and hope to have it solved by the end of the holiday season. Everyone who visits helps.

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