Tuesday 18 September 2012

Jerry McFarland’s BurrBlock

Back in late 2011 one of my local puzzling mates got in touch and made me an offer I was never going to refuse – he’d been in touch with Jerry McFarland and Jerry had come up with a new puzzle design that he was looking for some feedback on ... so in return for some thoughts on the puzzle, I’d get to play with something totally new, and as it turned out, an entry in the 2012 Nob Yoshigahara Puzzle Design Competition.

Jerry’s BurrBlock was duly delivered and I spent a while working out how to take it apart: tricky at first, and then once you think you’ve got the hang of it, it kicks you in the gut! Get past that bit, and you’re thinking to yourself that if this is like some of Jerry's  other designs, it should be plain sailing from there, only it isn’t...

I spent a while playing around with the puzzle and eventually had to give it back to Chris, so I jotted a few notes off to Jerry more or less along the lines that I thought it was a cracking puzzle and if he ever decided to make any available for sale, I’d love to get hold of one... I couldn’t suggest any improvements and told him I particularly liked the two stages in the puzzle – and that the second stage was anything but simple... Chris on the other hand had been far more helpful, and had in fact managed to suggest the name that ended up sticking: BurrBlock.

Jerry must have had some similar feedback from the other folks he was talking to because the eventual design that he entered in this year’s IPP Design Competition was more or less unchanged from the one that we played with almost a year before – in fact the only differences were so subtle that Jerry had to point them out to me – and they were about reducing the number of parts in the manufacturing process and didn’t change any of the puzzling aspects at all... so Jerry pretty much got it spot on from the start of this development – well done that man!

Several months later Jerry got in touch and offered to sell me a BurrBlock and I jumped at it right away... it’s not a small puzzle – heck, it has 37 interlocking pieces and Jerry’s description suggests it’s a “very difficult to take apart cube”. 

He isn’t kidding.

A bit of playing around with it will eventually yield the most likely first line of attack, and it’ll take a fair amount of playing around to get into the swing of things, and if you’re anything like me, you’ll get a bit carried away, think you’re starting to make great progress, only to find your way well and truly blocked!  The first stage is “helpfully” described as 45 steps to remove the four key pieces ... except that hides a little subtlety that bites you if you get a little greedy ... this puzzle rewards patience...

Having removed the four key pieces you might be forgiven for thinking that the frame will begin coming apart ... and you’d be quite wrong – it’s still pretty sturdy and doesn’t give much in the way of clues as to how it might begin coming apart – and that’s the feature that really sold me on this puzzle when I first played with it – it toys with you! Lets you think you’re getting on top of it only to sit back and laugh in your face!

Jerry’s description of the second phase of the puzzle includes phrases like “fifteen non-obvious steps” being required to disassemble the frame – no kidding! Finding how to start disassembling the frame is almost worth the entry price on its own ... and when he says “non-obvious”, that’s a pretty decent understatement – it’s pretty darn unusual!

Persevere and you can reduce the frame to a large pile of uniquely McFarland shaped bits – some of which you aren’t likely to have seen the likes of before – very ingenious and makes for a great puzzle. As usual all of the pieces are perfectly machined on Jerry’s home-brewed CNC kit and beautifully polished in the usual McFarland manner – making for a lovely three dimensional sculpture in walnut, mahogany and maple.

I think it’s a terrific puzzle ... thanks Jerry for letting me play around with the prototype and then offering me one of my own...

Another Piston Burr ...
When I met Jerry in Washington DC he mentioned that he’d made up a couple of Piston Burrs and had brought a few in Ebony and Kingwood along for sale at the Puzzle Party on the Saturday, so I made sure that I visited his table reasonably early on in the day. 
However, by the time I got to his table, all of the Ebony burrs had already been sold and he only had a few of the Kingwood burrs left ... but looking at the Kingwood version, I’m almost glad I didn’t have to choose between the two – the grain on the Kingwood is quite simply stunning, and I’ve been a fan of Peter Marineau’s Piston Burr since my first copy from Wil Strijbos in aluminium a little while back ... so I picked up a copy in Kingwood...

...and a new project...

At IPP32 Jerry also had a prototype of a new project he’s been toying with for a little while now – a burr set in a puzzle box. He’s designed a box that is itself an interlocking burr arrangement that then holds a set of 42 burr pieces ... and the prototype is looking pretty promising already. Hopefully enough folks will have made enough encouraging noises to Jerry already to help him decide to go ahead and make some of these, but on the off chance that he hasn’t been pushed over the edge, if you’re interested, then please let him know via his web-site and offer him some encouragement. 

Selfishly I’m really hoping he’ll make them up one day because I’d really like a nice hardwood burr set and the idea of having one with the sort of finish that Jerry typically achieves is just too good to pass up on... go on, get in touch with him. You know you want one too...


  1. Nice review of the Burrblock! It reminds me why I had to ask Jerry for one after partly disassembling it at the IPP32 design competition! :)


    1. Thanks Goetz! ..it is a puzzle that goes on puzzling... :-)

  2. I got the Burrblock about a month before the IPP! I also found the second half supremely tough but a great moment when I got it! It's an expensive puzzle but really lovely on the shelf! My Kingwood piston burr arrived last week. I've never had a piston burr before and it's great to play with (plus in Kingwood it is beautiful!)

    I have pushed him for months and months to make the burr set - here's hoping!