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The Crafty Blog - guestbook puzzle

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Since we first started creating these individually-unique guest book puzzles, we've had so many questions about which pens to use, how many pieces you need, the size of the pieces, etc. So this blog entry will hopefully answer as many of those questions as possible, and give you some additional information about the process we use to create these puzzles!

An Introduction...

Before I get into the production process, let me give you a few bits of information (in case you know absolutely nothing at all about our puzzles). Every puzzle is drawn from scratch (with the exception of the basic outline), so no two people will EVER receive an identical puzzle! This is a very important concept, and is one of the reasons our puzzles are priced where they are. These are not made from a template nor are they mass-manufactured. Every puzzle is a work of art that is hand-drawn for the couple who orders it.

Each puzzle is precision laser-cut (some designs include engraved areas as well) from 1/4" thick Baltic Birch plywood, which is incredibly stable and sturdy, meaning our puzzles will stay gorgeous for a very long time, whether you choose to mount yours in a frame and hang it on the wall or you store the pieces in a box and put it together and take it apart every year on your anniversary. Each piece is sanded to a buttery-smooth finish (and no, that's not an exaggeration) so that the writing appears crisp and clean every time, so long as you use the right type of pen.

Now that we've gotten that bit of information out of the way, on to the good stuff — how we make the puzzles!

Our Process...

Step 1: Drawing the Puzzle

When we receive an order, the first step is to adjust the size of our puzzle design's outline to fit the number of pieces requested. For instance, a small 10-piece puzzle might have an overall size of 10" x 8", which a 75-piece version might be 24" x 18". There is probably a really scientific way (or perhaps a complex mathematical formula) for coming up with the precise size the outline needs to be in order to fit the number of pieces, but we've been doing this long enough that we have a good idea what size is needed for a specific number of puzzle pieces. 

Once the overall size of the puzzle is determined (or in some cases, totally guessed...), it's a relatively simple matter of cutting up that outline into pieces. This is the most time-consuming part of the process, with a typical 75-piece puzzle taking upwards of 90 minutes to get right. The first part of this involves simple lines that divide the overall puzzle, after which we add the signature heart-shaped connectors in a random orientation. None of this process is automated! Every puzzle piece is completely drawn by hand. Once we have the right number of pieces drawn and everything looks perfect, we move on to production!

Step 2: Using the Laser Cutter

This is obviously my favorite part of the process! Our laser cutters are limited to wood sheets that are 24" x 12" in size, meaning larger puzzles require multiple sheets to complete. Of course, unless you are really looking, you and your guests will never even realize that the puzzle was carved from more than one slab of wood. 

So, we drop the first (or only) sheet into the laser cutter, send the design file over to the cutter, flip on the exhaust fan (to suck all the wood smoke out) and compressor (for blowing a fine stream of highly compressed air along the laser line) and hit "Start". At this point, we can take a moment to sit back and watch the cutter do it's work...

Step 3: Sanding the Raw Puzzle

Once the cool stuff is over, it gets tedious again, but this is the step in the process that makes rough and burned Birch plywood look like a million bucks (way more than you're spending on the puzzle...). An important step before sanding is to use masking tape (I happen to prefer the Blue Painter's Tape) on the entire front of the puzzle. This helpful trick keeps the entire puzzle feeling like a solid piece and makes sanding far easier and also keeps the faces of the pieces level with the rest of the puzzle (no rounded edges). 

The trick to efficient sanding is actually a multiple step process involving two types of sanders. The first is a large drum sander, which is basically a stationary, over-sized belt sander. The drum is covered with sandpaper, and spins like a super-wide tire (think Flintstones car wheels). A conveyer belt pulls the full sheet of puzzle pieces under this drum and the top layer of wood is cleanly sanded off, many times faster than sanding by hand. This essentially removes all of the smoke residue from the cutting process.

However, drum sanding is a one-directional process, meaning you end up with roughness when you run your fingers left to right on the surface of the wood. It also looks pretty terrible if you are sanding perpendicular to the grain of the wood and wouldn't look good at all when writing on it. 

So the second step for sanding is a random orbital hand sander. We use a high 220 grit sanding pad, and essentially polish the surface of the puzzle until it is smooth as a baby's bottom (we call it butter-smooth, and we mean it!). This incredibly smooth surface is perfect for writing on, and it won't wreck your soft-tipped Sharpie Pens or Micron Archival Pens like rough wood might.

Step 4: Clean-Up and Shipping

The last step in the production process is simply cleaning the puzzle pieces with high-pressure air to blow away every bit of sawdust on the pieces, then we disassemble the entire puzzle and package it for shipping. Rest assured, every puzzle we send out includes a sheet of puzzle care instructions, along with your specific puzzle layout, so you can quickly put the puzzle together before the big day. You can always discard it later and try to put it together with your own puzzle-building skills!

Conclusion and Frequently Asked Questions...

So there you have it! That's the basic process we use to create this puzzles! You can see that a LOT of time goes into each and every puzzle to make it more than just a prop you could get at a big-box store. These puzzles will stand the test of time and you will be able to show yours to your children and grandchildren (who will probably want to try putting the puzzles together also).

So, without further ado, here are some of the questions we receive most often, along with some detailed answers!

How many puzzle pieces will I need for my wedding? 

Most couples have a pretty good idea of the number of guests they plan to have at their wedding. Let's say you plan to have 100 guests attending. You certainly won't need more than 100 pieces unless you expect guests to sign multiple pieces (seems unlikely). You probably don't even need the full 100 pieces for your puzzle since many of the attendees are couples who will sign together. Some guests will actually skip the guest book entirely!

Typically, you will want to have enough space for 75% of your guests to sign. So, if you plan to have 100 guests, we recommend a 75-piece puzzle! However, it really comes down to figuring out how many signatures you expect to get. If your guest list is largely composed of single guests, you may want to get more than the 75%, while a guest list entirely made up of couples could make do with a smaller quantity.

Does the frame come with the puzzle, or do you offer mounting?

This is honestly one of the most-asked questions we receive. I know, you LOVE the awesome frames we used to display our sample puzzles. Unfortunately, we don't offer this service at the moment. 

We are working on the video tutorial about mounting your puzzle (but these things take forever). Our frames actually came from thrift stores, and were quite inexpensive. Once you know the size of your puzzle, head to your local thrift stores (Goodwill, etc.) and look for a style of frame fits you. Our happened to have some interesting cross-stitches in the frame, so we took them out and spray painted the blank frame. After that, it was simply a matter of mounting the puzzle inside.

As for mounting, here's a quick tip for getting your puzzle centered. Buy TWO backing boards (we used colored illustration board that is quite thick). Cut both boards to the size of your frame. Then lay out your puzzle UPSIDE DOWN on one of the sheets. Everything with be reversed, but you can still get the puzzle perfectly centered this way. Next, apply some glue to the backs of the pieces. We used some tacky white glue, and a small dollop on the back of each piece is plenty. The final step is to lay the second backing board onto the puzzle and line it up with the board under the puzzle. Place a few heavy books on top and let it dry for at least a few hours before flipping over and voila!

If you don't plan to mount your puzzle and want to actually put it together and take it apart (on your anniversary perhaps?), we offer a personalized wood box for your puzzle!

How much can guests write on each piece?

The pieces will vary in size from large enough to write a short novel (slightly exaggerated) to small enough for a simple signature. This way, your guests can choose a puzzle piece size that suits their needs. The typical puzzle piece size is about 2" x 2" or slightly smaller on average. There is no exact piece size, but this should give you a general idea of what to expect.

If table space is an issue and you are ordering a larger puzzle, you can request that your puzzle be compressed (meaning each puzzle piece will be made smaller than the typical size). This will allow more pieces to fit into the same area. In case you were wondering, this takes just as long to draw out, so the price isn't affected. However, the reverse isn't always true, so going larger can sometimes add to the cost of the puzzle.

How do my guests know which side of the pieces to sign?

This is another of the most common questions we receive. The answer is actually quite simple! The backside of every puzzle piece will have a small black X. When your guests see this, their automatic response will be to flip the piece over and sign the correct side. Once the puzzle is assembled and mounted, you'll never know they were there and you can enjoy reading all of your guests' comments.

What pens work best for writing on the wood?

We prefer to use fine point Sharpie Pens (not the markers!), as they don't bleed when writing on the wood. A more expensive option is Micron Archival Pens, which come in a variety of tip sizes. We offer these pens as an option when placing your order, or you may choose to purchase them yourself at a local craft or office store.

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