Introduction: Photo Block Puzzle

About: I've worked for Instructables off and on since 2006 building and documenting just about everything I enjoy doing. I am now the Creative Programs founder and manager for Autodesk and just finished building out…

These photo blocks make a great gift to a loved one or friend and are a  fun way to interact with your favorite photos.  At home in your hand, on the coffee table, or displayed on a shelf, they call to be played with and enjoyed.  This particular 3 x 3 block layout displays as few as 6, and as many 54 different photos, but you can scale the project up and make more blocks to display even more photos and make the puzzle harder to assemble. 

This project took only a few hours to make, would be great to build with kids or first-timers in the shop, and was a great custom gift for the holidays.

Step 1: Dimension Wood on Table Saw

The photo blocks were made from an old Fir 4 x 4 post that was sitting outside in the shop yard.

Using a table saw, we cut the 4 x 4 down to approximately 3" by 3".  You can choose whatever size you'd like as this method is totally scalable - just make sure that the length, width and depth of the blocks are the same so you end up with perfect cubes.

Step 2: Cut Cubes on Chop Saw

Trim the cubes their final dimension size on the chop saw.

We set a simple maple stop block in place on the saw so that every cut would be exactly the same.

Our photo puzzle was made from (9) 3" x 3" x 3" blocks to form a single 9" x 9" surface when assembled.

Step 3: Clamp and Sand

Once you have all of the blocks cut to size, clamp them together using some straight edges (we used some scrap steel square tube) in their assembled form.

Place a board on top of the assembled puzzle and level any blocks that misaligned in the clamping process with a dead blow or rubber mallet.

Next, sand the top surface of the blocks to eliminate any small imperfections.  120 grit paper is sufficient, as the wood will be getting a covering later on and won't be a finished surface.

Step 4: Number and Rotate 5X

Once the top surface is sanded, mark all of the blocks on that side with the same number, rotate each block to a new un-sanded side, and repeat the whacking and sanding process.  

Repeat this process 5 more times for all 6 sides of the blocks.

Once fully sanded, set the blocks aside and head to the computer.

Step 5: Size Photos

Select six or more of your favorite photos that you'd like to display.

For this particular project, we chose to display 5 large photos on 5 sides and then have the 6th side be a composite of individual, smaller photos.

Crop and adjust your photos in Photoshop.  When you are cropping, make sure to crop a slightly larger area of the photo than the area of your photo blocks, this gives you enough printed photo to have a little wiggle room when gluing and trim to the final size once they are affixed.

We cropped our large photos to 9.25" x 9.25"  and our smaller individual photos to 3.25" x 3.25".  

Tip:  if you are going to print multiple photos per page, make sure that the resolution of your cropped photos are all the same in Photoshop.

Keep in mind while selecting your photos who your puzzle block audience is. Similar photos for each side makes for a more difficult puzzle. Photos that are a little more varied, i.e. nature scene, up close face shots, group shot with people make an easier puzzle since each face of the cube is obviously different then the next. 

Step 6: Print

Print your photos on high quality photo paper from a photo printer.  

We had access to an 11" x 14" photo printer to print the large 9.25" square photos.  If you don't have access to a large printer, make your blocks smaller, or, have your photos printed at the drug store on their commercial machine capable of handling the larger size.

Step 7: Cut Out Photos

Cut each photo.  There's no need to be dead-on with this step, each picture will get trimmed to size later on.

Step 8: Glue - Small Photo Method

To attach the photos to the wood blocks we used "Aleene's Tacky All Purpose Glue" which can be found at most craft stores.

This product works exceptionally well to bind paper to wood and can be watered down to your desired glue thickness.  We definitely recommend watering down the glue from it's rubbery concentrated state to something that paints a bit more easily.

Paint the glue directly on to the block using a brush.

For the individual photos (smaller photos) we placed the photo face-up directly on the block and positioned it to the portion of the photo we wanted displayed.

Press firmly down on the photo to ensure a good glue seal.  When performing this step, make sure all of the individual photos are placed on the same number on each block--this is important later for the larger photos. 

Step 9: Trim to Size - Small Photo Method

Once the glue dries, flip the block upside down on a clean surface to avoid scratches to the photo.

Using an exacto knife or box cutters, trim the photo to the size of the block. Be careful not to cut into the block itself.  This process takes just a tiny bit of practice, but is easy to get a hang of.

Step 10: Cut Large Photo

Cut the large photos out from the print job.

Step 11: Glue - Large Photo Method

For the larger photos, place the photo face down on a clean surface and paint glue on to the back of the photo.

Place a selected side of the blocks down onto the back of the glue covered photo. Make sure all of the blocks are straight in relation to the photo as well as tightly nestled against each other.

You should have a border around the nine blocks when you are done. Let the blocks dry like this, allowing the weight of the blocks to keep the photo flat as the glue dries.  

Step 12: Trim - Large Photo Method

Now that your puzzle has dried, you can trim off the border of the large photo using either an exacto knife or box cutters.

Please note, you will cut apart the blocks in the next step, this is only to remove the border. 

Step 13: Cut Blocks Apart

Once the border is removed, you can now carefully flip the blocks over so that the large photo you just glued is displayed face up.

Using your exacto knife or box cutters carefully cut in between each block by starting at one end where you can see the distinct separation between blocks and allowing the knife to follow in between the blocks for each cut. 

The grove between blocks should guide the knife on it's path so you get nice clean cuts.  

Repeat steps 10-13 for each of your large pictures until all the sides of the photo block puzzle are covered.

Step 14: Optional Clear Coat

Clear coating is something that you might want to consider before using your photo blocks.  It will help to protect the photos from wear and tear.  We chose not to clear coat our photo blocks simply because these are pretty light duty, and were gifted to a grandmother, rather than say, a toddler.  

Clear coatings should be applied either between steps 6 and 7 after the photos are printed, or on the finished blocks as a final step.  

While there are many professional quality clear coats for digital prints, a simply coat or two of Krylon Crystal Clear will suffice.  Flat or glossy, the choice is of course yours.

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