Sunday 30 July 2017

Pyrigan's No. 808 Puzzle

Three years in the making, Pyrigan’s No. 808.
Hi everyone - first of all let me apologise for the lack of a blog post last weekend (that is the first missed weekend post in 4 years). I had to work at the hospital last weekend and had a good junior with me and was planning on making him do all the work whilst I drank coffee and posted this article from the Puzzlemad foreign correspondent. Unfortunately, just as I was beginning to think about finding a computer to work on, a lady came in with a ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysm and responding to these cannot be be delayed. After nearly 6 hours and a fair bit of blood and a safe delivery to the ICU I was just not up to editing a blog post and so it got skipped. I know that it's a very poor excuse but it's all I have. You'll be pleased to know that the lady is making good progress.

So today I have for you the Puzzlemad foreign correspondent, Mike Desilets' wonderful article on a brand new puzzle from a brand new designer and craftsman. I am hugely grateful to Mike for all the work that he puts in and I know that you all enjoy a having a new and fresh pen to read. He has even interviewed the designer for us which is something never seen on this site before. Here's Mike:

Aloha Kākou puzzlers,

Thanks Kevin, for that kind introduction (I never actually know what he’s going to say in the preamble, but it’s usually very flattering - Ed - I do my best). This edition of Puzzlemad brings you a special report on the recently released No. 808 puzzle from Pyrigan & Company. Never heard of them? Well, I aim to rectify that in this post. Pyrigan and its owner-designer John Partridge should absolutely be on your puzzle radar. John actually has a blog with some great posts of his own which you should check out (Kevin, you must get the Pyrigan blog on the side-bar. Quickly man! (Ed - done!)). But beyond this, he has succeeded in bringing a very special puzzle to the market and it deserves the attention of all serious puzzlers and collectors. I was lucky enough, through a bit of a fluke, to get one right away and I’m very happy I did.

3D printed prototype of the No. 808
A little history first, as we always do. I first became aware of Pyrigan during one of my bouts of internet puzzle searching. One link led to another and somehow I ended up at John’s page. This was back in 2014 or so and the No. 808 was still in the development stage. John had made a 3D print of his design and was still working out some bugs, but with the avowed intention of eventually producing the puzzle in aluminum (most likely, there were some other material options). I thought it looked pretty intriguing and unlike any other puzzle I had seen before. I bookmarked the page and then immediately moved on to other stuff, forgot about the 808, and neglected to ever check back in. As you all know, a tremendous number of puzzles get to the 3D print stage and advance no further. I had no reason to be particularly hopeful for John’s puzzle, nice though it looked in prototype. Little did I know, however, that John would continue to labor away on the No. 808 over the following three years (he does have a real job to maintain, after all). Then on June 28 I received an email that the puzzle was available for sale—in aluminum—on his etsy site! It was a bit of a shocker. I went to the page and sure enough, there was the No. 808 in all its glory. It was a real eye-catcher (Ed - it certainly is). Perfectly proportioned with a great two-tone matte finish. I wanted it immediately. I looked at the not insubstantial price tag, hesitated for about two seconds, and then decided that I still wanted it. The No. 808 will run you $120US. It’s a serious puzzle for serious puzzlers and collectors. But in the realm of precision engineered metal puzzles, this is really not an unreasonable price tag at all. In fact, it’s a bargain. Projects like this require vast amounts of time and energy that can’t realistically be added to the price of the puzzle. They are really a labour of love by puzzlers for their fellow puzzlers.

Nicely engraved
John dropped my No. 808 in the mail and it arrive at my office (Ed - I wish I could have puzzles delivered to my workplace) less than a week later, well wrapped and in perfect order. This puzzle is just as beautiful in person as it is on the Pyrigan website. As you can see in the photos, it consists of two halves joined together with a pair of dovetails to form a solid bar. Solid except for the two holes, that is. One side is matte black and the opposite is a matte silver, both bead blasted and then anodized. Model No. 808 is stamped on one end of the silver side and the Pyrigan logo is very nicely stamped and painted red at the center of the black side. Dimensions are 6.5 inches long, 1.25 inches wide, and 0.75 inches thick (Ed - aaargh! Why can't the US use sensible units?). It feels solid in the hand and is a little under a half pound in weight (Ed - aaargh again!). The two halves are machined from T6061 aluminum with a tolerance of +/- 0.002 inches. When you finally solve this puzzle, you will get to experience the kind of fit and movement such fine tolerances produce.

Silver side with model number.
Black side with red logo, tastefully done.
The No. 808 took me a few days to solve, but that’s partly because I try to spread out the enjoyment of any puzzle costing over a hundred bucks. I really don’t want or need to rush to the solution. It’s better to enjoy the mystery for a while. But of course, after not too long, I DO want to solve the puzzle and get increasingly serious about it. Eventually, after much fiddling, I cracked the No. 808 and was rewarded with a “token” of appreciation from Pyrigan in the form of a red plastic coin/token/medallion with the Pyrigan logo printed in black. I love little touches like that in a puzzle.

Halves apart and token released. Just as pretty in the solved state.
Of course, I can’t tell you anything particular about the mechanism. As usual I’ll try to skirt the edges enough to give you a sense of the puzzle without giving anything away. There is one thing I am permitted to tell you regarding the solution: it does not involve violence to the puzzle. So don’t hit your No. 808. It will only make you feel ashamed. The first thing you should know is that this is pretty much a ‘black box’ puzzle. It does give you some very subtle feedback, but it’s very limited. I know some puzzlers are not particularly enchanted with secret internal mechanism puzzles, feeling that they involve too much random action and, well, luck to solve. I can sympathize with that attitude, but I also feel that you will miss out on a lot of interesting puzzles if you take it too far. It’s just a different kind of solving experience and I’ve come to learn in hindsight (post-solve) that many of these puzzles are susceptible to a higher level of deduction than one would think. The No. 808 makes just a little faint bit of noise when shaken gently. Could it just be the token? Or could it be something else? Although the fit of the two halves is nearly air-tight, there is a miniscule amount of movement. These things can matter. They may not get you to the solution in a straight-line path, or at all, but when you solve the puzzle you’ll wonder why you didn’t read the clues better. I always do (Ed - me too).
 I had a great time with the No. 808. There was a great deal of shaking, turning, twisting and that type of thing (I tried it all - Ed - did you blow on it or submerge it in gin? If not then you didn't try it all!) and the puzzle eventually opened. I hadn’t figured it out properly, but with enough fiddling the correct positioning and/or sequence of movements allowed it to open. Inspecting the innards, I felt I should have been able to solve it properly. The mechanism uses a known principle, but in a fresh new implementation. The addition of the dovetail element, with its tricky but ultra-slick movement, adds another layer to the opening and really sets the No. 808 apart. Inspecting the fine engineering and machine work on the inside was a joy unto itself.

Resetting the puzzle requires some additional fiddling, but is otherwise painless. In my correspondence with John, he clued me in on an aspect of the puzzle that is actually pretty important. The No. 808 can be reset in at least three different ways, each of which changes the difficulty level of the puzzle. One way will make the puzzle fairly easy to open, for the experienced puzzler at least. This would be a great setting for certain puzzle-impatient friends or family, assuming you let them play with your good puzzles that is (I don’t!). The other modification simplifies one aspect of the puzzle a little, providing a kind of medium setting. Unfortunately that’s all I can really say. If you buy a Pyrigan No. 808, I’m sure John will divulge the details. But better still, consider finding the alternative settings an additional challenge. Yet more value from the No. 808. (Ed - I NEED one!)

As a first puzzle from a relatively new designer, I think it’s a real triumph. For any serious puzzle collector, this is a must-have item. Doubly so for those who enjoy fine metal puzzles. I’ll admit my bias right now, I enjoy fine metal puzzles greatly. This one has gone straight to the top shelf. Pyrigan have produced exactly 106 of these puzzle for sale. It’s a limited, numbered run. Your number is on the inside, waiting to be discovered.

As far as replay value, the No. 808 has plenty. Even after studying the internals and understanding how the puzzle functions, you will not necessarily be able to reopen it easily. It is a whole new challenge, of a different type, to find a technique that will open it with a minimum of random movements. It still takes me at least a few minutes to open mine, and it’s a two-phase process. The puzzle will open part way with one set of movements, then there is some additional work to achieve full release. I’m getting closer, but I wouldn’t say I have it mastered yet.

Now for the special part of this article. I thought it would be of interest to the readership (and to me) to get some information about the No. 808 straight from the source. This was easy to arrange since John and I had already been emailing about the puzzle. He graciously accepted the interview and the results you can read below. Personally, I find it extremely interesting to hear how non-professional puzzle designers manage to get their puzzles manufactured and out onto the market. I suspect many of you do too. So read on . . .
Mike: This is an obligatory question, but it simply must be asked in every puzzle interview: How and when did you become interested in mechanical puzzles and what are your favorite types? 
John: I remember playing with my father's "15" puzzle when I was very young, probably six or seven. I'm talking about the classic sliding number puzzle. It was beautifully made from stainless steel and I felt very pleased with myself for figuring out how to solve it. I also remember my grandmother giving me a 6 piece burr puzzle, another classic, at about the same age. I really enjoyed it too and when I let my parents and grandmother know how much I liked those kinds of puzzles, every birthday and every Christmas brought more. Over the years I've developed an appetite for sliding block puzzles (e.g. "Dad's Puzzle"), ring and string topology puzzles, tavern/wire puzzles (e.g. all the old Puzzletts), Japanese puzzle boxes, etc. 
Of course, the puzzle that tops the list is Rubik's Cube. When an ad for Erno Rubik's "Magic Cube" showed up in the back of Games magazine, I jumped on it and I still have my original Hungarian-made cube. That puzzle was just stunning and I still enjoy playing with twisty puzzles. It took me a couple of months to figure out the general solution but it was totally worth it - that was the most satisfying puzzle experience I've ever had (Ed - amen!). These days my favorite type of puzzle is the kind I make, namely high tolerance machined metal puzzles like Wil Strijbos'. 
Mike: A relatively small fraction of puzzle enthusiasts decide, at a certain point, to try their hand at designing. What inspired you to take the leap? 
John: Honestly, I'm not sure. I had my first idea for a puzzle back in the 1990s and the more I thought about it - driving to work or while falling asleep at night - the more I became convinced it could work. So it wasn't so much a "leap" as a gradually developing conviction that it was doable. 
Mike: Not only did you take the leap, you leapt directly into the most rarified puzzle class, precision-engineered metal. Do you have some background skills or training that made this seem less intimidating? 
John: Thanks for the kind words! I chose machined metal because the mechanisms I come up with are sensitive to misalignment. I don't think they'd work well, maybe not at all, if I tried to make them out of wood or had them cast. No, I don't have any professional skills or training, just a hobbyist's interest in mechanisms and machines. I've been tinkering with stuff since I was a kid. I was into electronics and built Heathkits for a while; I was also into tuning and fixing my bike and later into tuning and fixing my car. I took a machine shop course one semester and learned how to work a Bridgeport milling machine. That gave me a rough understanding of what kinds of things it was possible to make and an appreciation for mechanical engineers and machinists. 
Mike: How would you describe your creative process for the No. 808? Flash of inspiration? Long evolutionary development? Trial and error? Little of each? 
John: Part of the inspiration for #808 came from the "impossible dovetail" puzzles that Norman Sandfield and others have made. I really liked the way they looked and decided I wanted to try my hand at it. Model #808 is actually the third puzzle design I've come up with but I made it first because I thought it would be the easiest of the three to have a machine shop make. I'm pretty sure I was wrong about that! 
Never trust a dovetail.
Once I had the idea for the mechanism, I looked for a CAD (Computer Aided Design) tool that I could use to model it and soon discovered OpenSCAD which was open-source and easy for me to learn. I generated some .STL files to give to a local 3D print shop, found that the prototype worked beautifully, decided the solution was too easy, added some complexity, and then spent three years refining the design and finding a machine shop to make what I needed. I guess that's a "little of each". 
Mike: Moving from concept to prototype to final product undoubtedly involves a lot of refinement. Where would you say the most fundamental changes to the original concept were made and at what point did it become just fine-tuning?  
John: The most fundamental change occurred after my first functional prototype where I decided the puzzle was just too easy. So the puzzle sold today – which is Revision 15 – is functionally the same as Revision 2. I can't talk about the more important changes made in Revisions 3 through 15 without giving the solution away but I would say the biggest jump was going from Revision 1 to Revision 2. 
Mike: Did the design need to change significantly due to manufacturing constraints? 
John: No, not significantly. What changed the design the most was usability issues. I'm not giving the solution away when I say that there are parts inside the puzzle and in the early designs those parts were likely to fall out when you solved the puzzle – which is not what a puzzler wants at his moment of triumph! So I had to solve that. A bigger challenge was to come up with a way to keep the major pieces correctly aligned. I went through at least a half dozen different ideas trying to get that solved.
Mike: From your blog, I understand the entire process to produce No. 808 took 3 years. If you knew at the start what you know now, how long do you think it would take to produce the puzzle? 
John: Oh golly, probably six months. I lost a lot of time not knowing how to pick a good machine shop and ended up wasting twelve to eighteen months going back and forth with a machine shop who just wasn't making progress. The other big thing I learned is how important it is for a professional mechanical engineer to create design drawings for the machinist at the machine shop to read. I'm just a hobbyist with no training on how to correctly and rigorously compute tolerances – they call it "GD&T" for Geometric Dimensioning and Tolerancing. I wish I had known three years ago how important it is!
Mike: On a personal note, at what point did you pull all your hair out and consider dropping the project?
John: I got pretty discouraged when months were going by with no progress from my machine shop. But the solution was simple enough: switch to a different machine shop.
Mike: On an even more personal note, are you married and if so did the No. 808 project cause your partner to consider smothering you in your sleep? 
John: Fortunately, quite the opposite! My wife has zero interest in puzzles (Ed - sob, mine too) and although she finds my interest in solving and making them incomprehensible, she totally supports creativity in whatever strange form it may take. I'm a very lucky man 9 (Ed - yes you really are)!
Mike: I know you’ve also produced some classic geometric dissection puzzles in acrylic. Do you plan to explore other materials in the future or will you continue to focus on metal to capitalize on what you’ve learned?
John: For 2D puzzles, acrylic is great: it's inexpensive, looks great, and pretty easy to fabricate with. For 3D puzzles, I think aluminum is the best choice. It's no more expensive than plastics you might want to machine (e.g. delrin), it gives you lots of finishing options (e.g. bead-blasting, anodizing), and all machine shops are equipped to machine it. I think I'll be sticking with it for a while. I have a half dozen or so design ideas that I'd like to have made and all of them would work great in aluminum. Actually, I'd really like to make one in stainless steel but steel is much more expensive. 
Mike: Based on your experience with the No. 808, what are two pieces of advice you would give to aspiring puzzle designers (especially those who still need to keep their day job)?  
John: Well, because of cheap/free software and cheap 3D printing it's never been easier. Learn a CAD tool like OpenSCAD, Fusion 360, or Onshape – those are all free for hobbyists. Get a 3D printer for prototyping or find a local 3D print service (if you have kids, a lot of high schools have 3D printers). And then get into the Test-and-Revise cycle; iterate as frequently as time, money, and interest allow.
Mike: What can we expect next from Pyrigan? Can you give any hints on the mysterious No. 360?  
John: I've got some designs coming that I'm very excited about but I have to be disciplined about how much money I spend on what is, after all, just a hobby. I can't afford to start on Model No. 360 until I've sold most of the 808s but I think the mechanism is really clever, if I say so myself. Maybe I'll do a Kickstarter or something. 
An early No. 808 prototype plus some upcoming Pyrigan designs: Model No. 518 (multi-colored cube), Model No. 921 (circular), and Model No. 360 (rectangular with red logo).
Mike: And finally, I must ask, don’t you think Kevin Sadler is an all-around stellar chap for letting us do this on his blog?  (Ed - aw shucks! Where do I send the cheque?)
John: Indeed he is! I tried my hand at reviewing puzzles on my Pyrigan blog and the result is pretty disappointing - I'm not very good at it, I have to admit. Kevin's blog does the job properly! (Ed - now I'm really blushing!)
Thanks again John, for that interview. You’re a great sport and I’m sure I speak for the entire readership when I say we will be keeping Pyrigan on the radar. But no pressure!

Readership, I need to mention that John was much too modest about his blog posting. His posts are excellent,  informative, and much more to the point than the long-winded stuff I generate (Puzzlemad pays me by the word (Ed - OMG! Do I?)). I suggest you check it out. The link should be on the Puzzlemad sidebar by now. John also gave what looks to have been a fascinating presentation on modeling curvature at the 2016 Celebration of Mind in Massachusetts. Check out the powerpoint here. Really cool stuff. When you visit the Pyrigan blog you will also get hints on other Pyrigan puzzles in the works like Nos. 360, 518, and 921. Which reminds me, I forgot to ask John where he gets these numbers. 

I will just conclude by repeating that the Pyrigan No. 808 puzzle is a real winner. It is of unbelievably high quality for a first puzzle, or for any puzzle for that matter. I recommend you treat yourself and pick one up. Back to you Kevin....

Wow!!! What a fantastic blog post! Thank you so much Mike and also John for contributing your time as well as your skills. I will be looking to buy one of these after the financial hit of IPP has wained a little.


  1. Wow, thanks!

    Mike, thanks for your review - I hope my puzzle lives up to the high praise! Kevin, thanks for covering news on newbie puzzlers like me!

    1. It is my pleasure, John, to host Mike's thoughts as he really produces some wonderful stuff and also a huge privilege to show off your new design. It is amazing that a new designer and craftsman can produce something of such high quality for a first puzzle. After IPP I plan to contact you to buy a copy myself.