How to Make a Wooden Jigsaw Puzzle

I get so many emails requesting information on how I make my puzzles, that I decided to publish the information on a web page. The information below was gained through my own experimentation, investigating concepts with my father, talking with other puzzle-cutters, etc. I do not consider this information a trade secret. I wish other aspiring puzzle-cutters to take the information below not as gospel, but rather as a suggestion; you may find that different materials and techniques may work better for you.

Saws

You can get a half-decent 2-speed scroll saw at your local hardware or home improvement store (e.g., Home Depot) for about $100-$300. My saw, a Delta 18” variable-speed scroll saw, is more advanced than the basic models, and cost about $600-$800. You want a saw that lets you choose a speed setting of about 1100 rpm (lower if possible); much faster than that and you will have trouble controlling your cuts.

You only need a saw with an 16” or 18” neck depth for beginning projects; a 24” neck depth is only needed for cutting poster-sized puzzles. Delta and Hegeman are some of the more popular brands. Even though I love my saw and always prefer it to any other saw I try, there is no agreement between today’s puzzle-cutters on what is the “best” brand or saw.

Wood

I use a 1/4-inch 5-ply (i.e., 5 layers) Okoume Mahogany plywood, but other cutters use bass or birch plywood, and some use 3-ply instead of 5-ply. Essentially, you just want a high-quality plywood that will not splinter much on the back of the wood. Even with a high-quality plywood, there is always some splintering, so the first thing I do after cutting a puzzle is to assemble it and turn it over so I can sand it.

Blades

Look for the thinnest blades you can find, so that you can make tight turns and so that the pieces will fit tightly together. You may need to go to a hardware mail-order catalog to find blades thinner than at your local hardware store. The ones I use, which were special ordered, are .009” thick, but blades that are .020” thick should be good enough for most beginners. (Sorry, but I prefer not to give away my source for blades -- I need to keep some secrets! :-) Also, keep in mind that the thinner the blades are, the more often they will break (mine break every 15 minutes or so).

Don’t bother with jeweler’s blades; they aren’t meant for wood, and get clogged up with sawdust.

Glue

I originally used “white” glue (e.g., Elmer’s), and tried other similar wet glues, with some success. It just takes special attention to make sure the whole print is glued, without air bubbles and without getting glue on the surface.

Some cutters use a 3M spray-adhesive, and I occasionally use it, but it is so sticky you have to be very careful when laying the paper on the sticky wood -- if you misplace it, you won't be able to move it to the proper position and the print might be lost. Visit your local Home Depot or similar hardware store and look over their glues and adhesives.

But the real answer is to use dry-mounting, which is the process that photographers and frame shops use to mount posters to foam board for framing. It takes only a few minutes (no drying time) and you are ready to cut. And it is a perfectly smooth and even bond. But dry-mounting machines are expensive -- $600-$1500 for a new one. I found a used one in the classified ads for $120. Look around, because photographers often give up on their hobby and want to sell their equipment.

I will never go back to wet-glue now that I have a small dry-mount machine. For larger projects, I bring the poster and my wood to any framing/poster shop and have them dry-mount it for me, for about $5-$10.

Print Material

Almost anything can be used for a print; a photograph, a poster, a calendar picture, even a page from a magazine. But beware the paper quality; too thin (e.g., magazine pages), and they won’t work well with wet glues; too thick or strong, like high-quality posters – and the thick paper will “fray” a bit at the edges due to the finger action while turning the puzzle sections around during cutting. The best is a medium-thin, but strong paper.

And, if you want to use rubber-cement for adhering patterns for figure pieces, the paper should have a smooth shiny finish, so that the rubber cement will rub off easily after cutting the piece. If the paper is a bit “porous”, it will soak up the rubber cement, forming a dirty smudge that doesn’t come off; this is especially frustrating.

I do not use any kind of “protection”, like wax or polish, for the picture. Most posters, calendars, or photographs have strong paper that does not tear when it is cut (as long as the picture is firmly glued or mounted to the wood). However, I do know that some other cutters use some kind of wax or polish on the picture front, and/or the puzzle back.

Technique

Some general notes:

  • If your blades are breaking too quickly, it may be because you are pushing the wood too hard into the blade.
  • I do not “stack-cut” (each puzzle is cut separately).
  • Except for the “figure pieces” (cat, butterfly, etc), I do not trace out my pieces, I make them up while I am cutting. For my figure pieces, I draw a pattern on a small piece of paper, and use rubber cement (easily found at any office supply or art supply store) to temporarily adhere the pattern to the puzzle surface. I can then cut the figure piece, carefully following my pattern. After cutting the piece, I remove the pattern paper and the scraps with my finger or a cloth.
  • When you are first starting and learning to cut, you may want to use plain wood (with no picture) and draw some pieces on the wood, until you learn how to control the cuts in the wood.
  • If you can find a good bookstore, look through the woodworking section; you will find books on all sorts of scroll saw crafts. They will have patterns and other helpful information about scroll saws for someone who is just getting started.

Good-luck!