Introduction: ​How to Make a 51 Piece Burr Puzzle Using Only Hand Tools

About: I am a designer/maker based in Utrecht, The Netherlands.

In this tutorial you’ll find a step by step instruction for making a 51 piece burr puzzle (also called “Pagoda”, "Japanese Crystal") using only hand tools. It’s a nice way to familiarize yourself with basic hand tool techniques and try out your patience!

Step 1: Things You'll Need

  • Handsaw

    In my case 2 Japanese saws. Ryoba (double sided) and Dozuki (back-saw). Any handsaw will do. But to make life easier it’s nice to have a dedicated saw for ripping the boards and a very fine teeth back saw to do the precise crosscutting saw for length cuts and joinery

  • Handplane

    The workhorse in the hand tool woodworking. In my case it’s a modern version of a Stanley No. 62. You’ll use it for truing up the slats and reducing them to a desirable thickness, shooting

  • Chisels

    Any razor sharp set of chisels will do the job. In general the cheaper the chisel the more often you’ll have to be grinding the sharpening stone as the fine joinery can only be done well with the sharpest edge. I have a pair of Japanese carpenter’s chisels.

  • A marking gauge

    It isn’t really necessary, but it gives more consistency to your work. Otherwise you’d have to mark every part with the ruler or a square and a knife. It really helps to stay within sub millimeter precision.

  • Hammer

    For smashing

  • Steel square

    Measuring things for squareness,setting the marking gauge, as well as a guide for knife marks where needed.

  • Shooting board

    This jig is the first thing you want to build if you’re getting into hand tool woodworking.

  • A pencil

    Marking parts that need to be cut out, can be used for marking the cut lines, but I prefer to use a cutting edge (knife, chisel...) because the cut line also acts as a guide for your chisel when cleaning out the waste.

  • Wood

    I had a few offcuts of black cherry, works really nice with handtools.

Step 2: Dimensions

You must choose the profile dimension you’ll be using for the parts of the puzzle. I went with 20 mm, as the boards I had were around 23 mm thick, that meant I didn’t need to hand-plane more than I want. My 20 mm becomes 1 “unit” (as I refer to it in the pdf part list that’s attached below), If you decide to make the square profile 5cm x 5cm your “unit” will be 5 cm and so on.

Step 3: Ripping

The puzzle starts with making square slats of 1x1. Measure all your boards, along the grain a few mil larger than one unit, this way you have a safety margin, to make error when ripping with hand saw (you will make that error).

Step 4: Joining Two Surfaces

The slats are all cut, now it's time to join them. Plane one surface flat. I use my workbench as a reference. (make sure your benches are flat). Make one of the adjacent surfaces flat and 90° to the first one.

Step 5: Thicknesser

Once the two edges are joined, you need to reduce the stock to your desired thickness. Using marking gouge, mark one unit from one of the flat surfaces, after you plane it down to the line, repeat it with the adjacent flat surface.

Step 6: Marking and Shooting

So you've got your sticks all true and square. Its time to cut up the puzzle parts in exact length. Start with shooting the ends of each stick square.

Then mark one part from each end of the sticks. I used my marking gauge for the shorter parts, and for the longest one a square and a knife (in my case a chisel) as my marking gauge only works up to 15 cm.

Step 7: Cutting Parts to Length

When you’re crosscutting the parts it’s a good idea to cut outside of the line that you drew, leaving you with that bit of excess to be shot off perfectly square with your hand plane.

After you cut each part from the stick, square the ends of the remaining stick and repeat, marking another two parts from each end.

Step 8: The Cross Lap

In this puzzle all of the parts join in one common method that is the cross lap. The only differences will be in lengths of the cross laps, and different spacing. However all of the cutting will employ pretty much one set of techniques.

Step 9: Cutting in the Notches

Safest practice is again to saw a bit inside of the marking line, leaving small excess to be removed with a precise cut with a chisel.

Step 10: Coping With the Waste

Using the coping saw to remove the waste between the two saw lines. OK I admit that I didn’t mention this tool at the beginning, however it isn’t really necessary and the chisel could do the job just as well. This little technique just makes the process go faster.

Step 11: Removing the Rest With a Chisel

    Remove the excess by putting the chisel in the mark line and taping it down lightly with a hammer.

    Side grain is best cleaned with paring the chisel. Taking of tiny slivers by pushing the chisel across. As you'll bump into various width cross laps in this puzzle. One advice: use the widest chisel that still fit's in the opening that you're paring or chiseling.

    Step 12: Repeat 50 Times...

    One part is ready, 50 more to go!

    Step 13: Tip

    The larger pieces have much longer waste lines. I realized that’t it’s a real drag to be cutting 18 cm excess with a coping saw. So if you just cut in about 1 cm and watch if the grain is going straight enough, try to brake it with your chisel. It’s a bit risky but when it works out - very satisfying.

    Step 14: Finish

    After you have all the parts cut, you can start putting it together. (I used this tutorial) As I’ve planed the slats a bit oversized (0.5mm-1mm) I proceeded to take a few shavings from each side with a hand plane.

    In theory everything should fit together perfectly, but that’s almost never the case. I kept adjusting the parts as I was putting the puzzle together. It really depends on what and where it went wrong, but in general if you’ll be planing parts down, you want to try to keep all of them as uniform as possible. In other words - better to remove one shaving from 10 parts, than 10 shavings from one particular part

    I hope you enjoyed this tutorial as well as learned something new. If you have questions or suggestions how can I improve this instructable, don't hesitate to message me or comment!


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