Monday 20 August 2012

A Plugged Well

A Plugged Well was Matthew Dawson's Exchange Puzzle at IPP32 held in Washington last week. Matthew Dawson is one half of the Dawson/Makishi duo that brought us the Pagoda series of wooden puzzles. For readers who have followed my blog, you may remember that I had reviewed the Pagoda No 3 quite a while back and I couldn't manage to solve it then. Until today, I have yet to revisit my Pagoda No 3 to try to solve it again, given that new puzzles seem to come my way and consume much of my time. Well, if there is any consolation this time round, I succeeded in solving the Plugged Well. But perhaps not quite the way I would have liked it to end!

Designed and made by Brian Young of Mr Puzzle, A Plugged Well is made of walnut with metal parts fabricated from brass and steel. Mine is of a darker shade brown although different copies will vary from dark to light coloured wood. The puzzle measures about 10cm tall, 6.8cm deep and 5cm wide. Quality of construction, fit and finish is excellent. Externally, there is a brass tube sitting atop the well and lower down, there is what appears to be a screw inserted into a "door" in front.

The object of the puzzle is to "unplugged" the well. Indeed the "instructions" that came with the puzzle states:- "You've inherited this oil well from Uncle Bubba who plugged it in a tricky way back in the 1960's when oil was selling for under $3 a barrel.  With oil now over $100 a barrel the challenge is to unplug the well.  You'll know you've got the oil flowing again when you find the barrel of oil.  Can you pitch your wits against Uncle Bubba and work out how he plugged the well?"

This is a sequential discovery puzzle meaning that you have to follow a series of steps in a particular order to solve it. Everything needed to solve the puzzle, such as tools and implements are also all found within the puzzle itself.
The barrel of oil sitting atop the unplugged well
I don't wish to describe how the barrel of oil is "found", so as not to spoil anybody else's fun. But suffice to say, the first four steps are pretty obvious and I quickly figured them out. Thereafter, I was stumped for a long while trying to determine the next step. As usual, when everything fails, I resorted to the usual shaking, tapping, knocking and all sorts of other actions. I can hear something loose knocking about inside but couldn't really tell what it was.

After much effort trying this and that with the "tools" available, I made some progress, but each time when I thought I achieved the next step, I became stuck and had to backtrack and start over again. Going back and forth  I lost sight of the steps I about sequential...sigh!!! But with lots of trial and error in manipulation, pushing and pulling, I was able to "feel" my way through. Something finally gave in inside, and at last I managed to unplugged the well and extracted the barrel of oil. To be honest, although I was probably headed in the right direction,  I am not really sure what I did correct to get the barrel of oil out. The insides looked quite complicated and initially I couldn't quite figure out how the internal mechanism worked.

Overall a very difficult puzzle indeed and even though its been described as sequential discovery, there are many steps which I would not have discovered on my own via a logical or systematic process of reasoning or deduction. I checked the solution that came with it and believe it or not, there are well over twenty (rather very detailed) steps to solve the puzzle!!! The schematic drawing (showing the insides) was no walk in the park either.

Nonetheless, I was very impressed at the ingenuity of design and the puzzle's solution. The Plugged Well has far more "interactive" parts and sequential steps needed than either the Houdini's Torture Cell or Wil Strijbos' First Box, all squeezed into a smallish palm sized object....quite amazing!

Now here is the clincher! In the process of taking photos of the puzzle for this review, I had accidentally re-assembled the puzzle wrongly and now the thing is stuck it seems....beyond salvation? I hope not, because the puzzle didn't come cheap. Not sure what I can do now but to email Matthew Dawson for help!!

Update 21 August 2012

With the aid of an "external" tool, I managed to "unstuck" my puzzle....Whew! Thanks to Matthew Dawson and Neil Hutchinson for their helpful suggestions.

Also, for another take on the Plugged Well, check out Jeff Chou's blog post.

Saturday 11 August 2012

Cube Dovetail

Update 23 October 2017 - Dear Reader, please check out my new puzzle blog and e-store at

This "impossible object" creation comes from aluminium puzzle designer/maker extraordinaire Wil Strijbos. You may have already come across Wil's first series of dovetail puzzles, the Convex and Concave Dovetail, followed later by the New Aluminium Dovetail. Now the latest incarnation, which even comes in its own numbered set of three is the Cube Dovetail(s).

The Cube Dovetails are really quite different from the earlier dovetails, the latter which all came rectangular shaped in just two colours, raw aluminium and anodised green (light or dark green depending on which batch your puzzle came from). In the numbered set, the colour combos are dark green/blue, orange/blue and purple/blue, the same blue that is found on his First Box puzzle. While this departure from the traditional raw aluminium/green combination from the earlier models is a welcome change, I wish he had a yellow/blue cube or even a raw aluminium/blue or some other better contrasting colours than dark green/blue. I actually asked Wil if he had other colours but he said "sorry no".

The cubes are excellently constructed and fit and finish are to very tight tolerances. Each cube measures about 4.1cm per side. As I have said in previous posts on the dovetails, these are more "works of art" than real serious puzzles (but of course to the uninitiated or non-puzzler, I suppose these would be pretty tough nuts to crack). However, the term "works of art" here takes on a truer meaning since the cubes have relatively bright colours (except for the green/blue) and a set of three placed together does rather look quite striking and stand out handsomely.

Solving the cubes is pretty easy if you have had prior experience with the earlier dovetails but each of the cubes dis-assemble (separate) quite differently. Once apart, you can see the precision milling/cutting that has gone into making them look impossible to separate...really quite amazing. As an aside here, veteran puzzle collector Michael Tanoff had remarked to me that  the "puzzle" associated (with the dovetail puzzles) is not how to separate the parts, but rather to try figure-out how the two parts fit together, as all three appear to be impossible objects...".

If you already own the earlier Dovetails, well...this set is certainly a colourful and fun must-have; and would enhance your collection. If you don't wish to buy all three, Wil does sell the cubes individually. Allard has also written about the cubes in his puzzle blog so you may wish to check out his thoughts on them.