How to Put Together a 3000 Piece Puzzle

Have patience.
Pace yourself.
Take deep cleansing breaths.
Change your perspective, often.
This is either about practicing yoga or putting together a large jigsaw puzzle.

3000 pieces is a gobsmacking lot of pieces. The level of difficulty is turned up to an eleven. It’s like completing six separate 500 piece puzzles with their pieces all mixed together. There is a lot of guesswork involved.

3000 pieces is not for the faint of heart.

3000 puzzle assembled, The Tribuna of the Uffizi, by Zoffany. Photo and assembly by kajmeister.

Assessing Your Puzzle

The first thing you must do is look the puzzle in the eye and show it who’s boss. (You are.) Make it clear that there will be No Nonsense here! These pieces are going to fit together, and that’s all there is to it.

Does that work? Meh.

Pick an exemplary puzzle. Choose one with lots of little bits to work on and not too much of the same color. The Tribuna of the Uffizi worked quite well. But all start the same.

The first thing you do is take some pieces out of the box and flip them over. I hate flipping the pieces over. That is my least favorite task of all the tasks, except putting together 50 black pieces all the same shape (see What Makes a Bad Puzzle, below). If it’s 1000 pieces or less, I enlist helpers in the house to do the flipping, spreading, and sorting, but when it’s big and on the other table, they are no help. They sit in the other room with the TV, shouting out Jeopardy answers, chortling, and munching popcorn as I sit alone, wondering if that shape is a bit of elbow or windmill.

Give those 3000 pieces a stern talking to, before unwrapping the plastic. Photo by kajmeister.

Because that’s the other thing about a really large puzzle. It’s going to sit somewhere for months. That requires the basement or the formal dining room, not the family room where everyone hangs out every day. You can’t co-opt 25% of that space for six months. You are relegated elsewhere, next to the dusty china cabinet or the old VCR tapes.

Yes, I have portable puzzle caddies that fold up to be stored when the puzzle isn’t finished, two of them, in fact. They work for 1000 piece puzzles or to start a 2000 piece puzzle, but not for anything bigger. The year that I was unemployed… I worked for a bank, during the 2007-2009 debacle … anyway, I started a 5000 piece puzzle of a large Venetian galley under attack. It required pulling out both table leaves and adding more length, which I did with taped pieces of cardboard. I assembled about 1200 pieces before I had to return to work (I was rehired to improve the quality of mortgage loan foreclosure documentation, isn’t that ironic?). I took all the bits I’d done and the pieces of cardboard and stacked them all in the box, waiting for another year.

5000 piece puzzle not completed in 2009. Photo by kajmeister.

Warming Up to the Focal Point

You sort, you flip, and you put together the edges. I usually just pull the edge pieces out of the box directly, which misses a lot of the edges but strangely gets enough to have you suss out what’s going on. The top and bottom edges here were taller than the sides. Also, thank heavens, the pieces were not all that same knob top & bottom, gap on the sides style. (see What Makes a Bad Puzzle).

This puzzle had a lot of red and gold. It also had a lot of faces (see What Makes a Good Puzzle). I started pulling out faces and moving colors into sorting trays. Lids from those plastic bins you get at Target or Home Depot are very good as sorting trays.

For a long time it’s just flip, sort, and group. Try to find something to start putting together otherwise you’d rather polish the silver. This puzzle–Aha!–had a large painting of a very white nude lady right in the middle. Perfect place to start! I have another puzzle that is mostly black and white houses in Amsterdam, but Aha! with a large red bicycle right in the middle.  All good puzzles have a focal point for a reason.

I did the math and got depressed. I started on July 13, planning to have this done before I start driving aimlessly around on vacation, which happens tomorrow. That was 68 days, or 44 pieces per day. Now, that doesn’t sound like a lot, but even a savvy puzzle doer will only put in something like 10-15 pieces in an hour, especially in the early stages. Ahat may seem slow, but a piece every 3 minutes. So lessee, three hours a day? Oh no! I don’t have that much time!

I also got very busy the week of July 14th and hardly did any work on it. I faltered. It’s hard to imagine that you would know six weeks in advance that you wouldn’t be able to do something, but that’s what happened. I contemplated returning the pieces to the box and stacking the box back on top of the uncompleted ship. I could say I had a busy summer. Better things to do with my time.

I Feel the Love

But I am no quitter! SISU–I am a Finn! I went on the Facebooks, describing it as a Weight Watcher’s strategy. If you tell other people what you’re doing, then you make a public commitment. I had a weight loss coach who called it “Having accountability,” and I said, “To who? To you? To the people in the group? Why would I care what you all think, if I don’t care what I think?”

Yet the human mind is strange. We do feel accountability to others. Especially since I immediately got 18 Facebook likes, and one comment which said, “You got this!” Well, now, I can’t let my fans down, can I?

Actually, the math doesn’t work that way. I’ve long thought so, but this really proved it. Once you start putting pieces in, an acceleration factor gets involved because, late in the game, you are filling in a space with a specific piece’s shape and color, rather than randomly guessing roughly where it might go relative to the picture. I never worked more than two hours a day since July 13, so there have been days when I must have put in a hundred pieces.

Another acceleration factor, which I was aware of, is that the gradual reduction of the number of remaining pieces improves the probability of choosing the right piece.

On the other hand, you generally put in the easier, more recognizable objects first, so the remaining pieces tend to be more nondescript. Black, sky, gray, statue, green-gray mush. The black in this puzzle was easier than the green-gray mush of the statue in the lower left hand corner.

What Makes a Good Puzzle? What Makes a Bad Puzzle? Impossible puzzle?

A puzzle with a lot of green-gray mush or sky or forest or the same color is not fun. I started Van Gogh’s Starry Starry Night and gave up. The whole puzzle was mauve, once you put in the four blazing light circles. Great painting; bad puzzle.

A good puzzle has a lot of visual interest, like lots of faces and people, or animals or buildings that differ from each other.

My favorite hard puzzle, which I’ve done 1.3 times, is a blob of spilled milk. 750 pieces, all white, but every piece is uniquely shaped. I did it in graduate school, allocating a section of my dorm room shelving to it. It took all year. I also started in a second time on a little used conference table at work, and it was a great conversation piece, but I didn’t get very far. Maybe next summer.

My least favorite hard puzzle, which I started, then immediately reboxed and gave away, was the constellations of the night sky. Whoever created that puzzle was insane, and the person who gave it to me really didn’t understand puzzles well. 250 pieces you could do, but 2000 pieces all black with little white dots, all the same knobby shape? Not possible.

I’ve done shmuzzles and puzzles that have different pictures on the back and front; I have two Jackson Pollocks.  The Impossibles puzzles are really challenging but very fun. The picture on the box is not the finished puzzle, but the general idea. I have five Impossibles, all done twice.

Tragedy Strikes

Somewhere in August, after I had sorted and stacked my trays, I was making good progress. I was working on the outlines of the paintings because the golden frames slightly differed in style. All of a sudden, three of the trays which I had carefully stacked on a side chair just fell over. Earthquake? We have those in northern California. Wind? The window was open to get an afternoon breeze because the room gets hot. Gremlins? I curse them!

More sorting. Sigh. I soldiered on.

Puzzle disaster! The sorting boards fell over! photo by kajmeister

Hidden Treasures

The most important part of mid-range puzzle completion is change of perspective. Move around the table. Go at it during different times of day when the light changes.

This was a painting of paintings, so the painter style differed within the paintings. The photograph taken of the painting was also sharp in the center and blurry on the sides, also a puzzle aide.

There are eight Madonnas with bambinos, presumably Jesus and John the Baptist. One probably a Caravaggio because of the play with light. Then five wonderful sculptures. The green and red quilt in the center was entertaining as was the fellow on the red chair on the red and gold carpet.

Tragedy Strikes Again Just as Triumph is Achieved

As you approach the end, much as you hate it, try another sorting strategy. Sort the pieces by shape and color. Moving to completion reveals shape and sorting further speeds the process. Keep moving the pieces around; keep moving yourself around. The puzzle should stay in flux.

Yes, you will try the same piece many times. When you finally find where it goes, it will snap in with a special sound, wired to make your brain say, Ahhhh. So that’s where it goes. It was the light on the book, not the elbow of Venus.

The front cover of this box had two large display notes, one saying DELUXE! FALCON! and the other saying 3000! Which was great, except they covered the upper left and right-hand paintings, so I couldn’t really see what was in them until completion. I hated that.

Getting to the last day, I would put in five pieces at a time, all through the day. Then, a marathon session day before yesterday. It became clear there was a problem.

One piece missing.

I looked all over, under the china cabinet, bookshelves, chairs, windowsill. My daughter even found an extra piece while vacuuming, but it was from the Sistine chapel, 2000 pieces.  No go. The black velvet right shoulder of the gentleman in the chair was nowhere to be found.

Otherwise, done, done.

To commemorate, I took photos, roughly every other day. I had to stand on a chair and hold the camera out to get the entire table, so I am sorry that the photo perspective jiggles a little.  I put together this crude video which your six-year-old nephew could probably improve upon, but then they couldn’t do This Puzzle could they?


A 2999 piece puzzle.

9 Replies to “How to Put Together a 3000 Piece Puzzle”

  1. Wonderful post about puzzles! We do a lot of them, the most ambitious for us is the 1,000 piece ones – just don’t have room for bigger ones. And yes, they have to stay on the table for ages. Good tips! I too, don’t like the all the same shaped ones, and where oh where does the one missing piece go? haha! 🙂

    1. One of my favorite puzzles is all white BUT all the pieces were uniquely shaped. I found that easier than all the same shapes (try doing the sky on that–not even fun). Thanks for your comment!

  2. Take another try at Starry Night. It’s an excellent puzzle. The color combinations are different in each section. Blue/green/white/yellow only happens in ONE area. Then it’s white/yellow/green over there. Etc. You will find that nearly every piece becomes obvious to the section it belongs to. 😀

    1. Thanks for your comment — yeah, that puzzle was mostly gray; there was no green or blue. I finished all the light parts, but I think the way the picture had been developed muddied the colors. I’ve since seen several other Starry Nights where the colors are distinguishable, so I know what you mean.

  3. Always a 1000 pc girl..However about to begin a 3000..48×36..bought 2 trifold to make the table big enough. Got some trays..never used before..but will. It’s still in the bag…need to assure ample lighting…wish me luck

  4. Patrece! Thanks for your comment. Two BIG bits of advice. (1) Sort while you flip as much as possible–you have to touch all the pieces at least once, so try to sort them into groups, so that you have some inner piece bits to start on at the outset. (2) Doing a few pieces at a time a few times a day makes a lot more progress than trying to devote a half hour or hour at a time!

    Question for you: How did you come across this three-year-old post? What did you search? That would help me a lot! Thanks again!

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