Building upon characteristics of traditional Chinese joinery, wooden burr puzzles have existed since at least the 19th century. Not only are they fun to make and assemble, they also serve as beautiful decor and curio items. Such construction puzzles can take on a wide variety of appearances – from geometric shapes to those of animals and other objects – and range from simple to maddeningly complex. Today we’re going to focus on a basic traditional star burr. Read on to learn how you can make your own wooden star puzzle!
Sticking To The Basics
The classic 6-pc star burr is the perfect introduction to the world of wooden construction puzzles. Puzzles of this nature are generally classified as “burr” puzzles because of their resemblance to the burr seed pods produced by many different plants, including sand spurs and the sweet gum tree. The star puzzle is a type of “diagonal burr”, a sub-category of burr puzzle having pieces with v-shaped notches cut into the corners.
Production begins with square rods, like the one pictured above. Square dowels can be purchased from the local home center. But if you have a table saw, you’re better off cutting your own. That way you can make them any size and from whatever wood you choose; and save money in the process. The important thing is for the cross section of your stock to be as close to square as you can get.
Angle Of The Dangle
If you want your puzzle to work properly, you need to accurately lay out your cut lines. Layout is fairly simple and there are several ways to go about it. Whatever method you use, keep in mind that precision is the key to producing a quality puzzle. You do have a little wiggle room, but not a lot.
Lay out each notch by drawing two 55° angles (with respect to the long edges of the wooden blank). Technically, that angle should be 54.7356°. Yes, I know; I just got done saying that precision matters. Aim a short hair shy of 55° if it bothers you enough. But really, we’re woodworking here. A quarter of one degree is more precise than you’re going to get with just about any woodworking tool you own. It’s OK to round up to 55°.
The bottom of the notches must come to a point. But there should be a small gap between the tops of adjacent notches. The exact distance depends slightly on scale. Most of the burr puzzles that I make are cut from 3/4” stock. At that scale, a gap of 1/16” is ideal. If you make your pieces from 1-1/2” or larger stock, you can increase that gap to 3/32”. Smaller than 3/8”, decrease it to around 1/32”. You may have to adjust the gap a tiny bit more if you use really large or really small stock.
Wooden Star Puzzle Pattern Seeker
I drew up some patterns to guide those who want to take the “easy way out”. However, there’s a couple things to be aware of when using them. While the notches themselves scale perfectly, the gaps between them don’t necessarily scale in a linear fashion and may have to be tweaked – depending on the size stock you use – as described in the previous section. The smaller patterns have the gaps preset for 3/4” stock.
To use the patterns, download and print them out. You’ll need to scale them to fit your stock.
Carefully crease the patterns down the middle of the bold center line. Then flatten them out a bit and lay them face down on scrap cardboard, newspaper or other disposable surface. Apply spray glue to the backs of the patterns and stick them to the wood.
Well That’s Just Tacky
I use the spray adhesive shown above to attach patterns to wood. You can use glue sticks if you really have to. But be aware that you’ll have a harder time removing the paper and glue residue afterwards. If you choose to ignore my warning and use a glue stick anyway, have some denatured alcohol on hand to soften the glue, which will then turn into synthetic snot that you’ll fight for a while. It’s your time, waste it as you see fit.
Back to the spray glue: Spray the backs of the patterns and allow them to tack up for 15-30 seconds before applying to the wood. Doing so makes them much easier to remove when the time comes. For best results, began applying the pattern at one end, as shown above. Concentrate on seating the corner of the wood into the crease in the pattern, working your way down to the other end. Once the crease is properly seated you can go ahead and press the rest of the paper onto the flat surfaces of the stock and everything should be perfectly aligned. Later on, you’ll be able to peel the pattern off with little effort. If it doesn’t remove easily, gently apply heat with a heat gun or hair dryer and it’ll come right off.
Another layout method is to make a template. When I produce puzzles in batches, I create a custom template that allows me to quickly trace the pattern and move on. The template is beyond the scope of this article so I’ll leave it up to you to figure out if you’re so inclined. Suffice it to say that if you’re going to make a bunch of puzzles it’s well worth your time to create a template.
Cutting To The Chase
I’ve shown several methods of laying out the notches. Now I’ll touch on three different options for cutting them out. The method you choose depends on you and the tools you have available. My personal favorite is to use the band saw.
Try to stay slightly inside the lines when cutting your notches. In other words, err a bit on the waste side of the line. It may take some practice to judge exactly how to cut the notches. Too tight can result in a puzzle that gets stuck together. A notch that’s too large will result in a loose, sloppy puzzle that falls apart. It’s a delicate balance. It’s OK to be a tad too tight because you’ll be sanding the pieces later on, loosening them up a bit.
Notch Yo’ Grandpa’s Wooden Star Puzzle
Actually, it might be. This is a time honored puzzle, after all.
If you use a hand saw to cut the notches, I’d recommend using a back saw (or a dovetail saw). A back saw has a stiff spine that prevents the blade from flexing while in use, ensuring flat cuts.
A Whittle At A Time
You can also cut the notches with a knife. Start by creating a smaller notch near the center and working outwards – towards the guide lines – until the notch reaches full size.
I Saw That Band – They Rock
When cutting the notches with a band saw, it is necessary to stand the work piece on corner. Use a piece of scrap wood with a 45° bevel on one edge to support the work piece. Do not try to hold the piece on corner with your hands alone. You will almost certainly fail. Take your time and be safe.
The jig I use on my main band saw rides in the saw’s miter slots and holds the work piece on corner while also feeding it into the blade at a 45° angle, making it easy to be extremely precise and consistent. To cut the opposite angle, the support piece lifts off and I set it on one aligned in the opposite orientation. This same jig work for all sizes of stock.
Wooden Star Puzzle Assembly
Now it’s time to test your work. Solve the puzzle by first making two mirrored sub-assemblies. The sub-assemblies then mesh together to complete the puzzle. You may notice that the pieces in the assembly photos have a fairly large gap between the notches. That was due to a scaling error in the first draft patterns I drew up. Despite the larger than desired gap, the puzzle still works. But it could have been better. The patterns included in this article – however – have been corrected to fix that issue.
Smooth As A Baby’s… Puzzle Piece
A nicely sanded project looks and feels better than one left rough. Beyond smoothing the wood, sanding also removes surface dirt and oxidation, creating a cleaner, more pleasant appearance. But proceed with care and sand gingerly. A little sanding is a good thing. Too much is like having sand in your swimsuit: it produces results that are more irritating than pleasant. You want a smooth working puzzle, not a chapped crack.
Keep in mind that sanding makes the pieces smaller and looser. Sand all pieces lightly and gently round over the corners. Then give them another test fit. Repeat if necessary.
Most of your sanding should take place on the outside surfaces. Avoid sanding the insides of the notches if you can. If your notches are rough and jagged, practice making smoother cuts. However, if they are too small (or angled too tightly), sanding or filing can help you enlarge them a bit.
Burr Puzzle Fit And Finish
To really make your puzzles visually pop, consider applying a finish. I always finish my puzzles with boiled linseed oil (BLO). You can use any penetrating, drying oil that’s sold as a wood finish. However, don’t confuse drying oils with “oil-based finishes”. They are not the same thing.
As tempting as it may be to use polyurethane, lacquer, shellac or some other film finish: don’t do it! You will be sorry in the long run. Resin film finishes such as these may look beautiful but they will eventually weld your puzzle together. I learned the hard way with my 10-pc. hanging puzzle, which you can see in two of the gallery photos at the end of this article. After being left together for many years I eventually had to bust it apart in a very long, tedious, nerve-wrecking process.
In my experience, boiled linseed oil is a perfect finish for wooden puzzles. And it’s extremely easy to apply. You can wipe it on with a rag or simply dip the pieces directly into it. Once coated, wipe off the excess (or it may dry to a tacky, gooey mess) and set the parts aside to dry on some scrap wood, paper or cardboard. The first couple coats will soak into the wood. This will become apparent as the end grain starts to look dried out. There is no need to wait between coats and it may take several coats to do the job. Continue until the wood stops absorbing oil then set the pieces aside for several hours or overnight to dry.
If the pieces ever need to be re-coated, it’s very easy to do. There’s no need to sand off the old finish and start over so, just apply more.
Add Some Flavor – Customizing Your Wooden Star Puzzles
There are a couple easy ways to add visual flavor to your puzzle.
The star is the most popular variation of this puzzle. This modification is also used to make more complicated puzzles, such as the classic chestnut burr. Check out the gallery at the end of this article for more examples.
Wooden Puzzle Photo Gallery
Now that you know how to make the basic diagonal burr puzzle, I present to you a gallery of some of the hundreds of puzzles I’ve made. These should give you some ideas and inspiration to get your creative juices flowing. Some of these are classic puzzles. The rest are my own original designs. But all are based on the principles described in this article.
I’ve also designed and built several other original puzzles (not pictured) based on this concept. And with a little imagination, maybe you can too.
Not all diagonal burr puzzle pieces consist of 2 notches. It’s worth noting that the star puzzle in this article can actually be made another way, which means it would have a different assembly method. My Double Burrs are actually two single stars – one of each type – combined into one puzzle. Take a close look at my disassembled 10-piece Hanging Double Burr and see if you can spot the differences.
I hope I’ve inspired you to try your hand at puzzle making. Don’t let the more complex ones intimidate you. Start with the basic 6-pc burr and see where it takes you. If nothing else, you’ll have a great conversation piece to drive your friends crazy. However, if they’re like many of our Home Fixated friends, it’s possible they’re already crazy!