Friday 13 January 2012

Strijbos' Washer Cylinder

Wil Strijbos’ first cylinder puzzle (known simply as Aluminium Cylinder) is the stuff of legends. Beautifully made, elegant in its simplicity and downright mean as a puzzle! It looks lovely in its stark minimalism, the hole at the bottom teases far more than it provides useful feedback and the mechanism ensures that you cannot solve it by accident – it’s been around for years and remains a classic.

Wil’s been busy working on a partner for the Aluminium Cylinder and unleashed a prototype of the Washer Cylinder on some unsuspecting puzzlers on his trip to the UK in mid-December … he left it with Oli after the Camden Lock Puzzle Meet on a Wednesday, and when we all met up on the Saturday at James Dalgety’s Puzzle Museum, it was still locked. Several folks had a bash at it at James’ place and got nowhere and then Louis was tasked with taking it back to the Netherlands, and solving it en route… and I’ve already mentioned that he spent most of the drive back up from Devon playing with it, I spent several hours on it the next morning and we both got nowhere … this puzzle is clearly going to pick up where the first one left off. 

A week or so later Wil announced that he had some of them available and quite a few of us signed up for one – mine arrived just before Christmas and found its way under the tree, suitably wrapped.
Unwrapping it on Christmas Day I found it well packaged along with a couple of puzzles I’d ordered and a big red ‘EASY’ button with a note attached to it. If you haven’t spotted them at Staples, these buttons look like the sort of button you might find on a shop counter and they say “EASY” across the top in big, bold letters – and when you press the button, a calm, assured voice says “That was easy!” – the note attached to the button’s packaging says “Allard, because you are number ONE (my serial number on the puzzle) you get this button. Only press on it when you've solved the Washer Cylinder. NOT BEFORE PLEASE - HAVE GREAT FUN. Best regards, Wil” – Gee thanks, Wil!
Suffice it to say that the button wasn’t (legally) pressed for quite some time!
OK, the Washer Cylinder looks pretty similar to its elder brother on the outside: it’s a small aluminium cylinder with a cap locked in place, somehow. There’s a serial number on the cap, but no markings on the body, unlike the earlier puzzle. The cap spins very freely, in either direction, and in any orientation – which gives some clues to the evil within. On the bottom of the body there is a small hole through which an aluminium post is visible, and there is a washer trapped on that post – now all of that takes you seconds to establish – and that’s more or less where the discovery phase of solving this puzzle stops, for quite some time!
For what it’s worth, the prototype had a 5 Yen coin in the base instead of a trapped washer – so the little stalk wasn’t there on the prototype … and that doesn’t change the puzzle, in case you’re interested…
Right, first line of attack is to try all the things that were helpful on the Aluminium Cylinder … just to confirm they don’t work here …
Yip, confirmed!       
Next I tried all manner of spinning. Spinning the base, spinning the cap, spinning the whole puzzle in all the distinct planes I could imagine – not very useful either …
I tried tapping (even bashing!) it in a number of different places and orientations and that didn’t seem to accomplish much either … and yes, I even tried blowing and sucking through the hole in the bottom and all I discovered was that tolerances on this thing are incredible.
If any of that description sounds like a planned, orchestrated piece of analysis, I should probably apologise – that took place over a couple of days, in sporadic bursts and on a rather random basis – I did have the occasional lapse into a more scientific approach where I’d systematically try each of the current best guesses through all of the orientations I could readily discern, but mostly it was a pretty random attack that lasted hours spread over days – this was good puzzling value per pound!
At one point I noticed that things started behaving a little differently and I’d been so used to not getting any feedback at all that it gave me a fright – so I emailed a mate who’d opened his already to ask if this was a good sign or a bad one (if I was breaking the thing I thought I should probably stop early on!) – turned out the sign was a good one and I managed to progress things and open the cylinder – and immediately launched for the button to alert the rest of the household to my success – Ben and Jerry merely snored a little louder – that was anything but ‘EASY’.
It turned out that I’d opened it using an “alternative method” – my phrase for “the wrong way” – and when I examined the internals I found that one bit wasn’t quite able to do its thing properly – so I sorted that out and it is now a real joy of a puzzle that opens perfectly every single time. The mechanism is subtle and thoroughly disguised – it’s impossible to solve it by accident and there are virtually no external clues to what’s keeping the cap on the cylinder. I literally found the internal stuff astounding – the quality of the work in there is tremendous.
I know that I’ve already said that I think the Aluminium Cylinder is a classic puzzle, but I actually like this one even more. When the mechanism is working sweetly, it is an absolute delight.
Wil, your Washer Cylinder is a worthy successor to the Aluminium Cylinder – you should definitely be proud of this one!
…anyone else out there hoping that this family continues to grow?

Wil’s words of wisdom: Wil was quite concerned about my puzzle not behaving itself properly from the start and he’s been looking into one or two other little niggles that some of the others have had with their puzzles and he’s suggested that when you open the puzzle, that you please consider not totally dismantling the internals altogether (trust me, it’ll make sense!) because you risk introducing small particles into a space that’s not particularly tolerant of small particles and it will frustrate you – and in fact may make your puzzle exceedingly difficult to re-solve … if you decide you ignore that advice, then please accept some of mine – make very sure that there aren’t any stray bits (or even potentially stray bits) around in there – again, it should make sense when you’re in there. The tolerances are incredibly fine and any little bits in the wrong place will stop things working properly…


  1. I couldn't help but laugh as I too tried blowing and sucking through that hole in the bottom of the puzzle, with no success either!

    I had some stray bits in mine before I opened it, causing the puzzle to grind rather than spin smoothly. Having opened it I took it entirely apart, and thoroughly cleaned it and it's working perfectly now.

  2. Damn! You beat me to it! I have my review written and almost ready to go. I do have one or two interesting pictures which no-one else will have and will include 1 or 2 - wait and see!
    I tried everything and actually opened it by accident when a friend of mine jammed it absolutely solid with aluminium scrapings!!


  3. That's funny. I was going to put my review up this weekend until you said you were going to Kevin, and here Allard beat both of us to it!

  4. Neil and Kevin, please put your posts up. I'm very curious about you puzzles. Mine sadly is still firmly closed....

  5. Hi Allard, thanks for the review. Yes please, Kevin and Neil, please post your reviews!

  6. Come on guys (Kevin and Neil) - don't let us down now! More is always better when it comes to (writing about) puzzles!!

  7. Given my poor track record with Wil's first cylinder puzzle, it will be a long time before I put up a post on the washer cylinder.

  8. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    1. Just removing what I considered to be an unintended potential spoiler...

    2. Spoil me....SPOIL ME!!!