Tools for Possibilities: issue no. 86

Once a week we’ll send out a page from Cool Tools: A Catalog of Possibilities. The tools might be outdated or obsolete, and the links to them may or may not work. We present these vintage recommendations as is because the possibilities they inspire are new. Sign up here to get Tools for Possibilities a week early in your inbox.

Brilliant 3D maze


This is a cool 3-dimensional maze that is easy to get started and hard to finish. You need to steer a small metal ball along an ingenious obstacle course by rotating the clear plastic globe. There are 100 stations along the way, including some difficult topsy-turvy turns. All ages can get into it. We’ve found the puzzle to be extremely addictive to anyone who gets started. Because it’s like a 3D video game without the electronics, the very physical nature of playing — turning it this way and that — is very satisfying. In addition, the maze is like a sculpture, the design of the route is geekily brilliant, and the elegance of the eternal return of the steel ball within the sphere is a stroke of genius. Perplexus has the glow of a work of art. It makes me happy just to pick it up. — KK

Classic puzzle in great package


Simple games are the best. Tangrams are an old puzzle based on a set of elemental shapes that can be arranged in thousands of different patterns. To recreate a given picture is challenging, yet not too daunting even for kids. Playing gently encourages lateral thinking. It exercises a geometrical logic, rather than words or numbers. The puzzles are almost like peanuts; you keep wanting just one more.

We use tangrams as an after dinner parlor game. Everyone gets a set and we compete to find the solution first. Since the shapes can be contained in one large square, you can easily cut your own version from cardboard or plastic (and we have). But I’ve found that this Tangoes model is precise, won’t wear out, and crates up easily and tidily. Each Tangoes case contains two sets of tangrams (in two different colors) and a nifty set of puzzle pattern cards, all of which slide into a plastic case with instructions on the inside. It’s a very nice package. We have several sets, to fill all the seats at a table. — KK

3D Tangrams


I first saw this toy construction set at a front-door exhibit in the San Francisco-based Exploratorium. You arrange the rectangular plastic pieces in endless formations, limited only by your geometrical imagination. The squares interlock loosely, cleverly. A baby can do it. Every time you come to the set, you see new possibilities. But unlike other complicated construction sets, this ingenious one has just four simple sizes of one shape. I think of Wedgits as a 3D version of the ancient Tangram game. In fact you can get a booklet with profiles of shapes which you can try to build, in Tangram mode. Wedgits will challenge an adult, yet are easily manipulated by the small hands of an infant.

I’d get the Deluxe Set version with 30 pieces. — KK

Personalized photo jigsaw

Photo Jigsaw Puzzles

My family is addicted to jigsaw puzzles. When a special birthday came up for one of my daughters, I prepared a photo collage using and ordered a photo jigsaw puzzle from Venus Puzzle.

The puzzle comes in a custom box, shrink wrapped and with a copy of the submitted photo on the cover, commercial quality. Puzzle pieces and printing was of excellent quality.

Since you can submit any image with the suggested proportions and dpi, this service can replace or improve upon the previously reviewed hometown puzzle.

The advantage to this site is that it ships internationally with the same DHL charges for anywhere in the world.

For my next daughter I didn’t want to use DHL, and Venus Puzzle referred me to their sister site Piczzle, which has the same product range and quality, also shipping worldwide (but with regular post instead of DHL).

Base prices are a little cheaper on the Venus Puzzle site, but for my country, DHL added customs service charges that made it unattractive. The order from Piczzle arrived in about a week, instead of in 4 days.
Note that both sites are slightly clunky, and only the Venus Puzzle site has the necessary information on the recommended proportions and resolution: In my case I purchased the 550 piece puzzle which uses a 1:1.25 ration and minimum dpi of 150. — Aryeh Abramovitz

Personalized map puzzle

Hometown Puzzle

For Christmas this year I gave my parents a personalized puzzle featuring a custom map of the area around their lake cabin. “From any starting point, we’ll create a 400-piece puzzle of a six-by-four-mile area using U.S. Geological Survey maps. A house-shaped piece in the center represents the address you choose. Shows main roads, contour lines, water features, vegetation, and notable buildings. Arrives in a presentation box with space for a personal message.” If you search for a promo code, you can save 20%. — Jason Palmiter

Lease premium puzzles

ELMS Hand Cut Puzzle Rental Club

Dedicated jigsaw puzzlers know nothing matches the quality (or challenge) of a hand-cut wooden puzzle. But at about $2.00 or so per piece they are outrageously expensive (a 20″ x 24″ 1000-piece puzzle can cost $3,000). ELMS Puzzles solves the dilemma by offering a rental program that lets you keep a puzzle for three months, by which time you should either be done or realize you’ve met your match.

The wooden pieces (unlike cardboard) are very exact in their fitting so you have to be very certain about having the right piece. Also, many are cut with straight lines inside the puzzle — i.e. a piece in the middle won’t have interlocking pieces. Those who do puzzles by putting together the border and working their way in will really be challenged; and many of the pieces are cut in shapes appropriate for the puzzle. For example, a Christmas puzzle will have a piece the shape of a Christmas tree, the shape of a sleigh, the shape of an angel, etc. Oh, and no picture comes with the puzzle for those who “cheat” by looking at the top of the box.

While still not cheap, at $40 – $225 depending on the number of pieces, renting these puzzles becomes affordable for special occasions like family vacations with other puzzle fanatics. There are other companies that sell puzzles (Stave comes to mind from having seen their advertisements in The New Yorker), but ELMS are the only people I know who rent. I like the idea of renting 15 – 20 puzzles for the price of buying one.

I recognize this is not something everyone thinks is sane. Our family members are divided on it, some love them, others think it’s the biggest waste of time known to man. You either like jigsaw puzzles or are bored silly by them, but if you’re a fan you should enjoy the pleasure of a quality hand cut puzzle at least once. — Julee Bode


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