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Confession time.  I LOVE to do puzzles.  It’s an obsession really and I come by it honestly.  My mom was a big puzzler.  And not just jigsaws.  She loved a good crossword puzzle.  Sunday NY Times in pen kind of love.  As a family we would do puzzles together.  My brother and I would help her find just the right pieces.  Proud of ourselves for the accomplishment.  To see it all come together was such a thrill.  Finding out that you're capable instilled confidence in us.  It was her love of puzzles that spawned our obsession.  Every year, Michael, his wife and their two daughters visit us during the holidays and every year we work several puzzles: or one depending on our schedule and energy level.  This year, together, we managed to get three 1000-piece puzzles done in less than a week.  One took 4.5 hours, and another took 2 days.  All nine of us found ourselves in Dad’s family room every evening watching sports, being silly, eating all the candy we could without getting sick, and doing puzzles.  It was such fun.  Mom would have enjoyed it.

I just found out that January is National Puzzle Month.  Which, for me, is another reason to love January!  In honor of the occasion, I thought I’d share a few tips to making puzzling easier and more fun!

National Parks Puzzle, $27.50; Library Books Puzzle; $27.50; Audubon Birds Puzzle, $27.50; Classic Cookbooks Puzzle, $17.95; Spring Training Puzzle; $25; Holiday Harmony Puzzle, $12.50 (Holiday Sale); Merry & Bright Puzzle, $12.50 (Holiday Sale); Sleigh Ride Puzzle, $12.50 (Holiday Sale).

Choose the right puzzle:  There are two things to consider when deciding on the right puzzle: number of pieces and image.  If you’re new to puzzling – or are an experienced puzzler who likes more instant gratification – then I suggest starting with 500 pieces.  Then move to 1000 pieces.  I have to admit, I have not been brave enough to go beyond 1000 pieces.  That’s a bridge too far right now.

Around the World in 50 Plants Puzzle, $21.99; Winfred Rembert: The Dirty Spoon Cafe Puzzle, $26; Tools For Creative Success Puzzle, $12.59; Classic Paperbacks Puzzle, $16.95; Accidentally Wes Anderson Puzzle, $25.

The image is also important and will determine how much time you’ll be spending on the puzzle.  The clearer the detail of the image and the more there is of it, the easier the puzzle will be.  If the image gives you easy to identify elements, putting pieces together will go quickly.  If the definition is fuzzy or there is a lot of solid background, it will take you longer to finish because there are fewer clues for placing pieces.  Puzzles with easily identifiable blocks of images are my favorites for a quick puzzle hit.  Even at 1000 pieces they go fast!

Finally, because you’ll be looking at the puzzle for a long time, do find one that really speaks to you and your interests.  I pick one up whenever we visit a museum or destination to remind me of that experience.

Set up is critical:  Having the right set up sets you up for success.  First consider the table top.  If your puzzle is on a surface that you use often, then put a mat or board underneath so you can move it.  Then be sure to have a place to which you can move it.  A 1000 piece puzzle usually requires a 3’x5’ space.  I do mine hunched over the coffee table in my family room while I watch tv with my daughter, Kate.  Now that she has gone off to college, I find my puzzle time has waned.

I don’t suggest being hunched over.  It’s not for everyone.  Find a comfortable place with good lighting and soft seats.  You’ll be there for a long time, so you don’t want to be miserable.  This is supposed to be fun after all!!  I also recommend comfy clothes.  My go to puzzling ensemble consists of pajama bottoms and an old concert t-shirt.

Sort the pieces:  Sorting pieces can be tedious, but it pays off in dividends!  Sort out the edge pieces and any colors or identifying features.  This will help you start building the puzzle by section.  If there are words, group them together.  Colors go together.  Themes or images within frames go together.  Whatever will make it possible to lighten the load.  I highly recommend sorting trays.  My kids laughed at me when I got mine.  Now they are the first to grab for them when we do a puzzle together.

Assemble the border(?):  So this one is a little controversial.  Some folks insist on doing the border first and others say no way.  I fall in the former camp.  Unless… the border is all the same color and there is very little to distinguish where the pieces go.  Then I will put them in last.  Again, I’m looking for clues.  It there aren’t any at the beginning, then I’ll find them at the end.

Work in small sections:  You’ve sorted your pieces now get to work!  Start with the easiest, most apparent sections first.  That will eliminate pieces from the pile leaving the less defined ones as fill in.  When you work by section you can further sort your pieces by shape.  That helps when there are is little definition and you’re searching by shape rather than the image.  

Puzzles with big blocks of images are what I call palette cleansers.  I like to do those between particularly difficult puzzles as a treat to myself for all the effort.  The small sections come together quickly and it’s so satisfying!

If you get stuck:  Just as with any problem, there are two things to do if you get stuck: Step away and come back or look at it from a new angle.  Don’t spend too much time searching for the right piece or placement.  You will lose momentum and the puzzle will be less fun.  Instead, move on then return to look at it with fresh eyes or from a fresh angle.  The perfect connection will reveal itself instantly.

Challenge yourself:  Some expert puzzlers I know completely forgo the picture or box lid.  That’s mighty impressive!  I have not gotten there yet.  Instead, I do a hybrid version.  My goal is to be able to do it without an image.  I have miles to go before I sleep.

My final tip is to do it with a friend.  It’s something you can do as a team, while enjoying each other’s company.  I liken puzzles to going to the movies or a show.  It’s a ticket to a good time.  An experience best spent with good company.

We have a boat load of puzzles at Penny Post and Red Barn Mercantile for the grownups and plenty more for your budding puzzlers at Pippin Toy Co.  Happy National Jigsaw Puzzle Month!