Thursday 26 November 2015

Ternary Burr

The Ternary Burr is quite a monster of a burr. Not only in terms of its physical size (9.5cm x 9.5cm x 12.5cm) but also the level of difficulty. I have had the Ternary Burr for two years now, having bought it from Eric Fuller back in 2013 and its been hiding at the back of my puzzle closet since.

The Ternary Burr belongs to a group of puzzles that are known as "N-ary" puzzles. A very informative write-up with loads of photos about "N-ary" puzzles by Goetz Schwandtner can be found here

Designed by well-known Singaporean puzzle designer Goh Pit Khiam, there are only 68 copies of the Ternary Burr that have been so far made and sold commercially; 30 copies from Brian Young in 2009 and 38 from Eric Fuller.  Hence the rather expensive (but value for money) price of US$274.

The Ternary Burr has a "base-3" mechanism with inherent dead ends. What is this "base-3" mechanism? Here's what Goh had to say:-

In an n-ary puzzle, each stage can have n positions. In the Ternary burr, each stage consists of only one piece which can be in one of three different positions. If there are two stages, there would be 3 x 3 different positions of both pieces. If there are m stages, then there are n^m different positions. The mechanism of the puzzle tries to make the puzzle go through all these positions, thus creating plenty of moves before disassembly. In the Ternary burr mechanism, it doesn't really go through every possible combination of piece positions. Some of them are dead-ends. In the later designs like the NumLock, it really does go through every piece positions before dis-assembly occurs.

The Ternary Burr from Eric is made from Cherry and Walnut. It consists of a total of 22 pieces including a 17-piece cage which can be dismantled fully. The cage houses 5 Walnut interlocking burr pieces which have to be shifted in a particular sequence requiring a total of 75 moves to remove the first piece. A total of 98 moves is needed to fully take apart the entire burr. And there is only one solution!

Construction fit and finish is excellent and the pieces all move smoothly after some dry-box de-humidification.Given its size, the Ternary Burr is very heavy and solid and quite a large handful to hold for average size hands.

Needless to say, a burr at this level is well beyond me. I tried to figure out the N-ary sequence but this proved way to difficult and confusing, resulting in me getting stuck a number of times mid-way. A very good memory would certainly help, since there are repeating moves.  

Even with the aid of Burr Tools which I needed, it took a fairly long time for me to get through the entire sequence and extract the first piece. And then to disassemble the remaining 17 pieces of the cage. Putting back the whole thing together took me even longer as I grappled with the 22 pieces, first forming the rectangular cage and then going though the reverse N-ary moves to insert the 5 burr pieces back into the cage. For a really amazing feat of the Ternary Burr's re-assembly (without any aids), check out Brian Young's video on YouTube. Incredible!

The Ternary Burr is no doubt for hardcore burrists. Yes, today there are some higher level burrs around but none made in the fashion of the Ternary Burr, with most of its pieces dissimilar, as you can see from the photo. Unfortunately its not commercially available and the only way to get one is through private sale or auction. Given that they are also very difficult to make (Eric said "crafting this design took all (his) abilities"), we are unlikely to see any new copies on the market anytime soon.

Wednesday 18 November 2015

Novice's Burr

Most serious puzzlers in the community would probably have heard of Yvon Pelletier, the affable and very friendly French Canadian living in Montreal who crafts wooden puzzles as a hobby. Its an almost full-time hobby I would imagine, for Yvon has made over 700 burrs and interlocking puzzles to-date and will no doubt continue to make even more. 

I was very pleasantly surprised when I met Yvon at IPP35 in Canada this past August, barely recognizing him from his Facebook photo (not everyone has a mohawk!). He gave me as a present one of my designs that he had made. This puzzle is my Novice's Burr.

I was surprised that Yvon bothered to make a copy of the design since there are so many other more interesting, nicer and highly complicated burrs out there on PWBP. And he didn't just fashion it out using one type of wood (which would have made the puzzle looking rather plain) but in fact selected four types of wood including Oak, Louro Faia, Ebony and Wenge. And painstakingly gluing cube units together to create a puzzle that is aesthetically pleasing with contrasting colour tones and texture. From the top, the puzzle even looks like it has a checker board pattern. 

Yvon Pelletier with some of his beautiful creations
This is the first time I have seen Yvon's work in person and I must say (for an amateur woodworker) his quality of craftsmanship is up there with the very best. Unfortunately Yvon only makes puzzles for himself (or as gifts for friends) and does not sell any commercially. The fit and finish of my Novice's Burr is very good although the pieces were a wee bit too snug due to the humid Singapore weather. But a few days in the dry box did the trick. I was pleased to be able to handle a real copy of my puzzle design; sadly most of my other designs will probably only remain on paper and never see the light of day.

The Novice's Burr is a Level (hence the name!) which requires a total of 18 moves to totally disassemble. I tried to make it as simple as possible from a design standpoint using just two plates with four congruent (and simple) burr pieces. While it has a Level 5 solution, but as I played with it, I discovered that I could actually rotate the plates with all the pieces still intact and one or two of the pieces can also rotate accordingly. Perhaps after drying, the looseness contributed to this. It would appear then the rotations can possibly increase the number of steps to remove the first piece and make the puzzle harder. Anyway I didn't bother to experiment further. A design flaw of mine and certainly unintended of course! Oh well....

Really happy to have a working copy of my Novice's Burr in my collection. My sincere thanks to Yvon for a beautifully crafted present!

Wednesday 11 November 2015


Triburrlism is my second Steve Nicholls designed puzzle. My first was the Kray Twins, his IPP34 Exchange Puzzle to me which I had no success because it was tough. But for this second puzzle, I had much better luck.

Triburrlism, like the Kray Twins is a "diagonal" burr. Consisting of three pieces, it was made by Steve from 3D printing out of ABS resin. My copy (which I acquired from Steve during the IPP35 Puzzle Party) came in three colours with a slightly textured surface. The printing and finishing is very good and the puzzle has a smooth snug fit with nice clean edges. Dimensionally its around 4cm x 4cm x 3cm thick; not a large puzzle by any means, but easy enough handle comfortably.

The Triburrlism came un-assembled and the object is to get the three pieces together to form a symmetrical shape. which must fit inside the tin it came in. While the final shape is not stated, you can roughly tell by examining the pieces and their notches what the solved state is supposed to end up looking like. 

Unlike the Kray Twins which I needed Burr Tools help from Steve, I managed to solve the Triburrlism with a bit of persistence and experimentation. From a design standpoint, the Triburrlism, by nature of having just three pieces is a lot easier than the Kray Twins which has six. With just only three pieces, its not too difficult to figure out how the pieces will interlock together in its final shape but getting the moves right for the pieces to mesh properly is the challenging part. Half the number of pieces versus the Kray Twins but IMHO less than half the difficulty. But nonetheless still fairly challenging and this one has a twist to it; two in fact :-). It takes approximately ten moves to fully assemble the puzzle.

Once solved, repeat solving is pretty easy with a bit of practice. If diagonal burrs is what you like, the Triburrlism is a great little puzzle and a good lead up to the Kray Twins! Its available from Steve by request.

Thursday 5 November 2015

Packed Pyramid

I am on a's another packing puzzle featuring a pyramid. This time the puzzle in question is the Packed Pyramid, Norton Starr's IPP35 Exchange Puzzle. The Packed Pyramid was designed and crafted by Bill Sheckels, a custom furniture maker who also makes very nice looking puzzles on the side.

This puzzle is quite a thing of beauty. The pieces are made from dark Mexican Ebony while the tray is Zebrawood. All in all, good colour contrast, solid, very well made with a nice smooth finish.The 4 pieces are identical pentehedrons (a 5 sided 3D polygon).

There are 3 challenges here; namely to form a pyramid shape outside the tray, then form the pyramid inside tray and finally packing the 4 pieces flat into the tray. The last challenge really isn't one since the puzzle came packed already, probably for ease of transportation and storage for the Exchange.

While there are only 4 pieces and all look the same, the task of the forming the pyramid is not as easy as it may fact, rather difficult and tricky. Trying to just combine two of the four pieces together to form some sort of coherent shape is itself pretty confusing and I found myself fumbling quite a bit. The trick is not to try to work all four pieces at the same time but start with just two. Eventually you will figure it out after some time. For some puzzlers, that may take quite a while.

Once the first challenge is solved, the second of forming the pyramid inside the tray is not difficult, at least not as difficult as the pyramid packing puzzle the "Lockdown" reviewed in the previous post. Here things are pretty straight forward. The third challenge of just placing all the 4 pieces back flat into the tray is also easy.

Overall a really nice high quality shape-forming cum packing puzzle that is challenging but not frustratingly so. Again, just the right level of difficulty for an Exchange Puzzle! 

The Packed Pyramid is available from Bill via his Etsy puzzle shop linked from his site mentioned above. 

Sunday 1 November 2015


Is Lockdown a packing puzzle? Well, I guess it probably is. It's also my first puzzle comprising of pieces in the shape of linked spheres. 

LockDown is a Stewart Coffin design (#271-A). Also made by Stewart Coffin for Rob Jones' Exchange Puzzle at IPP35 in Ottawa, Canada this last August. I am not sure the species of the woods used but the puzzle is well made and feels solid and sturdy. It measures about 10cm wide and 7.5cm tall in the assembled state. The spheres are around 2.3cm in diameter.

The puzzle consists of 3 different pieces, each formed by linked spheres. The puzzle came un-assembled and the object is to pack all 3 pieces into the triangular tray to form a pyramid. One edge of the tray has a curved recess to facilitate access of the pieces. 

To form the pyramid outside of the tray is not too difficult. With some thinking, you can probably figure out how the final shape would look, given that there are just 10 spheres. Its the packing that requires a lot more effort. The instructions are also explicit that no force is required.

While I figured out the shape of the pyramid pretty soon, it took me the better part of an hour before I managed to get the pieces into the tray. Some experimentation is required to get the right orientation of the pieces and aside from this, the movements also require twisting and rotation. Indeed once the pieces are inside the tray, you could grab the top few balls and lift the entire puzzle off the surface it's on. Truly "locked down".

There are not too many moves involved to solve this puzzle; no need actually since the shapes of the mutil-sphere pieces are enough create a good deal of confusion.  Although there are only 3 pieces, the packing is more than moderately challenging and pretty tricky.
To put it another way, the Lockdown is just the right level of difficulty for an Exchange Puzzle. None commercially available but Rob may have some extra copies for sale, just maybe.