Wooden Puzzles for Toddlers

Puzzles are an important part of a child’s cognitive development. From the time they are first able to grasp things with their hands and place them where they want, albeit with difficulty, we give children toys that involve them putting things together. Shape toys, where they have to fit shapes into matching hole are puzzles, even if they don’t have the standard form that we think of, when we think of puzzles.

Working with those early developmental puzzles teaches a very important cognitive skill; that of recognizing shapes. As the child continues to grow and learn, more complex shapes are introduced for them to learn and recognize, mostly through the use of puzzles.

Two-dimensional puzzles take on two basic forms: what are often referred to as “knob puzzles,” which have small knobs attached to puzzle pieces which fit into individual cutouts and jigsaw puzzles, which have pieces that interlock with one another. Jigsaw puzzles can further be broken down into those which have a frame and those which do not. The interlocking nature of jigsaw puzzle pieces makes them harder to do, especially those without a frame, as determining the frame size and creating it becomes part of the puzzle.

The other things that affect the complexity of the puzzle are the number of pieces and the artwork contained on them. A puzzle with 500 pieces is clearly more complex than one with 100. Expecting a small child to be able to do a puzzle with 100 pieces is unrealistic; but so is expecting a teenager to be satisfied doing a puzzle with 24 pieces.

Children’s puzzles need clearly discernible artwork on them. The most challenging puzzles of all are the ones which are all one color or which have a repetitive pattern on them. For children and especially toddlers, simple images are best; ones which they will recognize easily, so that as they look at the puzzle pieces, they can see what part of the artwork is depicted on each piece. This affects the size of the pieces as well, as the smaller the puzzle piece, the harder it is to tell what is on it.

Materials for Making Wood Puzzles

Most wood puzzles are made of some sort of plywood. The problem with this is that most thin plywood has a horrible tendency to splinter badly, due to how thin the face veneer is. If plywood is to be used for a puzzle, then plywood with a thicker face and back veneer, such as Baltic Birch or appleply should be used.

Another good material for wood puzzles is MDF. MDF cuts extremely clean, without any risk of splintering. The one problem with MDF is that it will absorb moisture. That becomes an issue if the MDF is not well-finished, as toddlers will put anything and everything in their mouths.

Finally, pretty much any fine-grained wood will work for making puzzles. Avoid woods that splinter easily, open grained woods, or woods that might get gnawed up by teething. Splinters are a major concern, as they can stick into the soft tissue of the mouth or even be swallowed.

All puzzle pieces should be well-finished with a clear-durable finish. epoxy is a good finish, as it is stronger than varnish or paint, as well as generally being food-safe.

Making a Knob Puzzle

When we’re talking about wood puzzles for toddlers, we’re really talking about knob puzzles. These are distinguished by two main characteristics: each piece fits into its own cutout on the puzzle board and each piece having a knob on it, to make it easier to remove from the puzzle board. I’m not sure why they bother with the knobs, as toddlers tend to just turn the puzzle over, rather than taking the pieces out one by one, but that’s the way they are made.

It is useful to have some sort of pictures on the puzzle pieces, unless they are basic shapes, letters and numbers. Commercially made knob puzzles will often have some sort of background graphics as well, such as a farmyard, with the puzzle pieces being the animals. toddlers will much more readily recognize a picture of a pig or cow, then they will the shape of the pig or cow.

The puzzle board will need to be at least ½” thick. This can be made of two ¼” thick pieces of material, glued together, or by resawing a piece of ½” thick material and then gluing the two pieces back together, after the cutouts are made in the top layer. If the material is going to be resawn, plane the cut surfaces to smooth them out after resawing.

The puzzle pieces themselves need to be made of ¼” to ½” thick wood. Somewhere between two and ten pieces is ideal for one puzzle. Attach the wood for this to the top piece of the puzzle board with double-sided tape, then glue the design of the puzzle to the top of the piece of wood that the puzzle pieces will be cut out of with a glue stick. The idea is to have it stick well enough to cut the pieces, without leaving a lot of glue residue to clean up.

Drill starter hole in the outlines of the various puzzle pieces. This is best done in inside corner, as that allows the holes to be at least somewhat hidden. Then cut the puzzle pieces and the top layer of the puzzle board out together on a scroll saw, using a fine blade.

One trick that can help keep the drilled holes as small as possible is to knock the lower pin out of the scroll saw blade, leaving the upper pin in place. Then, when it is time to mount the blade in the saw, attach the upper pin and slip the hole for the lower pin into place. Use a safety pin to hold the blade in place, in place of the lower pin.

Once the pieces are cut out, separate the two pieces. Then sand all the edges on a drum sander, the outside edges of the pieces and the inside edges of the puzzle board, smoothing the edges, corner and removing any splinters. The upper part of the puzzle board then needs to be glued back onto the lower part, covering the entire surface with glue, aligning the edges and clamping the two pieces together around the perimeter.

While that is drying, attach knobs to the puzzle pieces. These are much like drawer pull knobs, only smaller. These knobs are hard to find, but wood plugs, intended for use in plugging counterbored hole for screw will work. It is also possible to make knobs on the lathe, if one is available. Another option is to cut short pieces of dowel rods (1/2” to 1” long) and glue them into holes drilled into the puzzle pieces. If pictures are to be attached to the pieces, either paint those on or attach them with decoupage before attaching the knobs.

Give everything a final sanding and finish with clear epoxy.

wooden, puzzles
Wooden puzzles, Orion Loom

Making a Jigsaw Puzzle

While the first puzzles a baby uses are simple knob puzzles, it doesn’t take long for them to graduate up from there to simple jigsaw puzzles, which have a frame. Early jigsaw puzzles for toddlers should be limited to 20 pieces or so. The frame helps give boundaries to the puzzle, helping establish limits to where pieces go and how they connect together. As the child grows, puzzles with more pieces are introduced. The general guideline is:

  • Babies 0 – 1 years old – shape puzzles with 3 to 4 pieces
  • Toddlers 1 – 2 years old – knob puzzles with 5 to 15 pieces
  • Toddlers 2 – 3 years old – framed jigsaw puzzles with 12 to 24 pieces 
  • Preschoolers 4 -5 years old – framed jigsaw puzzles with up to 48 pieces
  • Early elementary 5 – 8 years old – unframed jigsaw puzzles, graduating in stages up to 120 pieces
  • Late elementary – 8 – 11 years old – unframed jigsaw puzzles of 200 pieces

All jigsaw puzzles should create some sort of picture, whether it is an animal, a car, an airplane or other familiar object. Children at this age don’t notice details as much as they notice the overall shape and major design features; so stick to images which make those obvious. One possibility is to use images from coloring books for puzzle images.

Taking that idea a step further, there are countless coloring sheets available online. These can be colored in on any paint program, so that they are printed in full color. They can then be printed on heavy paper or cover stock and glued to the wood that the puzzle will be made of. Once printed, find an image for the outlines of an appropriate number of puzzle pieces and print that over the image, making sure that it doesn’t quite cover the full page; but rather leaves a frame around the outside. This will provide the cut lines to make the puzzle.

As with the knob puzzle, this puzzle will be made of two layers, whether that is two layers of ¼” plywood or two layers of ¼” MDF. There is no need for a third piece to cut the puzzle pieces out of, as the frame and pieces will be cut from the same piece. If the two layers are made from resawn wood, be sure to sand the saw marks smooth or run the cut pieces through a power planer to smooth them out. Glue the design to the top layer and then cut the puzzle pieces out with a scroll saw.

Another option is to make the design out of wood, such as cutting out the shape of an elephant to be the design. In this case, two pieces of wood with contrasting grain color will be needed. Attach them together with double-sided tape and glue the design to the top piece with a glue stick. Then cut out the outline of the two pieces together on the scroll saw. Once cutting is finished, separate everything and put the design of one piece inside the outer part of the other, gluing them together. Fill the saw kerf with glue and sawdust to hide the line. Then the pieces can be cut out of this composite piece.

Once the pieces of the puzzle are cut out, sand all the edges with a drum sander or oscillating spindle sander to remove sharp edges and splinters. Then glue the frame to the back piece, clamp it all the way around. Allow to dry, and then finish all the pieces with clear epoxy.

Frameless Jigsaw Puzzle

There are a few differences between making a jigsaw puzzle with a frame and one without. The first is that the puzzle pieces are cut all the way to the edge, rather than leaving a frame. The second is that the frame does not have to be glued to a backboard. This might seem to indicate that it is easier to make a frameless jigsaw puzzle than it is to make one with a frame. But we must remember that an unframed jigsaw puzzle will have smaller pieces and the more pieces the puzzle has, the smaller the pieces become.

The challenge for the woodworker in making these puzzles with more pieces is that any error in cutting on the scroll saw becomes apparent and can actually mess up the pieces, ruining the puzzle in process. Care must be taken while cutting any puzzle, but especially ones with small pieces.

One thing that helps in cutting out frameless jigsaw puzzles is to make the cuts all the way through, from one side to the other, cutting the puzzle into a series of jagged rows. Then tape these pieces together, making a board out of the strips once again. This will make it easier to cut rows once again, perpendicular to the first set. If there is a design decoupaged to the puzzle which would become damaged by tape, just tape the back side, following that with wrapping the entire puzzle with shrink wrap (the kind used for palletizing goods), so that the shrink wrap will help hold the front together.

A Word About 3D Puzzles

Three dimensional puzzles really aren’t for toddlers, but rather for pre-teens and teenagers. They are considerably more complex, requiring a much better understanding and visualization of special relationships. These puzzles fall into two categories: those cut by laser, which make a finished object and those which are about solving the puzzle. While some of these 3D wood puzzles can be made in the home workshop, it is pretty much essential to work from a plan, as they are extremely complex to design.

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