Have you ever wondered what it takes to design a mechanical puzzle? John Partridge from Pyrigan has an inspirational story for all the puzzle enthusiasts out there. He's been plugging away at puzzle designs since the late 1990s and with the arrival of open source CAD software and inexpensive 3D printers has created many different mechanical puzzles. An avid puzzle collector himself, he draws inspiration from his favorites to devise the precision locking mechanisms at the heart of his machined aluminum puzzles (like the Model #357). The common themes that unite his puzzles are creativity, originality, and very attractive-looking puzzles.
John has a blog with some great posts, which you should check out and have on your puzzle radar. If you want to learn more about John's work, you can find an interview that John had with Kevin from puzzlemad about Model #808 and Model #360. John also shares his thoughts about Model #357.
I asked John if he would answer a few questions about himself and his work for our mechanical puzzle blog, and he was happy to oblige. This will hopefully give you more insight into the man, the method, and his inscrutable metal puzzles.
Can you briefly tell me about yourself?
I've been a computer nerd since junior high school although these days I'm on the business side of things and don't program anymore. My wife and I have three kids and live in the Boston suburbs.
How and when did you start designing/making mechanical puzzles?
I've enjoyed mechanical puzzles since I was about 7 years old when my grandmother gave me a simple burr puzzle. I've been collecting them ever since and had my first idea for one back in the 1990s. This was before 3D printing so I took the design to a machine shop to make a prototype. That was too expensive a process to let me iterate on designs and I set the idea aside until 2014 or so. I eventually bought my own 3D printer and have been having fun with puzzles - my designs and other folks' - ever since.
Can you describe your process of creating and developing a new puzzle? From an idea to creation. Are you using a computer or a program? Drawing on paper or making most of the design in your head?
It usually starts with an idea for a locking/unlocking mechanism. Once I have that working the way it should, I focus on designing a shape that is interesting and attractive. Almost from the beginning, I model the idea in OpenSCAD which is a very programmer-friendly CAD tool. Some operations that are trivial in a CAD tool are hard in OpenSCAD (e.g., chamfering an edge) but having precise control over the geometry of the puzzle pieces is easy in OpenSCAD and that's why I use it.
How many prototypes or models do you create a year?
It varies a lot. A couple of years ago about five ideas came to me within about two months. I'm still working through that backlog. More recently I've had two ideas over about a four-month period that I think I may try to turn into puzzles that I will sell. Like anything creative, it's always hard to predict which ideas will make it all the way to production and which ones will peter out and end up being just an exercise or study.
What is your favorite mechanical puzzle type and why?
I enjoy too many to be able to pick a single type. I like burr puzzles, packing puzzles (2D and 3D), and sequential discovery puzzles. These days I've been having fun with a lot of restricted opening 3D packing puzzles. Volker Latussek's are amazing!
Are you also good at solving puzzles?
I think I'm above average but I know plenty of puzzlers much better than me. Also some types of puzzles, string and wire topology puzzles for example, just baffle the hell out of me.
What should we expect from you in terms of making puzzles in the future? Can you share your dream puzzle with us?
I don't want to say too much for fear of accidentally giving a hint for solving one of my puzzles. I would say that I focus on tight tolerance machined metal puzzles and give careful attention to the aesthetics of the puzzle's appearance and solution. My favorite puzzles have satisfying, elegant solutions and that's what I aspire to.
Before we say goodbye, is there anything you want to say to your customers?
Simply this: Thank you! I make puzzles that I enjoy and there's nothing more satisfying than finding folks who enjoy them too. Bringing any idea to market has lots of ups and downs and during the crummy down parts what keeps me going is the hope that puzzlers out there will get a kick out of what I've designed when I finally finish.
John Partridge serves as a valuable example to many puzzle artists who often go unnoticed for their hard work. With sufficient a passion for puzzles and easy access to design tools and 3D printers, puzzle artists like John are finding it easier than ever to turn their ideas into real products. Meanwhile, do check out John's latest puzzle, Model #357, and stay alert for upcoming additions.
Cheers, thank you, and happy puzzling!