Puzzle Making Tools and Materials

( plus a few tips)

When people ask me what materials I use and where I get them they tend to forget that 99% of the time we are in different countries. If I say I bought something from Jacobs hardware store across the road it's really not much use to them. So, on this page I have listed below many of the items I use but also several links to similar items available from USA companies. Obviously I cannot give links for every nation but I am sure Google will assist. Remember there is no right or wrong way to make puzzles. By all means read articles and take advice but ultimately it's up to you. The fun part is working out what best suits you. That's why you won't find comprehensive puzzle building guides on this site. When I started in 1981 I knew of no one else in the world transforming puzzles. I had to figure out everything for myself and track down usable materials with no internet. It was a huge challenge yet very satisfying. For a long time I was using wax moulds and clear polyester resin designed for making jewellery.
To make moulds of puzzle parts I use T28 RTV silicone rubber (below) from the UK firm Tiranti. Previously I used remeltable rubber (Gelflex) but only because silicone rubber used to be difficult to get. If you aren't in the UK I know that Oommoo 30 by the US based Smooth-On is very popular. Below left there is a video about using their products. The reason silicone rubber is used instead of latex for example is because it's an extremely accurate moulding material. It has virtually no shrinkage or expansion. If you are thinking of trying other silicone rubbers remember it comes in a wide range of viscosities (runniness) and shore A harnesses (firmness). Many of which will be unsuitable for moulding puzzle parts.

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For casting parts, polyurethane resin is normally used since like silicone rubber it is extremely accurate. This is very important if you are working on mechanisms. For transformations like my original Golden Cubes though absolute accuracy isn't so important and polyester resin is fine. I usually use Biresin G26 polyurethane resin from Tiranti since it is available in the UK and works out much cheaper than the more popular American polyurethane resins.
The two biggest problems with polyurethane resin is bubbling and not getting a perfect black finish. I have found with Biresin in particular that it causes bubbling nearly six months after a cast is made. This is due to a chemical process where the resin is giving off a gas long after it has cured. Apart from leaving the pieces several months before applying stickers I still haven't found a satisfactory solution. Some people talk about baking pieces though I have never tried that myself. The other problem I have is when Biresin is sanded it tends to go a milky grey colour despite having a black pigment. Better casting techniques means there's less to sand and some people simply paint the puzzle though I find this can lead to a sticky surface. In the past I have used indelible ink but it does come off on your hands and ultimately leads to a dirty puzzle.
Many people use Alumilite. If available in your country this is pretty good and you can buy it on it's own in different sizes or in starter kits. It is available in natural, black or white though the white is not so good. Alumilite has the same problems as Biresin though I am not sure if they are so bad. I would recommend Alumilite to people new to casting. Another popular resin is Smooth-Cast 300 especially if you like white. I have not tried it myself.

 
It is advisable to wear latex gloves when working with resins and other chemicals. Both resin (especially polyester) and silicone rubber can be difficult to wash off your hands since neither are water soluble. Unlike paint, white spirit will not work so you just end up scrubbing your hands raw unless you have something like acetone. I buy these gloves by the 1000 and will get through several pairs daily. They will not protect you from knives so best not to wear them when working with scalpels etc. You won't have so much control or grip if you do. They come in a range of sizes, powdered (easy to get on and off) and non powdered as well as latex free for those allergic.

Naturally when using silicone rubber and resins you will need some where to measure and mix it. As you might expect I get my stuff from Tiranti. That is apart from the cups I use to mix resin. These I get from a friend who works in catering. It's quite handy because with resin you constantly need new cups. Silicone rubber though is less destructive and you can reuse mixing containers virtually for ever. Those outside the UK should look in craft stores.

   

Below are my two Dremels. It's amazing what you can do with these. Some of my puzzles have been shaped almost entirely by them. They include my 7x7x7 Barrel, 7x7x7 V-ball and 7x7x7 V-sculpture.  They save an awful lot of hard work and are well worth getting. I slightly prefer the corded version but the battery models are also very good. It's important not to abuse them and when you feel them getting hot let them cool off a bit. It's easy to block the air vents with your hands which can lead to over heating.  

 


 

When using a Dremel it can get very dusty (see here). For this reason I highly recommend getting a face mask. I didn't bother for many years but ended up getting cold type symptoms for several days after using my Dremel on some plastics. I first tried the small masks but they simply aren't good enough for long jobs so purchased one of the bigger ones from Tiranti. I also use goggles which I hate wearing but getting melted plastic flung into your eye at 100 miles an hour is a little unpleasant. The ones below I got from Tiranti. Again I have added links down the sides for USA people. Please note that however well goggles fit you can still get tiny fragments forcing there way around the edges. I would not have believed this if it didn't happen to me on a regular basis.


Below is my drill press. If you have room they are highly recommended. They aren't essential but they make drilling accurate holes a lot easier. They are also surprisingly cheap and my Draper was less than the price of 5kg of silicone rubber. I had tried various contraptions which hold normal drills but found them pretty useless.
 






Often when making puzzles there are areas which either need covering or filling. A lot of people new to the hobby will use huge amounts of filler which is totally unnecessary. It's much better to either cap the hole with plastic sheet or just fill the very top. The latter technique can be seen in my Construction of my Truncated Golden Cube video. In this video I use polyester resin but polyurethane (Alumilite etc) is also fine. There are of course times when you do need filler and the best is probably Milliput





For puzzle transformations where you aren't constructing a mechanism an alternate way of making parts is plastic sheet. Anthony Greenhill was almost certainly the first person to use and perfect this technique and I only started using it after talking to him. I use high impact polystyrene plastic sheet which I purchase from the UK company Rapid. I believe they will export but it may be easier to find somewhere in your own country to buy it. For USA you might want to try here. I believe some people use other types of plastic sheet like ABS though I have never tried it. Most of my cuboids were made with plastic sheet as well as the newer versions of my Container and Mental Block. It's a great way to get good quality light weight puzzles.

 

I cut plastic sheet with the straight bladed orange knife (below) which is made by Swann Morton. I use the same knife and cleaner scalpel for stickers. The dirty scalpel is used mainly for cleaning polyester resin from glass though that's part of my old technique and of little relevance now. I use the biggest knife to remove corner caps from Skewbs, tiles from Pyraminx Crystals and many other things. It's great because it has one flat edge which you can whack with a hammer. I have had it for many years but have no idea where it originally came from. When using craft knives remember that a blunt blade is more dangerous than a sharp one so change them regularly. Always cut on a solid surface (see further down page) and think about where the blade will go if it slips. Never hold the item you are working on in your hand. If it's an awkward shape you can often use the edge a table or jam it against something solid. Sometimes I will chisel special shaped holes into a piece of wood so I can insert a puzzle piece to work on. When I started I used to cut myself all the time. However I got fed up with trying to work for the next week with plasters and sore hands. So for that reason I am much more careful now and apart from tiny nicks I haven't really cut myself in many years. Once you get into a safe working practice injuries should be very rare. The weird looking object below is a circle cutter. They will cut paper and plastic sheet plus they make a good pair of compasses when working on sheet since a scratch won't rub off like pencil does. The knife with the curved blade is used for scraping. Sometimes when you try and sand small areas you can't avoid getting a hump in the middle. This blade is great for removing them before continuing with sand paper. I use this scraping method on many of my puzzles.

Mefferts Puzzles


When cutting plastic card or stickers it is important to work on a flat smooth surface. This can be a problem since a wooden board will soon get cut up and need replacing. I use sheets of perspex/plexiglass. This material is far harder and more suitable than the ABS or high impact polystyrene sheet you may use when constructing puzzles. I had the good fortune to work beside a sign maker for a while and managed to get loads of off-cuts. Below is one of my older A4 'boards' I use to cut plastic sheet on. The black squares are to hold the plastic in place for cutting. I must have spent hundreds of hours on this and although scratched and a bit tatty it's still fine. For stickers I have separate pieces which I keep a lot cleaner. I will often set up a different sheet of perspex for each colour and stick them down with masking tape. When cutting you should always use a steel rule. stainless if possible. I have four or five in various lengths.

Having cut the plastic sheet of course you need to fix it together. Many people including Anothony Greenhill use glue. I on the other hand think it's better to use some sort of plastic weld. I use Liquid Solvent Cement from the UK based EMA Model Supplies LTD since it actually melts/dissolves the plastic together. To apply I use cotton buds.  I don't know if this exact chemical is available outside the UK. Please note that there are strict rules concerning sending certain chemicals through the post, especially by airmail.

 

Even if you use the cement at some stage you will need a decent glue when making puzzles. The only glue I use is Loctite Super Glue. The one below is a liquid with a self piercing top. I have tried others (from the UK only) but this is by far the best. The gel is also very good and perhaps a little easier to use if you are new to super glue. Once open I always keep mine in a re-sealable airtight bag. I noticed in other countries there are many similar sounding glues but I have no idea if they are the same or as good.

 

After you have made your parts in most cases you will need to sand them. I use a wet and dry paper grits 120, 240 and 600. The lower the number the coarser the paper. I have used grit 1200 in the past but it's almost smooth and not really necessary. Wet and dry means just that. You can use it dry or you can dip it in water and use it wet. The advantages of using it wet is that it doesn't clog so it's usable for much longer. I use the paper in three separate ways. I will place a sheet on my perspex board and rub the puzzle part across it. I will also wrap some paper around a wooden block and use the block to sand a flat surface on bigger parts. Thirdly I will cut the wet and dry into small squares and simply use my fingers. Please be aware that after a short amount of time fingers can become very sore and will bleed if you continue. For this reason I usually use plasters (band-aids) on some fingers for protection (see 5mins into this video).  I have yet to find anything as affective.







For stickers I use sticky back plastic and vinyl (see main picture below) from the following companies, d-c-fix , Fablon and alkor . I have provided links though I don't think their websites are very good. I use these products because they are available in my local hardware stores or places I have visited. That includes France and Holland. If I was to order online I would most likely use Oracal since I know it is popular with others. Personally I believe it is a bit thin though it seems to stick better than the stuff I use.
I often get asked where I obtain the textured fluorescent material you see on a lot of Uwe Meffert's puzzles. Many people including myself have tried to order this online with little success. The only place I know you can get it is a few hardware stores in Holland. I believe though it is made in Germany by d-c-fix and I suspect it's available all over Europe and further afield.
If you don't want to cut stickers by hand you should consider purchasing a cutter / plotter. I have never used one myself but understand you design what you want on computer and the machine does the rest. I have heard the 12" US Cutter Refine MH365 is very good. I have included more links below to others though I have no idea if they are any good. Please make sure you buy one where you can design the shapes. Some cheaper models only allow you to cut the basic shapes it has built in.

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