[06/05/15 - Update]: We discovered a new puzzle brand that is awesome! Added it to the list.
We love doing puzzles. Open a bottle of wine, start streaming a light TV show or put on an audiobook, and work on a puzzle. Just give it a shot - it's a fantastic way to relax and wind-down after a long week. Right now, we are working on a 2000pc version of Van Gogh's "Starry Night". It is, hands-down, the most difficult puzzle we have ever attempted:
Some friends have asked us recently how to know which puzzles to buy, because there are so many out there that are so terrible. Unfortunately, that's quite true. So, here is what to look for when you buy a puzzle:
- Pieces made of sturdy material that are well-cut.
- A finish that doesn't create a glare when a light is over it.
- Puzzles that have already been cleaned.
- (Bonus) Included print-out of the puzzle.
I have ordered the above from 'Most Important' to 'Nice to Have'.
This is the biggest factor that should determine whether or not you buy a puzzle. A poorly-cut puzzle, or pieces made of bad material, is miserable. When you place a piece, the top-layer (the picture) will lift off of the rest of the piece. If you try to pick up a piece after placing it, it will fray, which looks like this:
A puzzle with shoddy pieces is no fun. Pay the extra few bucks to get a puzzle of decent quality - I promise it's worth it.
Different brands use different laquers to finish their pieces. Some of these laquers actually create a glare when you have a light over a puzzle, which makes the pieces very difficult to work with. Since you generally need light to do a puzzle, you can see how this might be problematic. The other effect a poor laquer will have is that it masks the color of the piece.
Here is a picture comparison where you can sort of see what I'm talking about. It's hard to really capture the problem with a camera without having a bunch of puzzles of varying quality all sitting next to each other.
You can see, moving from from left to right, not only more glare, but less clarity of color. That piece all the way on the right is actually green. Can you tell? Imagine doing an entire puzzle like that. It would be more fun to just burn the pieces rather than putting them together.
The best brands clean their pieces. What do I mean by this? After the pieces are cut in manufacturing, the pieces are covered in 'puzzle dust' - fine particles of the piece material. If the pieces aren't cleaned, when you dump the pieces out, you end up covering your table in this horrible puzzle dust that you will never get up.
You can usually tell if the pieces haven't been cleaned just by looking at the bag. Example from Jigsaw Junkie:
See all that blue dust in there? Imagine dumping that all over your table or your puzzle mat. It will be there forever, and you'll be inhaling it while you work the puzzle.
The last thing, which is really more of a "Nice to Have", is that the puzzle includes a printed picture of the puzzle. Basically, a printed copy of the box cover. This is really useful if you have multiple people working on the puzzle.
What are the best brands?
So, in my experience, there are two brands I always trust, and one other brand that I'm generally okay with.
Best Brands: Ravensburger and Clementoni
These two brands are top-notch. Both Ravensburger and Clementoni have excellent quality pieces, a good finish, and provide cleaned pieces. Neither provide a print-out of the image (in my experience), but the rest of the experience is so good that I don't mind. These brands are also fairly similar to each other - if you were to compare the pieces side-by-side, you would probably not be able to tell a difference.
Additional Awesome Brand: Pomegranate
I'm adding this brand as part of an update some months after originally making this post. We recently discovered Pomegranate Puzzles, and they are pretty awesome. The pieces are good quality, although not quite as good as Ravensburger and Clementoni, and they come cleaned. But what really makes them great is the image. The image printing is rich, colorful, and of very high quality - probably the best of any brand I've seen.
We discovered this brand via this puzzle of a Charley Harper painting, which is beautiful.
Good Brand: Buffalo
We have done a number of Buffalo puzzles, and while I have never been blown away by the quality (and it certainly isn't as good as Ravesburger or Clementoni), they are always still good puzzles. Plus, Buffalo has some really great puzzles of high-fidelity pictures that are sometimes hard to find with other brands.
Buffalo's pieces are of decent quality, the finish is acceptable, the pieces are mostly cleaned, and Buffalo is the only company I've found that provides a printed copy of their puzzles, which makes up a bit for the other bits.
One of our favorite puzzles was a Buffalo puzzle of Cinque Terra, actually.
In general, those are the brands I have experience with that I always trust. I have seen a number of people say that Springbok puzzles are also of excellent quality, but never having done one I can't recommend them one way or the other.
There are almost certainly other brands that are also great puzzles. Just keep an eye out for those four items in my list above. The good brands are usually a bit more expensive than the bargain brand, but it really is worth it. You'll have a much more enjoyable experience doing the puzzle, and you'll end up with something that you can actually frame (if you are so inclined).