Even the ugliest jigsaw puzzles can be enthralling. When you find the perfect spot for that one piece, for a second it almost seems like life has meaning. Angsty existential musings aside, puzzles can also be goshdarned fun, and they present tons of creative possibilities (puz-3d, tesselated puzzles, etc), and so I wondered: why aren't puzzles more popular among crafters and DIY-type creative persons? It turns out the reason is simple: using traditional methods, they are super hard to make!
To render a good, sturdy puzzle out of wood or cardboard, you need either a puzzle-making die, a laser cutter, or a really nice scrollsaw, none of which are exactly affordable or kid-safe. Of course, you could just buy a "make your own puzzle" kit like the one advertised here, but with those kits you won't get to make your own shapes, the images won't turn out photo-quality, and besides, anything that comes in a pre-packaged kit will hardly be DIY.
Will man ever harness the crafty power of the DIY puzzle? (answer: yes)
I was in a bind for my own puzzle-intensive project, so I had to figure out how to crank out puzzles easily and on the cheap. So, after much experimenting, I stumbled into a way of making sharp-looking, tactile, photo-quality jigsaw puzzles using thick sheets of foamcore styrofoam and a hot-wire-cutter. Its so easy you could make one in a single afternoon, and its safe for ages 12 and up (so says the hot-wire-cutter packaging -- I would think younger than that is still ok). And since you can buy foam in thick sheets (up to 2"), the pieces always end up satisfyingly chunky.
If you follow along with this instructable, you will learn how to make cheap, slick looking puzzles that are also enjoyable to play with. Once you get the hang of it, you can decide if you want to step it up a notch and build your own more professional hot-wire foam cutter, like I did, or invest in your own cnc paper cutter to prepare the pieces, also a good idea if you plan to do this a lot.
Here are the materials you will need, all of which can be found at AC Moore or Michaels:
Styrofoam-Safe Spray Adhesive (from 3M)
Zip-Ties (zip ties are the new duct-tape)
A thin piece of plywood or matteboard
X-Acto Knife and Cutting Mat
Styro-Wonder-Cutter from AC moore or Michaels (don't get the "styro-cutter plus" - its junk)
A single D battery.
A ball of aluminum foil.
Some photo paper and a printer
foam core (1/2" thick, white or black)
A roll of duct tape (duct tape is the new zip ties)
Step 1: Prepare the Image
Print an image on photo paper or draw a design on cardstock. If you drew the design with pencil or pen, use a spray fixative such as Krylon Preserve It! to prevent smudges on artwork. If you are printing an image out, you may want to find a printer that can do 11x17 prints -- most office buildings have these. (You can also print the image out on several pieces of paper, if you are smart about how they overlap.)
Now, cut out the puzzle shapes with an X-acto blade. Stay traditional or get creative. Cut out someone's name or trace shapes that appear in the image. In the images shown here, I'm tracing the outlines of the animals that appear in the image (I'm using an Escher print called "Mosaic II").
A word about child safety:
If the puzzle is intended for small children, A rule of thumb is that the finished puzzle piece should not come close to fitting into a double shot glass -- this is the size of a small child's windpipe. I wouldn't recommend this technique for very small childen, anyway, since they may chew/break the puzzle pieces into chokable chunks.