Pandemic Puzzling

Hello and happy almost 2022!

I wanted to document and share my journey of becoming obsessed with puzzling during the pandemic. Since then I have completed nearly 100 jigsaw puzzles, primarily around 1000 pieces each. What started as a way to kill time, turned into a love and joy for the act of solving jigsaw puzzles. From discovering that Goodwill in Michigan sells puzzles for $1 to pulling relics from the back of my childhood home’s attic, this experience has been nothing short of wonderful since the beginning.

There is something I find highly satisfying about the act of creating an image from its distinct pieces. The techniques you pick up to more efficiently “solve” puzzles are very fun to identify and utilize.

I wanted to tell this story with photos of the puzzles I’ve completed as well as some memories made along the way. It is quite long since it includes nearly a hundred photographs of puzzles, but I highly recommend for some rainy day entertainment.

As a kid I did make puzzles, but this puzzle was the first one I completed in March of 2020, at the onset of the pandemic. I was living alone in San Francisco and very afraid of Covid-19. I spent almost no time outside of my apartment and decided to order two 1000 piece puzzles on Amazon to have something to do. I loved this puzzle given the variety of color and texture. It made for an excellent return/start to puzzling.

If you can’t tell by now, I do quite like cats. This was the second puzzle from my Amazon delivery, and I really enjoyed the beach time vibes. The colors and unique elements made it highly enjoyable.

This puzzle was one of the more unique ones I’ve done. It was a puzzle my family owned since I was a child, and my parents mailed it to me as a “covid relief” care package to lift my spirits. I’m not sure where we got it, but it is entirely holographic, meaning the kites appear to shift as you move it. This does not make for a particularly easy puzzling experience, but it certainly is fun to look at!

Not long after completing the holographic puzzle, I made the difficult decision in May of 2020 to return home for my mental and emotional well being. Living alone during the pandemic was extremely difficult for me. I was also lucky that my job was fully remote and supported me in this temporary relocation. This throw-back foods puzzle was the first I did in Grand Haven with my mom. It belonged to my Aunt and she let us borrow and complete it. It was fun hearing from my mom which of these foods she loved growing up, since many were unfamiliar to me.

This next puzzle was also a loaner from my Aunt and a lovely sea-scape. This one was actually a bit tricky given the blue regions that are difficult to distinguish, but nothing some determination couldn’t tackle.

This 1500 piece black and white puzzle of the art of M. C. Escher almost broke me. This was far and away the largest and most difficult puzzle I had done to date. An addition of 500 pieces might not seem like much, but that combined with the lack of color and lack of distinct sections made for an extremely difficult puzzle. The bottom 1/3 we completed relatively quickly, but those birds fading into the sky became quite a drawn out process. The image itself is lovely. It is a reflection of itself in inverted black and white colors, creating a fascinating illusion.

After the pain that was the Escher puzzle, we relaxed with this smaller 500 piece beach chair puzzle. Each chair was only a dozen or so pieces, making for quick, satisfying work.

Up next was a puzzle I believe was brought back to my Aunt from my cousin after her semester abroad in Dublin. It depicts a lovely coast; however, the actual image quality of the printing on the puzzle was quite poor, leading to intense pixelation that made puzzling less enjoyable.

This next puzzle was one I had spotted on my Aunt’s shelf and been particularly excited to borrow. It depicts a crowded snowy downtown which I thought was lovely. It was great fun getting to put together all the highly patterned buildings and place the people in the correct positions as we built out the puzzle.

This next candy puzzle was also borrowed from my Aunt - she had quite a nice collection we got to complete!

This next puzzle was the first puzzle we did after we ran out of convenient family-supplied puzzles. This was also our first Ravensburger puzzle, a brand that, amongst puzzlers, carries a great deal of respect and weight. Ravensburger puzzles are very consistent and very high quality. This particular one, although its photo does not do it justice, represented a very humorous book store, with dozens of funny phrasings available to be read on even the tiniest of books. It was quite amusing when putting it together to read something like “Cure for Bats” and have the rest of the joke be cut off - only to be fully read when its mate was discovered.

Shortly after completing our first Ravensburger, my mom had the brilliant idea to hit up the Grand Haven Goodwill to search for some less expense options for puzzles. It is rather difficult to justify spending $20-30 for a puzzle with the intention of only completing it once. At this point it might be important to point out that our family has no tradition of gluing or framing puzzles. We tend to take them apart as soon as they’ve sat finished for a day. We also do not subscribe to the bizarre, fringe group of puzzlers who believe using the box is “cheating”.

This was our first official puzzle “haul” – we should have made an unboxing video! The bizarreness of this particular grouping of puzzles will hopefully not go unnoticed.

After much discussion, we selected one of the simpler landscape puzzles to complete first. These puzzles aren’t really my favorites. I find the images rather unimaginative and the process for putting them together rather tedious.

Next up came another Amazon delivery of a 500 piece Baby Yoda puzzle! It was immediately prioritized above the Goodwill puzzles. At the time the Mandalorian had just come out and my mom and I were rightfully obsessed with Baby Yoda. This puzzle was fun, but unfortunately the image quality was very low, resulting in some pretty dreadful levels of pixelation in the printed puzzle.

The next puzzle was certainly a legendary one and left me questioning many things about the universe. Who decides what goes on a puzzle? Do those people get paid? Is the person who picked the image for this puzzle different than the person responsible for the text selection? Did they ever meet one another? Would they have been friends or mortal enemies? These are very important questions for which we, unfortunately, never received answers. All I can hope is that the poor squirrel in the image is not as overworked as the corporate American I image screaming that diatribe.

This puzzle was also hair pulling-ly difficult. Every single piece was identical and fit together with every other piece. I can’t tell you how many mistakes we had to undo and fix halfway through a section. Even at the end I remained convinced that there was a mistake in the top left quadrant. If you look closely at the orange and black areas, doesn’t something just seem… off?

This next puzzle was completed on a folding card table during a brief weekend back in Chicago. The semi-plush surface of the card table made this a painful exercise. Puzzles are meant to be done on hard surfaces. My mom and I did discuss buying a puzzling board of sorts, but never pulled the trigger on buying one.

This next puzzle was another from the Goodwill batch and completed back in Grand Haven. It was our first (but certainly not last) used puzzle that we found to have missing pieces. A lot of people did ask me if Goodwill puzzles could be trusted at all to have pieces, and I will say that the vast majority of puzzles we got from Goodwill were entirely complete, and there were very few with truly egregious amounts of missing pieces. This particular puzzle was fun initially to build the tree trunks up, but quickly became a tedious guess and check effort to fill in the remaining forestry.

Up next was a childhood favorite brought from our pantry. We have no records of when we misplaced that single piece and are highly distraught over that loss. Lord of the Rings was an obsession amongst the whole family growing up. I was thoroughly shamed for being the only one not to have read the books.

I remember when I was young and the final Lord of the Rings movie came out, my parents had to see it in theaters without my brother and I to decide if we would be allowed to see it. At 10 and 6 respectively, we saw the Return of the King in theaters. Quite frankly I watched a lot of movies that perhaps I was too young for, but Lord of the Rings didn’t leave much of an impression. The Matrix on the other hand did. Apparently 5 year old me watched the opening scene and turned to my dad and said, wide-eyed, “she’s GOOD”. Trinity was, indeed, good.

This next puzzle is also one of the ones which possesses an image that evokes an unexpected sense of existentialism. Its meaning goes over my head; however, its ghost wolves were certainly fun to put together.

This next beautifully horsey was primarily worked on by my mom, as I found the background disillusioning to work on. This was unfortunately another Goodwill puzzle with several missing pieces.

Here’s a sneak peak of our summer puzzle stack that year, which was nearly completed, prompting another Goodwill visit.

And boy oh boy did this particular Goodwill visit blow my mind!! Did anyone else in the universe know that they sold puzzle PACKS that contained multiple unique puzzles! This was an absolutely revolutionary discovery that really changed my outlook on puzzling. What is increasingly bizarre is the “theme” of this puzzle box which at first glance appears to be Italy. Then you notice there’s one from Sevilla, Spain, and then you notice one is also a painting, and then you notice one is just some female lions and start to question why you thought it was Italian, before you double check, that yes, in fact, all seven other images are indeed Italian.

Here’s what the inside of the legendary 10 Deluxe Jigsaw Puzzles box looked like. Not all of the puzzles were opened by the previous owner, but there were a few loose pieces floating around. We did find all the pieces for all of these puzzles and were even left scratching our heads with an extra!

The same Goodwill trip that provided the 10 deluxe puzzle pack, also brought home this adorable treasure–only 500 pieces. I chose to work on this one first since I adored the frame it had.

My first pick of the deluxe box was this somewhat bizarrely organized image featuring various European (primarily Italian, but not exclusively) motifs. I liked the idea of all the different unique sections, but frankly it made for too easy of a puzzle and was completed before I knew it.

Next up was another house puzzle that features some highly questionable roofing architecture. I mean look closely, it really is confusing - every house has a different connection element and even slightly different initial roof heights.

Next up we took on the Milan Duomo. This one was rather tedious as well given the giant mass of blue sky and repetitive pillar structures.

Next up is an interruption in the deluxe puzzle series due to a birthday gift for my mom in September 2020. I remembered how much she enjoyed the first old-timey food puzzle, so I picked this one out. This puzzle was memorable for its unique puzzle piece shapes and bright colors.

Next we returned to Italy for the poorly photographed Trevi Fountain. Here’s an obligatory photo of my mom and I at the Trevi Fountain together.

Next up was another birthday puzzle in a very similar style as the original beloved throw-back foods puzzle. This one depicted a bunch of pop culture references that were quite foreign to me, but fun to put together!

Next up was these cute, albeit questionably Italian, female lions.

After the lions we dove back into the European architecture bandwagon.

For being from the same box of puzzles, all ten of our deluxe puzzles has surprisingly different quality in terms of the pieces and their cuts.

I found this one another example of poor image quality leading to poor puzzling experience due to the severe levels of blur in this photo. Blur does not make for a good puzzle.

Slowly, but steadily we made our way through our European tour. Having done a significant portion of 1000 piece puzzles prior to this, the 750s and 500s flew by.

The Colosseum was a particularly fun architectural puzzle given its archway patterns to put together. I don’t have a good photo of my mom and I here, since it was so dark when we went for the “night tour”. This photo is, however, a great nighttime shot.

Next we moved on to the Deluxe Puzzle Box painting. This had another rather monotonous background that scared me off.

Next up was another Goodwill puzzle featuring some lions. When viewed from the top it’s quite nice, but the bottom reveals quite a quantity of missing pieces.

Next was another Goodwill of a nice house scene.

From here we moved to another medium quality Goodwill puzzle. I particularly enjoyed the photo of the bridge on this puzzle.

Up next was this colorful houses puzzle. It was a fun and colorful puzzle to put together; however, it had one of the most bizarre flaws I’ve seen in a puzzle. Two of its pieces fit together perfectly; however, the image in those pieces did not fit together. Try and see if you can spot the misalignment! If not I’ll spoil it after the next image.

Spoiler alert: the previous puzzle’s misalignment was on the left side of the puzzle on the yellow house, both lower windows are completely misaligned at the top.

This next puzzle was very cute and endearing to work on. It featured a number of cute critters and plants. The distinctiveness of all the elements made it a breeze.

I loved working on this Goodwill puzzle with its lovely curving staircase. Putting together those stairs was overwhelmingly enjoyable. I also loved the piece shapes in this puzzle.

After I started the border on this Goodwill puzzle, I immediately wanted to quit based on the volume of missing pieces, but I’m glad my mom is tougher than me, for she persisted. Shortly after the completion of this puzzle, Biden won the 2020 election. We drove around Grand Haven with our Biden sign celebrating. Two ~10 year old boys on bicycles booed us as we drove past.

Next up we had this lovely, lazy sloth boy, surrounded by eye-catchingly colorful forest friends. This was another excellent puzzle from Goodwill.

After that we started working on this gorgeous dolphin puzzle. For me it feels obvious looking back on these photos which puzzles are high quality or not, but I realize that may not be the case for everyone. This puzzle in particular was really enjoyable to put together. The stark orange of the goldfish creates such a fun pocket of color.

On this image, saved as my lucky number 47 in my photos, it seems only fitting that it’s a satirical puzzle about the city of Chicago. For some additional very important context, when I was growing up Nickelodeon was on channel 46 and Cartoon Network was on channel 47. I hope it’s clear what kind of kid I was! Codename: Kids Next Door and Teen Titans for life!

I particularly enjoyed this puzzle due to the thickness of the material used in the pieces, nearly a centimeter tall. They fit together in a similar way to wooden puzzles, shifting and expanding in relation to one another. It creates that ever satisfying ‘slide in’ effect when you add a piece to an area surrounded by pieces and it hugs the new piece snugly as it shimmies in.

After this we worked on a Noah’s Ark puzzle, which I was somewhat conflicted about purchasing due to its religious themes; however, I figured that buying it for $1 from Goodwill did not actually correlate any of my money being sent to the puzzle’s manufacturers. Besides, the image itself was quite lovely and varied, making it a joy to work on. The pieces were also incredibly diverse.

Next up was another truly bizarre puzzle that made me question the motivations of its creation. Luckily, this time my questions could be answered! This Goodwill puzzle contained the original sheets of paper included in the box at the time of sale, which include a detailed description of the artist and his work. The artist was deeply impacted by Africa specifically, especially with regards to environmental issues and viewed his art as a way to make a spiritual connection with the earth. For a white guy in the 70s, it caught me by surprise.

The fact sheet also contained a number to call to learn more about the artist. If you’ve read thus far, I’m certain you can guess that our quarantine boredom combined with insatiable curiosity led us to call the number. It was miraculously still in service and went to a recording of an art agency detailing to call back during alternative hours to learn more.

This next puzzle was provided by my mother’s alma mater, University of Chicago Law School for her contributions to their programs. I quite enjoyed working on the plaid skirts.

This next puzzle was, as you can imagine, a very quick experience. But given our love for Baby Yoda, combined with Goodwill’s $1 price tag, we couldn’t help ourselves. I actually quite enjoyed the size and shape of the pieces for this puzzle. Most larger “adult” puzzles tend to have less piece shape variety and therefore lack a tactile element that this puzzle provides.

This next puzzle was a Christmas gift from my brother to my mom from Marshalls (the off-price department store). Our cat’s butt can be spotted to the right. Being an off brand puzzle, it wasn’t particularly high quality. The buildings really blended together, but the lettering to spell out Harry Potter was very fun to put together. Harry Potter was a huge deal for my family growing up. We went to a party at our local library the night the 7th book came out and read the first chapter together that night just after the midnight release. It saddens me to have the positive memories dampened by the books’ author’s irrational transphobic views.

Next up was a very fun puzzle, a Ravensburger Escape Room Puzzle - such a fun concept. The puzzle comes with a short story to provide context and has, hidden within it, several puzzle games that need to be solved. You’ll likely notice some distinctive symbols and patterns in the image. The next photo contains a spoiler of how these puzzles work, so scroll at your own risk!

Essentially each game’s outcome is a unique number and the numbers correspond to various edge pieces, which fit together to create a laser used to blow up a meteor to stop it from destroying earth! I think it’s a very cute concept, but I had to rely heavily on the hints. It was pretty difficult to determine the bounds of the math puzzles, as for several I could come up with multiple possible solutions. Additionally, I think the ‘create a laser’ solution was a bit obvious when assembling the puzzle, given how much trouble the edge pieces gave me when putting them together. Since they have to fit with other edge pieces to eventually form the laser this makes sense, but unfortunately made it quite obvious to me early on. Overall I think this could be a fun family activity, especially with kids!

Next up was an eeBoo puzzle given to my mom from me. This lovely rooftop balcony garden was a joy to fit together. The puzzle was of excellent quality and the separate sections were very nice to put together. It was a uniquely square puzzle.

This next puzzle was also a Christmas gift to my mom from my dad, representing his favorite things in the world: books! This puzzle was also unusual in that the puzzle pieces were cut on wood, but very thin wood. It felt more like a regular puzzle than a wooden one in terms of fit, but the pieces clung to each other very closely and were quite sturdy. I picked up this entire puzzle and rolled it into a spy glass without losing any pieces! I particularly enjoyed working on the book shelves in this puzzle. By searching for relatively straight shelves I was able to construct the middle section and then proceed outward by adding pieces with shelves of increasingly curved angles.

This next puzzle was also chosen by my dad for my mom and I, and amazingly managed to outdo his last puzzle in terms of representing his favorites things – he now had books and cats represented! This puzzle was surprisingly challenging given how distinctly colored the sections of books appeared to be. It turned out to be trickier to determine the placement than at first glance. This was the last puzzle I did in Chicago in early 2021 before returning to San Francisco.

This next puzzle was found at a Little Free Library a block away from my apartment in San Francisco. It was of unbelievably poor quality and made me desperately hungry for a more appealing donut, as the ones depicted look, quite frankly, potentially disappointing.

This next puzzle was a gift from my dad and was extremely difficult. I was ready to give after just doing the border, but I persisted. It was on the same lovely thin wood as the large bookshelf puzzle he got us during the holidays.

The next puzzle I did was a classic Buffalo, an excellent American brand. I later watched a video about Buffalo discussing what a surge they saw in demand during the pandemic and how some of their artists go about selecting good balance for images for puzzles. A good balance is indeed key to a good puzzling experience. I’ll write more on my opinions about what makes a good puzzle later on. This particular puzzle I decided to do on my carpet because I wanted to lean against my couch. I did not repeat this mistake.

This next puzzle was made by National Geographic and was sent to me by my dad after a conversation in which he was embarrassed to learn of my lack of geographic knowledge. It was quite enjoyable putting this together without looking up any locations of cities or countries. I actually think I did quite well assembling all the land masses on that basis. I really enjoy the variety of shapes in this puzzle’s pieces as well. They had a good thickness that made for a very satisfying experience.

This next puzzle was another gift from my dad. His love for books knows no bounds. I really liked working on the same triangular flags on this puzzle. I also really appreciate the softness of the art style in this puzzle. Often too much blur leads to a poor puzzling experience, but this one struck just the right note.

This next puzzle was another gift from my dad. I think he wanted to keep me busy being back in SF all alone again, but my goodness did I love this puzzle. This and the previous one were both Ravensburgers and this one was particularly fun in its representation of such a wide cast of characters. While I adore the image, I do think it airs on the side of too much chaos for a puzzle, making it difficult to identify distinct sections to work on.

After the last few puzzles, I was feeling a little bored at how quickly I was completing puzzles and decided I needed a new challenge. Since the largest puzzle I’d done previously was 1500 pieces, I thought why not double it? So I bought myself this gorgeous, but highly chaotic 3000 piece puzzle depicting buildings, monuments, and landmarks around the world, aptly named: “THE PUZZLE OF THE WORLD”. Hand is for scale! The following photos will include some progress shots as I worked my way through this bad boy.

This was a full day of puzzling just to get the sorting begun. Initially I started by separating out the sky area since it was the most distinct area.

On day 2, I mostly focused on assembling the sky region, which took most of the day. After that I started sorting and assembling some other distinct sections.

The next day I worked on the puzzle was the Saturday of the next weekend. Puzzling was mainly a weekend morning/afternoon activity for me, as I was usually busy with work during the hours that got the best daylight. Speaking of which, good lighting is key to a successful puzzle assembly experience. On this day I accomplished more sections, built out the sky further and began sorting the increasingly terrifying quantity of pieces that did not yet fit into a distinct section.

This progress photo had by far the most work go into it. It was no easy task to make progress on so many pieces without distinct indicators, such as color, image, or texture. I felt very accomplished at the end of this day, but honestly the hardest part of the remaining tan and green pieces still lay ahead. For me those finally puzzling moments were the most tedious as it was mostly a lot of back and forth. One particularly tricky thing about this puzzle was it’s sheer size often required me to sit on it in the middle while working on it. Since many tan pieces could go anywhere on the puzzle it was hard to test their fit across the puzzle without constantly getting up and repositioning or reaching uncomfortably far.

Drum roll please…

The final product - my labor of love!

I couldn’t raise my phone high enough when taking this photo to even capture the entire puzzle - that’s how huge it is! The journey certainly had its highs and lows, but I’m glad I did it. In many ways puzzles have taught me persistence when I would otherwise want to quit. A lot of people asked me how long it took and I’m regretful I didn’t time it, but I’d estimate 20-30 hours total.

After my 3000 piece puzzle I did take a long break, before tackling this somewhat confusingly themed 1000 piece Ravensburger. I think the title related to crafting as its primary motif, but as you can see, there’s some weird stuff in there.

Next up, I brought this Star Wars puzzle with me on a trip with some friends to LA. It was my first vacation since being vaccinated and I went to DisneyLand for the first time, which I was surprised to discover I quite enjoyed - I especially loved the new Star Wars Rise of the Resistance ride! My friends and I worked on this puzzle during the evenings but were unable to complete it in LA. I slid the partially done sections onto pieces of paper and stacked them and laid books across the top. I crossed my fingers for the drive home. Somewhat surprisingly, it worked splendidly, and all our work was successfully preserved. I completed the puzzle shortly after and shared this photo with my friends to celebrate.

I know this is a controversial opinion but I loved the new Star Wars films, and not just because of their representation. I liked the expansion of Force powers represented and the themes it handled, especially focused on people not being wholly good or evil.

Next up was this fun patterned sock puzzle! Puzzles like this are really great for everyone. They’re very easy to separate out distinct working areas and the patterns are straightforward to put together. I did this puzzle while visiting my family in summer of 2021.

Next up was this old fashioned tea party. The art style had a sort of weird use of realism that I personally found somewhat off putting. I thought it made the food appear almost unappetizing, but it was still a fun puzzle to work on!

After that I moved onto this lovely Tiki bar scene. Putting all the drinks together for this puzzle was very fun. Apologies for my poor camera work in taking this photo. I’m not quite sure why the right hand side ran off.

This next puzzle greatly appealed to me at first; however, the longer I stared at the milk running down the stairs, the more it seemed to ooze like slime. I still enjoyed putting the milk bottles together.

This next puzzle’s name is Cassie, and she is too smart for her own good. She quickly learned that my mom and I were deeply invested in puzzles and realized the best way to steal our attention was to sit on them and even worse play with the pieces - sometimes undoing hours of work! But she is so darned cute, we forgive her.

Here’s the completed version of this pastel styled cat puzzle that Cassie was perched upon. I didn’t love the feel of these pieces; the cardboard was far too soft, but they did have some very unusual shapes which I appreciated.

This next puzzle was completed back in San Francisco by only me and was another gift from my dad. He had unknowingly chosen a 2000 piece puzzle, but having completed my 3k monument, I was up for the challenge. I really enjoyed working on the sections of lettering on the glass in this puzzle.

I have honestly no memory of doing this puzzle. It’s clearly on my camera roll on this day, so I must have done it, but I genuinely cannot remember it. Honestly, I’m mostly disappointed I didn’t fully appreciate those adorable kitties.

This next puzzle was another pleasure to complete. There’s something about these aesthetic representations of winter that really tug at my heartstrings. It’s too bad Chicago winters in real life usually do not have such an effect.

This next puzzle was another Goodwill friend with a few missing pieces.

This succulent puzzle was my most recent completion as of November 2021. It was a gift from my mom and is a truly beautiful image. I wish I could say working on it was equally enjoyable, but it was a bit of a grind. Don’t let the apparent distinct sections fool you - this one’s a trickster!

A few parting notes

I would also like to note that my mom and I have re-donated the vast majority of the puzzles pictured here back to Goodwill. We only kept the puzzles given as gifts or bought for special reasons as memories to one day be redone. For all the other puzzles, we wanted to ensure they get put back into rotation. I wonder if there are other folks like us who ransack the Goodwill puzzles section every once in a blue moon.

I would also like to say a few words on what makes a good puzzle. There are many different ways in which a puzzle can succeed or fail, and I’m sure those standards vary by puzzler as well. I think generally speaking large areas of a single color do not make for good puzzles (albeit there is this monstrosity if you really must). Gradients are however very acceptable ways of making these areas more bearable, if your image requires it aesthetically. Variety of motifs and images also improves puzzling greatly. I don’t think most landscapes or homes in the countryside make particularly good images for puzzles. I enjoy puzzles where a significant portion of the puzzle can be puzzled without needing to resort to guess and check or shape sorting until around the last 10-15% of the puzzle remains. Any earlier than that can verge on tedium. I also think that puzzle piece shape and quality is an essential part of enjoyable puzzling. Nothing is more frustrating than realizing you’ve made a mistake because multiple puzzle pieces fit perfectly with each other. There should be one perfect fit. While nontraditional puzzle shapes are not a requirement to fulfill that criterion, they are certainly an enjoyable way to do so. Thicker puzzle pieces as well as wooden puzzles also create interesting and unique puzzling experiences.

Some brands I’d recommend without hesitation are Buffalo, Ravensburger, eeBoo, and Moruska.

Thanks for reading and happy puzzling!