Saturday 20 August 2011

Sandfields’ Salt and Pepper Shakers

The first time I read about these iconic little puzzles on the inter-web was where someone was describing the mischievous brothers Sandfield distributing their exchange puzzles in Antwerp individually, without bothering to mention to their opposite exchangers that you needed to solve them as a set: tools from one will be used on the other and so-forth. I suspect that little piece of subterfuge will have made this puzzle significantly tougher for those folks to solve, at least until word got out that you needed to combine the two to stand a chance of getting anywhere past the very first step of the solution!
[In their defence, Robert assures me that he and Norman had it all prearranged and made certain that everyone who exchanged with one of the brothers would definitely be hunted down and exchanged by the other! I suspect that added significantly to their respective workloads during the exchange session…]

These days anyone acquiring the Salt and Pepper Shakers knows that they’re an item – for those puzzle exchangers in Antwerp back in 2002, that would have been the first (of many!) “A-HA!!” moments. My set came from Robert after I dropped him a speculative email asking if he had any left for sale – at the time I fully expected to be told they’d all long gone, after all they were exchange puzzles from 10 years ago and I expect they’ve been quite popular with collectors since then – but I was delighted when Robert said he could sell me one, and a couple of circuitous financial transactions later, Robert had been paid and the puzzle was en route.

The pair of shakers arrived well packaged and in a neat black drawstring bag that also contained the customary set of instructions / solution. Game on!

First impressions are of a beautifully made pair of Salt and Pepper Shakers (no surprises there!) – made in contrasting woods (red oak and walnut) apparently joined by impossible dovetails (“Sandfield Joints”) at each end. (There are dovetails on all four sides – and if you haven’t seen one of those before on another Sandfield puzzle or, for example, on a Danzig’s Dilemma, then it’s going to worry your brain a little – how the heck can you slide them together without bending time and space?) The respective tops have holes in them just like a Salt or Pepper Shaker should, and you’re told that the goal is to find (and free) the salt and pepper. (No, upending them and shaking them doesn’t produce the required condiment, but good thinking!)
It’s always worth trying to upend a puzzle with a hole in the top and trying to shake any tools that might be hidden in there, out, although in this case, unfortunately it’s not quite that simple – although that shaking does result in some interesting noises, just not from anything that feels the urge to exit the puzzle just yet. A little tinkering will release a lock and open up one of the ends – depositing a handy tool on the desk for you – and more importantly show you how those darn dovetails at right angles really work. (By the way, show those sharp edges on the dovetails some respect or they will take a nick out of your finger!)

From there you will work you way around the remaining ends releasing each one in turn while finding some more useful tools along the way. Some of those locks are reasonably (and I use the word advisedly) straightforward, BUT there is one in the middle that is absolutely monumental! It brings together several items in an unusual way – but the action of the lock itself is so subtle that you could miss it in some orientations and lock it all up again without even realising what you were doing. It’s so well disguised that it is virtually impossible to stumble across it by accident, and it’s a swine!

Assuming you make it past that little piggy, and the next few bits, you’re rewarded when the final panel is opened with the sight of two little capsules – one filled with salt and the other filled with pepper (a very cute little treasure!) – job done!

Reassembly could have been rather tricky given the number of tools and potential for mixing them up (if they appeared in the wrong order while you were solving the puzzle, you could find yourself a little snookered!), however the designers have been very kind here and effectively prevented you from messing things up and locking yourself out – a very neat touch that I hadn’t noticed until Robert pointed it out to me.

One thing that their careful attention to the detailed design hadn’t counted on was the sustained low frequency vibration they’d be subjected to on a 10-hour transatlantic flight – on the way to Antwerp said vibration proceeded to randomly unlock certain bits of some of the puzzles, unbeknownst to their owners – more than a little bit spooky!

The shakers were designed by the Sandfield Brothers (Robert and Norman) and Perry McDaniel and then made by Perry, and these pieces certainly confirm his legendary reputation for creating precision, tricked-out dovetail joints in superb puzzles.

Thanks Robert for letting me have a set and for sharing some your stories about these great puzzles.


  1. They are just astonishingly beautiful! I really would love to get hold of one of this set but I doubt that any are available now.

    Maybe at a future MPP?


  2. ...I'm sure they'll be around then Kevin and you'll be welcome to play with them!

  3. Red Oak was the wood that got me with an edge. It's like a knife when it's well cut, and really can tike a good slice out of you!
    Beautiful Puzzles, and clearly a nice set to have. Thanks for the review!

  4. Can they be used as actual salt and pepper shakers? I presume not, but that would be cool if they were!

  5. 'fraid not George, there is Salt and Pepper inside one of them, but it's a fairly convoluted process to get to it - not the sort of thing you'd want to do in the middle of a meal when someone says "Pass the Salt?" :-)