8 Tips for Solving That Crazy Hard Jigsaw Puzzle

By: Melanie Radzicki McManus  | 

jigsaw with missing piece
Don't you hate when the jigsaw is finished, except for just one piece? HowStuffWorks

People have been enjoying jigsaw puzzles for nearly three centuries — ever since map engraver John Spilsbury affixed one of his maps onto a piece of wood in 1762, then cut out the countries. (He wanted to help local schoolkids with their geography lessons.) Today, nearly half of all Americans regularly puzzle, as it's called, with one-fifth tackling one at least monthly.

Yet despite puzzling's popularity, assembling one can be frustrating. No big surprise there; it's a puzzle, after all! But since making puzzles is supposed to be fun, check out these eight tips that puzzling pros say will enhance your skills.

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1. Take Care in Your Set-Up

It's tempting to open a puzzle and dump out the pieces on your kitchen or dining room table. But don't. You'll probably need to use your kitchen table before the puzzle is finished, for one thing. And while a dining room table might work, you first need to assess the size of the puzzle compared to your table. You want plenty of room for the puzzle to fit, plus extra space beyond the border for the pieces. Extra space also helps prevent puzzle pieces from being knocked to the floor while you're working on it, or even passing by.

Experts recommend placing the puzzle on a piece of vinyl — not directly on your table top — so you can move the pieces around more easily. Alfonso Alvarez-Ossorio, president of the World Jigsaw Puzzle Federation, also favors a white surface, which distributes the light better. "Set up the puzzle in an area of your home where there's natural light, which helps prevent reflections," he adds.

Finally, don't dump out the puzzle pieces onto your carefully chosen surface. If you do, you'll likely end up with a shower of puzzle dust in addition to the pieces. Instead, remove the pieces by hand, then shake the dust into the garbage.

2. Sort Smartly

Many people neglect to do much sorting when they make a puzzle. After all, it's time-consuming and boring. But taking the time to do so can pay big dividends when it comes to the assembly. Pros recommend having several sorting trays on hand, then placing pieces of the same color or pattern in the various trays. The border pieces should also go into a separate container. If center pieces have no defining color or pattern, they should go into a miscellaneous tray.

Finally, reserve one container for special pieces. Special pieces are those that belong to a very obvious part of the puzzle. They may have words on them, for example, or a color or pattern that's found only in one small spot. Special pieces also include any "whimsies" that might be part of your puzzle. Whimsies are pieces cut into shapes that match the theme of the puzzle. A barnyard scene, for example, might include a few puzzle pieces shaped like barnyard animals.

3. Don't Automatically Start With the Border

It often makes sense to first assemble a puzzle's border. That's because there are a limited number of pieces in it, and the border gives the rest of the puzzle a frame. But starting with the border isn't always best. "The general rule is to select a group of easily identifiable, contiguous pieces and proceed to assemble them," says Alvarez-Ossorio. While this rule often applies to the border, you may be better off starting with your puzzle's bright, yellow sun or the fluffy, white dog standing in the dark woods.

family doing puzzle
Rather than starting with the border, it's better to do a group of easily identifiable pieces first, which may be in the middle of the puzzle.
KidStock/Getty Images

4. Concentrate on Small Areas

Some people like to pick up pieces that look appealing, then figure out where they go. But that's inefficient. Experts recommend working on small sections at a time, such as a boat or animal. Once you've completed one, set that section inside the border in its approximate place. Visually, this may help you assemble other portions. You also may be surprised at how few pieces it will take to connect this section to the border.

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5. When You Get Stuck, Do Things Differently

Sometimes all you need to do to place a piece is walk around the table and look at the puzzle from a different angle. Taking breaks gives your mind a rest, too. And consider further sorting by shape. Most traditional puzzle pieces have what are called "knobs" and "holes." Within each of your sorting trays, separate the pieces into piles with two holes, three knobs, etc. This gives you more information for your search. Instead of merely looking for an all-white piece to fit into a cloud, for example, you may know you're searching for a white piece that has at least two adjacent knobs.

6. Maintain Order

You've spent a lot of time separating and arranging your puzzle pieces, so don't let all of that hard work go to waste. "If you are not correct when placing a piece, return it to the same place," says Alvarez-Ossorio. He also recommends separating it within the subgroup of pieces from where you took it, so as not to re-test the same piece in the same place, thus repeating your error.

7. Don't Waste Time Looking for One Piece

One of the biggest errors puzzlers make, experts say, is to search for one piece for long periods of time, especially if the piece you're looking for is the final one required to fill a gap. It's tempting to finish an area, for sure. But the piece may be missing, a not-that-uncommon occurrence. Even if it's not, it will eventually appear when there are fewer pieces left.

8. Have Fun!

You tackle puzzles because they're fun to make, and finishing a puzzle gives you a feeling of accomplishment. If your puzzle begins to frustrate you because you can't find a piece or the lighting is bad at the time you're working on it, just walk away. When you return, you'll likely come back refreshed and in a better frame of mind, which will make the puzzling easier and more enjoyable.

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