Sunday 18 December 2011

Puzzle Museum Visit – Part 2

Right, so we left off where we’d all congregated back in the puzzle room having acquired a cuppa along the way (Thanks Lindsey!) – down to the serious work of the day!

In the week running up to the visit, James had sent us an email asking if anyone could bring a couple of Stickmen (post #15) and any “recent exotic American boxes” for him to play with. Good thing he did that as I suspect most of us wouldn’t have bothered taking any puzzles along on the grounds that we wouldn’t want to embarrass ourselves by taking along something only to discover that James has several even better versions in his collection already ... however, given the specific request – Chris took along his Try-Knot, I tossed my Grandfather Clock, Little Game Hunter and Perpetual Hinge box in a crate, along with Phil Tomlinson’s Always Empty Box, Eric Fuller’s Triple Locked Box and Kagen Shaefer’s Diamond Box – not sure if they should be classed as exotic, but pretty sure they were recent and American! Ali brought a couple of recent Bill Cutler purchases and Nigel had his lovely muku Super-Cubi. 

When we’d arrived in the morning, we had added our offerings to those already on the altar, err, puzzle table – and I couldn’t help but notice a couple of rather exotic looking puzzles on the table already ... right in the centre there was an enormous entanglement puzzle that I think I recognise as one of James’ own designs from his Pentangle days called the Devil’s Halo and next to it was a gorgeous Packing Crate – one of Ninomiya’s! (One of several Ninomiya’s that came out to play during the afternoon, as it turned out.) 

Nigel & Immaginario Lunare, Louis & Twin Box
Things rapidly degenerated into typical MPP mode with most folks picking up a puzzle and trying to solve it while having a bit of a chat with those around. Every now and then someone would need some encouragement and some wag would provide a nudge in the right direction, usually disguised as some form of insult!

We introduced James to the Always Empty Box and were relieved when he didn’t open it straight-away – in fact it kept him out for a little while and when he did find the “strange” move it seemed to put a grin on his face ... it’s nice when you can do that to someone who seems to have virtually every puzzle known to man – and also great to see someone still enjoying the discovery of something new when they might have been expected to have become a wee bit jaded with all of those puzzles in their collection already. 

On our tour we’d collected a number of Eric Fuller boxes and several people enjoyed playing with the 51 Pound Box, generating a fair amount of discussion about how those bits in there would actually behave the way they do. A really clever idea built into a very handsome little box. 

There were copies of the Tier Box and the 16-Move box – both of which managed to keep me out – although Ali and Chris both managed to open them and gave me a very satisfied, knowing grin after they had, that made me think that they’d both generated a tremendous amount of respect for those little boxes, so I didn’t feel too stupid at not solving them (yet). 

Eric’s Hinged Box became a bit of a favourite around the table during the course of the day – it looks really plain without any of the usual complications of a puzzle box ... a careful examination will show what looks like a pair of sliders but they don’t go anywhere – finding what you can do then leads you on a little journey of discovery that provides a couple of delightful little surprises for people who’ve seen quite a few puzzle boxes before – in fact, I’d go so far as to say that they’re probably designed to confuse puzzlers – and succeed! Opening that box is a delight. 

Louis spent a while on the Beaulid Box and managed to crack it, properly, which impressed pretty much everyone who’d seen it. I’d spent a couple of minutes playing around with it and got the sliders to make some noise, but got absolutely nowhere ... in the car on the way home that evening Louis was describing how he’d solved it and I’m not at all surprised that I got nowhere on it... nor am I surprised at the fearsome reputation that mechanism has earned – Eric Fuller – you’re a bad man!

At some point Lindsey announced that Mr Baker the local butcher (yip!) had delivered lunch and it was ready – so we dragged ourselves away from our puzzles and into the kitchen to help ourselves to a fantastic spread of cold meats, pies, salmon and cream cheese, bread and cheeses – wonderful lunch – with plenty left over for those of us making a pig of ourselves and laying into seconds! 

After lunch we slipped happily back into puzzle-mode. James fiddled around with the Little Game Hunter a bit - started the Hephalump-dismantling process before getting pulled away to something more pressing, whereupon Louis thoroughly dismantled it and reassembled it entirely unassisted – the man is a puzzle-cracking machine!

Nigel offered James a look at his Super-Cubi and he duly made appreciative noises about the muku before owning up to having one of his own which he subsequently brought out. James asked Nigel about opening them and Nigel then lapsed in clickety- clack mode and proceeded to open his rather quickly - but while that was going on James looks on in respect, goes next door and grabs a puzzle mate to come in and have a look at this and the two of them are pretty much in awe as Nigel blasts through the 324-move opening sequence ... later Nigel has a go on James' Super-Cubi and he's clearly making heavy weather of it before James admits that it's only been opened a few times and is still rather stiff - no wonder their reaction at seeing Nigel running through the sequence on his copy - he must have opened and closed his hundreds of times by now so the mechanism is nice and slick.

Helen asked James if he had a standard Japanese puzzle box that she could have a go at – she’s had plenty of fun with Chris' more unusual Japanese boxes but hadn’t seen a traditional box with sliders and moving panels ... so James wanders off to a cabinet and comes back with a lovely little box and says “Here’s a nice little Ninomiya for you to play with” – I will lay money that you wouldn’t get that sort of offer in many other places – but it goes back to what I was saying in the first part of this post – James seems to delight in showing people new things and having them enjoy playing with the puzzles – even if they happen to be rare puzzles made by super-craftsmen.  

One of the boxes I really wanted to have a go at was Kagen Shaefer's Snake Box, so James hauled it out of the cabinet and presented me with it. A little fiddling found the right bits to move and soon enough I'd transformed the pattern and opened the rather beautifully made box -  I was halfway through closing it up again and taking a bit of strain getting the tiles to slide properly when James asked me if I'd found the second compartment - err, No - which is ironic, because a little earlier I'd done exactly the same thing to him on my Diamond Box! OK, back things up a bit and open the box again and then find the cunning little secret compartment that is cleverly hidden in the lining - very cute - this time I borrow one of James' rubber thumb tips to slide the tiles and that makes easy work of it...

During the course of the afternoon James kept dipping into the Kamei drawers and bringing out something interesting ... at one point I was handed a rather heavy dark wood Kamei card case and thankfully I managed to engage my brain before I totally embarrassed myself, grinned and asked if it was what I thought it was? James was dead-pan, and asked me what I thought it was, so I told him and only then did he break out in a smile and confirm it ... closer examination of it shows just what a wizard Master Kamei really is with wood – the illusion is perfect!

A while later James gave me a flat box with a lid on it – removing the lid presents you with the tray which, unhelpfully, has a recessed lid inside it – there’s clearly a slot in one of the sides, but the tray’s lid refuses to slide through it ... I remember having seen something like this before on another Kamei box so I try the same trick and nothing happens – which confuses me a bit (yeah, yeah!) – until a short while later when Oli sits down next to me (he’d been sitting across the room on the floor working on some other Kamei’s at the time) and he has a similar looking box and lid in his hands, except mine’s a light wood and his is black – a small light turns on in the dim recesses of the mind – a quick fiddle around and we open the boxes ... at which point I tell Mister Dalgety "That was mean!" He protests that he’s James, not Mister Dalgety and I reaffirm that when he does that to me, he’ll be Mister Dalgety! [If you haven’t worked it out – they’re a pair of Kamei Library Boxes – James gave me one and Oli one – while we were on opposite sides of the room ... and they need to be solved together! Sneaky so-and-so... :-) ]
We broke for afternoon tea which included scones with jam and clotted cream (we were in Devon after all) courtesy of the butcher (yip!) and a Tangram cake that Gill had rustled up the night before – I know I’m biased but I thought it looked great – and the locals seemed to like the idea – and that made it all worthwhile!

You sure?
After tea, James asked if anyone wanted to have a go on the Bad Radio – most of us knew what to expect, but James (the younger – this is going to get complicated!) hadn’t heard about it before so he was volunteered – and I’m guessing he smelt a rat right about now ... 

James (the elder) explained to those of us too young to remember valve radios that they’d often go on the blink, requiring a bit of a shake (and while demonstrating several metallic thingie’s can be heard flying around inside) but when that doesn’t work, they need a bit of a bash, at which point he placed it on the shelf and asked James (the younger) if he would mind being of assistance. 

James looked a bit quizzical at this point and clarified that he was being asked to hit the puzzle – yip – looking a bit concerned he clenches a fist and looks at James the elder one last time with an “Are you really sure about this?”-look – yip ... so James wallops it and to the delight of the assembled masses, the front of the radio flies off taking half of the metallic-y innards with it – hoots of laughter all around – even from James the radio-basher at that point ... what a fun box!

James (the elder) asked if we’d like to have a go at opening his exquisitely carved antique Scannavinni puzzle cabinet from 1870 – and Chris and Louis offered to take one for the team (basically none of us could get there faster than they did!). James demonstrated the first move which has half of the right-hand side of the cabinet pull open like a drawer – only thing is you couldn’t spot any clues that there was a drawer there if your life depended on it – the carving is still that perfect nearly 150 years later. 

At that point James stepped back and threw in some helpful suggestions from time to time. I’m probably going to miss out a step or two, but the main opening sequence is something like this:

-       Reach into drawer on right, feel for suspended string and tug on it
-       Drawer on upper right is released and opens (you wouldn’t have found it!)
-       Remove key from left drawer, unlock front panel that then tilts down
-       Marvel at the beautiful carved building and door for a while
-       Move the capstone to release central drawer
-       Move decorative pieces on sides to release pair of doors each side revealing 6 drawers (containing James’ secret stash of novelty pens!)
-       Two more hidden drawers open below those as well.
-       Open central door by manipulating door panels themselves, door flaps downward
-       Safe pulls forward on rails, manipulate lever and handle to open safe compartment...

Believe it or not, there are another two major compartments, but they require access to the back (and the cabinet was up against a wall at the time...) and some heavy lifting, so we let them keep their secrets.

Hopefully you can tell from the pictures that there are hundreds of interesting little things scattered around the puzzle room – one of them won’t show up that well in the pics and it’s worth pointing out ... everyone’s seen a Three Card Burr before, but James’ copy spins gently on a levitating platform above a mirror on one of his puzzle cabinets... neat, understated, and utterly mind-blowing!

Toward the end of the afternoon James offered us two choices: would we like to have a team challenge or see a truly handsome puzzle chest – so we did the only honourable thing and just said “yes, please, both, sir”. 

Gents travel chest
The handsome puzzle chest turned out to be from the 1800’s and took the form of a gentleman’s travelling chest. Made in the most beautifully polished wood, it still rests inside its original leather outer case. Unlocking it with the correct key, the front panel folds down and the lid opens upward to reveal a fantastic collection of silver and glassware – everything the travelling gentleman in the 1800’s might require – from brushes to razors, leather strop to bottles – all still beautifully preserved (apart from the bottles being empty). Ostensibly this was just a travel kit for a gentleman, but if you know what you’re doing, there are multiple hidden compartments for storing important paperwork, jewellery and one’s gold coins ... in fact James proceeded to show us the first document compartment that actually still held the original dispatch note from the manufacturers to the very first owner! Then followed a series of hidden drawers released by pushing in just the right spot on the satin lining, and those in turn had further hidden compartments under and around them... staggeringly beautiful and perfectly preserved. 

The team challenge took the form of a large cabinet (The Birthday Cabinet – because it was given to James as a birthday present) with no apparent way in. The cabinet itself was made as a project by a particular craftsman in order to demonstrate his skills to gain entry to a guild. (Having seen the cabinet, I’m guessing they welcomed him in!) We were told that there were ten words hidden around the cabinet that would describe what it was, who made it and when ... gauntlet duly tossed, we stepped up to the plate – to mix a few metaphors and span a few centuries! 

Four of us took turns dismantling the box and it’s bits... getting the front panel off after someone spotted something interesting on the feet – which shows the insides of a beautifully made stationery cabinet with little drawers and storage compartments. 

Since we were on a mission we proceeded to remove and the drawers and storage bins systematically, finding about half of the hidden words without too much trouble – but then we hit a brick wall ... knowing that we were only about half way through, we’d run out of things to dismantle – until we noticed – probably after a suggestion from James, that there may be a false bottom or two – and boy were there – the drawers looked identical, yet some of them had false bottoms on them with a secret word sandwiched in between. Some of the bins had strange mechanisms to keep you out – but eventually we’d tracked down all of our words to confirm who made it, when and what it was... reassembling took almost as long as opening it up and we had to backtrack once or twice to get one of the bins working properly again – a nice fun team puzzle – big enough for four or five folks to work on it at the same time and enjoy solving something together. 

James gave me what he described as an interesting burr to play with during the course of the afternoon – it looked a bit like the mutant love child of a spider and a six piece burr and I cannot remember it’s name for the life of me, but think it may have been one of Oskar’s designs. As soon as I started playing with it, I realised this was no ordinary burr – for one thing, it clearly required co ordinate motion to disassemble, which is unusual for burrs, methinks ... I rather gingerly squeezed and moved the bits apart slowly until they were just hanging on, and in my mind there were three or four pieces to this thing... sucking up a wee bit more courage I pushed a little further and one piece came out – except it was a lot smaller than I was expecting – then another let go, and another,  and at that point I just started laughing and let go and watched as twelve identical spindly pieces ended up in a pile on the table – the clattering of the wood falling made a couple of people look up to see the utter despair behind my laughter – there was absolutely no way that thing is going back together again by my fair hands! I did try for a while, and James even offered some advice (“I think you need to build four assemblies of three pieces each and then put them together in a co ordinate motion” – Thanks!) – but that was the one puzzle I left in bits that day – to be honest, I’m amazed it was the only one... but ashamed that I’ve left James with what I suspect will be an awful job of reassembly – unless of course he has a sneaky jig hidden somewhere! :-)

Louis and I both managed to conquer the Foshee Skeleton Lock that had bested both of us at Wil's place - that puzzle is fantastic - several layers of sequential discovery and really getting a smile on your face when you think to yourself "I wish I had a ..." only to find one turn up a few moves later... must try and find one of those for my collection.
I don’t think we disgraced ourselves on the whole, and by the time we left even Percy had warmed to us and was happy to accept a bit of a cuddle - Percy and Lilly are the Dalgety hounds - Lilly is the extrovert who desperately wants to say hello to everyone, in spite of her currently recovering from a dislocated shoulder. 

To our wonderful hosts for the day, James and Lindsey – a huge THANK YOU for a really mind-blowing day ... it literally was a privilege – thanks for sharing your home with the mob from the Midlands for the day – if you’re ever up this way I’d love to repay your hospitality ...

Photo courtesy of James Dalgety.


  1. Hi Allard,
    What is the white cylinder in the first photo please?


  2. I believe that is a prototype of a Thunderstick - one of Wil Strijbos' early designs from around twenty years ago ... it's a blind rotating maze puzzle with a few sliding pins in it... :-) (Wil was visiting James at the time.)