Sunday 18 August 2019

I Am So Bad at Boxes!

Yes, it's a box and it doesn't look too difficult!
I am sure that the majority of you will recognise the box pictured above and you will all laugh at me when I say that I could not open it! For those who don't immediately recognise it, it is a burrset made by the Doctor of Wood, Eric Fuller. A few months ago he released a bunch of these in different woods and due to work pressures, I was not quick enough off the mark to get one of the more gorgeous sets. However, I was just able to buy a copy of the Cherry, Ash, Walnut and Birch set just before they all sold out and have to say that I am not in the least disappointed. It is simply gorgeous even in the more mundane wood choices. Eric has put all of his usual magic into the manufacture of this set - the joinery is simply perfection itself and it looks beautiful. The lid lifts off to reveal a lovely ordered set of burr sticks which have been perfectly engraved with their piece number for selection according to the booklet of challenges.

27 beautiful burr sticks plus a "filler"
How many burrsets does one need? This is slightly embarrassing to answer - at the moment, I must say that at least 4 is the correct number!

The "42 piece burrset" by Jerry McFarland - aka the Caramel Case
314 solid burrs as well as many many additional holey burrs! Plus Jerry added an extra stick

The Ultimate burrset - by Jack Krijnen
637 challenges varying from Level 1 to level 8

The Level 5 burrset Mr KY Wu
162 possible level 5 assemblies

Eric had made this set using the exact same pieces as the Ultimate burrset which I already had above. So why did I buy it? Apart from being unable to resist Eric's work, this was named the Pen-ultimate burrset because it had been modified. The ultimate set was based on sticks made from 2x2x8 stock. The extra length on each stick made the assembly challenges quite a bit tougher in places as the lateral movements during the solution can be quite restricted. For this set, Eric had created the burr sticks from 2x2x6 stock and to enhance the puzzling the set had been analysed by the amazing genius that is Ken Irvine (check out his brilliant new blog here).

So having established that I already have more six-piece burr challenges than I will ever be able to solve (have I told you all that I am rubbish at assembly puzzles?), the next question must be where is that booklet of challenges for Eric's set? Yes, I asked that too! I had not actually read the full description of the item before clicking buy and only after it arrived did I realise that this Burrset was also a box. Apparently, there is a hidden drawer in the box which contains a booklet of challenges - hence this is a box too. It is very well disguised but when looking and feeling the box closely it is obvious where the hidden drawer is and of course, it is locked tight. So no puzzling until I can open the box...GULP!

I take out all the burr sticks from the set and admire them and search for hidden mechanisms inside...NOPE! Then I realise that stick 0 and the red stick are both solid and hence one is superfluous...or is it? Eric would not just put an extra stick in for nice packing in the box. After all 28 sticks pack as a nice 7x4 array but if there were just 27 sticks then that could easily be nicely arranged in a 9x3 array and not need the extra stick. Plus, why is one made from a different (and rather gorgeous) Padauk piece? It's pretty clear by the presence of a magnet embedded in it that that is critical for unlocking the drawer. There must be a hidden mechanism that requires the use of the magnet. I set to exploring what I could find with this magnet and there were several very nice Aha! moments. I found hidden magnets, I found that things could be done by using magnet on magnet and there I got stuck! For ages and ages! All over the internet, I saw puzzle friends opening their drawers and starting on their burr puzzling and I couldn't begin. My howls of anguish spread wide and I was encouraged by others to continue and not over-think it. The puzzling continued...but not with success.

Eventually, Eric was on FB and saw that I was on-line. He sent me a message and asked what I had found and could do. I gave a hypothesis of what else I thought I ought to be able to do and he indicated that I was correct...but my set would not do that. I was sorry to inflict pain on Eric but his response was one of absolutely superb customer service, he told me that in my set I obviously needed a stronger magnet and the following day he posted out a replacement key-piece (no extra charge at all). A week later I received another stick with a MUCH stronger magnet embedded in it. I immediately put it to the test and the much-expected movement that I had been unable to perform with the smaller magnet was now easy for me. So I did it and tugged on the drawer and...and NOPE! Aaaargh! As I said, I am RUBBISH at boxes. Yet again, I spent several evenings with my usual game of doing the same trick again and again and again and, like a mad man, expecting something different to happen at some point. Of course, it didn't and I still could not play with my burrs! Eventually, I caved in and asked Eric for a bit of help, wondering whether there was another issue with my burrset (it is very common amongst us addicts to state that if we cannot solve a puzzle then it must be broken - that gets stated many many times at the Midlands Puzzle Party).

Eric confirmed that there was more to the opening than I thought and gave me a particular but not descriptive clue which I (surprisingly) understood but could not immediately follow through with. He then said something key:
"Remember that I like to make things look like they don't move when they do 🙂"
Within a few moments of that I responded:
"Holy shit! Just found it! Damn! That's well hidden!!!!"
I have to say that I feel that I got my money's worth out of this puzzle and that is before I even got to play with the burr sticks!

OMG! At last!
Now I was able to explore the set further. There was a nice Cubic Dissection logo sticker in the booklet and the booklet itself provided the full analysis that Ken had made of the Ultimate set with shortened sticks and also including the assemblies that do not end with solid burrs:

There are rather a large number of challenges to work through:

  • The Ultimate burrset with stick-length of 8 had 535 unique solutions with voids whereas the Penultimate set here has 708 - that alone will take me most of the rest of my life!
On top of this, there are an enormous number of other assemblies possible which will provide interesting puzzling - potentially another 20,322! Homing in on the slightly more challenging ones, Ken's analysis states that there are 3,479 piece sets that require a minimum of 2 moves and a maximum of 3 moves to remove the first piece, 51 sets that require a minimum of 4 and a maximum of 5 moves for the first piece and 3 sets that require 5 moves.

Not only is the analysis an amazing and very complete piece of work, but it has also been beautifully set out in the booklet and, as long as you have good eyesight (a problem for us "older" puzzlers), then it is a work of art as well as a fabulous puzzling resource:

At last! Very small print but gorgeous and a lifetime of puzzle challenges in there! Don't tell Mrs S!
Finally, I have been able to challenge myself to assemble something. As you would expect from Eric, the burr sticks fit together absolutely perfectly! It is a pleasure to play with this set - I will assemble a few and then it will be stored for my retirement when I have a whole lot more time on my hands.

A burr assembled and the Cubic dissection sticker proudly stuck on the interior of the lid

Still unsolved - probably a box!
Finally, as proof that a puzzle is a box...Juno's Slammed car which has now sold out after it won the Jury Grand prize in the design competition in Japan, was sold to me as a Sequential Discovery puzzle which I adore. However, Juno insists that it is also a box which we have established today that I am truly awful at solving! He says:
"The puzzle has an internal cavity and it is also categorized as a puzzle box. To make the definition of the puzzle clearer, we put a loaf of bread in the cavity and it helps you to realize the goal of the puzzle."
The loaf of bread is another dig at me after George Bell stated that a puzzle is a box if you can put a loaf of bread in it and there have been several of Juno's puzzles where he has had a joke at me with this. I received my copy of this a couple of months ago and have watched in amazement as everyone has solved it around me (including my completely blind friend Ed) and I zoomed off to almost the end of the challenge and have been stuck there for weeks. Yep! It is definitely a box - not because of the bread but because I am completely unable to solve it! I will keep on working on it and hopefully before the year is out will have opened it - some puzzles take me months or even years of effort! Thanks, Juno!


  1. Never fear, everyone has a type of puzzle which is their personal kryptonite. I have a half-dozen disentanglement puzzles which I have NEVER solved (trivial for you, I imagine). Twisties, also, are tough for me, anything beyond the basic Rubick's cube. Even 4x4x4, yikes!

    Also, regarding puzzle boxes, as I recall you do not collect them and neither do I. I joked that a box is not a certified puzzle box unless there is room inside for a loaf of bread. That way you can feel comfortable collecting a puzzle which just happens to be box-shaped and contains a small cavity inside. Juno has confused the issue by including his mini loafs in his puzzles! Now apparently these ARE puzzle boxes so we are not allowed to collect them!

    1. Hi George,
      At the moment almost all puzzles seen to be my Kryptonite! I'm struggling to solve anything at the moment.

      It's awful that we are not allowed to collect these cavitation puzzles with bread inside! I think that I might just stipulate that I specialise in boxes containing bread as a sub-sub-genre.

    2. One reason bread and boxes came together is because of the classic question: "Is it bigger than a breadbox?". We were playing 20 questions with our kids some years ago and it was immediately clear that the younger generation had no idea what a breadbox was! We were happy to fill in this critical missing piece of their education. Do kids in England know what a breadbox (or bread bin) is?

    3. Wow! Kids in the US don't know about breadboxes? Here in the UK I think kids do know and we call them breadbins here.