How to Assemble a Jigsaw Puzzle

I have gotten some emails asking me to share tips for assembling puzzles and/or my method.

If you’re new to puzzling, returning to it after a long time, or just want to see how someone else does it, check out this walk-through.  In the end, no method is right or wrong as long as you get from Point A (bag of puzzle pieces) to Point B (completed puzzle). However, this is my standard operating procedure. If you have other tips/methods, please feel free to post them in the comments.

Note: The puzzle I’m working in this example is Bits and Pieces “Sidewalk Flower Sale” by Americana artist Susan Brabeau.

1.      Choose a spot to assemble your puzzle

 You need a place that is not going to be disturbed until you finish the puzzle (or one that can be moved), has decent lighting, and, most importantly, is large enough. All puzzles list their finished dimensions on the box, so you can measure if in doubt.

I recommend using a Jigboard.

I’ve been using a Jigboard for several years now and I never do a puzzle without it. A Jigboard is a large but lightweight board with a felted surface and a sheet of material that fits over the top. You can get them in various sizes, but I use my Jigboard 2000 for everything, even 1000 piece puzzles. I like having the extra space. You can get one here.

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Why use a Jigboard? Because:

      • You can put on the top cover when you’re not working on it. This protects you from losing pieces to cats, dogs, kids, accidental bumps, earthquakes, food spills, etc. I always put on my Jigboard cover when I stop working on a puzzle.
      • You can move it off the table. If you have company come visit or need the table for a meal or whatever, just put the cover on the Jigboard, pick it up (careful to keep it flat), and slide it under a bed or the couch or wherever it will fit. Everything stays safe and dust free.
      • You can rotate the puzzle. I often rotate my Jigboard so that I can work on various sides of the puzzle more easily.
      • It makes the puzzle easier to flip the puzzle in the end. I have gotten in the habit of doing a temporary mount of my puzzles. In order to do this, I need to turn the puzzle over. That would be very difficult if the puzzle was just on the table.
      • It has a felt surface and slight edges which help keep pieces from falling to the floor.

Using a table instead

If you’re just getting started with puzzling, or don’t do very many, you may not want to invest in a Jigboard. It’s perfectly fine to use a table too. Just make sure the final dimensions of your puzzle will fit on the table. If you have kids or animals, you may want to put a large flattened cardboard box or something similar on top of the puzzle when you’re not working on it.

2.      Sort and turn up your pieces  

I arrange everything on my Jigboard, laying out the boxes I use for piece storage and dumping the bag of puzzle pieces in the middle.  Sorting is an organizing task that takes an hour or so at the start of your puzzle. I use a Jigsafe for piece sorting, which you can get here. There are other similar products on the market, just make sure they hold at least 1000 pieces, stack, and have inserts in the bottom (you’ll see why later).

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This may seem like a tedious task (well, it is), but it will save you a lot of time in the end.  I watch TV or listen to a book on tape while I do it. I used to just dump all the pieces in the box bottom and pick through them constantly to look for pieces for whatever area I was working on. You can certainly do that. But sorting has beaucoup advantages:

    • It saves times. This is a “turn up once and done” approach. So instead of riffling through a big box of pieces over and over again looking for bits of red or whatever, you simply make sure every piece is turned face-up at the start. Then all you have to do is scan all the turned up pieces to find what you’re looking for.
    • It makes putting the puzzle together more enjoyable. There’s less of that ‘I can’t find that one piece with the white tip’. Because all pieces are turned up, you can easily find the piece you need and there’s no more ‘riffling’ in a box as you go.
    • No lost pieces. You can put the pieces away at night. Similar to the way I cover my Jigboard, every night when I’m done puzzling, I stack my Jigsafe and put the lid on. The pieces are now safe from pets, kids, or what have you. It’s a terrible thing to lose a piece, so this is really worth it.
    • You can slide the pieces right onto the puzzle when you’re ready for them.  Be sure to get a piece storage device that has inserts that can be removed so you can slide pieces, face up, onto your work surface. The cheaper storage solutions don’t have this, so be sure you look at a product carefully before you buy. If there is no insert in the bottom of the boxes, you have to pick up each piece by hand to transfer it to your work surface.

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As you move puzzle pieces from the big pile into the sorting boxes, pull out the border pieces as a first priority. If your puzzle is rectangular or round, you should be able to identify the border pieces because they have a straight (or curved) edge. I always put all the border pieces in the smallest (lavender) box, even if I have to layer them a little.  If your puzzle doesn’t have obvious border pieces, because it has an irregular edge (like a shaped puzzle) just skip this part.

For all the other, non-border pieces, the main thing is to get them all face up and laid in the boxes.  But while you’re at it, you might as well do some high-level sorting. For example, in this puzzle there was a pink-orange building that was very distinctive, various blue clothing items, and lots of greenery with flowers. I put pieces that were clearly in one of those areas in separate boxes. Other than a few obvious color areas like these, I don’t spend a lot of time obsessing over what box to put a puzzle piece while sorting. That can come when I’m working the puzzle. The main thing is just to get the pieces all face up.

If you have more pieces than you have storage boxes, you can put any extra in a separate container (like I did here – this was a 1500 piece puzzle and the Jigsafe holds 1000 pieces). I tried to toss in the extra container pieces that were dark or green or otherwise didn’t jump out at me immediately as going in a particular area. As the Jigsafe boxes are emptied when I work the puzzle, I will fill in the space with pieces from the extra container.

If you don’t want to invest in a JigSafe or similar storage product, you can try using shirt boxes or long flat tuperware containers. Alternatively, you can just use the ‘dump them all in the puzzle box bottom’ strategy and look for pieces as you need them.

3.      Assemble the puzzle border

If your puzzle has an irregular border (like a shaped puzzle) or has a very difficult border (for example, all one solid color), then you should skip this step and put the border on as you go or even at the end.

The main advantage of assembling the border first is that it gives you a framework within which you can lay out the rest of the puzzle. It forms the XY axis of your grid. And it also gives you lots of edges to attach to along the sides.

At this point, I have all my border pieces isolated in the smallest storage box.  I put the other boxes away and slide the border pieces onto my work surface.

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This is where it’s really handy to have storage boxes with an insert in the bottom because you can just lift the insert out and slide the pieces onto your work surface face-up, like in the photo above.

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When assembling the border, I generally just put together pieces based on color and pattern for as long as it’s easy. So I end up with something like the photo above.

At this point, I look at the puzzle image and start moving around the sections to where they actually should go. Then I can connect the sections and add in pieces to fill out the rest until the border is complete.

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4.      Assemble the 3-4 easiest  areas of color/pattern first

Many puzzles are a combination of relatively easy, obvious areas and areas which are more mixed, dark, monotone, or vague (like a huge area of blue sky).  Let’s take a look at the image in this sample puzzle.

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Looking at this image, I would say the easiest areas are: the large pink brick building, the bricks on the ground in the lower right, the blue clothing, the red-and-white awning in the upper left, the yellow flower clusters, the faces, and the white-ish buildings with blue windows in the background. When I did my sorting, I already isolated the pink building pieces and blue clothing.  Notice that I didn’t chose the greenery as an ‘easy’ area. That’s because there’s quite a lot of greenery spread out all over the image, and greenery tends to be a random pattern that isn’t as easy to assemble. So I’ll wait to do those spots.

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5.      Once several areas are assembled, take a moment to arrange them in place in the frame

Working a jigsaw involves not only color/pattern recognition but also spatial relationships. Usually after I have several ‘easy areas’ or vignettes, I spend a few minutes arranging those areas within the frame of the border, placing them as close to their final place as I can just with eyeballing. If your puzzle has a border, you can use it as reference, lining up with two sides like an XY table.

Below is my example puzzle so far with the the areas I thought were the ‘easiest’ now assembled:

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Some areas attach to the puzzle border, so they are already locked in the right place. But some, like the faces in the middle, are floating at this point. Let’s put them in the right place.

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Above: in the image, we can see the man’s face in the middle of the composition lines up with a pinkish pot on the “X Axis” border.  On the “Y axis” border, he lines up with the tree trunk. Using the puzzle border I completed, I can place the man’s face roughly in the same spot on0 my work surface.

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By placing finished areas in their correct spatial location, you might see that they actually link to a nearby section (the man’s face is close to linking with the white/light pink buildings). Or, as you find additional pieces, you can easily tag them onto a completed section and won’t have to worry about moving it later on.

All the areas you’ve assembled so far can be fit into the frame with this technique before you move on.

TIP: Don’t waste time ‘trying’ pieces that visually don’t fit. This may seem obvious, but when I sit down with new puzzlers, I see them pick up one piece and try it in many places all over, even in places where it obviously could not go. It’s as if they hope it will just ‘work out’ . This is spinning your wheels. LOOK at the piece and the edges first. When you attempt to attach a piece to an edge, you should be at least 80% sure it will fit. Do the colors and patterns on the edges you are attempting to connect match? Is the knob and hole that will connect roughly the same size and shape? I do so many puzzles that now I rarely try to attach a piece where it doesn’t go. I’m actually surprised when a piece I attempt to put in place does’t work!

6.      Repeat Steps 4 & 5 through all the ‘obvious’ or ‘easy’ sections of the puzzle

As long as you have clearly defined areas within the composition, you can continue to a) isolate those pieces, b) assemble (if you run out of clear area on your workspace, you can assemble in one of the Jigsafe boxes), and c) put them into the correct spatial location in the puzzle.

Why work the easiest areas of the puzzle first? It’s more efficient and will save time for the following reasons.

  • You are removing pieces from the playing field. When trying to find the pieces for a given area, your eye has to roam over all available unassembled pieces. As you move groups of attached pieces onto your board, you are removing those pieces from play, as it were. And that saves time when scanning for pieces for the next area to assemble. Choosing the brightest, easiest pieces to spot first just means when you get to the harder sections, you have less scan work to do.
  • You are providing more and more ‘edges’ to attach to. As you scan the boxes for the next area’s pieces, such as ‘the greenery’, your eye will notice pieces that go with areas you already assembled since they are fresh in your mind. Oh, look, there’s a blue tip, that must go with the dress I just did. This is true, even if it’s not the piece you’re currently looking for. You can pluck that piece up and put it where it goes. The more ‘edges’ you have going on on the work board, the quicker the assembly will go.  So create the most edges as fast as possible by doing the easiest areas first. 

In the image below, I’ve assembled all the areas in the puzzle that have easy to recognize color and pattern. What remains are the greenery areas and the darker or vague areas.

JigsawJunkie_PuzzlingTips_13

7.      Assemble harder color/pattern areas

Now that I’ve done the easiest areas I can tackle other areas that are a bit more difficult, large,  monotone, or spread out. For example, a large area of plain blue sky might fall in this category (though not in this sample puzzle). So I’m going to do the greenery next. It’s a little harder because a) there’s quite a bit of it and it’s spread out in different areas of the puzzle and b) greenery (leaves, trees, plants) are a randomized pattern, not a regular pattern like bricks or clothing.

At this point, I have a lot less pieces to deal with and all the green pieces are in 3 boxes.

JigsawJunkie_PuzzlingTips_15

Even though this is all “greenery” (plants), it’s not all one color. There are darker greens, lighter greens, fuzzy greens (the trees) and detailed leaves (plants in the foreground) and bits of small flowers throughout. So I can work similar colors and textures into larger and larger groups and put them where they go in the puzzle.

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Above: The greenery is complete. Now I only have darker and indistinct areas of the puzzle remaining.

TIP: If you try to fit a piece, and can’t figure out where it goes, don’t waste time on it. Chances are good it’s an ‘inside’ piece you don’t have edges for yet. Put it to one side in a hold area. Later on there will be a lot fewer places it CAN go (and new edges), so there’s no point in grinding gears on it now. Do set it aside though–I find myself picking up the same piece over and over if I don’t put it up in the corner of the Jigboard or some other ‘leave it alone’ designated area.

8.      Finish up the dark or vague areas

There comes a point in every puzzle where there’s maybe 5-10% of the puzzle left and the pieces just aren’t obvious. They don’t have that ‘blue tip’ or whatever to scream out their location. They might be dark, monotone, indistinct, transition pieces, etc. Below is my box of these last pieces for this particular puzzle. I tend to consolidate my boxes as they empty out by sliding the remaining pieces in one box into the empty space in another (again, the bottom inserts come in handy!).  Note that the remaining pieces aren’t all black in this case, it’s just not immediately obvious where they go.

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I now have lots of surface complete on my puzzle, so I prefer to slide the remaining pieces out of the box and onto the finished areas of the puzzle so they are close to the edges and I can see more easily where they might go.

If you really look at each piece, you will probably find that very few are completely without a hint. One might have a thread of green leaf or a tiny tip of a red hat or something else that tells you where it goes. If all else fails, you can compare the piece to the box image. And if THAT fails (such as an area of black) you can just try pieces until one fits.

TIP: When working random pattern areas or monotone areas, you’ll need to pay more attention to the shape of the piece rather than color. In the same way we did the ‘easy areas of color’ first, now look for ‘easy shapes’ — empty edge spots that have an uncommon shape, like a really fat hole that will require an extra large knob, or 3 holes that will need a 3 knob piece. These will be easier to find among your loose pieces. Filling in the easy shapes first once again takes pieces off the playing field and adds new edges.

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TIP: As you do more puzzles, you’ll get faster. Your brain will get better at recognizing subtle differences in colors and patterns, and in the precise shapes of knobs and holes. This is great exercise for your brain and can even stave off memory loss, dementia, and alzheimers in your older years. Also see this article about why it’s beneficial to start puzzles as young as possible for lifelong brain health.

Here’s the finished puzzle.

bnP_FlowerMarket_web

JJ

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

23 responses to How to Assemble a Jigsaw Puzzle

  1. Tim Peterson says:

    This is the same methods my wife and I use to assemble our puzzles. We have the Ravensburger Puzzle Store for puzzles up to 1000 pieces. I have a piece of hardboard cut to fit under the couch for larger puzzles. I now think I should add felt to one side. We sort the pieces and then, she’ll start on the border and I will further sort pieces by color or texture.

    • Thanks for your comment. I need to create my own board for puzzles over 2000 pieces since 2000 is the largest Jigboard they make. What kind of wood did you use and does it have any edges/sides or is it just flat?

  2. Tim says:

    It’s called Hardboard. It comes in 4 ft x 4 ft or 4 ft x 8 ft sheets. 1/8 inch thick. Home depot will cut it to size for you, if you don’t have a saw or a vehicle to haul it in. My sheet doesnt have any edges, but some could be added. I’m thinking of spray glue on one side and adding felt.

    • Thanks for the info. I’ll check it out. I was thinking about doing 2 layers of foamcore and adding a 1/4″ foamcore ‘lip’ all the way around and taping it all together, felting the top. But the hardboard might be better.

      • Mike W says:

        Jane – build a frame and mount a thin wood panel to the front, it’s more work but so much lighter…

      • Mike W says:

        and sing two layers of foamcore still won’t be strong enough. I’ve tried two, with and without a cardboard liner, and still changed to a frame system.

      • Yeah, I think the foamcore would be too light. I was thinking of looking for some of the hardboard a commenter above mentioned. I’m not sure what you mean by building a frame? Can you be more detailed?

  3. jnsmld56 says:

    I work my puzzles in much the same way, sorting first. I usually sort pieces directly from the box or bag, though, instead of dumping them out. Cuts down on the puzzle dust on the table, which I hate!

  4. SteveM says:

    Thank you for the detailed write up, it gives me a few tricks to try out. If I’m lucky I can convince my wife to let me buy a jigsafe and jigboard.

    I do pretty much the same as when I was a kid. Dump the bag of pieces onto a puzzle board and turn all of the pieces face up and pull out the edges. From there order of assembly is the same as you describe, but the pieces are not sorted at all and they need to be moved frequently to make room for the assembled pieces. Not something I enjoy having to do.

    When I was a kid the puzzle board was a large piece of hardboard that we stored behind the upright piano. Now I use a scrap of 3/8″ plywood that has a smooth kraft paper face on one side and is just big enough for a 2000 piece puzzle. I have a 3000 piece in the queue so I’ll need to solve that problem too.

    • Hi, Steve! Thanks for sharing your set-up. Yeah, the 3000 piece thing… seems like a lot of us are in the same boat. I’ll have to post something when I figure it out or feel free to share when you do!

  5. 10hdt says:

    Great suggestions, I have a few tips your readers might find helpful.
    I use all sorts of boxes for sorting. The flimsy folding (white shirt boxes) I reinforce with tape at the corners. These are easily available at dollar stores. I have even used clean pizza boxes. I line all my boxes with white paper to see the pieces easier.
    If you have a large flat box you can divide it in quarter sections with a pencil and ruler. I mark my inside box edge RT (right top, left top, bottom right, bottom left) LT, BR, and BL. This is a fun way to sort a collage puzzle when you can identify the objects in the puzzle. I’ve done this often with White Mountain collage puzzles. An example would be their collage puzzle of best selling books, all the book covers are in a straight line and easy to sort in subject groups.
    When I’m assembling a puzzle section I often put it together on a plane piece of paper and then use the paper to side the section in place. These papers can be stacked and placed in the puzzle when needed.
    I use poster board (again, from a dollar store) as my puzzle board and have enlarged a few to accept larger puzzles. I had used green felt but didn’t like the way it grabbed the pieces, I like to be able to move pieces more freely . I now use my green felt to cover my poster board. If I have a helper I can even pick up the poster board and store it under the bed if little ones come to visit.
    Happy jigsaw puzzling! Holly

  6. Karen B says:

    Question – what do you do about puzzle dust? Before starting to work a puzzle I dump some pieces into my plastic colander and shake/run my fingers through them over the kitchen sink. It helps to have a dry sink as pieces do fly out at times. I then put the “dust free” pieces into a clean bag. Repeat with rest of pieces. I sort edges, areas of color/design into pie tins and misc into a bowl. As puzzle progresses I resort and often end up sorting large areas of color by shape.

    • Hi, Karen. I’ve been sorting my “bag of pieces” on the black side of my JigBoard cover, which is vinyl. I dump it out on that and sort into the boxes. That way I can pick up the vinyl cover at the end and take it outside and shake it out or wipe it down. If I forget and dump the bag on the JigBoard directly, it’s a sueded surface, and after the pieces are sorted into the boxes, I can make a quick pass with a vacuum extension to get up the dust.

  7. cocoabean says:

    I have recently completed several 9,000 piece puzzles, and your directions are spot on! I use the rigid foam insulation Home Depot sells, the most solid for my table and the lighter pieces as piece holders. They are light and easily portable, and when 1/4 of the puzzle is 2000 pieces, one needs a bit more piece storage. I can send pics if you want!

    • Hello! Sure, I’d love to see photos of your 9000 piecer and your set-up. You can email me at jigsawjunkieblog at gmail dot com.

    • Maggie says:

      9,000 pieces … wow! How long did it take, or are you still doing it? I’d love to see a picture of it.

  8. BB says:

    This is very helpful! I want to get sorting boxes like that, they seem very helpful. Since I don’t have a special table board like you, I am doing my 750-piece puzzle on my coffee table and use the lid of a big Rubbermaid storage tote to cover my puzzle. I am almost done!! This is the first puzzle I’ve done since I was a kid and I am really loving it.

  9. Maggie says:

    Love this! Thank you so much for taking the time to write it.

    I tend to empty out all the pieces and pick out the border, putting the non border pieces back in the box as I go. I then pick areas to complete and hunt around in the box for the pieces. Years ago, as a child, we had a huge table and would have all the pieces out on the table. I really like the idea of the Jigsafe trays and will have to see if we can get something like that here in the UK. Do you know roughly how many pieces you can store in the Jigsafe boxes?

    I tend to stick to 1,000 piece jigsaws because they fit in my Portapuzzle carrier (http://www.hobbycraft.co.uk/puzzle-mates-portapuzzle-deluxe-puzzle-holder/563891-1000) which can be zipped up and moved around the house, taken on holiday etc.

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