How to Be Really Good at Jigsaw Puzzles—Plus, 6 to Buy Right Now
A long-standing personal interest in jigsaw puzzles has really come in handy these past few weeks. I guess you could call me a hipster of puzzles: long before COVID-19, social distancing, and self-isolating made puzzling a welcome activity to a massive swath of people, I was plugging away at 500 piecers in grade school and happily spending nights in as an adult finishing my 1,000-piece masterpieces.
As a result, I guess I’ve gotten “good” at doing jigsaw puzzles, although that’s like saying that I’m “good” at vacuuming my carpet: lots of practice, repetition, and narrowing down a couple of fail-proof strategies have helped me do them a lot more quickly and efficiently. I feel confident in saying that anyone can be a good puzzler, if they’ve got the time and patience. Here are a couple of my tried-and-true tips that’ll help you master 1,000-piecers in no time, even if you consider yourself “not a puzzle person”—and then some puzzles you’ll love spending a few hours or days chipping away at.
Don’t immediately start with a 1,000-piece puzzle
In my incredibly humble opinion, 750 is the ideal puzzle size. It’s big enough to feel like a challenge, but not so big that you want to give up after a few days. Either way, I recommend testing the waters with a 500 piecer. Those are still big and a veritable challenge, but they are a lot more manageable and won’t make you feel like it takes forever to finish them. Plus, it feels like a nice reward to work your way up to the bigger puzzles.
Pick one that has distinct color sections
Hi, don’t immediately go for that gradient puzzle that looks so pretty on Instagram. The most satisfying puzzles are ones that have a bunch of different sections in different colors in a recognizable scene (at least if you’re still getting your sea legs). Oh, and at least in the beginning, choose one that has a square or rectangular shape—those ones are much easier.
Make sure you turn over all of the pieces before you begin
When I was growing up, my dad had a rule: If you don’t help turn over puzzle pieces, you can’t help work on the puzzle. Parenting! If your table or workspace is big enough, it’s crucial to dump out all of the pieces and turn them picture-side-up before you do anything else. It might take awhile with bigger puzzles, but it’ll make it so much easier to find the pieces you need later on. My dad also made us separate any pieces that were stuck together, but now that I’m out from that iron fist, I can say that that’s your call. It’s kind of cheating to keep them stuck together, but who are you trying to prove things to?
When you begin, start by putting together the outside pieces
I’ve stuck to this strategy since I was a wee one. Find all of the edge pieces, aka ones with a flat side, and try to construct the entire perimeter first by connecting them all together. Puzzles are really about matching shapes to one another, and these are the easiest ones to do so with.
Once all (or most) of the outside is complete, work your way in, row by row
Usually, it’s easy to tell which pieces go in the second row, as long as the puzzle has a recognizable-enough pattern or scene (see: tip number two). Do this for as long as you can—the more you can fill up, the less overwhelming it feels to tackle the rest.
Then, piece together sections by color or pattern
Again, step number two knows what’s up! Feel free to make piles of all of the green pieces that look like they’ll be treetops, or gather together anything that has the same pattern. Connect any pieces that look alike and then pop them into the framework you’ve already created (or work directly in the framework, whatever works better for you). And this should go without saying, but just in case: always look at the box to see what kind of picture you’re creating! My mom says this is cheating, but I disagree!
If you start to feel stuck, look for specific piece shapes
And give the shapes “names”. I call the cut-outs “notches” and the little parts that stick out “jut outs” (this one has three notches and one jut out; the lower left corner of this piece is what I call a “spade”). If I notice I need a notch, I scan all of the pieces, gather up any that have them, and then try fitting it in. That way, the next time I notice that a part of a puzzle needs a notch piece, I have them all together.
And that’s kind of it! Even with all of these tips, you will probably still find yourself caught in a weird corner where it looks like nothing fits, but when that happens, just step away. The same goes for doing a crossword puzzle or writing—returning to your project with fresh eyes almost always helps you spot something you missed before.
So now, without further ado, here are six puzzles that’ll get you excited to try out all of these hot tips!
Hot Dogs A-Z Puzzle
I did this one a few years ago, and it’s an all-time classic. It’s so cute to say, “OK now I have to find a piece with a puppy nose and tongue on it,” and the dog illustrations are just adorable. It’s incredibly doable for a 1,000-piece puzzle, and so adorable once it’s complete that you might want to leave it out for awhile.
Buy: Hot Dogs A-Z Puzzle, $25.24 on Amazon
The Astronaut Puzzle
Jiggy is a relatively new puzzle company, and though they have a somewhat limited puzzle selection, what they do have is gorgeous. The designs are created by illustrators, and they come in pretty, see-through jars. This one, an 800-piecer of an astronaut, is like a work of art and has some gorgeous colors.
Buy: The Astronaut Puzzle, $48
Life of the Party Puzzle
Succulent Spectrum Puzzle
Map of the USA Puzzle
Would it surprise you to hear I’m a big old nerd who loves geography? If I can’t travel right now, I might as well stare at a map for a long time. This 850-piece puzzle is a perfect way to familiarize yourself with U.S. geography, and maybe even choose where you’ll go on your next trip.
Buy: Map of the USA Puzzle, $21.99 from Barnes & Noble
New Yorker Skating in the Park Puzzle
And a puzzle roll-up mat in case you need to put it away for a while
If you live in a small space, your puzzle table might also be your WFH table, dining table, or coffee table (or all of them in one). A puzzle mat will help you save your progress when you need to take breaks!
Buy: Puzzle Roll Up Mat, $13.99 from Amazon