Growing up as a kid, I did puzzles with my mom and grandmom, especially around Christmas. It was standard to have a puzzle going on a card table near the kitchen and whenever someone walked by, they did a couple pieces. After the big feast, we all sat around and worked to complete it. Between that period and COVID, I hadn’t touched a puzzle. While many started taking up sourdough bread baking (how arbitrary!), I restarted the puzzles. However, the big upgrade was moving from the old cardboard to new laser-cut wood puzzles. Let me tell you, the difference is stark.
Moving to them is a transition; the shapes and feel take getting used to. Don’t get discouraged, remember that puzzle cost vs time = value, and can help determine which are more rewarding. The quick and easy ones for $40 can be more expensive than a movie/drink/popcorn these days. A more expensive one with a better cut and higher piece count can be a lot more cost-effective. These days there are a dozen or more major brands, along with cheaper knock-offs, that provide a wide variety of value and challenge.
Almost every puzzle will have custom unique shapes, often based on the theme of the puzzle, and different vendors do different base shapes. For example, Nervous Systems not only offers their own puzzles, but allows you to upload pictures and select features to make your own. Their four styles are considerably different than the other major vendors you get off Amazon or other retailers.
As you might expect, there are dirt-cheap wooden puzzles from overseas that are extremely affordable. However, their colors are not as vibrant, the pieces do not interlock as well, and sometimes they become far more difficult as a result. Finding the sweet spot of value vs quality is much easier these days as more brands have come to market. Below I will give examples of brands I recommend with commentary about quality and ease.
In no particular order, going to share some of the brands I have completed recently so you can see the style, quality of pieces, size, and get an idea of difficulty. Feel free to ask questions about any of these in the comments!
breakdown vendors with commentary and pics
Wood Galaxy – Available on Amazon, these puzzles come in a fairly low piece count starting at ~ 130 and go up from there. The big plus is the pieces are considerably bigger than many vendors, the shapes distinct enough, and I consider this to be the best for a beginner. Start off with the lower piece count and get a feel for the pieces and let your brain adjust. I did this one in the span of a couple hours, but not continuous.
Premium Wooden Puzzles – Available on Amazon, you can see the colors are more vibrant than the prior. The pieces are considerably smaller and you see the unique shapes. Most vendors do this, adding up to 25 custom cuts that typically fit the theme of the puzzle. In this case a lot of bird shapes. It’s a nice touch and fun to find all the pieces to see what’s included. Pro tip: some vendors will put lines on the back of the pieces to help you determine they are intended to be something. This helps when you occasionally get a shape that you think is something, but aren’t quite sure!
Unidragon – This company sells from their own site, linked to the left. They have a wide variety of puzzles that are all extremely vibrant in color. Looking at their offering, you can see a variety of shapes and themes. This puzzle also shows a fun challenge, when the border isn’t straight! There were two times during this build that I had a piece in the wrong spot and ultimately was certain they had sent wrong and/or missing pieces. Once I figured out what was off, the rest fell into place nicely. I highly recommend these puzzles!
Nautilus Puzzles – These are interesting for a couple reasons. First, the difference between their low-count puzzle pieces and higher count is distinct. The lower count are more a plastic laminate than wood, where the higher count are the traditional wood. For the “A Short History of Civilization” puzzle on the left, this was creative in that it literally builds on the history showing housing and eventually technology as you get higher on the puzzle. The lower count puzzles are another that are great as an introductory to these types of puzzles.
Nervous Systems – This company is neat! First, they have a style of pieces that are very different than any other brand. Second, you can upload a picture, select one of four styles, piece count, and the special shaped pieces you want and voila! They will make it for you. Note that it isn’t cheap but note the puzzle on the left? That picture was taken by my friend Lisa and it was one of the most challenging I have done to the textures and color blends. Check out their site and puzzle offerings (and some are quite distinct!), then notice they sell a lot more than that. For the serious puzzler, this is one of the brands I highly recommend.
Figured Wooden Puzzles – Also available on Amazon, these are a good intermediate puzzle offering a variety of piece count, great color (as evident by the fish especially) and some more complicated art like the ‘Gentle Lynx’ on the right. These are enjoyable and range from upper easy to moderate difficulty.
High Quality … – So these are actually different brands and a cautionary tale! On the left is “High Quality Wood Puzzles” brand, with their “Planets” puzzle. The pieces are not wood, more a composite plastic. You can see in this close-up that the pieces can come warped and not fit smoothly. In the middle is “High Quality Wood Products”, note the difference of ‘Puzzles’ vs ‘Products’. This puzzle was fine, but a composite plastic piece again. The upside is the colors tend to be quite vibrant. The ‘Turtle’ puzzle was also pretty easy and would be a good introductory puzzle. Finally, on the right is probably the most difficult puzzle I have done yet. Note the shape of the pieces are distinct, which isn’t a big deal. However, a lot of them didn’t actually lock. Every time you slid a piece into place the puzzle would move and shift. Keeping it together while you build is challenging. The color looks fairly vibrant here, but in reality it was dark and muted and required a bright light just a foot over the table to clearly make out colors and shapes.
Liberty Puzzles – These are the cream of the crop. They are stunning, perfectly cut, and the llama is the only puzzle I have ever had mounted and framed! The downside is that they are expensive. That said, the 500 piece puzzles will give you your money’s worth as they take a while to build. The second Liberty I have, but haven’t started, is their Octopus. It is considered to be one of the more challenging puzzles out there.
Here we have a mix, starting with Cardinal / NASA official of the ‘Foil Effect Planet’. It was fairly challenging due to the color templates and blends. In the middle is ‘Dymien’ and their peacock which was fun. Moderately challenging due to the repeated pattern and piece size. On the right is the ‘Deplee’ brand and their unique take on color palates.
Next up we have a ‘Wowzon’ cow that is a decent quality and good build, with unique shapes. In the middle is ‘Quokka’, who only has a few puzzles and definitely different in feel and shapes. It was a fairly easy build and a good starter puzzle. Last is ‘Irregular shape Super fun’ and a cheaper knock-off. Not as vibrant, pieces were decent but not a clean locking build like I prefer.
Creative Wooden Puzzles – Available on Amazon, I highly recommend these for beginner to intermediate puzzlers. As you can see, great color, wonderful shapes, and creative art. The pieces feel good and lock well, resulting in a clean and smooth build.
Next is an interesting trio! First up is a custom one from Peaceful Wooden Puzzles, a gift from my friend Andrea who took that picture. This one, like the one from Lisa, was quite challenging due to the color template and blend of squirrel into the tree. The middle puzzle is quite unique in the shapes, if you look closely. That is from Bewilderness Puzzles. Looking at their store now, I see a lot of new ones that are quite interesting and may soon be on my list! Finally, the odd squirrel is a knock-off from Ali Express and it was under $10. I got what I paid for. The colors were not vibrant, and while the pieces fit together well, it just wasn’t as rewarding as many other brands.
So there you have it, a rough guide to getting into wooden puzzles along with the good and bad depending on what brand you get. I will end this by saying that the prices may be a bit off-putting, but if you complete the puzzle and give it to a friend who will get enjoyment, who will in turn give it to another… the price becomes more than worth it. Enjoy!