Phil Exley's 3D Puzzles (Updated)

Posted on by Gabriel | 2 comments
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EDIT (Jan. 20): Since I first reviewed these two puzzles from Phil Exley, roughly three weeks ago, I got two more beautiful examples of his work. Read about them further below in this review or jump to here.

Phil Exley is an English wood turner and puzzle craftsman living in the Algarve, Portugal, with more than three decades of experience. His great work with 3D puzzles was what caught my attention when I first stumbled upon his website. The original designs, created by him, combined with this new type of interlocking puzzles that I've never seen before, has captivated me to continue browsing and find out more about them...

You can think of his puzzles as some kind of an interlocking 3D jigsaw puzzle. When taken apart, the pieces of a puzzle have a specific way to connect in order to reassemble it. You have to follow a particular sequence and solve the puzzle in steps.

There are various difficulty levels available, from the simplest and smaller 4 to 9 piece puzzles, to the more complex and larger 49 to 64 pieces, with beautiful designs on whichever one you choose.

The ones I chose for a first time purchase are relatively easy and small, compared to others. Both of them measure about 45mm height by 37mm length (1.77"x1.46").


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The first one is a 9 Piece Celtic Design. You can choose two colors: one for the actual design, which can be red, black or plain wood and the other one for the surrounding puzzle or the corners, also from the three available colors. My combination of choice was red for the design and plain wood for the corners. This way, the puzzle has a good level of contrast, while enhancing the actual Celtic design.

There is a bigger version of this Celtic design available, which is three times bigger, but actually maintaining the same 9 pieces and obviously, an equal level of difficulty. The end result is very nice and elegant, measuring about 40mm by 80mm (1.57"x3.15"). There are also other cool and stylish designs to choose from, like the Sea-Horse, the Lizard or the Yin/Yang puzzles.

Taking the puzzle apart is easy and very intuitive. Essentially, the pieces can be divided in three layers, each with three pieces. Excluding the middle layer, the other two are a mirror image from each other. The part that can be more tricky, but nothing complex, is assembling it again.

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If you mix the pieces after taking it apart, it can take a few minutes to correctly guess where each one goes, giving the fact that some pieces are similar, but not actually identical. The only distinguishable piece that has not even a similar counterpart is the middle piece from the middle layer, so it'll be much easier to start assembling the puzzle from this one.


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The second puzzle I got was a small 25 Piece 2 Colors with wavy patterns. This one has a slightly bigger color palette to choose from, with five colors: red, blue, green, yellow and plain wood. This time, I chose blue combined with plain wood. Since the puzzle has five layers, it will create a nice alternate effect between the two colors.

The size is the same from the above one, but the larger number of pieces do make it a bit more difficult. Another different aspect is that almost all the pieces look similar, with no unique ones. Actually, to be more exact, every single piece is unique, but in a subtle way. What I mean is that, if you look at them at first glance, there's no apparent distinguishable one among all the others, like the 9-piece puzzle.

What makes every piece unique is the fact that all of Phil's puzzles are handmade, so the smallest cut imperfection on a piece will make it fit perfectly on just another one, although it might appear to fit with others. This is sort of like what you feel when building a jigsaw puzzle - sometimes a piece looks like it fits on a particular part of the puzzle, but it doesn't actually have that perfect fit, like all the others... This is actually a good thing, because when you're solving the puzzle, it adds a higher level of difficulty to it.

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Solving the 25-piece puzzle is no different than the first one. You start by building the five layers, one at a time and then sliding each to the corresponding one. The only noticeable detail between the layers is that the middle one is a bit wider than the other four, so it'll be easier to pick the five larger pieces and connect them first. Next, you can build the two colored layers and slide them onto the middle one. Spotting the colored edge pieces from the middle ones is easy, because they have a darker blue tone. You'll be then left with only ten pieces after this, to build the remaining edge layers, and you're done.

Update (Jan. 20):


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The two new puzzles that I got from Phil Exley are a 4 Piece Puzzle - 4 Colors and a Lizard Puzzle.


4 Piece Puzzle - 4 Colors


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This 4 piece puzzle is a little smaller than the Celtic Design above and the 25 piece one, measuring about 35mm length by 40mm height (1.38"x1.57"). 


Its particularity, though, is that it has four colors instead of the standard two - yellow, red, green and blue. Another nice feature is that, instead of one design in its four sides, it has two, alternating between a wavy spiral design and a straight lines spiral design.


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Solving this puzzle won't give you headaches, but it's definitely a nice display puzzle for a desk or it will be a nice addition to a collector's shelf.


Lizard Puzzle


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The Lizard puzzle is fascinating. This 9 piece puzzle is described as to have an Escher-like feel to it and I totally agree. The lizards merge into each other within the block and sort of creates a fantastic pattern, alternating between one straight up lizard and one upside down.

The color combo is black and plain wood for the design, and although it consists of 9 pieces, the Lizard puzzle is a bit bigger than the standard 9 piece puzzles, measuring about 70mm height by 35mm length (2.76"x1.38"), which makes it look even better.

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What amazes me the most in Phil's work is that the pieces aren't laser cut, but manually cut instead one by one. The level of precision it requires to make all these shapes are astounding and something worthy of appreciation.

The puzzle itself is not hard to disassemble or reassemble, but in a puzzle with an appearance like this, that's not really important. It's truly another collector's item, but then again, which of Phil's puzzles isn't...

Closing Comments:

I was very happy to have found Phil's 3D puzzles. Even more, because they're found right here in Portugal, where I live, which unfortunately, doesn't have a known mechanical-puzzle tradition or variety of stores, for that matter.

Worth mentioning is the "green way" all Phil's puzzles are built: He uses wooden offcuts from local carpenter shops, which would otherwise be used just as firewood, and then selects and cuts what he can take to build his puzzles. Also, all his machines are powered by solar panels.

So, for this and for the actual fantastic "green" puzzles I got, for a very reasonable price, I highly recommend paying a visit to Phil's website and check out all the different designs available. Not only they're really fun to solve, but they're also great decorative and display items. Definitely worth returning for...

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2 comments:

James Eadon said...

I love the geometry of these puzzles, fascinating!

Jarvis said...

Great Puzzle

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