Completing that puzzle, though, is no easy feat. To finish off your year with a major puzzle under your belt, we consulted Valerie Coit, president and co-founder of the USA Jigsaw Puzzle Association, a group of puzzle enthusiasts who consult on puzzling competitions and liaise with the World Jigsaw Puzzle Federation.
Coit has completed countless jigsaws and specializes in speed, but she also knows how to start and finish a puzzle with minimal headaches and actual enjoyment.
Best of all, we’ve turned her advice into GIFs, so you can follow along while you go. Happy puzzling!
Before you begin
Picking your puzzle
Coit says she gravitates towards puzzles that reflect her interests — she’s into pop culture and fantasy books, so she tends to like puzzles covered in movie posters or “anything with a dragon on it.”
How many pieces?
It depends. If you plan on spending just a few hours on a puzzle or aren’t well-versed in the puzzling arts, Coit suggests starting off with a 300- to 500-piece puzzle with bright colors that will be easy to distinguish.
Once you’ve mastered the smaller stuff, you’ll feel more confident broaching 1,000- or even 2,000- piece puzzles. “You don’t want to start out with something super hard that ends up being frustrating,” she says.
Location, location, location
Pick a spot for your puzzle that’s large enough to spread out the pieces and fit the finished product, with enough light so you won’t strain your eyes, Coit recommends.
Step one: Dump your pieces and start sorting.
Open your box and empty its contents (just be careful not to spill any pieces onto the ground or out of sight). It’s easier to sort your pieces when they’re laid out in front of you.
Then, start flipping them over so the patterned side is facing up.
Once you can see all your pieces, start locating the edge pieces — these are the pieces that have at least one straight edge. You’ll use these to build the frame of your puzzle.
You can also sort the pieces by color or image, which Coit suggests if you’re working on a puzzle with a group. This way, everyone can take over one section of the puzzle and complete it quickly!
Step two: Build your frame
Coit says she usually completes the frame of the puzzle first — that is, the skeleton of the puzzle built with pieces that have at least one straight edge. It’s easier to fill in that way, though sometimes she’ll go rogue and complete the frame after she has a better sense of the entire puzzle.
Step three: Fill in the fun parts
Now you can start filling in the body of the puzzle! Coit says she focuses on the “most identifiable areas of the puzzle first, saving the more difficult parts for later. If you want to finish your puzzle quickly, this is the best way to go, she says. (In this writer’s case, the “fun” parts are the sky pieces.)
Step four: Brave the difficult parts
Now that the easy-to-find pieces have been found, you’re stuck with the difficult part of the puzzle. Maybe it’s all one dark color and it’s hard to discern what goes where, or you’re working with a pattern that looks all the same (in the case of this puzzle, we’re stuck with the beige wood pieces).
Coit has a tip: When you’re stuck, sort by the shape of the puzzle piece instead of by color. This may help you narrow down your options, she says.
And another thing — there’s no shame in quitting a puzzle, Coit says, “especially if it’s no longer fun.” Puzzles are meant to be enjoyable to complete, after all, so if you’re more stressed than you are happy, it’s OK to walk away.
Step five: Fill in random holes
This is Coit’s favorite part of puzzling — looking at a piece and knowing exactly where it goes, then satisfyingly pressing it into its correct spot. The picture is getting clearer now
Step six: Enjoy your hard work!
You’ve done it! You’ve completed a puzzle, and for that you should be proud! Take a moment to bask in the glow of the finished product — a beautiful image you put together! Bravo, fellow puzzler.
After you’re done
You may opt to frame your work of puzzle art if you’re not ready to part with it yet. But if you’re ready to scramble the pieces and start over again, Coit recommends taking the time to disassemble it rather than fold it back into its box. Folding can damage the pieces and make it less enticing to re-complete the puzzle, since it will still be intact in chunks.
Disassembling a puzzle means you can gift that puzzle to someone else to complete for the first time.